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Circumnavigation of the Black Sea
Published on Wednesday, November 07, 2012
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Sunday & Monday, September 23 & 24, 2012 - Istanbul, Turkey / Embark Clipper Odyssey: Of all the legendary cities of the ancient world, none is more storied than Istanbul, the place once known as Constantinople, and before that as Byzantium. Straddling the Bosporus, at the boundary between Europe and Asia, the West and the East, Istanbul has seen empires come and go. Today’s inhabitants live atop layer upon layer of history.
Our hotel, the Pera Palace, is itself steeped in one or two of those layers. Once the terminus of the fabled Orient Express, it was Agatha Christie’s base while she wrote the famous novel. Our dinner here, while not quite historic (and no one got murdered), was atmospheric nonetheless.
Istanbul is the site of the famous Topkapi Palace with its intriguing Harem, as well as the Blue Mosque. It also has a grand Archaeological Museum, the Rustem Pasha mosque, and the fabled Spice Bazaar. All these we set out to see the next morning, before embarking our ship, the Clipper Odyssey. We sailed through the Bosporus in the evening light. Of all places on earth to meet and begin a journey, none can be more auspicious than that crossroads of the world, Istanbul.
Tuesday, September 25 - Amasra: Amasra is today 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 6th century BC when it was a major shipping port for precious boxwood, and continuing through the time when it was a satellite of the distant city-state of Genoa, the city was a capital of commerce. As an indication of its antiquity and prominence, Homer mentioned it in his writings.
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, rags and riches. But we were happy to experience it as it is today—tranquil, lovely, and time-forgotten.
Wednesday, September 26 - Samsun / Amasya: We left the coast behind and traveled far into the Pontic Mountains. There, in a deep gorge of the Yesilirmak 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, deeply cut into the living rock, are elaborate manmade caves on artificial ledges. They are the tombs of Pontic rulers who lived and died more than two thousand years ago.
The tombs were our main destination, but 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, switchbacking road up the canyon wall, emerging at the lofty Ali Kaya restaurant. The views were spectacular, and so was the lunch that was served to us. As course after course arrived, you could imagine that it was a feast such as might have been spread before one of those long-dead Pontic kings.
Thursday, September 27 - Trabzon / Sumela Monastery: There is a legend that during the reign of Emperor Theodosius, two itinerant Greek monks came to Trabzon, seeking visions in the wilderness. Far up the Altundere Valley, they experienced their miracle. In a cave high on the cliffs of Mela Mountain, a mysterious icon of the Virgin Mary appeared to them. In that unlikely location, they founded a monastery, which became known as Sumela.
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.
To get to Sumela, we, like the monks, had to travel further, and had to wind our way (by minibus in our case) straight up the side of the mountain. 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 solid rock, or laboriously built with blocks of stone. Then they decorated almost every inch of its surface, inside and out, with elaborate frescoes. Really, what they created in that rugged and remote place is just as miraculous as the story of their arrival there.
Friday, September 28 - Batumi, Georgia: Batumi is a very ancient city. 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 had a lavish lunch of local specialties, enlivened by a blazing dance performance. The energy of the dancers seemed to mirror the new spirit of Georgia.
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 on trade, the town is rapidly expanding. The story of Batumi is a very, very old one, but a lively new chapter is being written today.
Saturday, September 29 - 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 there. It’s also renowned for the quality of the tea grown in plantations that sprawl across the surrounding hills, which offer cool relief from the coastal city traffic. But construction inspired by the upcoming Games is proceeding at a feverish pace.
One of those construction projects, aimed at providing other recreational opportunities to visitors, has been to build a new loop trail through the Sochi Natural Reserve. The trail, just completed, passes under a remarkable relict forest of European yew, Colchis boxwood, and other rare and endemic species. We were one of the first groups of tourists ever to use this spectacular trail, but we put it down as a keeper. For the daring and/or unwise, the hike culminated in a plunge into the frigid clear waters of the Khosta River.
But Sochi has seen big changes before now. An emblem of this fact is the dacha that once belonged to none other than Josef Stalin, now an eerie museum in a lovely resort area. 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. If Sochi managed to survive Stalin, surely it can weather a little disturbance like an Olympic Games.
Sunday, September 30 - 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. Anyone who’s heard of Yalta has no doubt heard of 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 new lines on it. 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, built by Czar Nicolas, who 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 lighthearted atmosphere of the place with the momentous events that had taken place just a few miles away. Nevertheless, to some extent what you find in Yalta today is a result of what the Big Three accomplished at that table.
Monday, October 1 - Sevastopol: The area around this Crimean harbor is steeped in military history. The famous Charge of the Light Brigade occurred near here; Sevastopol was besieged during the Crimean War, and again during World War II; in the Cold War, the Soviet Union built pens to house their attack submarines nearby; and today it is the home of the Ukrainian Navy.
But before all of that—some 2,500 years before—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, fallen temples, and a theater.
We drove out to the port of Balaklava and cruised through it 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 known to the entire English-speaking world as the Valley of Death. The name was coined by the poet Tennyson to describe the field of battle where the Light Brigade made its 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.
The city’s long and violent military history seemed at odds with what we found as we walked back to the ship—quiet streets, leafy parks, friendly people, monuments in peaceful plazas. Maybe we can take this as an indication that a city, or a people or a nation, can change its ways.
Tuesday, October 2 - 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 steps still look just as they did when they were filmed in 1925. We know, because we went and climbed them at the start of the day.
With that Odessan icon under our belts, we went out to see 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, and attended a benefit performance there in the evening. 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.
Wednesday, October 3 - Danube River Delta, Romania: The Danube is the most cosmopolitan of all rivers. Rising in Germany’s Black Forest, it flows through four capital cities and nine different countries. And it carries a portion of each country with it: every year it deposits 67 million tons of alluvium 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.
Even before dawn broke we could see signs of the natural abundance of the delta system, in the form of hordes of birds, some migratory, some resident. Notable among them were majestic white pelicans, rare Dalmatian pelicans, graceful mute swans, towering egrets, and masses of several species of duck. We could also see plentiful signs of the people. We cruised up past the ramshackle town of Sulina and docked. A local boat, the Europolis, designed for these shallow muddy waterways, awaited us, and we embarked on an African Queen-like cruise. For the next two hours we chugged up a side channel, until low water and the necessity of a daylight passage forced us to turn around—too soon.
Sailing back down the main stem of the river, with its power poles, derelict buildings, and straight-ruled levees, offered an opportunity to contrast 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.
Thursday, October 4 - Constanta: You know the saying: the three most important things about real estate are location, location, location. Histria had a great location, in a good port at one of the mouths of the mighty Danube near fertile farm land. Milesian settlers from Archaic Greece found it first, and established a trading center there in the 7th century BC. Romans took it over around 30AD. 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 walled off the harbor and turned it into a lake. Histria was abandoned and then buried by Danube mud.
The regional center became the city of Tomis—modern-day Constanta, with its own Black Sea harbor and river access. 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 during excavations for a new port and transportation building. It served as the pavement for a 4th century commercial port complex that linked the upper town with the harbor—in other words, the same sort of building that modern architects were building on the same spot. Which only proves once again the importance of location.
Friday, October 5 - Varna, Bulgaria: Since time immemorial, people have coveted, sought, and collected the metal called gold. The ancient Thracian people were no exception; they not only gathered the precious stuff, but mastered the skill of shaping it into beautiful and elaborate works of art—before anyone else on earth had done so. Nor, for that matter, were we—we made a visit to the Thracian Gold our highest priority. This horde, discovered by accident in the 1970s, is currently on display at the Varna Archaeology Museum. Aside from the fact that they were made of gold, the technical perfection of the pieces, created six millennia ago, was astounding.
Recovering from our awe, we walked on through Varna. We went to the Cathedral of the Assumption, where some Orthodox but noticeably 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 impressive ruins of the Roman baths. Many stayed in town for lunch. The ice cream in the plaza was excellent. People were very friendly; most spoke English, and they liked tourists. So there was much that was golden in Varna—and not all of it was in the museum.
Saturday, October 6 - Istanbul, Turkey: It’s a bit strange to arrive in a place that is the very exemplar of the foreign and exotic, and to find it familiar, especially after weeks of arriving in a new and unfamiliar place every day. 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 inland ocean and through which we now left it. Perhaps because his “Charge of the Light Brigade” had been a part of our experience, looking back through the Bosporus made me think of Tennyson’s words from 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.”
I don’t know if I’m a part of the Black Sea now, but I know my experiences there are a part of me. May we all continue to pass through that arch and explore that untraveled world.