If you’re looking to explore destinations rich in history on a cruise, there’s no better way to do it than on a small-ship excursion. Small ship cruises provide the opportunity to reach some of the world’s most captivating spots along with expert-led tours that reveal insights behind them. But it’s also important to choose your itinerary wisely, booking an option that includes cities dating back thousands of years like these.
Referred to as the “Land of the Castles,” Granada sits at the foot of the Sierra Nevada Mountains along the Genil River in southern Spain. The capital of the province of Granada, it was the last stronghold of the Spanish Moors. The region that surrounds it has been populated since at least 5500 BC, and has experienced Roman and Visigothic influences, with its most ancient ruins belonging to an Iberian oppidum in the area called Basteltania. Grenada draws visitors from across the globe to experience its rich history, magical atmosphere and photogenic looks that include a spectacular array of architecture styles and scenic natural landscapes.
The Iconic Alhambra
Similar to Agra, India’s Taj Mahal, the Andalusian city is best-known for a single iconic monument – the Alhambra, a walled fortress that houses opulent 13th- to 15th-century Moorish gardens and palaces. A treasure trove of history and art, few who wouldn’t agree that in terms of mosaics, design and sweeping views, a visit here is an experience of a lifetime – possible by booking one of the small-ship cruises through Spain, with stops in places like Malaga that offer Granada shore excursions. The Alhambra dates to the late 9th-century, with the first historical records noting a man who’d sought refuge here due to civil fights between the Muladies (people of mixed European and Arab descent and Muslims. The Alhambra and the Albaycin rise above the modern lower town, set on two adjacent hills that form the medieval part of the city. The magnificent gardens of the Generalife and the fortress are just to the east of the Alhambra, while the residential district of the Albaycin is a remarkable gem with its Moorish architecture that harmoniously blends with traditional Andalusian architecture.
The oldest part of the Alhambra is the fortress and its multiple towers. Although the Nasrid dynasty fortified it, using it as a military base for the sultan’s royal guard, it’s believed by experts to have been built before Muslims arrived. The Alhambra is the only preserved palatine city of the Islamic period with continuous occupation over time, constituting the best example of Nasrid art in both décor and architecture. The garden and its vegetable farms serve as one of only a few medieval areas of agricultural productivity. The Albaycin is a rich legacy of Moorish architecture and town planning, coexisting harmoniously with Christian tradition. Much of its significance can be found in the small squares and narrow streets as well as the Andalusian and Moorish homes that line them. After the conquest of the city in 1492 by King Ferdinand of Aragon and Queen Isabella of Castille which unified Spain under a Catholic monarchy that ended centuries of Islamic rule, the Alhambra underwent multiple changes. The area just below it became a grand stage of Christian displays. Charles V, who ruled the country as Charles I, ordered part of the complex to be destroyed to build a Renaissance-style palace for himself, the Charles V Palace. He built other structures too like the Queen’s Dressing Room, the Emperor’s Chambers, a church which replaced the Alhambra’s mosque.
In the 18th century, the Alhambra was abandoned, and the French blew up some of its towers during the Peninsular War in 1812. Restoration and repair efforts were underway not long after, and in 1829, American author Washington Irving resided here, writing his collection of stories and essays about the city, Tales of the Alhambra. A statue of Irving was erected in a park just outside the palace on the 150th anniversary of his death. The Alhambra continues to be one of the country’s most stunning and impressive historical sites, visited by thousands who arrive from all corners the globe.
Granada Historic Center
The highly walkable historic center below the Alhambra has lots to discover along its narrow brick and cobblestone alleys, and at edges of many tranquil plazas. Loads of history can be witnessed in between tearooms, cafes and ceramic shops, like the early 16th-century Granada Cathedral. The fourth largest in the world, it boasts a mix of Baroque, Renaissance, and plateresque styles, including impressive facades and a stunning interior with a number of chapels and a grand altar. The gothic Royal Chapel of Granada dates to around the same time and was built to house the tomb of Ferdinand and Isabella. Be sure to visit the Mirador de San Nicolas, particular lovely area to experience around dusk, with its sunset view often named among the most beautiful in the world.
The Ancient Middle East: The Pyramids of Giza and Mesmerizing Petra
Finally see in person what you’ve probably only viewed in images: the mysterious Pyramids of Giza and the long, winding Nile that meanders through a lush valley surrounded by desert in Egypt, as well as Petra, one of the new Seven Wonders of the World. Jordan’s most photographed site wows all the moment they step through the narrow Siq Valley, with massive pillars gradually rising into view. Discover these and more, including a breathtaking underwater world for diving, on an exciting small ship cruise that departs from Suez or Ain Sokhna in Egypt, sailing to Eilat in Israel.
The Pyramids of Giza should be on everyone’s travel bucket list virtually defining the concept of iconic. Standing for some 4,500 years just outside Cairo, their triangular shapes are instantly recognized, defining time, place and ethos. They’re some of the most magnificent manmade structures in history with a massive scale reflecting the unique role that pharaohs played in ancient Egyptian society. Although the peak of pyramid construction began with the late third dynasty, continuing until around 2325 BC, they’ve managed to retain much of their majesty, offering a fascinating glimpse into the country’s glorious past.
One of the ancient Seven Wonders of the World, the pyramids are the focus of one of the world’s biggest mysteries – how were they built? Visitors can explore their various alignments from a distance to take in the stacked shapes and up close, for a more intimate encounter. The Sphinx is a riddle that evokes a mystery that many say shouldn’t be solved, while monuments to human aspiration and tombs to kings all sit under the searing Egyptian sun. In fact, the angled, smooth sides are said to symbolize the rays of the sun, designed to aid the pharaoh’s soul to ascend to heaven and join the gods.
While the world is home to many impressive ancient monuments there are few as mesmerizing as Jordan’s Petra. Located in the region known as “Ma’an,” this lost city is believed by experts to have been built in the 1st century BC. The wind-carved rock formations that sit along the slopes of Mount Hor make it a top spot for history enthusiasts, photographers and archaeologists with vast networks of gorges, high plateaus, and rock tombs. Re-discovered in 1812 by a Swiss explorer, today, this majestic place still holds hidden secrets waiting to be revealed. Archaeological excavations throughout the area have shown that it was first occupied over 9,000 years ago – there are hundreds of tombs, homes, temples, obelisks, a theater that could hold more than 3,000,and altars where animals were once sacrificed to ask favors of or appease the gods.
To enter the city, you’ll pass through narrow Siq Valley, with towering walls on each side, while huge pillars gradually come into view. The carved Treasury is what is first witnessed before going on to a long list of other delights like Ad-Dier, one of the most famous attractions at Petra, second only to the Treasury. The flight of 800 steps leading to the monastery are cut directly into the rock and the scenery along the way is nothing less than breathtaking. It’s hard to fathom that to date, only 15% of the city has been uncovered – the rest still remains untouched underground.
Dubrovnik and Split, Croatia
Dubrovnik and Split are two of the most renowned medieval cities in Croatia, and both can be explored on a small-ship cruise, with some of the best itineraries linking the two with all sorts of magical, and historic, destinations in between. The lush island of Mljet is home to an ancient 12th-century Benedictine monastery and church, while Korcula is said to be the birthplace of famous world explorer Marco Polo.
Originally known as Ragusa, Dubrovnik was founded in the 7th century as a refuge for coastal residents who were fleeing advancing barbarians. From the outset it was protected by defensive walls. In fact, one of the city’s most impressive and most recognizable structures is its ancient defensive walls that stretch about one-and-a-quarter miles long. They’re dotted with grand forts and gates, with one of the most notable the Pile Gate, a remarkable gothic construction dating to 1537 that’s been spotlighted in the hit show “Game of Thrones.”
Dubrovnik’s stunning Fort Lovrijenac is majestically perched atop a cliff that overlooks the Adriatic Sea, just outside the city walls. It’s said to have been built quickly in order to head off an imminent attack from the Venetians. A famous inscription above its entrance translates to “Freedom is not to be sold for all the gold in the world.” On Placa Street, you’ll see the historic bell tower, originally constructed in 1444. An architectural highlight, it was rebuilt in 1929 after weakening to the point it had started to tilt (like Italy’s Leaning Tower of Pisa), due to earthquakes over the centuries.
The early days of Croatia’s second largest city revolve around a Greek settlement that was founded in the area between the 3rd- and 4th-centuries; however, its most famous historical development began in the late 3rd-century. Roman emperor Diocletian ordered a residence to be built here for his retirement. It took a decade to build the massive palace that takes up more than half of the Old Town’s historic center as a maze-like complex of alleyways and courtyards. The UNESCO-protected site with its more than 1,700 years of history, is jam-packed with incredible centuries-old architecture. The Temple of Jupiter is located in the western part, dedicated to the ancient Roman god Jupiter. It was built during the construction of the palac and later turned into the Baptistery of St. John the Baptist around the same time the crypt dedicated to St. Thomas was built, around 200 years later.
Many locals live and run businesses in Diocletian’s Palace and around the majestic central square with its pristine sphinx that dates to 1,500 BC, including enticing shops, restaurants and cafes. Visitors can also marvel at the Cathedral of St. Domnius, with its combination of Romanesque and gothic styles that reflect its construction after the 13th-century – the most notable landmark as your ship pulls into the city. As you look over from the harbor to the historic center, you’ll see the bell tower. Once there, you can climb up its six-stories to take in a panoramic vista of Split, the harbor and the Adriatic.
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