July 30, 2016

Black Sea Magic

This alluring region is capturing the attention of
cruising enthusiasts

By Andy Dimond

Vacations Magazine: Black Sea Magic
Avid cruisers are always on the lookout for exotic shores to explore, eager to add new ports to their collection of travel memories. Encircled by six nations -- Turkey, Bulgaria, Romania, Ukraine, Russia and Georgia -- the Black Sea is guaranteed to surprise and delight. These are lands of Crimean battlegrounds, subtropical beaches, Byzantine treasures and summer palaces of the czars, and some have only recently emerged as tourist destinations for Westerners.

The Black Sea cruising season lasts primarily from April to October. Most sailings run 10 to 14 days and often incorporate ports in the Greek Islands or Holy Lands as well. Holland America Line, Voyages of Discovery and the Yachts of Seabourn offer the most options in Black Sea cruising. Azamara Cruises, Costa Cruises, Fred. Olsen Cruise Lines, Oceania Cruises and Princess Cruises also feature a handful of sailings here. For travelers with less time to spare, Silversea Cruises currently has two seven-day Black Sea itineraries in its schedule, departing Sept. 29, 2008, and July 11, 2009.

Istanbul is the gateway to the Black Sea, straddling the narrow Bosphorus Strait that separates Europe and Asia -- this makes Istanbul the only metropolis that's split between two continents. With a population of 11 million, it's also one of the largest cities in Europe. Most Black Sea cruises depart either from here or from the Greek port of Piraeus, west of Athens.

The most famous monument in Istanbul is the Hagia Sophia, a sixth-century Byzantine cathedral that was converted to a mosque after the Ottoman conquest in 1453, but preserved as a nondenominational tourist attraction since 1935. Its enormous dome creates perhaps the grandest interior space of any building in the World, seeming to float on the light of the 40 windows at its base. Another landmark is the Topkapi Palace, home of the Ottoman sultans from the 15th to 19th centuries. If you'd rather just buy some souvenirs fit for a sultan, the bustling Grand Bazaar has more than 4,000 shops chock full of goods -- many visitors browse for carpets, gold jewelry and leather items.

The next major Black Sea port to the northwest is Nessebar, Bulgaria, a UNESCO World Heritage Site with a staggering array of historic churches, including a sixth-century basilica and Byzantine and Ottoman examples. The region also is known for its wine, and cruise lines typically offer excursions to local vineyards. North of Nessebar is the port of Varna, occupied since prehistoric times. Here you can see the oldest gold artifacts ever unearthed, as well as petrified forests that look like unearthly columns of stone.

At the Danube Delta in Romania lies the city of Constanta, a former Greek and Roman colony. One of the most famous Romans, the poet Ovid, was banished here by order of Augustus Caesar. To a native of the Eternal City like Ovid, Constanta (then called Tomis) was considered something of a backwater. But it has come a long way in the two millennia since his death, developing into the largest port on the Black Sea. Ancient ruins, beach resorts and an art nouveau casino draw vacationers to Constanta.

Founded in 1794 as a Russian naval fortress on the Ukraine coast, Odessa became a diverse cosmopolitan port in the following century. Russian poet Alexander Pushkin, who was himself exiled to the region, wrote that "you can smell Europe" here and composed a poem entitled "To Ovid," chastising the old Roman for sulking instead of finding the brighter side of his solitary retreat on the Black Sea.

The most famous site in Odessa is associated with a massacre that was part of the failed Revolution of 1905, though it's not where the carnage actually took place. Film director Sergei Eisenstein used a set of 192 stairs, rising from the sea to the city, as the setting for the massacre in his 1925 film "Battleship Potemkin." This became one of the most influential and oft-imitated scenes in cinema history, and most locals still know the landmark as the "Potemkin Steps."

Circling east from Odessa, cruise ships call next at Crimea, an autonomous republic but still considered to be part of Ukraine. They dock at Sevastopol, home to Russia's Black Sea Fleet. Ravaged in both the Crimean War and World War II, the city is rife with military history. In addition to the Black Sea Fleet maritime museum, a secret submarine base is now open to the public in the district of Balaklava. Here you can also see the location of the Battle of Balaklava, site of the famous 1854 Charge of the Light Brigade, immortalized by Alfred, Lord Tennyson in his narrative poem.

Visitors can go further back in time at the Khan's Palace in Bakhchisaray; it's about 75 minutes from Sevastopol and can be visited on a shore excursion. Here, the descendants of Genghis Khan once held sway over the region. Among the palace's treasures is the Fountain of Tears, built by one heartsick Khan whose love had died. Close by is the Uspensky Cave Monastery, a Byzantine structure clinging to the side of a cliff.

Also on the Crimean peninsula is Yalta. For centuries the exclusive playground of czars and nobles, Yalta was turned into a proletarian holiday resort by Vladimir Lenin's 1920 decree. This made it one of the only vacation options for most Russians, since foreign travel was permitted only for a lucky few. But monuments of Yalta's aristocratic past remain even today, the most famous being Swallow's Nest.

This faux-Gothic architectural folly, built by Baron von Steinheil in 1911-1912, is perched atop a 130-foot cliff overlooking the sea. It is perhaps the most spectacular sight on the Crimean coast. But other dachas, or second homes, dot the landscape. The most extravagant include Massandra Palace, a French-style chateau used by Czar Alexander III and later Stalin, and Livadia Palace, where Franklin D. Roosevelt, Winston Churchill and Joseph Stalin held their famous conference in 1945 to draw up the boundaries of postwar Europe.

Sandwiched between the Caucasus Mountains and the Black Sea is Sochi, Russia, sometimes referred to as "the Russian Riviera" and stretching along 90 miles of coast. Stalin established Sochi as the largest resort city in Russia, and his favorite dacha is open for tours, including the study with a wax replica of the dictator himself.

It is unfair, however, to view Sochi only through reminders of a rather dubious past. It is also a city of the future: In 2014 it will host the Winter Olympic Games, drawing more world attention to the Black Sea coast than it has seen in a long time. That's all the more reason to get to know these beautiful and exotic ports of call soon on your next cruise.

Information: For more information on Black Sea cruises, visit Vacations To Go, or call (800) 338-4962.

The information in this story was accurate at the time it was published in July/August 2008. Please visit Vacations To Go or call (800) 338-4962 for current rates and details.

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