Circumnavigation of the Black Sea

2013 Circumnavigation of the Black Sea Field Report

Susan Langley|November 1, 2013|Field Report

Thursday & Friday, September 5 & 6, 2013 - Istanbul, Turkey / Embark Island Sky: Welcome to Istanbul! On arrival at the historic Pera Palace Hotel, some of us opted to unwind in the luxury of this newly renovated landmark. Others chose to relax at a nearby hamman, the ultimate Turkish bath experience, or to set out to explore the city. In the evening we gathered to meet our fellow travelers, some arriving from a pre-extension to Cappadocia in central Turkey, and our expedition staff over welcome cocktails. During our elegant welcome dinner, Expedition Leader, Lia Oprea, introduced Cruise Director Lynda Murphy and the rest of the expedition team. With a day of travel behind us and a full day tomorrow, most of us turned in early.

The next morning, we visited the Topkapi Palace complex, built in 1459. We arrived as it opened to take advantage of the morning peace, light, and birds. The latter did not disappoint with rose-ringed parakeets squawking and swirling around. We set off to explore the stunning jewels of the Treasury and the museums of sacred objects, regal garments, and the royal portrait gallery. After a banquet of manmade beauty, lunch on the palace grounds, overlooking the sparkling Bosporus was the perfect break.

In the afternoon, some of us chose to visit the city’s most famous icon, the former church and mosque, Aya Sofya. Nearby, we ventured to the 17th-century Blue Mosque, with its eponymous predominantly blue interior tiles and six graceful minarets. Those of us seeking smaller jewels made our way to the Chora Church, gorgeous with both frescoes and mosaics dating to 1312.

The Rüstem Paşa Mosque is another hidden gem in the busy Tahtakale District, as is the nearby Spice Bazaar. This market is a riot of scents and colors including tastes of lokum, better known to us as Turkish Delight, hazelnuts, freshly grilled ears of corn, and roasted chestnuts.

We soon crossed back over the Golden Horn to make our way to the port of Karaköy to board the Island Sky. After enjoying refreshments, we gathered on deck to watch our transit through the Bosporus, as the sun set and the shore sparked alive with lights.

Saturday, September 7 - Bartin / Amasra: Docking in the largely military port of Bartin afforded an opportunity to view the countryside, as we headed inland before returning to the small coastal city of Amasra. Those of us who elected to hike to the end of town and climb a small headland for scenic views of Rabbit Island, the coastline, and the open sea, passed under gateways and over bridges where fragments of previous Greek, Roman, and Byzantine occupations were in evidence. A few of us were lucky enough to spot dolphins far below, while flocks of alpine swifts– among the world’s fastest-flying birds—zoomed by. Some brave souls took a brisk dip while others settled for watching fishermen or joined Lia and Lynda at a local restaurant to sample cheese bread with sweet cherry sauce and to people-watch. All too soon it was time to return to the ship for a sunny lunch on deck and to weigh anchor for our next port of call.

In the afternoon we were able to attend our first presentation by our historian, Roger Crowley, entitled The Greeks in the Black Sea: Three Thousand Years of History. After tea we joined Ron Wixman, our political geographer, for his lively presentation, The Ottomans.

Sunset found us meeting our captain, Håkon Gustafsson, and his officers at the captain’s welcome cocktail party followed by an exceptional dinner. Afterwards some of us enjoyed the piano music of Diego Lacre while others drifted off to bed as we steamed through the night.

Sunday, September 8 - Samsun / Amasya: Another glorious day greeted us as we came alongside in the industrial city of Samsun. From here we drove inland to the picturesque city of Amasya, birthplace of Strabo and site of Caesar’s famous “Veni, vidi vici,” proclamation. On the more modern southern side, we visited the Beyazit Paşa Camil mosque complex and the Amasya Archaeological Museum before winding through the streets to the riverwalk for panoramic views of the northern side with rows of black-trimmed white houses and wooden waterwheels lazily turning in the river. Above, the rock cut tombs of the Pontic Kings, now empty, studded the cliff face. The energetic among our number climbed to the tombs, made even more dramatic by the eerie descending trills of the rock nuthatches that clambered over the rocky cliffs, and the harsh squawks of red-billed choughs chasing each other far overhead. The rest of us were able to experience home life for the well-to-do at the Hazeranlar Konaği Mansion Ethnographic Museum before a ‘shopportunity’ at a women’s cooperative specializing in local silver jewelry.

Lunch was an absolute feast at the open-air Ali Kaya Restaurant overlooking the town and river. The long clay barbecue ovens with spits of various meats and vegetables hanging on a rod running its length drew us, cameras in hand, into the kitchen area. After lunch there was a chance to peruse a variety of local rugs and mats laid out for our viewing before we had to wend our way down from the hills to our floating home.

At teatime the Hotel Department had set up a waffles and ice cream treat onboard as we set sail for our final port in Turkey. We then joined our architectural historian, Allan Langdale, for his presentation, Sailing Through Byzantium: Empires, Monasteries, and Icons.

Monday, September 9 - Trabzon / Sumela Monastery: We were greeted this morning by a troupe of dancers and musicians on the quay when we came alongside. The infectious music lured both guests and Ron, who was once a professional folkdancer, to join the fun. Then it was time to head into the interior to visit the iconic Sumela Monastery clinging to the face of Karadag Mountain overlooking the Altindere Valley. The climb to the complex was well worth the stairs as it is more extensive than it appears from the exterior and is liberally covered with paintings on the walls and ceilings of the chapels. A few of us walked the hairpin path to the base of the mountain through a beautiful forest of fir, chestnut, and beech, and the birders were rewarded with fine views of Eurasian jays, blue tits, European robins, and other birds of these lush mountains. Others opted for vans but we all met up for a snack of molten cheese, bread, and tea.

Returning to the ship for lunch, we set off in the afternoon to explore Trabzon. Of particular interest was Aya Sofya which was built in the 13th century as a church, then converted to a mosque. While some of the frescoes were covered, most were still evident; of even more interest was the graffiti—a sailors’ church for centuries, there are images of ships inside and out, scratched into plaster, including into some of the religious art.

After last minute shopping or a brisk walk around the town, we returned to the Island Sky and departed for Georgia. We joined Susan Langley, our maritime archaeologist, for her presentation, Maritime Archaeology of the Marmara and Black Seas. Most of us couldn’t resist another dinner under the stars but nearly everyone turned in early after a day of fresh air in the mountains.

Tuesday, September 10 - Batumi, Georgia: Although a Greek trading colony in the second century, Batumi remained a small fishing village until it was industrialized in the 19th century. Now independent, the town is becoming a fashionable vacation destination as well as a commercial center. We first visited the two-story farmers’ market where our presence brought out curiosity and puzzlement as everyone wanted to communicate with us and every purchase was a source of delight. We followed this with a more placid venue as we strolled through the extensive and diverse Batumi Botanical Gardens situated on a promontory rising directly from the Black Sea and providing some breathtaking vistas.

We were very grateful for the appetites we had worked up when we arrived at Megru Lazuri for a lunch that could only be called a feast. This was followed by an astounding performance by the world class Ajara Dance Troupe. These young people flew across the floor and were clearly enjoying themselves as much as we enjoyed watching them. After lunch, we continued south to the Gonio-Apsarus Fortress, one of the finest surviving examples of Roman-Byzantine military architecture. Its history is well documented in the small museum in the center of the ruins.

Returning to central Batumi, there was ample time to stroll the parks and waterfront, explore the picturesque streets, and satisfy both shutterbugs and shoppers. Back on board we joined John Dobson, our MIT historian for his presentation, The Road to Yalta, 1939-1945, as we bade farewell to Georgia and turned toward Russia.

Wednesday, September 11 - Sochi, Russia: Although currently best known as the venue for the upcoming Winter Olympics, Sochi has been a Russian tourist destination since the 19th century. Its subtropical climate earned it the soubriquet of the Russian Riviera, and it still boasts numerous sanatoria (therapeutic hotels) and rest houses, as well as modern high-end hotels and private dachas.

This morning, some of us opted for a three-hour hike through a relict forest, a highlight of the trip for the birders and nature-lovers. In addition to the opportunity to view the ruins of a Byzantine fortress more than 1,500 years old, the immense old-growth yew and beech trees towered over a rich understory of chestnuts and hazelnuts. The path hugged the side of the gorge, leading to the Khosja River, where the birders were thrilled to spot a European dipper perching and diving into the rushing torrent to gather insects from the river bottom.

Non-hikers visited the Matsesta Spa Mineral Springs to see the source of some of the curative waters and to enjoy a stroll on the grounds, crossing the Sochi River. This was followed by a tour of Stalin’s Dacha, now a hotel-museum, including the chance to take a few shots on his pool table, see his private swimming pool, and take the air on his many balconies. We all met at the Dagomys Tea Plantation where an agronomist explained some of the finer points of growing and tasting tea; we were served a traditional Russian tea from a samovar accompanied by breads and cakes with jams and jellies, while entertainers sang and played traditional instruments.

Returning to Sochi there was time to visit a few shops, including the official Olympic store, before we headed out to sea bound for the Ukraine. Archaeologist Olga Stavrakis provided important background to the region in her presentation, Cossacks, The Free Men. Later, Allan gave us all a new way to look at the film Battleship Potemkin with an art and film presentation as a precursor to the film, shown in the lounge with popcorn for a real movie night extravaganza.

Thursday, September 12 - Yalta, Crimea, Ukraine: After a leisurely breakfast we joined John for his presentation, Clash of Empires before we decamped to the decks to enjoy the scenic approach to this historic city. The morning found us all at Livadia Palace, also known as the White Palace. Built in 1911, it was briefly the summer home of Tsar Nicholas II and his family in their last years.

After lunch, Lia offered a surprise option for the afternoon—a drive and tour of the Vorontsovsky Palace down the coast at Alupka. The drive alone was worth the time to see the Crimean countryside and spot the Swallow’s Nest, a toy-like castle perched on a small promontory over the sea. Those of us who elected to stay in Yalta enjoyed a walking tour of the city, noting its gentrification and visited the Alexander Nevsky Cathedral. With its golden domes and fantastic interior detailing, it is an excellent example of neo-Byzantine architecture.

On such a glorious evening, we enjoyed a colorful cocktail party sponsored by Zegrahm Expeditions and MIT Alumni Travel Program. Later, many of us took advantage of the opportunity to dine ashore. Others strolled around the brightly lit waterfront park area and absorbed the vibrant nightlife.

Friday, September 13 - Sevastopol: This morning found us exploring the dramatic ruins of the important Greek seaside city of Chersonesos, founded in 422BC and a major trading port to Trabzon and Sinop. In 988AD it was the site of the conversion to Christianity and baptism of St. Volodymyr (Vladimir) and several basilicas were raised to commemorate this event. The most recent is the Vladimirsky Cathedral which houses the tombs of several famous admirals on its lower level with the main church on an upper level. Recently restored, both levels sparkle with icons.

We completed the morning with a visit to the Panorama Museum, a 360° cyclorama of the Battle of Sevastopol when the city finally fell after a 349-day siege in September 1855. With props in the foreground melting into the more than 1,900 square yards of canvas painted in painstaking detail, the scenes are grimly realistic.

The afternoon presented options once again, one being a ride through barren, windswept countryside that brought us to the small hilly town of Bakchisarai, the former home of the great Khan of the Crimean Tatars. We wound through narrow streets lined with ornately carved wood and stone houses to the entrance of the great Khan’s Turkish-style palace. Only a few of the original buildings still survive and the visit took us through the Khan’s divan and the harem, both beautifully appointed and decorated with lacey wooden balustrades, beautiful carpets and glass chandeliers.

Our second afternoon choice was a visit to Balaklava, first a stop at the memorial to the Charge of the Light Brigade on a hill overlooking the scene of that debacle, then continuing to the town itself. We returned to the Submarine Tunnel Museum; these tunnels were constructed during the Cold War, and were permanently closed in 1993. We were surprised at their size and extent; one went completely through the mountain into which it was cut, others included dry-docks and there were accommodations, laboratories, and many other facilities hidden behind the relatively small openings.

Saturday, September 14 - Odessa: We began our morning walking the lengthy path to the memorial to the Unknown Soldier, pressing on to the Odessa Fine Arts Museum with its exceptional art collection including several works by Kandinsky. At the recently renovated glittering Opera House, several of us bought tickets to see Verdi’s La Traviata this evening. From here some of us made our way to Cathedral Square to visit Preobrazhenska Cathedral and to shop for a few handicrafts in the adjacent square. We then walked down the Potemkin steps to return to the ship and dried out over lunch. Others of our number joined Ron for a Jewish heritage tour. Being Saturday and Yom Kippur, the Jewish Heritage Museum and both Synagogues were closed to tourists but Ron persevered and our group visited the monument to the local residents who helped many Jewish children escape deportation to the death camps and the monument to the Jews from Odessa killed in the war, as well as touring interesting neighborhoods.

The afternoon provided a variety of choices including the archaeological museum and a private concert with champagne at Gagarin’s Palace, which also serves as the Literary Museum. Sitting in the heavily gilded hall as a quartet played ten classical pieces for us, it was easy to feel the depth of culture in Odessa.

Dinner was served a little later than usual to accommodate those who attended the opera, but with the special Odessa dessert served in the lounge, and with Roger’s assurance that “The music was excellent, the costumes exquisite, and the soprano died slowly in perfect pitch to rapturous applause,” no one minded in the least.

Sunday, September 15 - Danube River Delta, Romania: With the significant quantity of silt carried to the Black Sea by the Danube and its tributaries, this UNESCO Biosphere Reserve is actually growing. As we passed the breakwaters and entered the Sulina Arm, we were surprised at the amount of shipping traffic on the relatively narrow waterway. Captain Gustafsson’s skills were amply demonstrated several times as he maneuvered the Island Sky in order to disembark those of us wanting a closer look from the local boat Europolis at the small settlement of Crisan.

The drizzly morning gave way to a spectacular day winding through the narrow channels. We saw hundreds of European white pelicans, and the thrill of at least half a dozen of the extremely rare Dalmatian pelicans, thousands of great and pygmy cormorants, as well as gray herons, great egrets, and little egrets at every bend of the river. Tiny common kingfishers flashed their dazzling blue backs as they raced away in front of the boat, and huge white-tailed eagles soared over the vast reed beds as we tasted local schnapps and wines and enjoyed a multi-course luncheon.

The Island Sky continued upriver to Mile 35 with those us preferring to watch the small villages and fishing boats slip past. The Europolis reunited us with our ship in the mid-afternoon in time to join Ron for his lecture on Village Life as we made our way back downstream. The golden light of the late afternoon lured us all to the Observation Deck to enjoy a vodka and caviar tasting as we exchanged waves and greetings with friendly waterborne and shoreside residents.

Monday, September 16 - Constanta / Histria: Arriving at our berth in Constanta, we headed north to the ancient Greek port of Histria, founded in 657BC and Romania’s oldest town. In addition to baths, bastions, and a forum with shops and workshops, there are remains of four basilicas and one group of archaeologists shared the news that they had just found a workshop that produced religious paraphernalia near the Bishop’s compound. The museum on site is deceptive, being larger than it appears and is well laid-out and informative.

Returning to Constanta we stopped to view some large mosaics discovered during construction next to the National History and Archaeological Museum. Extensive road construction required some creativity but everyone who wished managed to visit both the Archaeological and Folklore Museums, which are only a few blocks apart. The Ethnographic Museum is known for its extensive costume and jewelry collections as well as a shop carrying quality local crafts.

Later, we joined Roger for The Center of the World; the Black Sea and the Middle Ages, before we enjoyed a performance by Dobrogean Colors, with live music and an array of wonderful dances and song in colorful costumes. This was followed by a tasting of six wines from Murfartlar Vineyards with explanation and commentary and the opportunity to purchase wine if desired.

Our evening concluded with the captain’s farewell cocktails hosted again by Captain Håkon Gustafsson. The captain introduced the crew, who then regaled us with several songs received with thunderous applause, before we joined him for the captain’s farewell dinner.

Tuesday, September 17 - Varna, Bulgaria: Our last port of call before returning to Istanbul, Varna is Bulgaria’s third largest city and its maritime capital. Dividing between those who wanted to walk the city and those who preferred a riding tour, we all visited the excellent Archaeological Museum with its renowned collection of the world’s earliest gold jewelry, including the famed Nike earrings discovered during excavations near Varna in 1972.

At the Cathedral of the Assumption of the Virgin, we were able to view stunning icons in an active church. The priest also demonstrated both the cathedral’s acoustics and his own vocal prowess by chanting a portion of a service for us. From here those who wished walked the leafy boulevards past the fruit and vegetable market to the Ethnographic Museum housed in a revival-era mansion built in the 1860s. The collection included not only costumes and household items but also those related to rural skills such as beekeeping and winemaking. Those riding enjoyed views of the Asparouh Bridge and railroad station, had a photo opportunity at the Naval Academy and met at the Roman Bath complex. These ruins indicate they were the most substantial baths in the eastern Roman Empire and underscore the importance of the port, then called Odessos. From here we scattered, some of us returned to the ship for lunch to begin packing, others elected to stay in town for shopping or lunch and some just strolled the streets enjoying the ambiance.

As we weighed anchor to begin the leg that would close the circle on our journey, we joined Susan for a honey tasting of samples she had purchased along our route and her presentation, Bees and Beekeeping at the Crossroad of Continents. After tea we had a final surprise in store when Mr. Charles Darwin appeared to provide his Reminiscences and Reflections.

At our final recap, Allan provided a special slideshow on which he had been working for the duration of the voyage. Finally it was time to seriously face the need to pack and make final arrangements for our homeward travel.

Wednesday, September 18 - Istanbul, Turkey: Few of us could resist being on deck at dawn as we glided down the Bosporus toward the heart of Istanbul; a final glorious dawn as the sun rose and washed the many mosques and palaces with rosy light. “Wherever you go, go with all your heart.” ~ Confucius

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