BLACK SEA CRUISINGLOOKING or a cruise with a difference? The Black Sea is one of cruising's best-kept secrets, a perfect antidote to the increasingly overcrowded Caribbean and Mediterranean, writes JOY DODDS.
The Black Sea laps up against Bulgaria, Georgia, Romania, Russia, Turkey and Ukraine, land is inked to the Aegean/Mediterranean by the Bosphorus. It’s had a turbulent past - in the 5th Century, the Greeks warned of belligerent tribes living along its coast, including the Scythians, who used the skulls of unwanted visitors as wine goblets. Its modern name derives from micro-organisms in its waters that ink them with black sediment.
Steeped in history and culture, the Black Sea is well worth exploring by cruise ship before modern commercialism starts to erode its unique characteristics. Cruising is a viable alternative to land travel in this part of the world, where distances and travel infrastructure can prove problematic. Because some of its ports are relatively undeveloped and limited as to the size of vessels they can handle, the Black Sea attracts a high proportion of up-market, small-ship operators. Most cruises depart from Istanbul, with longer versions departing from Venice or Athens (Piraeus).
The coastline of the Black Sea is indeed exciting and epitomised by Odessa in Ukraine. Immerse yourself in its fine architecture, wide boulevards and lavish Baroque architecture and walk the famed Potemkin Steps, near the boat terminal, which featured in the film "The Battleship Potemkin". The Baroque architecture of the Opera and Ballet Theatre, City Hall and grand mansions, including one belonging to the Tolstoy family, are interesting, as are the catacombs. Most cruise lines offer an evening opera or ballet excursion – and the interior of the theatre is a breathtaking bonus.
Along the coast is Sevastopol, where the Light Brigade made its legendary Crimean War charge and today it has some must-see places. The Panorama Museum is an extraordinary artwork, depicting in 3D the 349-day siege of the city in the Crimean War. Another highlight is the Soviet submarine base at Balaclava, a little south on the Crimean Peninsula. Now a museum, it has a James Bond ambience. Other highlights include the cliff-top route from Feodosia to Sevastopol and the Caucasus Mountains
More like a holiday resort, Yalta is forever synonymous as the meeting place of Churchill, Roosevelt and Stalin at Livadia Palace where the map of Europe was re-drawn at the end of World War II. Don’t miss Chekhov's mansion, packed with family memorabilia, and Swallow's Nest, a fairytale castle built as a folly in 1912 by a lovestruck baron for his mistress.
Restaurants on the Black Sea can be heavy on pork and pickled vegetables. Local dishes like pelmeny (meat dumplings), vareniki (a sweet version of the same, stuffed with cherries or ricotta cheese) or, for the really adventurous, a plate of barbecued sheep's testicles, join the more well-known borshch and cabbage rolls. The omnipresent plum brandy is served with meals and it’s de rigueur to down a shot and toast one another but do be careful - it ranges from 30 to 60-proof alcohol!
Sochi in Russia, recently the site of the Winter Olympics, is a sprawling spa town with good beaches and a range of health spas. Stalin's green dacha has been preserved .
Along Bulgaria’s coastline, cosmopolitan Varna’s blond beaches hold little likeness to where the British and the French assembled against the Russians in the Crimean War in 1854. See the Roman thermal baths. Resort towns such as Nessebur and Burgas have cobbled medieval streets, brimming with character. UNESCO World Heritage Site Nessebur has impressive Greek antiquities, with wine-tasting tours and archaeological museums.
Romania’s Constanta, with its picturesque old town, has many Roman archaeological treasures, From Constanta, most first-time visitors take a day tour to the capital, Bucharest to see the largest and most tasteless palace in the world, built by former president Ceausescu. Despite is bulldozing activities, there are other attractions, including the Greek, Roman and Byzantine remains at Histria, about an hour's drive away.
Hitting the Turkish coast (after Georgia and Sochi in Russia), Trabzon is interesting, near the hillside Sumela Monastery, built in the fourth century.
Istanbul, where Europe and Asia meet and mingle, is not only the gateway to the Black Sea but a fascinating port in its own right. Spend enough time there to take in its many sights..
Most Black Sea fly-cruises last between 11 and 14 nights, enough time to do the area justice. The season generally runs in spring/ late summer/early autumn.
HOW TO CRUISE THE BLACK SEA:
Larger ships, such as Princess Cruises, P&O Cruises cruise the area, as well as Azamara Club Cruises, Silversea Cruises, Regent Seven Seas Cruises, Crystal Cruises and Seabourn Cruise Line. Culture-intensive Saga Cruises, Spirit of Adventure, Swan Hellenic, Voyages of Discovery and Voyages to Antiquity are also popular.
Due to political instability in the region, travellers are advised to check Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade warnings. See smartraveller.gov.au
TAKE A NIGHT RIDE: With a Eurail Pass, rail travel is convenient and economical. What’s more, travelling on night trains makes a great alternative to costly hotels. JOY DODDS reports.
BRATISLAVA - DANUBE’S RISING STAR: WHILE lesser-known of the European ports of call, Bratislava’s Stary Mesto (Old Town) is becoming a ‘hot spot’. JOY DODDS reports.
PACIFIC PEARLS: The islands of the Pacific are like the pearls for which they are famous - small yet precious archipelago strings, their natural lustre embellished by small bespoke cruising and the absence of mass tourism.
THE CALM BEFORE THE VOYAGE: It's 11pm on the Chinese Lunar New Year and the competent, friendly staff of the Mercure Sydney International Airport Hotel are checking in some late arrivals.
THE CROSSROADS OF THE MEDITERRANEAN: The Maltese Islands cover only 300sqkm yet across 7000 years they have packed a pre-historic, medieval and 20th century punch. JOY DODDS reports.
WESTERN CIVILISATION'S WATERWAY: The Rhône, a jewel in European river cruising, carries a sense of history from Ancient Greek and Roman times, linking deliciously captivating landscapes along its banks. JOY DODDS reports.
SPARTA'S PAST NOT TO BE MYTH-ED: JOY DODDS discovers a seamless blend of the ancient and modern in Historic Greece. SPARTA – the very name epitomises Homeric daring, valour and resilience.
ORVIETO – SLOW CITY ON THE ROCKS: Orvieto’s tufo and labyrinth of caves have shaped its independent identity, its Etruscan altars and relics – and the character of a renowned white wine, writes JOY DODDS.
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Holidays Away is published by Fairfax Media
Telephone: 02 9478 1200
Holidays Away is published by Fairfax Media