Circumnavigation of the Black Sea

2015 Circumnavigation of the Black Sea Field Report

Susan Langley|July 27, 2015|Field Report

Tuesday & Wednesday, June 2 & 3, 2015 - Istanbul, Turkey / Embark Variety Voyager: 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, while 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 and enjoy a welcome dinner in the elegant Grand Pera Hall.

We spent the next morning at the Topkapi Palace complex, entering along a rose-lined walk taking advantage of the morning light for photos of the towers, walls, and the church of St. Irene. The Palace grounds house diverse small museums and during some free time we set off to explore the stunning jewels of the Treasury and the museums of sacred objects, regal garments, and the royal portrait gallery. Lunch in the Konyali Restaurant on the palace grounds, overlooking the sparkling Bosporus was a perfect break.

The afternoon required some decision-making. Some of us just couldn’t leave the city without seeing its most famous icon, the former church and mosque, Hagia Sophia, which has been a museum since 1935. Nearby, the 17th-century Blue Mosque with its eponymous predominantly blue interior tiles, beckoned; both of these edifices and the many historic structures around and between them, comprise the Sultanahmet district. Those of us seeking smaller jewels made our way to the Chora Church.

The Rustem Pasha Mosque is another hidden gem; and since we were in the neighborhood, who could resist a stroll through the nearby Spice Bazaar? This market is a riot of scents and colors including lokum, better known to us as Turkish Delight, and the hazelnuts which Turkey produces in abundance, as well as freshly grilled ears of corn and roasted chestnuts.

As the afternoon waned we crossed back over the Golden Horn to board the Variety Voyager. After settling in our quarters, we gathered on deck to watch our transit through the Bosporus, with commentary from Susan Langley and Allan Langdale. We were accompanied by cavorting dolphins, who seemed to join us almost daily along the Turkish coast. After dinner, some of us retired to the Riviera Lounge to enjoy the piano music of Miloš Vuković, while others drifted off to bed as we steamed through the night.

Thursday, June 4 - Bartin / Safranbolu: Docking in the largely military port of Bartin afforded an opportunity to view the countryside, as well as observe the juxtaposition of coffee-brown fresh water on one side of the road and the aqua blue of the Black Sea on the other, as we headed inland to the well-preserved Ottoman town of Safranbolu. The entire town has been a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1994.

Named for its historically predominant industry, saffron, we were able to sip saffron and honey tea at our first stop, a terrace overlooking the town that also permitted a bit of orientation for the remainder of the day. Exploration of the town below included the bustling copper and iron-working district, the hammam, and the İzzet Paşa Mosque that incorporates some surprisingly European architectural elements. Our delicious lunch of local delicacies was served at Cinci Han, housed in a 17th-century caravanserai. A thunderstorm abbreviated our examination of a variety of Turkish carpets on display in the courtyard, but did not prevent shopping for mementos or for the lokum for which the region also is known; some even flavored with local saffron.

Driving through the verdant spring landscape we arrived back aboard for our first presentation by Allan, entitled The Hippodrome of Constantinople. Evening found us meeting at the captain’s welcome cocktail party, followed by an exceptional dinner as we weighed anchor for Sinop.

Friday, June 5 - Sinop: Coming alongside in the natural harbor of Sinop, we were able to walk into the walled medieval city wrapping around its rocky promontory. Strolling past seaside cafés, we were able to see a typical small Turkish town more popular with Turkish tourists than outside visitors. After a short walk through acacia-scented streets and a break in the rose-filled garden of the archaeological museum, we visited the ethnographic museum in the home of a well-to-do merchant with extensive stenciled and painted decoration throughout and informative displays of textile preparation. Nearby we had the chance to visit the Alaaddin Mosque with its extensive carved wooden paneling. Adjacent to the mosque is a small enclave of shops housed in the former Pervane Seminary constructed by Süleymane Pervane in 1262; it is now home to some fine locally created textiles which we watched being woven by a local craftswoman and had the chance to savor some traditionally prepared Turkish coffee. Returning to the harbor, a stop at the infamous Tarihi Cevaevi (fortress prison) was a must. Established in 1887, it is one of Turkey’s oldest prisons and noted for the number of political prisoners it held, many of whom were journalists, writers, and poets very well known in Turkey and abroad.

After this, some of us wandered the town and others visited the handful of sea-front shops specializing in locally-made ship models, but many of us couldn’t resist sampling the local specialty manti for lunch. The small meat-filled pasta came sauced with yogurt or crushed walnuts, or both, and what appeared to be vast quantities disappeared remarkably easily.

Returning to our ship, we set sail for our next port and joined Susan, our maritime archaeologist, for her discussion of the Maritime Archaeology of the Marmara & Black Seas, where we learned that there have been surprisingly diverse finds off the coast of Sinop. Allan prepared us for our adventure at Sumela Monastery tomorrow with, Sailing to Byzantium: Monasteries and Icons.

Saturday, June 6 - Trabzon / Sumela: We were greeted this morning by a troupe of regional Laz dancers and musicians on the quay, before heading into the interior to visit the iconic Sumela Monastery, clinging to the face of Karadag Mountain. Founded during Byzantine times by two Greek monks following a vision, the monastery was active until 1923 when independence quashed local hopes for an independent Greek state. The climb to the complex was well worth the stairs for the beautiful 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. Others opted for vans down, 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 Hagia Sophia which had been built in the 13th century as a church, then converted to a mosque and then to a museum, before just recently being converted back to a mosque again. While some of the frescoes are covered, as when they were whitewashed in the past, most were still evident. However, of even more interest was the graffiti—a sailors’ church for centuries, there are images of ships inside and out scratched into plaster, including some of the religious art.

As luck had it we were in Trabzon on market day, so we had a plethora of choices—walk the approximately three miles back to the ship visiting sites along the way and enjoying local color, partake in some last minute shopping, amble around the town center, or take a brisk walk back to the Variety Voyager. After a day of fresh air in the mountains, nearly everyone turned in early.

Sunday, June 7 - Batumi, Georgia: Although a Greek trading colony by the second century, Batumi remained a small fishing village until it was industrialized in the 19th century, under Russian governance. Now independent, the town is becoming a fashionable vacation destination as well as a commercial center. The architecture reflects this rapid growth with ultra-modern structures rubbing shoulders with fin-de-siècle buildings; yet somehow it all seems to have a charm of its own. We, too, blended experiences by first visiting the substantial two-story local farmers’ market where our presence brought out curiosity and puzzlement as locals tried 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. Some of us couldn’t wait for the afternoon tour and opted to walk back to the ship from the center of Batumi.

With appetites whetted by our morning’s walk, we particularly appreciated the barbecue lunch prepared for us aboard the Variety Voyager. The afternoon offered a number of options—some of us enjoyed exploring on our own and riding the cable cars over the city or wandering its streets; others continued south to the Gonio-Apsarus Fortress, one of the finest surviving examples of Roman-Byzantine military architecture; still others enjoyed a walking tour with our guides through the picturesque streets, satisfying both shutterbugs and shoppers.

Tonight we arrived at Megru Lazuri for a dinner that could only be called a supra; a feast, featuring some of the famous Georgian wines. This was accompanied by an astounding performance by the world class Ajara Dance Troupe. These young people fairly flew across the floor and were clearly enjoying themselves as much as we enjoyed watching them.

Once aboard we bade farewell to Georgia by joining Miloš for a dance party and cocktails on the Oceans Deck, watching the lights of Batumi drop away behind us as we turned our bow toward Russia.

Monday, June 8 - Sochi, Russia: Although currently best known as the venue for the recent XXII Winter Olympics and XI Paralympics Winter Games, 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.

We began our morning with a presentation by Ludmilla Selezneva, Black Sea and the Foundation of Russian Civilization, to augment our understanding of this region. Once ashore, we strolled along the verdant upper promenade to Theater Square, the main square of the city. Continuing to the Hotel Russian Seasons, we enjoyed refreshments and were able to overlook the seaside Olympic venue, including the arena for the opening/closing ceremonies, the site of the flame, and hockey, figure and speed skating arenas. Now that we had a bird’s eye view, we returned from our aerie to visit the grounds. Everyone had a choice of mode of transportation and we set off in an eclectic parade of pedal-bicycles and tricycles, motorized bi- and tricycles, and trolleys.

Returning through some of the infamous Sochi traffic, we passed a large mosaic of Lenin ironically glaring at a sign for McDonald’s before our buses climbed to Stalin’s forest green Dacha, now a hotel-museum. Our tour included the chance to take a few shots with his wax figure as well as taking the air on some of the many balconies.

Heading out to sea bound for the Ukraine, the weather was conducive to cocktails in the Oceans Lounge and we took full advantage of it.

Tuesday & Wednesday, June 9 & 10 - At Sea / Odessa, Ukraine: After a leisurely breakfast, we joined Ludmilla for her presentation, Russia 2015: People and Leaders. Allan gave us all a new way to look at the film Battleship Potemkin with an art and film presentation, The Odessa Steps Sequence from Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin. Following lunch, Battleship Potemkin was shown in its entirety. As a late afternoon treat, we enjoyed an ice cream social on deck with Nick Phillips available assist guests with their travel plans. Ludmilla then completed our understanding of the region with Ukraine and Crimea: History and Present. We ended our leisurely day with a recap as we tracked our progress on the map.

The next day began with a walking tour of this very cosmopolitan city. Most of us opted to climb the steps about which we had learned so much and strolled through the broad tree-lined boulevards to the Archaeological Museum. From here we passed the newly renovated Opera House as we made our way to Cathedral Square, where we had free time; some of us visited Preobrazhenska Cathedral or shopped for a few handicrafts in the adjacent square. Others opted to enjoy lunch in one of the many fine restaurants and cafes of Odessa, and still others walked down the Potemkin steps to return to the ship for lunch.

The afternoon provided a variety of choices including a private tour of the opulent confection that is the Opera House and its costume museum, and a private chamber concert with champagne at Gagarin’s Palace, which also serves as the Literary Museum. Sitting in the heavily gilded hall as the quartet Sound Storm played a mixture of 12 modern and classical pieces for us, it was easy to feel the depth of culture in Odessa. This cultural banquet was topped by a spectacular sound and light show by nature, as a thunderstorm accompanied dinner and moved our Irish coffee and dance music indoors while the last lights of Odessa faded into darkness over the horizon.

Thursday, June 11 - Danube River Delta, Romania: With the significant quantity of silts carried to the Black Sea by the Danube and its tributaries, this UNESCO World Heritage Site and 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 as large vessels raced past us. Captain Sifniotis’s skills were amply demonstrated as he maneuvered the Variety Voyager up the channel to clear us into Romania at the town of Sulina.

The ship’s hotel staff surprised us with pizza and Bloody Marys on the Oceans Deck; the cloudy morning giving way to a spectacular day now bathed in sunshine, as we steamed onward. Susan provided a tasty diversion with her presentation, Bees and Beekeeping at the Crossroads of Continents accompanied by a tasting of various types of honey she had collected along our route. During lunch, some of us continued birdwatching, spotting European white pelicans, great and pygmy cormorants, gray herons, as well as 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. Most of us just basked, watching the tidy gardens and interesting thatched cottages slide past, waving to passengers in passing vessels.

We continued upriver 40 miles to Tulcea, where we strolled off to visit the Central Eco-Tourism Museum of the Danube Delta and spent a little time ashore before rejoining the ship for a tasting of local wines from Măcin. We enjoyed an evening of regional music, song, and dancing that left us breathless, courtesy of the Baladele Deltei troupe. With an early morning ahead, most of us opted for an early night after a delicious barbecue dinner.

Friday, June 12 - Danube River: We rose with the birds—literally!—as we boarded our small boats in the village of Apicola to ride through the channels and across the surface of a small fresh-water lake in the oldest part of the Danube Delta. We were treated to some excellent birding while enjoying tasty local specialties as frogs plopped onto the water lilies around us. In addition to black-crowned night herons, squacco herons, mute swans, white egrets, and great blue herons, we saw flocks of common pelicans rising above the reeds. Although the rare Dalmatian pelican and blue roller eluded us this morning, we saw a great variety of birds while cruising up the canal.

Cruising across a shallow lake, we reached Saon Monastery. Originally established in 1846 by monks who had left the Celic-Dere Monastery, it is currently occupied by nuns who continue to work the vineyards, orchards, aviary, and apiary. The monastery was quite placid with few visitors other than us. We visited the 19th-century church, the outdoor belfry, and the new church. In addition to beekeeping and winemaking, these nuns raise exotic avifauna, including ostriches and peafowl, and we were able to view these as well as walk the grounds past the historic windmill formerly used for milling grain.

The Variety Voyager continued down the Danube as we enjoyed lunch on deck. Then we viewed the historical documentary, Videograms of a Revolution, to gain greater understanding of modern Romania which was introduced by Lia and preceded by commentary from Ludmilla.

The golden light of the late afternoon lured us all to the Oceans Lounge to enjoy a vodka and caviar tasting followed by a colorful Zegrahm Cocktail Party as we exchanged waves and greetings with friendly waterborne and shore side residents.

Saturday, June 13 - Constanţa / Histria: Arriving at our berth in Constanţa, we headed north to the ancient Greek port of Histria; founded in 657 BC, Histria is Romania’s oldest town and was taken over by the Roman Empire in the first century BC. Over time, the now Christian port silted in and settlement moved south, but the extensive remains are an archaeologist’s delight as the artifacts in the site museum made evident. Many of us opted to walk the last half mile to the museum to observe the colorful spring flowers and do a bit of bird watching en route. The museum is deceptive, being larger than it appears from the exterior, and is well laid-out and informative. We were able to tour the site from the basilica to the lake shore as well as the baths, bastions, a forum with shops and workshops, and part of a residential area before it was time to re-board our buses.

In the afternoon we returned to Constanţa to visit the Archaeological and Folklore Museums. The ethnographic museum is known for its extensive costume and jewelry collections as well as a shop carrying quality local crafts. The National History and Archaeological Museum has several noted sculptural pieces including the Glykon, a stylized snake from the 3rd century BC. Afterward we stopped to visit some large mosaics discovered during construction next to the archaeological museum. 

A shuttle was provided for some free time to shop, lunch, or just wander in the pretty town before we all returned for the captain’s farewell cocktails hosted again by Captain Andreas Sifniotis. Our evening concluded with a farewell dinner as we steamed for Bulgaria.

Sunday, June 14 - 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.

The walkers set off to visit the Cathedral of the Assumption of the Virgin, where those riding were able to catch up with them after enjoying views from the Asparuhovo Bridge and the Art Nouveau style railway station, once a stop for the Orient Express. At the Cathedral we were able to view stunning icons in an active church. 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. They met up with those riding at the Roman Bath complex. From here we scattered; some of us returned to the ship for lunch and to begin packing, others elected to stay in town for shopping or lunch, and some couldn’t head home without a quick dip in the Black Sea at one of the area’s popular beaches.

As we weighed anchor to begin the leg that would close the circle on our journey, we watched Gold of the Black Sea Warriors, about the archaeological discovery of the famous Thracian gold we had seen in the museum.

At our final recap, Allan provided a special slideshow on which he had been working for the duration of the voyage, Images from our Black Sea Voyage. Finally, it was time to face packing and make final arrangements for our homeward travel.

Monday, June 15 - Istanbul, Turkey / Disembark / USA: Few of us could resist being on deck at first light as we glided down the Bosporus toward the heart of Istanbul, completing our voyage of 1,796 nautical miles. As the sun rose like a bright copper penny, it provided a glorious sunrise and washed the many mosques and palaces with rosy light. The glassy waters were soon alive with ferry traffic reminding us that we too had further travels on which to embark.

Wherever you go, go with all your heart. --Confucius


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