By Dominick & Susan Merle

As if the Pope doesn't have enough problems…

Now there’s a lady kleptomaniac running loose in the Vatican, striking in the Sistine Chapel itself where tourists are dazzled by the masterpieces of Michelangelo and are most off guard.
And so far, the vaunted Swiss Guard can’t catch her.

“It seems like one woman is the culprit,” said our guide, Luca, “because the theft is usually a purse and nothing is left behind.  She simply walks out wearing it.

“Some even think she's disguised as a nun.”

Since it costs about $20 to enter the Vatican, the lady is also optimistic that she’ll recover her initial investment many times over. “It’s pretty much a sure bet,” Luca said.

The M.O. of the Sistine Chapel Snatcher, as Luca described her, suggests one woman sacrilegiously making visits and pickups about three times a week.

She actually struck while our group was in the Chapel, and it was the talk of the ship, once we got back aboard the Nieuw Amsterdam during our 12-day Mediterranean cruise. Strange things happen on a cruise once you step ashore.

“Next port, next chapter,” said John Primeau, a spokesman for the Holland America Line cruise ship. “I do this all the time and, just like you, never know what to expect.”

Chapter One began a few days earlier in Monaco and its famed Monte Carlo where the sweet smell of wealth and royalty still fill the air (think $100,000-a-day to charter a yacht once owned by Onassis).
That was no surprise. But nearby Nice on the French Riviera isn’t quite so “nice” anymore (think panhandlers, graffiti and rundown areas where the rich and famous once roamed.) In fact, it’s a little naughty.

Next surprise: Despite the recent horror stories about Greece’s economy, the Greek ports of Nafplion and Katakolon seemed to be on a roll. Shops were humming, cash registers were ringing and even the locals could be seen tapping their feet to the constant blaring of Zorba the Greek music.

Much the same for the Greek island of Corfu. At Spianda Square in the town centre there were more elegant shops and sidewalk cafes than we saw in Nice.

Want to buy your own private island? You can do so at our next stop on Croatia’s Dalmatian Coast. Only you better act fast, because celebrities have their cheque books in hand.

The Dalmatian Coast is rapidly becoming the new hideaway for the rich and famous. Bill Gates slips in and out on his yacht virtually unnoticed. So do actors Steve Buscemi,  Richard Gere,  producer Steven  Speilberg and James Bond himself (Roger Moore).

“I think we owe it all to our own John Malkovich,” said Mirjana Darrer of the Dubrovnik Tourist Board.

The renowned actor Malkovich, of Croatian descent, has been dividing his time between the US and Croatia for years.

“He mentioned it to other movie stars like Sharon Stone and Clint Eastwood and Tom Cruise and, well, you know how that goes,” Darrer said. “But so far,” she knocked on the table, “no paparazzi.”

There are actually more than 1,000 islands off the Croatian coast with only 10 percent inhabited. All are for sale with restrictions on building construction to preserve the beauty of the coastline.
Our final stop is perhaps the most beautiful port in the world to enter, Venice. I know, I know. It’s crowded (15 million visitors a year), vendors are pushy and gondola rides go for $150 an hour (when he sings, it’s extra).

But if there’s a more magnificent port to enter, I’d love to see it.

In all, we hit 11 ports beginning in Barcelona and ending in Venice. Our cruise ship, the Nieuw Amsterdam, is a 12-decker that left little to be desired.

The ship included a full casino and first-class floorshow that changed nightly, a spa, seven restaurants, shops, two pool decks and a basketball court and soccer court on top. Food, glorious food, was available around the clock.

Master_Chef_s_DinnerHolland America LinePrimeau suggested that the way to avoid the usual pound-a-day weight gain is to make use of the entire ship, not to get too comfortable in the dining areas.

“We have a wonderful variety of food, but we don’t want you to eat all day,” he said. “We also have beautiful staterooms, but we don’t want you to sleep all day.”

There were about 2,000 cruisers aboard, at least 75 per cent North Americans, and 1,000 crew members, about 75 percent Indonesian. Events on board usually began with tai chi exercises at dawn and ended near midnight at the Showroom and disco lounge.

New activities take place every 30 minutes or so – dance classes, yoga, acupuncture sessions, singles and solos meetings, afternoon tea and, of course, bingo, or, for the heavier bettors, the casino featuring slots, craps and roulette.

For more information on the Nieuw Amsterdam and its itineraries, go to www.hollandamerica.com

 (Dominick Merle is Canadian Director of the International Food, Wine & Travel Writers Association and is based in Montreal.)

 
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