Circumnavigation of the Black Sea
Published on Tuesday, November 06, 2012
Tuesday & Wednesday, September 11 & 12, 2012 - Istanbul, Turkey / Embark Clipper Odyssey: Of all the legendary cities of the ancient world, none is more storied than Istanbul, once known as Constantinople, and before that as Byzantium. Straddling the Bosporus, the point of contact between Europe and Asia, the West and the East, Istanbul has seen many empires come and go. Today’s inhabitants live atop layer upon layer of history.
Istanbul is the site of the famous Topkapi Palace with its intriguing Harem, of the Aya Sofya, the Blue Mosque, and the fabled Spice Bazaar. It also has a great Archaeological Museum and the Rustem Pasha mosque. All these we set out to see the morning after our welcome dinner, before embarking our ship to sail through the Bosporus.
Of all places on earth to meet and begin a journey, none is more auspicious than that crossroads of the world, Istanbul.
Thursday, September 13 - Amasra: Amasra today is a backwater port on the north coast of Turkey, a place that time has almost forgotten. Narrow cobblestone streets wind through the old town, couples stroll along the seafront, and fishing boats are hauled up on the rocky beaches. But there was a time when Amasra was much more a center of activity. Starting in the sixth century BC, and continuing through the time when it was a trading port under the control of the distant city-state of Genoa, the city was a capital of commerce.
When we climbed to the top of the promontory at the end of the peninsula, it was easy to see why. There were three different harbors, each facing different directions, along the peninsula. Whatever the direction of wind, there would always be shelter in at least one of them.
Amasra has seen hustle and bustle, commerce and conquest, sieges and wars. But we were happy to leave the place as we found it, tranquil, lovely, and time-forgotten.
Friday, September 14 - Samsun and Amasya: Today we left the coast behind and traveled far into the Pontic Mountains. There, in a deep gorge of the Red River, the town of Amasya fills the space between the steep cliffs and the river banks. Brooding down upon the town from the cliffs above, improbably cut into the living rock, are elaborate man-made caves on artificial ledges. They are the tombs of Pontic rulers who lived and died more than two thousand years ago.
The town itself proved quite charming, with archaeological and ethnographic museums, wonderful jewelry and crafts, and a magnificent mosque. After strolling its streets we boarded the buses again and drove a steep, switchbacked road up the canyon wall, emerging at the Ali Kaya restaurant. The views were spectacular and so was the lunch. It was, in fact, a feast such as might have been enjoyed by one of those ancient Pontic kings.
Saturday, September 15 - Trabzon / Sumela Monastery: The story told in eastern Turkey is that during the reign of Emperor Theodosius, two itinerant monks passed through Trabzon, seeking visions in the wilderness. Far up the Altundere Valley, their wish was granted. The Virgin Mary appeared and beckoned to them from high up on the cliffs of Mela Mountain. In that outrageous location, they founded a monastery, known as Sumela.
To get to Sumela, we, like the monks, had to travel further and had to wind our way (by bus in our case) high up one of the walls of the canyon. The monks and their followers labored for hundreds of years in this place and created an amazing enclave of buildings inserted into caves, carved from living rock, or laboriously built with native stone. Then they decorated almost every inch of its surface with elaborate frescoes as they looked out on a scene of rugged beauty. Really, what they created in that impossible place is just as miraculous as the story of their arrival there.
Trabzon itself was already a thriving port, a terminus of the Silk Road where goods brought overland from China could be shipped by sea. In the afternoon we visited the lovely Aya Sofya church-cum-museum and then walked the streets of town, crossing the fortified ravines that protected the old city.
Sunday, September 16 - Batumi, Georgia: The story of Batumi is one of the most ancient of any extant city on earth. In fact, it played a role in what may be the most ancient of all stories, that of Jason’s quest for the Golden Fleece. Just outside of town are the ruins of the Gonio Fortress, where, according to legend, the king of Colchis buried the dismembered body of his son after his unsuccessful pursuit of the fleeing Argonauts with their prize.
Before going there, however, we spent the morning perusing a thriving and friendly local market, and strolling down through Batumi’s gorgeous and well-kept Botanical Garden. Many a town ten times Batumi’s size, and without the drawback of having worn the Soviet yoke, would be proud to have such a garden. We enjoyed an incredible folkloric performance by one of Georgia’s most renowned traditional dance groups. Then the buses left us in the downtown area, where an explosion of new and fanciful Vegas-like construction is underway. Following the abolishment of Soviet-era restrictions, the town is rapidly expanding. The story of Batumi is truly ancient, but a new chapter is being written today.
Monday, September 17 - Sochi, Russia: Sochi is a town being turned inside out. The 2014 Winter Olympics are slated to be held not far away in the Caucasus Mountains, and Sochi isn’t quite ready to play host to all the world. It’s still a fairly quiet resort town, with its subtropical climate and numerous spas (or “sanitariums”) built over the mineral hot springs that rise up out of the limestone. The tea plantations that sprawl across the surrounding hills still offer cool relief from the city traffic—some of us visited one and tasted their productions. But construction inspired by the upcoming Games is proceeding at a feverish pace.
Some of us benefitted greatly from one of the new construction projects in the form of an excellent loop trail through the mountains, passing under a remarkable relict forest of European yew, Colchis boxwood, and other rare and endemic species. For the daring and/or unwise members of our party, the hike culminated in a plunge into the frigid clear waters of the Khosta River. We were the first group of tourists ever to use this trail, but we put it down as a keeper.
But going back in time, Sochi has seen big changes before now. An emblem of this fact is the dacha that once belonged to none other than Joseph Stalin, is now an eerie museum in a lovely forest. Signs of his paranoia and the cloud of hatred under which he lived are evident in the camouflage exterior, the bulletproof couch, and the fortress-like build of the place.
Sochi has seen the passing of empires and the demise of the Soviet Union. It will surely find a way to weather a little disturbance like an Olympic Games.
Tuesday, September 18 - Yalta, Ukraine: Last night we sailed the longest reach of our voyage to arrive at the end of the Crimean Peninsula, at the city of Yalta. If you’ve heard of Yalta, no doubt what you’ve heard of is the historic conference that took place here at the end of World War II. The war had erased most of the map of Europe; someone had to draw the new lines. Three men, as the victors in the conflict, claimed this prerogative. Their names were Roosevelt, Churchill, and Stalin.
The conference took place at the Livadia Palace, which was built by Czar Nicolas. But he managed to visit the place only four times before the Revolution swept him and his ilk away. We toured there in the morning, walking through the Romanovs’ chambers and chapel, but spending more time in the rooms we recognized from the old photographs, where the meetings had taken place. We stared at the table that has become an icon, at which the Big Three, as they were called, sat and remade the world.
In the afternoon we strolled along the seaside promenade of Yalta, on a walking tour to the Nevsky Cathedral. Weaving our way along that lively boulevard on a beautiful autumn day, among the vendors, rollerskaters, buskers, and sunbathers, it was hard to equate the experience with the momentous events that had taken place just a few miles away. But to some extent modern Yalta is a result of what the Big Three accomplished at that table. And on this day at least, it seemed that they did their job well.
Wednesday, September 19 - Sevastopol: This harbor on the west side of the Crimean has a history of war and militarism that goes back 2,500 years. Today it is the home of the Ukrainian Navy, which includes a number of decommissioned Soviet vessels; before that, it was besieged during World War II and, more notably, during the Crimean War; nearby, in the narrow inlet called Balaklava, the Soviet Union built pens to house their submarines; the famous (or infamous) Charge of the Light Brigade occurred near there. But before all of that, the Greek outpost of Chersonesus was founded where Sevastopol now stands, a place that saw at least one civil war, and which armies defended and from which they attacked. We hiked around the ruins of that long-ago important colony, a complex of walls and fallen temples and a theatre.
We cruised through the port of Balaklava in local boats. Just across from what is now a row of spa resorts for Russian oligarchs, we found the entrance to the grim submarine base. We walked through dank concrete tunnels, running our hands along deactivated missiles and torpedoes, instruments of destruction that were once mostly aimed at us.
We stopped at a place with a name familiar to the entire English-speaking world: the Valley of Death. The name was coined by the poet Tennyson to describe the field of battle where the Light Brigade made its famous, bold, futile, suicidal charge. The Light Brigade, an elite unit of British cavalry, was attempting to protect the flank of the army besieging Sevastopol. Back in town we marveled at an astonishingly realistic depiction of that siege in the form of a giant panoramic painting (or “cyclorama”) by the artist Franz Roubaud.
Given the city’s long and violent military history, how then to explain what we found as some of us walked back to the ship—quiet streets, leafy parks, friendly people, numerous monuments in peaceful plazas? Let’s hope that this is an indication that a city, or a people or a nation, can change its ways.
Thursday, September 20 - Odessa: Attend any film history course at any university in America or Europe and you will be shown a clip from Sergei Eisenstein’s seminal film Battleship Potemkin, a classic piece of Revolutionary propaganda. Known as “The Odessa Steps Sequence,” the scene features a fictional massacre of innocent civilians by Cossack troops—while a baby carriage rolls down the stairs. The depiction may not be quite real, but the steps certainly are. We know, because we went and climbed them at the start of the day.
With that icon under our belts, we went out to explore more of the city—and found there is much more to see. We ambled along broad avenues beneath spreading plane trees, passing palaces converted into hotels and shops, stopping at gracious monuments to rulers and poets. Before the day was over, many of us had toured the fine Archaeological Museum, had a Ukrainian lunch in the wonderful city park, heard a classical string quartet perform in the historic Gagarin Palace, visited the Rococo Opera House on a private tour, attended a benefit performance there in the evening, or had done all of the above.
A staircase, of course, is a means of getting from one level to another…and you could say the Odessa Steps took us to a new level of appreciation for their namesake city.
Friday, September 21 - Danube River Delta, Romania: The Danube is the most cosmopolitan of all rivers. Rising in Germany’s Black Forest, it flows through nine different countries and four capital cities. And it carries a portion of each of those countries with it: every year it deposits 67 million tons of alluvia at its mouth. These deposits have built a delta of 2,200 square miles, a vast maze of waterways, canals, marshes, and tree-fringed lakes, most of which are covered by floodwaters every spring. It is a shifting, uncertain landscape, prone to rapid changes and sudden disasters; and yet thousands of people live here.
We could see their towns and their detritus even before dawn broke. We could also see signs of the spectacular natural abundance of the delta system, in the form of hordes of birds, some migratory, some resident. Notable among them were majestic white pelicans, graceful mute swans, towering egrets, and masses of several species of ducks.
We cruised up past the ramshackle town of Sulina and parked. A local boat, the Europolis, designed for these shallow muddy waterways, came alongside, and we embarked on a cruise worthy of the African Queen. For the next five hours we threaded increasingly narrow channels, often brushing the vegetation on each side and almost scraping the bottom. We had entered the largest reedbed in the world, and were surrounded by a sea of huge grass plants, known as giant reeds or Phragmite, their creamy white plumes waved in the wind. Much of what seemed solid ground around us was actually floating islands composed of these reeds with roots entwined together.
We got close-up looks at a plethora of other plants and birds, such as common kingfishers, black-tailed godwits, spotted redshanks, and, a bit more distant, both black and white storks and a huge white-tailed eagle.
Sailing back out of those hidden channels and down the main stem of the river, with its power poles, derelict buildings, and straight-ruled levees, offered an interesting contrast between the works of nature and the works of man. And it must be said that those of man did not fare too well in the comparison.
Saturday, September 22 - Constanta: You know the saying: the three most important things about real estate are location, location, and location. If there is one place on earth that demonstrates this axiom, it is the ancient city of Istria and the modern one of Constanta, which lie not far from each other. We explored both today.
Istria had a great location, in a good port at one of the mouths of the mighty Danube near fertile farm land. No matter who finds a spot like that, everyone who comes later wants it. Milesian settlers from ancient Greece found it first, and established a trading center there in the 7th century BC. Romans took it over around 30 AD, and settlers from Byzantium moved in afterwards. Altogether the city was in continuous use for some 1,400 years.
But by that time the location wasn’t so good anymore. The vast amounts of silt pumped out by the Danube eventually filled up the harbor, and the river itself changed course. Istria was abandoned and then buried by Danube mud.
The population center for the area shifted over to the site of Constanta, at the edge of the modern river—as did we, after lunch. There, besides the artifacts at the Archaeological Museum and the traditional art in the Ethnographic Museum, we viewed the remains of an expansive Roman mosaic floor, the largest ever found. It was discovered in the 1950s during an excavation for a new building foundation, and turned out to be the center of an ancient business and artisan complex. So the Romans chose the exact location that modern Romanians did…thus proving the old saying.
Sunday, September 23 - Varna, Bulgaria: Since time immemorial, people have coveted, quested, and searched for the metal called gold. The ancient Thracian people were no exception; they not only collected the precious stuff, but mastered the skill of shaping it into beautiful and elaborate works of art. Nor were the archaeologists who discovered the Thracians’ storehouses; they gathered the pieces into a collection that has become known as the Thracian Gold. Nor, for that matter, were we—we made a visit to the Varna Archaeology Museum, currently displaying the Thracian Gold, our highest priority.
After recovering from our awestruck appreciation of the gold, we walked on through Varna. We went to the city cathedral, where some Orthodox but modern priests were willing to give us an impromptu concert. We ambled down the wide pedestrian plaza in the heart of town to the Ethnographic Museum and from there to the intriguing ancient Roman baths. Without a doubt, we found much that was golden in Varna…and not all of it was in the museum.
Monday, September 24 - Istanbul, Turkey: It’s a bit strange to arrive in a place that is the very exemplar of the strange and exotic, and to find it familiar—more familiar, in fact, than any of the places you’ve been since you left there. So it was with our return to Istanbul this morning. We had closed the circle, completed the loop. Istanbul, legendary gateway between the Mediterranean and Black Seas, was also the gateway through which we entered the inner ocean and through which we now left it. Since Tennyson, through his “Charge of the Light Brigade,” had been a part of our experience, looking back through the Bosporus recalled, at least for me, the words of his Ulysses:
“I am a part of all that I have met;
Yet all experience is an arch wherethrough
Gleams that untraveled world, whose margin fades
Forever and ever when I move.”
May we all be part of the Black Sea and it a part of us, and may we continue to pass through that arch and explore the untraveled world.