Circumnavigation of the Black Sea

Published on Thursday, November 03, 2011

  • The Blue Mosque, Istanbul, Turkey

  • Istanbul, Turkey

  • Istanbul, Turkey

  • Aya Sofya, Istanbul, Turkey

  • Istanbul, Turkey

  • Amasra, Turkey

  • Amasra, Turkey

  • Amasya, Turkey

  • Amasya, Turkey

  • Amasya, Turkey

  • Amasya, Turkey

  • Sumela Monastery, Trabzon, Turkey

  • Sumela Monastery, Trabzon, Turkey

  • Sumela Monastery, Trabzon, Turkey

  • Gelati Monastery, Kutaisi, Georgia

  • Georgia

  • Georgia

  • Sochi, Russia

  • Sochi, Russia

  • Sochi, Russia

  • Yalta, Crimea, Ukraine

  • Sevastopol, Ukraine

  • Sevastopol, Ukraine

  • Panorama, Sevastopol, Ukraine

  • Odessa, Ukraine

  • Odessa, Ukraine

  • Odessa, Ukraine

  • Odessa, Ukraine

  • Odessa, Ukraine

  • Danube River Delta, Romania

  • Danube River Delta, Romania

  • Varna, Bulgaria

  • Varna, Bulgaria

  • Varna, Bulgaria

  • Varna, Bulgaria

Wednesday, September 14, 2011 - Istanbul, Turkey: After arriving at Ataturk Airport and negotiating the traffic of the city, we passed through the ancient Theodosian Walls that once protected Constantinople, and crossed over the Golden Horn into the Beyoğlu district. The lovely Pera Palace Hotel would be our home for the first night of our journey.

After a welcome cocktail party in the Kubbeli Salon Tea Lounge, we settled into the Grand Pera Hall of the hotel and began a fine evening. Lia Oprea, our expedition leader, took to the podium for greetings and introductions. We met most of the staff members for the first time and had a great Turkish meal with a fantastic beef roast as the main course.

Thursday, September 15 - Istanbul / Embark Clipper Odyssey: After breakfast, we headed across the Golden Horn to the inner city, with mosques and minarets looming on every horizon. Our morning excursion took us to the splendors of the Topkapi Palace, the focal point of the Ottoman world. We entered the walls of the palace and saw the ancient Byzantine church of Saint Irene from the outside. From courtyard to courtyard, we made our way through to the Gate of Felicity and into the private apartments of the sultans and their families. In the Harem we were dazzled by the highly decorated walls and domed ceilings, and visited the collections of royal Ottoman garments and the crown jewels; we also saw the treasury where some of the most sacred relics of Islam are kept.

After lunch at the Konyali Restaurant, we split up into two groups. Half of us opted for a tour of the Sultanahmet District, entering the spiritual “soul” of the city, Aya Sofya, before also touring the 17th-century Blue Mosque. The other group opted for the Archaeological Museum, the Rustem Pasha Mosque, and the oh-so-busy Spice Market in the Grand Bazaar.

We embarked the Clipper Odyssey in the early evening, set sail up the Bosphorus, and cruised past the fortress of Rumeli Hisari, built by Mehmet the Conqueror in 1452. Evening cocktails preluded a briefing by our cruise director, Lynne Grieg, as well as a preview of the coming day by Lia. Our first dinner on the ship rounded out a very busy day.

Friday, September 16 - Amasra: After a hearty breakfast, we disembarked for a tour of the town of Amasra. We made an hour long journey to our destination, entertained en route by our Turkish guides, Atilla, Sedat, Eylem, and Ömer. Our first stop was a small archaeological museum where we looked at the local Greek and Roman artifacts. Once inside the town, we moved off in all directions: some went to the sandy beach for a swim, others ascended the promontory for a sweeping view, and still others ambled along the remains of the Byzantine and Genoese walls. Several visited the 9th-century Byzantine church on the town’s acropolis. A lively vegetable market was in full session.

Back on the ship, we bade goodbye to Bartin and headed back out onto the Euxine Sea. The afternoon hours saw the first two of the trip’s lectures. Ron Wixman gave a talk entitled Anatolia and the Rise of Civilization, regaling us with some fascinating and iconoclastic theories about religion and the emergence of agriculture. After afternoon tea, Rich Pagen gave an excellent presentation called Wooden Boats and Flooded Coasts: Underwater Mysteries of the Black Sea. We learned about the unusual ecology of the waters we were traversing, and the search for well-preserved boats and “evidence” of the Great Flood.  The day came to a climax with the captain’s welcome cocktail party and dinner.

Saturday, September 17 - Amasya: The day began under a gibbous moon with Jupiter shining next to it; the ship pulled into the busy port of Samsun at dawn. We enjoyed an early breakfast and departed for our excursion to the incomparable town of Amasya. We went through the high country along a new super highway, again entertained by our guides and staff. Eventually we descended into the magnificent valley of one of the Pontic Region’s most famous towns. The town was once renowned for its Islamic theological seminaries, but today one of its highlights is the Ottoman Period buildings (konacs) along the river. Some visited the Ethnological Museum located in one of the konacs; others gravitated to the Imperial Mosque in the old town. But the most spectacular sight was the rock-cut tombs of the Pontic kings, hewn from the limestone in the ridges above the city. Dating from the 3rd century and later, the tombs were visited by the most intrepid passengers who climbed the steep and challenging stairs and ledges. We also had an unbelievable lunch at the Alỉ Kaya Restaurant with majestic views across the valley to the tombs and the Byzantine fortress that crowned the top of the mountain.

We arrived back at the ship and quickly reassembled in the lounge for a talk by Dr. Stephen Law, Byzantium: A Short History of the Rome of the East. Stephen gave an animated “top ten list” of essential things people need to remember about Byzantium. This was followed, in turn, by the journey’s first recap. We had an amusing introduction to the fig wasp, an elaboration on the façades of the Pontic tombs, and an off-the-wall discussion about deli bal (the local toxic honey).

Sunday, September 18 - Trabzon / Sumela: Another busy day began at dawn as we pulled into the port of Trabzon. An early excursion was planned, and after a quick breakfast we headed for the majestic Sumela Monastery, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. After an hour’s drive through mountainous terrain, we came to the base of a truly gigantic basalt pillar (Mt. Mela) that soared a thousand feet into the sky; perched high in a cave on the eastern side was Sumela, a monastery established in 386 AD by two monks, Barnabas and Sophronios. Legend says that Barnabas found in this cave the famous portrait the Evangelist Luke had made of the Virgin herself! Most of us made the pilgrimage up the precipitous—and sometimes challenging—trail that led to the monastery. At the top was a set of cliff dwellings that reminded one of Mesa Verde. The monastery was replete with cells, chapels, and a large and aptly named Rock Church. The buildings were painted, inside and out, with colorful frescoes, many of which date to the reign of Alexios III in the late 14th century. The Rock Church was particularly impressive; it was literally a cave painted with hundreds of images mostly taken from the Gospel of Luke. Our trusty lecturers gave us a steady stream of interpretation before we tottered down the mountain to a pleasant tea at the “bufe” at the pinnacle’s base.

Another pleasant drive brought us back to the ancient city of Trabzon, established by Greek colonizers from Sinope. Trabzon was also once the capital of the Empire of Trabezond, a Byzantine successor state. Some of us took an extended hike through the city with Stephen and Allan Langdale; we visited the fortress walls, an imperial Byzantine church that had been converted to a mosque, and a Latin-style (and now abandoned) church dedicated to St. Anne. Others were dropped off in Ataturk Square for a bit of shopping or a visit to a café. Everyone returned to the ship where we bade goodbye to our wonderful Turkish guides.

In the early evening we enjoyed a presentation by Archaeological Institute of America representative Jim Higginbotham entitled, Frogs Around the Pond: Greek Colonization and the Black Sea. We learned about the gradual settlement of the area by mostly Milesian and Megaran colonists. Shortly after Jim’s talk we reassembled for recap and enjoyed presentations on bobbing birds, as well as an extended “precap” on Georgia. A fine repast finished off the day.     

Monday, September 19 - Poti, Georgia / Kutaisi: Georgia … Georgia!  Dawn brought us to the port of Poti at the far eastern end of the Black Sea. Like Jason and the Argonauts, we had made it to the land of the Golden Fleece. After breakfast, we wound our way through the rugged streets of a country that had been attacked by Russia only three years previously. We bounced along to the still recovering town of Kutaisi.

The highlights of the day were two of Georgia’s World Heritage Sites: the Gelati Monastery and the Bagrati Cathedral. We arrived high on a hill to the southeast of Kutaisi, to see the working monastery of Gelati, a compound of religious buildings associated with Georgia’s most famous medieval king, David IV, “The Builder.” The views stretched to the snow-capped Caucasus in the distance. A large church dedicated to the Virgin was the centerpiece of the complex; dated to 1106 AD, it is filled with frescoes that almost rival those we had seen the previous day. Outside, we made a pilgrimage to St. David’s Tomb and the Tower of the Holy Spring. A short spin on the buses brought us to the second church, the Bagrati Cathedral (or the Cathedral of the Dormition). Built by David’s great-great-grandfather, Bagrat III, this cathedral was begun in 1003 AD. Destroyed by the Ottomans, and under restoration since 1952, this church has an impressive monumental presence that rivals the Romanesque cathedrals of the west.

Lunch found us dining family-style in the presence of Adila, one of Georgia’s most renowned traditional dance troupes. The fifty or so performers, accompanied by an a cappella men’s choir, provided us with a variety of dances that ranged from stately processionals to athletic leaps in the air. It was hard to believe the young men were walking on the knuckles of their toes!  We also sampled some of the famous local wines from vintages that are slowly making their way back from a deliberate Soviet era destruction of Georgia’s vineyards. With full bellies and hundreds of pictures, we headed back to the ship. We enjoyed another recap where we learned about eels, Roman fish farming, David the Builder’s other title (“The Sword of the Messiah”), and had a demonstration of “knuckle walking” by the ever-talented Ron!

Tuesday, September 20 - Sochi, Russia: Mother Russia! We awoke to find ourselves dockside at the main slip leading into the city of Sochi (ϹОЧИ), home to the upcoming 2014 Winter Olympics. After a thorough check of our passports, we headed through Russian customs to our awaiting buses. A short ride later, we took a brief walking tour of the city’s coastal promenade, before visiting Stalin’s private Dacha. We visited Stalin’s private cinema and his billiard room, with many of us posing next to the wax figure of Josef himself, and ambled up the stairs to see the grand dining room.

Another ride in the bus brought us to the Matsesta health spa and mineral springs. We learned about sulfur cures and the longstanding reputation of Sochi as a sanatorium for ailing Russians, before going a bit further afield to a hilltop location where tea is grown. An agronomist gave us a short presentation on tea production, after which we walked to a nearby tea house for a Russian high tea. Tea, bread, cakes, and jams were all consumed with gusto as we were entertained by local folk musicians. The accordionist, in particular, delighted us with a box full of increasingly smaller concertinas. Finally, we rejoined a few of our colleagues who had opted for an alternative walk through town. We boarded the ship and set sail once again.

In the late afternoon we indulged ourselves at an ice cream social, followed  by a lively history lecture by Stephen on The Crimean War: What’s Past is Prologue. Stephen’s presentation not only covered what happened in the Crimean War of 1853-1856, but also the importance of reflecting on history so we can avoid the mistakes of the past. The evening finished with a lively recap where we learned about hazelnuts, the migration patterns of birds around the shores of the Black Sea, additional details about Stalin’s Dacha, and we were reminded that this very day was the 2,500th anniversary of the epic Battle of Marathon.

Wednesday, September 21 - Yalta, Autonomous Republic of Crimea (Ukraine): We awoke to find ourselves still cruising towards the historically significant town of Yalta. After a leisurely breakfast, we attended an informative lecture by Jim entitled, Thracians, Dacians, and More.  By the end of the lecture we arrived conveniently dockside in the middle of the resort section of Yalta.

A quick trip through customs and we were on our way to the Livadia Palace. Our tour of Livadia began at the ceremonial entrance, famous as the location of the iconic photograph of Churchill, Roosevelt, and Stalin. After visiting various rooms, we made a pilgrimage upstairs to see the relics of the Romanovs. Room after room was dedicated to Nicholas, Alexandra, and their lovely and talented children. The sad fate of the family was made real for us through an intimate tour of their private lives and possessions.

Lunch back on the Clipper Odyssey was a festive affair, as the ship’s maitre d’ had prepared a gigantic barbeque. We feasted under a glorious sky with a prime view of the seaside festivities: mid-September is what the Ukrainians and Russians call the “Velvet Season,” a period when everyone comes to the sea to enjoy the seasonable weather. A literal carnival surrounded us on all sides!

Early afternoon saw us strolling on a walking tour of Yalta. The highlight was the St. Alexander Nevsky Cathedral. Dedicated to the 13th-century patron/protector of the Russian peoples, the cathedral has been restored to its traditional focal point in Yalta after years of deliberate neglect by the Soviets. Our tour continued with a visit to the façade of the theater where many of Anton Chekov’s plays were premiered; we also saw a sculpture of Chekov contemplating “A Lady and Her Lap Dog.” Back on the ship we had another lively recap that covered the conversion of St. Vladimir the Great, some ecological reasons why we should avoid sturgeon caviar, and a review of some local bees and moths.

Thursday, September 22 - Sevastapol: Having arrived in a city with a long and dynamic history, we were faced with morning options of either military history or classical antiquity. Many opted for a trip to Balaclava to tour the Soviet era submarine base, and the infamous “Valley of Death” where the Light Brigade made its historic and fateful charge. The secret submarine base was a revelation into Cold War technologies, replete with torpedoes, mines, and decommissioned nuclear missiles. We had a pleasant boat tour to the mouth of the harbor to see how protected the port of Balaclava really is. At the battlefield, some of us were treated to a double guided tour, with Stephen bringing his earlier Crimean War lecture into focus while we looked at the valley below. The other morning excursion made a journey to the earlier history of the area, the archaeological site of Chersonesos. Here, Jim gave a tour of the Greek, Byzantine, and Russian ruins at this World Heritage Site. He also showed us how to read the ground and identify the various shards that seemed to be everywhere. We also made a quick visit to the cathedral built on the location of Vladimir the Great’s conversion in the year 988 AD.

After lunch on the ship, it was off to Sevastapol’s “Panorama.”  This gigantic painting in the round is a restoration / recreation of the original painting by Franz Roubaud. It features the June 18, 1855 attack by the allied armies on the key bastion of the Russians, the fortress known as the Malekhov. After marveling at the skill with which the Panorama wove three dimensions into two, we slowly made our way downhill past the many monuments of the city.

We had an early evening presentation by Allan on Eisenstein’s Odessa Steps Sequence, where we learned about early Soviet cinematography and a movement called “Russian Constructivism.” After dinner, we had a chance to watch The Battleship Potemkin, the film that included the iconic sequence.

Friday, September 23 - Odessa: As a red sun rose into the heavens, we found ourselves in the Ukrainian port of Odessa. An early briefing by Lia explained to us the adventures to come, and then it was on to the Potemkin Steps. Some walked up, while others rode to the top. There, with the statue of the Duke of Richelieu gesturing over the fateful steps, we pondered the Revolution and the movie we had seen the night before. A walking tour of the city brought us down broad promenades lined with towering plane trees. We encountered local music students on Pushkin Street and were treated to impromptu performances. Catherine the Great, the founder of the city, looked down at us from her pedestal in the central square. Italianate Rococo and Neo-Classical buildings were everywhere, and we were stunned to hear that 90% of the buildings had been damaged in World War II. Odessa’s status as a Hero City was made real for us when we visited the Monument of the Unknown Sailor; here we watched a changing of the guard done by high school students in their parade uniforms. A quick trip though Odessa’s Fine Art Museum rounded out the morning’s activities.

After lunch it was another excursion in Odessa. First, we visited the Archaeological Museum, famous for its collections of Scythian gold and Greek artifacts. Later, we were ushered to our seats in the Tolstoy Palace, where we had a private performance by some of Odessa’s finest musicians; we listened to an instrumental trio of violin, cello, and piano, and then heard a tenor and a soprano from the nearby opera house. Finally, we went to the Odessa Opera House itself and had a full tour of the interior. As we would be staying late in Odessa, some of us bought tickets for the evening performance of Verdi’s A Masked Ball. Then it was back to the Clipper Odyssey for a recap and precap where we learned about the mixed ethnicity of Odessa as an imperial city and had a preview of the flora and fauna of the Danube Delta.

Saturday, September 24 - Danube River Delta, Romania: Before dawn we picked up a Romanian pilot to navigate the long, long channel at the mouth of the Danube River, itself another World Heritage Site. After breakfast we had a rare morning lecture by Ron on Traditional Village Life and Culture of the Black Sea. In addition to regaling us with his skills as a former folk dancer, Ron showed us images of his own substantial collection of museum quality Balkan folk costumes. The lecture was immediately followed by brunch on the Pool Deck.

We slowed to a crawl, and came to the up-river port of Tulcea, Romania. The majority of us opted for a wildlife tour on Lake Somova where we rode amidst the reeds, the birds, and the frogs. Later we were treated to some music and folk dancing while enjoying cheesecake. The rest of us opted for a journey to the Saon Monastery where we enjoyed a sumptuous snack prepared for us by the nuns and novices.

Rounding out our first day in Romania was a sobering movie back onboard, Videograms of a Revolution, by Harun Faroki. This montage of camera footage, from both private individuals and professionals, chronicled the fall of the regime of Nicolai Ceaucescu. It was haunting to relive the events of December, 1989, when Romania rebelled against totalitarianism and reemerged as a modern nation. Many of us were thankful for the social event that followed, a vodka and caviar party! In the daily recap, Ron talked about how Rumania became Romania, and Rich noted some avian sightings of the day. After dinner we returned once again to the Black Sea.

Sunday, September 25 - Constanţa: An early morning departure brought us to the archaeological site of Istria (pronounced “HEE-stree-a”). Settled in 657/656 BCE, Istria was a thriving Greek colony from Miletus. The site’s archaeological museum contained a plethora of objects from the Archaic and Classical periods, to the early Christian and Byzantine ages. After a tour through the museum we visited the archaeological site itself, where many areas of active excavations were going on. 

Once back in Constanţa (pronounced “Con-STAN- za”), we visited the Roman Mosaics Museum where one of the largest surviving mosaic floors from antiquity is on display in a vast warehouse of a building. More decorative than pictorial, the floor gave us insights into the aesthetic considerations that the Romans brought to even the most utilitarian of structures. Many headed back to the ship for a quick lunch, but others went forth to sample the local cuisine in town. Early afternoon saw us visiting the third museum of the day, the Constanţa Archaeological Museum. Here we saw some marvelous cult statues from Greek and Roman antiquity before we walked up the street to another of the city’s museums, the Ethnographic Museum.

Back on the ship, we headed into the Main Lounge for a special treat—a Romanian wine tasting! Wine master Mihail Tudor from the Danubius Wine Company, brought several cases of wine and some professional sommeliers to serve us. We tried six different vintages and enjoyed them all. Not a moment to rest, however, because a troupe of Romanian folk dancers and their musicians burst into the lounge. For the next hour we clapped, whistled, and stomped our feet to the lively reels of dancers and musicians. No sooner had the dancers exited than the evening’s recap got under way. We learned about the local bats, some of the birds that had been seen at Istria, Greek, and Roman bathing rituals, and the monstrous behavior of Jason and Medea at “Tomis” – an earlier name for the site of Constanţa.

Monday, September 26 - Varna, Bulgaria: Before dawn the ship’s lateral thrusters shuddered into action, announcing that we had safely arrived dockside in Varna, the third largest city in Bulgaria. Our first stop was the city’s famous Archaeological Museum. After a short introduction to Bulgarian history by the museum’s curator, Vladimir Slavchez, we toured the second floor of the museum with our guides. A short trip on the buses brought us to the city’s Cathedral of the Assumption of the Virgin Mary. Here we saw a Bulgarian Orthodox church with its fine collection of icons, a truly impressive wooden iconostasis, and an ambitious and thorough coverage of the walls with 19th century frescoes. Some of us made a quick trip across the elevated Asparhovo Bridge with spectacular views of the city below. Afterwards, we walked to the Ethnographic Museum that houses a collection of traditional folk costumes like those Ron had talked about. Another short walk brought us to the large complex of thermae, or Roman baths, that Jim had mentioned the evening before.

In the evening we were back in the Main Lounge for the final recap. Each of the lecturers and staff members highlighted some of the things they thought were significant moments in the journey we had taken together.

Later on we packed … and packed some more. Then it was time for the captain’s farewell cocktail party and the captain’s farewell dinner. After dinner we reassembled one last time to watch the slideshow presentation that Allan, the trip’s official photographer, had put together for us.

Tuesday, September 27 - Istanbul, Turkey / Disembark Clipper Odyssey / USA: Before dawn we could sense that our journey was coming to an end, the rougher waters of the southwest corner of the Black Sea gave way to smoother cruising in the Bosphorus and the Sea of Marmara. We eased into our berth on the south side of Istanbul. Our circumnavigation had safely returned to our point of departure.

We clasped hands and gave hugs to friends, staff, and crew. We then said our goodbyes to each other and to the Clipper Odyssey. Some went directly to the airport, while others went back into town for a few more days in the historic city. Our Circumnavigation of the Black Sea was the grandest of adventures; like the Argonauts of old, our lives would be forever changed by what we had experienced in this far and exotic corner of the world.