- Our Expeditions
- Expedition Travel
- Expedition Travel
- Small Ship Cruises
- Overland Adventures
- Flight Programs
- Expedition Activities
- Why Zegrahm
- Private Travel
- Traveler Info
Report from the Field: Circumnavigation of the Black Sea II
Published on Friday, October 09, 2009
After individual arrivals at Istanbul Airport we made our way to the Ritz Carlton Hotel in Galata on the northern side of the Golden Horn, the wonderful natural harbor that divides Istanbul in two. In the afternoon many set out to explore the city while some rested after the long journey to Turkey. In the evening we had a welcome wine reception and dinner.
Istanbul / Embark Le Levant / Bosporus Cruising
Today was reserved for a full-day excursion in Istanbul, formerly Constantinople. We all visited Topkapi Palace, where we inspected several of the different museums on the extensive grounds of the palace. We had a delightful lunch at the palace restaurant where we enjoyed spectacular views over the Bosporus.
In the afternoon we had three tour options. One group visited Aya Sofya, the 'great church' of the Byzantines that was for more than 1,000 years, the largest enclosed space in the world. This was followed by a visit to the Blue Mosque, so called because of the myriads of hand painted blue tiles with which it is adorned.
Another group paid an in depth visit to the Archaeological Museum, situated adjacent to Topkapi. One of the spectacular sights on offer was several porphyry sarcophagi in which members of the imperial hierarchy were interred on death. This hard stone is only found in eastern Egypt and large pieces of it weighing several tons were transported to the Red Sea, across the Suez isthmus, then to Rome for carving, and finally to Constantinople, where they remain to this day.
The final group visited Rustem Pasha Mosque, a relatively small edifice near the Spice Bazaar, where there were further examples of beautiful Ottoman tiles. They then visited the Chora Church, situated just outside the old walls of Constantine, a beautiful example of late Byzantine ecclesiastical architecture with wonderful mosaics and frescos still in place.
We then boarded coaches for the short trip to the Galata side of the Golden Horn to embark our ship Le Levant. During our passage through the Bosporus, we noted several Ottoman palaces on both sides of the channel and also the great fortress of Rumeli Husar, which soon after its construction by the Ottomans in early 1452, acquired the name the 'throat cutter,' as it was ideally placed to control traffic along the Bosporus.
Bartin / Amasra
We awoke to find Le Levant in the cozy little harbor of Bartin on the northern coast of Turkey. Our plan for the morning was to visit the ancient seaside town of Amasra, some 40 minute drive along the coast. We arrived and divided ourselves into three groups. The hikers set off for the important promontory overlooking the town. They accomplished this feat with ease and then descended to the small, but excellent Archaeological Museum. The walkers started at the Museum and then completed a stroll up into the oldest part of town where they admired buildings full of character, some dating from the period in which the Genoese occupied the town just before it was taken over by the Ottomans. Some of the streets had a recognizable Italian flavor, showing that once a cultural imprint is in a place it is almost impossible to remove it, even during the passage of centuries. The amblers went straight to the Museum and all three groups coalesced there. We returned to the ship and after lunch our lecture program for the trip began. The first speaker was Ian Stone, who lectured on the subject Sailing to Byzantium followed by Paul Harris whose topic was The Making of Modern Turkey. The evening was concluded with Captain Erwann LeRouzic's welcome cocktail party and dinner.
Samsun / Amasya
Today our adventures began in the important port of Samsun, our base for a visit to the city of Amasya. Located in a narrow valley of the Yesilirmak River, Amasya's history reaches back 3,000 years, during which many civilizations left priceless remains of their times. Many of us explored the wonderful Beyazit II Mosque and strolled through the old town admiring the ancient houses eventually reaching the Ethnographic Museum; an Ottoman house reconfigured as it would have been in the 19th century. The hardy climbed up for a closer look at the Pontic Tombs, the final resting place of Pontic Greek kings, carved into the cliffs overlooking the river around which the city lies. Meanwhile some opted to visit the interesting Archaeological Museum in the town.
We then mounted our coaches for the dizzying ride up out of the valley to the Ali Kaya Restaurant perched high on a cliff overlooking the town. Here in an idyllic setting we lunched on a lavish scale, the delicious dishes washed down with copious drafts of the local wine. On our trip back to Samsun, most of us caught a quick cat nap, but we revived on our arrival back at the ship with a pleasant afternoon tea. It was the turn of Jim Higginbotham who lectured on Pontus, Mithridates, and Rome, which engendered many questions. This was followed by our first recap of the trip.
Trabzon / Sumela Monastery
Our base for today was the city of Trabzon, in eastern Turkey, from which we ascended into the mountains to visit the famous Sumela Monastery. This monastery was established in 386 A.D. by two itinerant monks from Athens. It became an important center of Orthodox spirituality and was continuously occupied by monks until 1916. It was noted that the monastery had been protected by the rulers in Constantinople since its establishment, including both the Christian emperors of Byzantium and the Muslim sultans of the Ottoman Empire. The climb to the monastery offered excellent views and we were most impressed by the wonderful frescoes on the walls. These seemed to be a little different from the ones we had seen in Istanbul and it was explained by our guides that this reflected the Georgian influence in church architecture.
We returned to the ship for lunch and then we set out for a short excursion to the Aya Sofya Church to the west of the city. This was a perfect example of late Byzantine architecture, and we again marveled at the wonderful frescoes that had somehow survived the centuries. A particular star of this visit was the tortoise resident in the park around the church. The chefs on the ship kindly prepared a lettuce and tomato lunch which he seemed to appreciate. We had a little free time in town before our return to the ship where we resumed our lecture program. Our naturalist David Stephens lectured on A Byzantine Bestiary to the great interest of everyone.
After an early wake up call we boarded our buses at the port of Poti for our day in Georgia, a country that few of us had visited before, and which is reputed to be the destination of Jason and the Argonauts in their search for the Golden Fleece. Our aim for the day was to explore the city of Kutaisi, situated some 100 miles inland. On arrival we enjoyed a pleasant snack at a local restaurant and then departed for the Gelati Monastery complex founded in 1106 and situated high on a hill overlooking the town. During this fascinating visit we learned that the founder, Kind David the Builder, arranged on his death to be buried directly in the gateway so that all visitors could tread on his tomb. Afterward some of us explored the local museum while others visited the Bagrati Cathedral built by King Bagrat III in the 11th century. This was under restoration but we were still able to appreciate its noble architecture.
We then returned to the restaurant where we enjoyed a sumptuous lunch of Georgian delicacies and were entertained by a wonderful choir singing a cappella, and an extremely energetic and accomplished dance troupe.
Back on board, we had a recap followed by a superb Around the World buffet.
After an overnight relocation northwards along the east coast of the Black Sea, we arrived at the attractive port of Sochi in Russia. Much of this attraction results from the town's fabulous location, between beautiful green mountains and sparkling sea, with obvious appeal to the tourist trade.
Here, we had two tours to choose from. The intrepid among us ascended Akhun Mountain for a scenic overlook followed by a hike along a rushing river through a dramatic canyon to some beautiful waterfalls. Those with more cultural interests visited Stalin's dacha where the great man took his holidays. Stalin's dacha is a relatively modest building, but the curious character of its owner was revealed in the extraordinary locks on the door of the main reception room, so constructed that it was impossible to peep through the keyhole, and from the fact that he apparently slept in a different room each night. There were fascinating relics of the life of Stalin and we summed up our visit as one of the more unusual that is offered to tourists.
During the afternoon our lecture program continued with Ian Stone speaking on Into the Valley of Death: An Introduction to the Crimean War, followed by Paul Harris who lectured on William Howard Russell, one of the earliest war correspondents, whose communications in The Times alerted the British public to the course of events in Crimea during the war.
Yalta / Sevastopol, Crimea, Ukraine
Today we had the difficult decision of deciding which tour to take. Some opted for a visit to the house of Anton Chekhov, now a well presented museum, where he lived for the last years of his life. He was a keen gardener and the surrounding gardens are delightful. Others visited the beautiful Alexander Nevsky Cathedral in Yalta, itself. Our next stop was the Livadia Palace, summer home of Tsar Nicholas II and his family, and site of the famous Yalta Conference in 1945. These afforded fascinating comparisons, the opulence of the former occupancy contrasting with the relatively modest furnishings of the latter. We had lunch at the Palace Restaurant and yet another very difficult choice had to be made. One option was to visit the ancient Greek city of Chersonese, situated just to the west of Sevastopol, for an archaeological and nature walk. Or we could undertake a visit to Balaclava, the main British base during the Crimean War and an important Soviet naval base during the Cold War followed by a visit to the famous, and evocative, panorama of the 1855 Battle of Sevastopol.
As we headed off for our various choices for the afternoon our coaches drove through the important Crimean War site, near Redoubt No. 4, on the Causeway Heights, from which a magnificent view of the North Valley, famous as the site of the Charge of the Light Brigade was secured.
We awoke to an overcast autumn morning in Odessa, but the weather rapidly improved and it became clear and sunny. We had a couple of choices for the morning. Those who felt really invigorated ascended the famous Potemkin Steps, the signature landmark of the city, and then boarded their bus for a tour of the city to include the Monument to the Unknown Sailor, the Russian Art Museum and a stroll to the newly restored Opera House. Those more circumspect boarded their bus at the ship and avoided the step ascent. Otherwise their tour was identical.
The early part of the afternoon was free, but many assembled at the Archaeological Museum for a guided tour followed by a wonderful concert of classical music that took place in the Museum of Literature. Then we walked to the newly restored opera house where we marveled at the opulent decorations of this stunning building.
Our evening meal, a Black Sea Feast, was preceded by a performance from members of Odessa's famous conservatoire playing banduras (a Ukrainian folk instrument).
Danube River Delta, Romania
This was the first of our two days in Romania and in this case our focus of interest was the delta of the River Danube. After ascending some 40 kilometers up the Sulina Channel, we disembarked and boarded the smart little vessel Europolis. We were told that Europolis only draws 90 cm (3 ft) and marveled at the skill of her captain in navigating her through waters that seemed far shallower than that to us. Our staff and local guides kept us enthralled with the kaleidoscope of wildlife and scenery at every bend. We sighted at least 35 species of birds including the white-tailed eagle, pelicans, swans, and many different types of waterfowl. The scenery was also extremely attractive and the weather was perfect, clear and sunny, but with a refreshing breeze. We had lunch on board and continued nature watching until the afternoon when we suddenly emerged into the main channel to see the good ship Le Levant waiting for us. In the evening we enjoyed a caviar tasting.
Histria / Constanta
This morning we proceeded to the ancient site of Histria, a Greco-Roman settlement an hour to the north of Constanta. This beautiful place was occupied successively by Greeks, Romans, and Byzantines for more than 1,200 years before silt deposits closed off the channel leading to the Black Sea causing its decline. Histria is quite extensive, though only partially revealed, and we marveled at the neatness of the layout, that standard gridiron pattern that the Romans used throughout their empire, as well as the stout construction of the walls of the buildings. The adjacent museum further illustrated the unfolding of civilization in the region. Afterwards we visited the large Roman mosaic in a covered building in Constanta. Our last stop of the day was the Archaeological and Ethnographical Museums in the town.
Today found us in our sixth and final country, Bulgaria, specifically in the attractive port of Varna. After a short ride we arrived at the Archaeological Museum which has a splendid display of artifacts from all periods of Bulgaria's history. The highlight was the Thracian gold, of such exquisite craftsmanship that it was difficult to believe that some examples were more than 3,000 years old. We then set out on a walking tour of the old town stopping at the impressive Church of the Assumption, constructed in the mid 1800s. Moving further down the road, we arrived at the Ethnographical Museum, with its interesting display of folk life in rural Bulgaria. Our last stop was the Roman Baths, a bathing and social complex. This was really interesting because of its excellent state of preservation, requiring almost no effort to imagine how the building appeared during its heyday in the 3rd century.
In the evening there was a disembarkation briefing before the captain's farewell cocktail party and dinner.
Istanbul, Turkey / Disembark
Our ship docked in Istanbul early this morning, thus completing our Circumnavigation of the Black Sea. After breakfast we said our goodbyes and disembarked, some to the airport, and others to hotels in the city; all of us pleased with the experiences enjoyed and friends we made on our voyage around the Black Sea.