Wednesday & Thursday, October 5 & 6, 2016 - Istanbul, Turkey / Embark Island Sky
Welcome to Istanbul; straddling both Europe and Asia this city was the core of civilization for centuries. The pride of both Christianity and Islam, Istanbul remains a captivating blend of East and West, antique and cosmopolitan. 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 hammam, the ultimate Turkish bath experience, or set out to explore the city. In the evening we gathered to meet our fellow travelers, some of whom were returning from the pre-trip to Cappadocia. After cocktails, we enjoyed a welcome dinner and were introduced to our lecture staff by our vivacious Expedition Leader, Kelsey Simmons.
In a city teeming with possibilities, the morning brought us choices. Some of us spent the morning at the Topkapi Palace complex, begun in 1459 by Sultan Mehmet II who conquered Constantinople in 1453. The Palace grounds house diverse small museums, and we were able to view such wonders as Moses’s staff in the museum of sacred objects. From here it was a charming walk to the National Archaeological Museum.
Others chose to go farther afield and first visited the small casket of jewels that is the Chora Church. For a city with its fair share of Byzantine churches and monuments, this one is especially gorgeous with both frescoes and mosaics dating to 1312. Tucked away in the less visited Western District, Chora Church was built in the late 11th century and then extensively rebuilt when it was converted into a mosque. Heading even farther out of the city core, we also visited the Sakıp Sabancı Museum, which is located in Emirgan, at one of Istanbul's oldest settlements on the Bosphorus. Housed in a 19th-century Ottoman mansion, this former home now houses an impressive calligraphy collection. After lunch in a restaurant on the Bosphorus, we headed for the port.
As the afternoon waned we boarded the Island Sky. After enjoying refreshments in the Lounge, settling in our quarters, and completing the necessary safety drill, we gathered on deck watching the minarets of the city fade into the evening.
Friday, October 7 - Bartin / Safranbolu
Just prior to arrival, the ship was visited by the first of many avian guests. A lesser gray shrike perched on a deck rail welcoming us to our first stop on our journey. Docking in the largely military port of Bartin afforded an opportunity to view the countryside, as well as the juxtaposition of coffee-brown fresh water on one side of the road and the aqua blue of the Black Sea on the other, dotted with entrances to World War II submarine tunnels, as we headed inland to the best preserved Ottoman town of Safranbolu. The entire town was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 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 variety of Turkish carpets were displayed in the courtyard, and many of us went shopping for mementos or the lokum for which the region also is known; some even flavored with local saffron.
Back aboard, our first presentation was by art historian, Allan Langdale, entitled The Hippodrome of Constantinople. Evening found us meeting at Captain Henrick Karlsson’s welcome cocktail party, followed by an exceptional welcome dinner as we weighed anchor for Sinop.
Saturday, October 8 - Sinop
Coming alongside in the natural harbor of Sinop, we were able to walk into the walled medieval city wrapping around its rocky promontory. A short walk found us at the newly renovated archaeological museum and gardens. We then visited the ethnographic museum, in the home of a well-to-do merchant with extensive stenciled and painted decoration 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. It is now home to some fine locally created textiles, which we watched being woven by a craftswoman, and had the chance to savor some traditionally prepared Turkish coffee. Returning to the harbor, we stopped at the infamous Tarihi Cevaevi (fortress prison). 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 well known in Turkey and abroad.
During free time, some of us wandered the town, others visited the handful of sea-front shops specializing in ship models, and many of us couldn’t resist sampling the local specialty manti for lunch. The small meat-filled pasta comes sauced with yogurt or crushed walnuts, or both, and what appeared to be vast quantities disappeared remarkably easily!
Returning to our floating home, we set sail for our next port and joined Michael Golay, our MIT representative, for his discussion of Turkey, Climate Change, and Energy. Olga Eggert, our historian and concert pianist, then prepared us for our upcoming travels in Georgia with her lecture, Georgia: The Land of the Golden Fleece. After dinner, cultural geographer Ron Wixman, led the discussion, Who Are the Peoples of the Black Sea.
Sunday, October 9 - Trabzon / Sumela
We were greeted this morning by a troupe of regional Laz dancers and musicians on the quay when we came alongside, before we headed into the interior to view the iconic Sumela Monastery. Founded during Byzantine times by two Greek monks following a vision, the monastery was abandoned in 1923 when independence quashed local hopes for an independent Greek state. Under restoration after significant seismic activity, it was not possible to enter the structure but the weather held for us to obtain some beautifully lit photographs and enjoy a local cheese dish similar to fondue.
Returning to the ship for lunch, we set off in the afternoon to explore Trabzon. Of particular interest was Hagia Sophia, built in the 13th century as a church, then converted to a mosque, a museum, and has just been re-converted to a mosque again. Most of the frescoes are still evident, however, of equal 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. The images provide something of a catalog of vessel forms.
After visiting Hagia Sophia we divided; one group of hardy souls was willing to brave the rain-slicked streets to take a two-mile walk back to the ship with Allan. The rest of us visited the charming mist-shrouded Atatürk Mansion set in a beautiful formal garden, above the city. The birdwatchers among us were fortunate to see a great-crested grebe and common redstarts.
Monday, October 10 - Batumi, Georgia
Although a Greek trading colony by the second century, Batumi remained a small fishing village until, under Russian governance, it was industrialized in the 19th century. The architecture is a mix as well, with ultra-modern structures—including a skyscraper with a Ferris wheel built into its upper floors—rubbing shoulders with fin-de-siècle buildings. We, too, blended experiences by first visiting the substantial local 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 breath-taking vistas despite the showers. We were also lucky to spot a rare hobby falcon.
With appetites whetted by our morning’s explorations, we returned to the ship for lunch. The afternoon offered a walking tour of the city through the picturesque streets, satisfying both shutterbugs and shoppers. Others of us continued south to the Gonio Fortress; one of the finest surviving examples of Roman-Byzantine military architecture. Built in the first century AD by the Romans, it covers nearly 12 acres inside a rectangle of high stone walls with 18 towers.
We arrived at the Bella Costa restaurant 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.
Tuesday, October 11 - 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 Allan, Sailing Through Byzantium; Monasteries and Icons to augment our understanding of this region, while we were escorted into port by a pod of common dolphins. Once ashore we set off on our chosen tours. Some of us undertook a vigorous three-and-a-half hour hike through massive canyons covered in yew and boxwood trees. We even heard, then saw, a black woodpecker. The rest of us headed inland to Krasnaya Polyana, the Olympic ski village, then upward, riding three sets of cable cars to reach the summit at nearly 7,500 feet, for lunch at a restaurant with spectacular views.
Returning from the mountains, we drove through the former Olympic grounds to view the many stadia. Proceeding through some of the infamous Sochi traffic, our buses climbed to Stalin’s forest green dacha, now a hotel-museum, after dark. Our tour included the chance to take a few shots with his wax figure, as well as taking the air on one of the many balconies. Heading out to sea bound for the Ukraine, Olga led a post-dinner discussion about the Russian Renaissance, augmented with appropriate piano pieces to illustrate her points.
Wednesday & Thursday, October 12 & 13 - At Sea / Odessa, Ukraine
After a leisurely breakfast we joined maritime archaeologist and resident beekeeper, Susan Langley, for her presentation of Maritime Archaeology of the Marmara and Black Seas, followed by Michael’s Russia and Energy, the Soviet Legacy, and Geopolitics. After lunch, 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, as well as providing a perspective for viewing the famous steps the following day.
We enjoyed an ice cream social on deck with Ellen McIlvaine, our Zegrahm Expedition Advisor, available to assist guests with their future travel plans. Olga then completed our understanding of the region with Ukraine: The Unknown Neighbor. We ended our leisurely day escorted by dolphins and with sightings of a black-necked grebe.
The next morning, some of us set off on a walking tour; we climbed the aforementioned steps and strolled through the tree-lined boulevards, past the Archaeological Museum and newly renovated Opera House as we made our way to Cathedral Square. On our way to the Preobrazhenska Cathedral we passed through City Park as well as the Passazh, a covered courtyard housing a collection of well-preserved neo-renaissance late 19th-century buildings containing upscale shops. Many of us elected to enjoy lunch in one of the many fine restaurants and cafes of Odessa.
Others boarded a bus to visit the same sites but with the addition of a visit to Jewish Odessa. A highlight of this tour was a visit to the new, private, Jewish Museum. In the afternoon, all of us toured the small archaeological museum where its important collections belied its size. Moving next door to the Literary Museum in Gagarin’s Palace, we were treated to a private concert with champagne. Sitting in the heavily gilded hall as a quartet played several sultry tangos, it was easy to feel the depth of culture in Odessa. Afterward, those of us wanting to dress for the evening opera Viy, based on the novel by N.V. Gogol, returned to the ship. The remainder of us enjoyed a private tour of the opulent confection that is the Opera House and its costume museum before returning to the Island Sky.
Friday, October 14 - 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 magnificent Biosphere Reserve is actually growing. We enjoyed an appropriately nature-filled morning with Jim Wilson, our ornithologist and naturalist, presenting Birds of the Danube Delta, followed by Susan providing, 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, as well as gray herons, great egrets, and little egrets at every bend of the river, as they raced away in front of the boat. As well, we watched life along the channel unfold as the interesting thatched cottages slid past and we waved to people on shore and to passengers in passing vessels.
We reached Tulcea at dusk, and there was time to stroll ashore before rejoining the ship for a tasting of local wines from Măcin punctuated by regional music, song, and dancing that left us breathless, courtesy of the Doruletul troupe that included a number of adorable children bursting with talent and confidence.
Saturday, October 15 - Danube River Delta
We rose with the birds…literally, as we boarded buses for nearby Saon Monastery. It was originally established in 1846 by monks who had left the Celic-Dere Monastery but is currently occupied by nuns who continue to work the vineyards, orchards, aviary of exotic fowl, and apiary. Walking past the historic windmill formerly used for milling grain, we visited the 19th-century church, the outdoor belfry, and the new church.
Returning to the village of Apicola, small boats awaited to carry us through the reed-skirted freshwater channels in the oldest part of the Danube Delta. We were treated to some excellent birding while enjoying tasty local specialties. In addition to mute swans, white egrets, and great blue herons, we saw coots, cormorants, and common pelicans rising from the surface. Although the rare Dalmatian pelican continued to elude us, we were later compensated by sighting a white-tailed sea eagle.
As the Island Sky returned down the Danube, we joined Ron for his presentation, Village Life in the Balkans and then celebrated our voyage with a colorful Zegrahm and MIT Cocktail Party that included a tasting of vodkas and caviar from around the Black Sea. Dinner had a special Filipino theme and later there was the chance to view the historical documentary, Videograms of a Revolution, to gain greater understanding of modern Romania, our next port.
Sunday & Monday, October 16 & 17 - Constanta / Histria
Arriving at our berth in Constanta, we headed north to the ancient Greek port of Histria, Romania’s oldest town, which was taken over by the Roman Empire in the first century BC. Over time the port silted in and settlement moved southward, but the extensive remains are an archaeologist’s delight. We were able to tour the museum 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.
After lunch, we gathered to visit the Archaeological and Folklore Museums, which are only a few blocks apart and both of which garnered rave reviews. The ethnographic museum is known for its extensive costume and jewelry collections, as well as a shop carrying quality local crafts. We stopped to visit a huge mosaic once flooring a portside warehouse that was discovered during construction and virtually next to the archaeological museum.
Shuttles were provided for some free time to shop, dine, or just wander before we all returned for the captain’s farewell cocktail party hosted again by Captain Henrick Karlsson. After the farewell dinner, the lecture staff held a final recap, and Allan provided a special slideshow of images from our voyage.
We awakened to discover we were still alongside in Constanta, and that the harbormaster had closed the port and refused us permission to leave due to stormy weather. Fortunately, the captain’s efforts prevailed and we were soon able to leave. Unfortunately, the timing and weather ensured that we would need to proceed directly to Istanbul. Sorry, Varna! In true expedition spirit, we took it in stride and spent the afternoon relaxing; some of us arrayed in front of the Lounge windows watching the weather like television. In the evening, Jim hosted a team-based game show of lecture and ship-based trivia with questions provided by the lecture staff and ship’s crew. The winning team was awarded a prize of “immeasurable value;” a Zegrahm cap for each team member!
Tuesday, October 18 - Istanbul, Turkey / Disembark / USA
Despite the wind, it was worth being on deck as we approached the illuminated skyline of Istanbul under a nearly full moon. First light found us alongside immediately beneath the walls of Topkapi Palace. The waters of the Bosphorus were soon alive with ferry traffic reminding us that we too had further travels on which to embark. Güle Güle!