Saturday, September 20, 2014 - Istanbul, Turkey: Converging in Istanbul, our flights touched down at the busy Ataturk International Airport from many different parts of the world. Seven different nationalities were brought together for the start of our odyssey around the Black Sea, and a happy buzz filled the opulent Pera Palace Hotel. We enjoyed introductions of our expedition team during dinner, before we all adjourned for a welcome night’s rest, as our exploration of Istanbul was to begin the following morning.
Sunday, September 21 - Istanbul / Embark Island Sky: Various options were available this morning, including independent exploration for those who had visited this magical city on a previous occasion. The rest of the group subdivided, but shared the excursion to Topkapi Palace. The construction of this extensive complex began in 1459, and is comprised of four main courtyards with surrounding buildings, mosques, a hospital, bakeries, and even a mint. Particular visits were made to the Harem with its wonderful tiled courtyards and corridors; the Treasury, home of the jewels of the Ottoman kings, stunning diamonds and intricate metalwork, and royal gifts; and the Holy Relics display, which included not only the clothes and effects of Mohammed, but also the Staff of Moses.
After lunch in the Palace grounds, some of us saw the superb Hagia Sophia, with its elaborate interior, and the Mosaic Museum for a brief viewing of spectacular Roman mosaics found on site. Another group visited the equally enthralling Chora Church, Rustem Pasha Mosque, and the exotic Spice Bazaar.
This truly was a day to remember—a real assault on the senses from the spices and the city aromas—and the day was completed by our arrival at the Island Sky, our home for the next two weeks, which was nestled at the pier below Topkapi Palace. We set sail as light was fading to follow the Bosporus into the Black Sea. Our adventure had truly begun!
Monday, September 22 - Bartin / Safranbolu: We awoke as the Island Sky slipped into the port of Bartin. Our buses departed, passing wooded hillsides and small villages for a full day visit to Safranbolu. The magnificent Ottoman town, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is nestled in a steep valley, and the hillsides were covered with traditional three-story houses. The upper rooms were for entertaining and sleeping, while the lower once housed animals. The narrow streets of the city are today lined with vendors of saffron (from which the town takes its name), Turkish Delights, copper goods, and leather shoes. At the heart of this lay the Cinci Inn, which formerly had 62 bedrooms around a central courtyard which would have been the traders’ focus in early times. We spent a joyous few hours here, with a superb lunch of mezze and much more, complemented by an opportunity to look at (and indeed buy) beautifully crafted carpets of numerous designs and hues.
Once back onboard, we were treated to an evening folkloric performance by local dancers and musicians from the Bartin region, in brightly colored costumes, accompanied by numerous local dignitaries!
Tuesday, September 23 - Amasra: The small fishing village of Amasra is in a remarkable location, set dramatically on a peninsula with two harbors, providing an excellent landing location throughout history. The magnificent city walls could be seen readily on our walk through the sinuous vendor-filled streets of the old town. Other features included the remains of Byzantine city walls, as well as a Roman period bridge linking the peninsula.
Following lunch onboard, we sailed for our next destination of Samsun, further east on the south shore of the Black Sea. Ron Wixman offered a lecture on The Rise of Civilization and the Back Sea, and Hector Williams on Maritime Archaeology in the Black Sea and the Mediterranean.
The evening began with a welcome cocktail party hosted by our Captain Henrik Karlsson, and a splendid dinner to celebrate the occasion.
Wednesday, September 24 - Samsun / Amasya: A long scenic drive inland brought us to the spectacular city of Amasya, dwarfed by mountains on either side of the Yesilirmak valley. The city has seen many different civilizations from the Hittites, who left behind a huge citadel on top of one of the mountains, to the Ottomans. Its most prosperous era was when it was the royal capital of the Kingdom of Pontus in the 3rd century BC, when rock-carved tombs of the Pontic Kings were created in the hillsides, which are still visible—and visitable—today. The fine Ottoman buildings around the old town spoke of riches during that era. A highlight was the Sultan Beyazit Mosque, with its multiple domes, paired minarets, and Theological College. In the oldest and most complete library of the Ottoman Empire, we were introduced to some of the famous volumes, including one of the oldest copies of The Koran.
After a superb lunch of local delicacies, we returned to our waiting vessel and a lecture given by Allan Langdale on Icons and Monasteries of Byzantium.
Thursday, September 25 - Trabzon / Sumela: Our morning excursion brought us to the enigmatic Byzantine monastery of Sumela. Perched on a sheer mountain side, it was founded in 386AD and developed around a church within a cave. Beautifully decorated with colored frescoes, this was indeed a numinous location with the aura of a very special place. A center of pilgrimage, eras of conflicting beliefs and varying devotion have left their mark in the form of damage and graffiti to eyes and faces on the frescoes, but the overall effect is mesmerizing and most certainly worth the hardships of access.
After lunch onboard we began an exploration of Trabzon. We visited the Byzantine church of Hagia Sofia with its calming limestone walls, littered with inscriptions spanning several centuries. The city itself is steeped in history, colonized by the Greeks as a trade center, then the Byzantines, as well as Genoese and Venetian traders. All have left their mark on the cityscape, and we were able to wander down the narrow and winding streets lined with assorted stalls and goods.
Once back onboard, a lecture from Kevin Clement entitled, After the Deluge: Natural History of the Black Sea, rounded off a very full and stimulating day!
Friday, September 26 - Batumi, Georgia: A new day, a new country. As dawn broke we berthed in Batumi, the second largest city of Georgia. A towering cityscape punched the sky as a clear statement of the renewal of this former Soviet state. Our first excursion was to the farmer’s market, a real sensory experience with stalls of intensely colored spices, walnuts and hazelnuts, bread and meats, and an explosion of citrus fruits! It was rather a relief to move onto the Botanical Gardens, located outside of the city center and at a higher elevation. A leisurely walk among the gardens—spanning some two miles in length—introduced us to a lush treescape with cedars, eucalyptus, totara, maples, and witch hazels vying for space and light. Still colorful flower beds wafted scents as we passed by, with the ginger plant being a highlight.
An alternative excursion to look for migrating birds in the immediate area brought its own adventures—a chance encounter with a most hospitable family was a highlight, with the serving of coffee and baked apples. Bird-wise, we saw six species of raptors including falcons and eagles. We even met with a local falconer and his peregrine falcons.
After lunch onboard, some took the opportunity to explore Batumi itself, while others ventured out to the Gonio Fort, a Roman foundation with both Byzantine and Ottoman super-structures. Recent archaeological investigation yielded Roman walls, and the modern Museum provided detail of recovered finds.
The evening highlight was a Georgian feast and cultural event. The magnificent young dance troupe, Mtsverval, delighted us with their extensive repertoire and fluid movements, and were the perfect complement to a feast of local produce and delicacies.
Saturday, September 27 - Sochi, Russia: The choice of excursions in Sochi enabled visits to both venues of the 2014 XXII Winter Olympics and XI Paralympic Winter Games. A scenic 90-minute drive brought us to the mountain sports district of Krasnaya Polyana and the Roza Khutor Olympic Ski Village. From the road, the ski jumping course could be viewed along with several new chalet-style hotels. The weather was perfectly clear and three gondola rides later, the top of Krasnaya Polyana (at 7,545 feet) gave stunning views of the surrounding peaks!
Meanwhile, those who stayed closer to sea level investigated the bustling center of Sochi and its blend of beautiful decorative plaster facades set side-by-side with glass edifices. Boarding buses, we drove out to the Hotel Bogatyr, a Disney-esque edifice on the edge of the Olympic Park. Taking electric cars into the complex, the varied venues for different activities, including the opening ceremony set around the Olympic Flame, were stunning. Glass panels of all colors, huge arenas, and the ubiquitous Olympic Rings dominated. The area was filled with weekend visitors, riding bikes, roller skating, and getting ready for the opening of the new Formula One track at the site.
The final visit was to Stalin’s Dacha, a huge green edifice, painted to be camouflaged from prying eyes. A billiard room, with an over-sized table, was where he entertained guests as well as his family. In another area of the complex, which today is an upmarket hotel venue, a large dining table with over 20 chairs around it, would have played a significant role in the entertaining of notable local and national political figures. It is hard to reconcile this peaceful location with the picture of the dictator we have in our minds today.
Sunday & Monday, September 28 & 29 - At Sea / Odessa, Ukraine: A relaxing morning gave us the chance to catch up on our lecture series, with three scattered throughout the day. Olga Stavrakis began with, How the Fall of Constantinople Triggered the Renaissance, and was followed by Colleen Batey on The Viking Route to Miklagard. The main event of the afternoon was a movie on the fall of the Ceaucescu government in Romania in 1989, entitled Videograms of a Revolution. In the afternoon, Allan gave an introduction to a segment of Eisenstein’s great film Battleship Potemkin, to be viewed after dinner. His presentation focused on The Odessa Steps Sequence from Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin.
The next morning we arrived into this most beautiful of cities at the foot of the famous Potemkin Steps. The morning excursion options included a city walk or a tour of Odessa’s Jewish history by bus. The city tour began on the Steps; tree- lined boulevards and garden squares jostled with Art Deco and Art Nouveau buildings. Holding a substantial collection of local material—from early prehistory through the era of Roman and Greek colonization, into the Viking and Medieval periods—the Archaeological Museum was a great introduction to the history of the area. Our walk through the city brought us to the Art Deco Passage of small shops amid grand and effervescent architecture. Returning across planned gardens with a fountain surrounded by vibrant salvias, our morning walk ended at the statue of Catherine the Great herself.
Those on the Jewish history tour learned about the destruction of the Jewish community during World War II, and their rich cultural life in Odessa. They made up approximately one third of the total city population and produced many world famous musicians, writers, scientists, and merchants.
The afternoon began with a special chamber concert within the Gargarin Palace, and we relaxed to the sounds of Mozart, Handel, Bach, and Strauss and hugely enjoyed the fun of the Leroy Anderson works “Sandpaper Ballet” and “The Typewriter.”
The next venue was a special opening of the palatial, recently refurbished Opera House; with its gilded balconies and boxes, it was indeed a fairy tale location!
Tuesday, September 30 - Danube River Delta, Romania: Our hardy little vessel, the Europolis, well provisioned with food and wine carried from the mother ship, set sail to navigate the narrow, winding waterways of the Danube Delta. The Danube drains a third of Europe, passing through nine countries and past four capital cities. On its 1,800-mile course, it accumulates a massive load of silt, which has been building this delta since the end of the last Ice Age. The delta is a maze of convoluted channels, lakes, sudden rises, patches of forest, and the world’s largest reed bed—an ideal habitat for various waterfowl, raptors, and other birds, as well as mammals.
Very soon a great variety of birdlife appeared: we saw graceful great egrets, soaring marsh harriers, and colorful kingfishers, to name a few. Water snakes glided out of our path, and dragonflies flitted around us, perhaps catching a ride on our airstream. And then, a remarkable mammal sighting—a young male red deer, was swimming in the river! He was undoubtedly trying to cross, but found himself unable to locate a spot of solid ground to scramble out on in this wilderness of floating reeds. Many local delicacies and copious beverages eased us on our way as we left the deer to its own devices.
Once back onboard, we were tempted to the Lido Deck with local vodkas and caviar with blinis.
Wednesday, October 1 - Histria / Constanta: An unexpected overnight stop in the Danube Delta, provided the opportunity to explore this part of Romania further. Our first stop in Tulcea, at the newly opened Eco Center for the Danube, was a great start to the day—local fish of all hues filled the aquarium, small turtles vied for attention, and cries from the varied local avian population all provided a most atmospheric visit. A short drive then brought us to a nunnery, the peaceful home of 30 nuns. With two superbly decorated churches, and surrounding lands which produce both honey from beehives and wine from vines, the casual economy of the nunnery is in good hands. The peace was all-pervading, enhanced by the beautiful gardens and the calm demeanor of the smiling nuns.
Progressing southwards, we reached Histria, a Greek city developed at the mouth of one of the Danube entries to the Black Sea. The ruins visible today are from the succeeding Roman era; ancient shops lined the walls which were built as late as the 5th century AD, but the main features of town life pervaded—the market place being dominant, as well as regular streets. Through the main entrance, we traced the route of carts coming and going in the 4th-5th century AD, the cart ruts still visible in the stone paving of the road! A light and airy museum showed finds from the site, which has been under intermittent investigation for over 100 years.
Following a hearty lunch of Romanian specialties, we pressed on to Constanta. Thousands of amphora, large clay storage jars from around the Aegean Sea, were recovered in Roman Constanta with the unique survival of their contents as unremarkable black masses (originally olives), olive oil, and wine among other commodities. The town had been founded by Greeks in the 6th century BC, before it was overrun by the Romans in 71BC. Massive burial memorials line the park to one side of the museum on its approach to in-situ mosaic floors from the Roman forum nearby.
Our next stop was a local wine tasting event just outside Constanta at the Murfartlar Vineyards, accompanied by a lively and colorful cultural performance. Eventually reunited with the ship, we sampled more adult beverages at our farewell cocktail and dinner.
Thursday, October 2 - Varna, Bulgaria: Varna is the third largest city in Bulgaria and boasts an impressive harbor front. An early morning departure for the Varna Archaeological Museum brought us to a classical-style building with collections displayed over two floors. The archaeology of the Varna region, from earliest prehistory to the Byzantine era, was explored through countless rich objects—of ivory, gold, and silver, as well as ceramic. The golden jewelry from the tombs of the Thracians was captivating, and included a gold and crystal scepter , neckrings, and armrings, as well as head adornments. The Greek period of this great city, one of the largest on the Black Sea coast, was marked by beautiful painted vases and crafted stonework—many of these icons in the museum.
The next stop was to the Orthodox Cathedral, where a brief demonstration of the superb unaccompanied choral music in the orthodox tradition was presented. Painted frescoes and the decorative iconostasis dominated the view from the Narthex. On to the Ethnographic Museum via narrow cobbled streets lined with merchants, we had an opportunity to see behind high gates and into the courtyard of a wealthy Bulgarian’s traditional 18th-century house—now home to the museum collections.
Our last stop of the day was the largest Roman ruins in the city, the Public Baths. Standing nearly 60 feet in height, this enormous complex of baths was the fourth largest in the Roman Empire. The reason for this considerable extent is unclear, but the full sequence of Roman bathing could be followed easily. The largest, and probably most impressive, part of the structure was the Basilican-formed Gymnasium which could easily have housed a tennis court, or more!
Back on board, sailing towards Istanbul, Ron gave his final presentation entitled, Bulgarian Village Life and Culture. Before dinner, we were delighted by the slideshow of our journey, prepared and presented by Allan. A truly memorable odyssey, reminding us of so many highlights of this amazing part of the world.
Friday, October 3 - Istanbul, Turkey / Disembark / USA: Arrival back into Istanbul brought our shared voyage to a close. With so many memories, experiences, and new friends, it is clear that the past two weeks will provide lasting enjoyment for us all. Now simply to find someone to show our photographs and listen to our stories!