In this final part of Victor Sonkin’s diary from the Black Sea, he travelled around the western part of the coast, taking in more of Ukraine as well as Bulgaria. As well as comprehensive itineraries, Victor and his wife Sasha were able to take in some of the other lectures on board as well as enjoying the facilities on Aegean Odyssey.
3. Sevastopol – Odessa – Nessebar – Istanbul
Pushkin was the subject of my last lecture, which proved to be the most successful of the three. Though his name was often dropped throughout the Russian and Ukrainian legs of our journey (there was a monument to him even in Sochi, where he had never been), I found it daunting to talk about the author who is the root and backbone of all modern Russian culture and literature to an audience that, by and large, did not read any of his works, and, to a large extent, did not know who the guy was (I checked before the lecture!).
Luckily for me, Pushkin’s was a turbulent and colourful life: he was a freethinker, a womanizer, a gambler; he married Russia’s most beautiful woman and perished in a gruesome duel defending her honour. I hope that I managed to convey some of the lightness and brilliance that is the very embodiment of Pushkin’s spirit; the inimitable Alison, our cruise co-ordinator read a fragment from novel in verse “Eugene Onegin”, and at the end of the lecture and for a few days after it, passengers were asking me which Pushkin’s works they could read in English translation.
Tony Rennell’s last lecture was about some of the most curious characters of the Crimean war – starting of course with the famous Florence Nightingale. Less known to the audience and to me (though not to Sasha, who had read a lot about the war and Victorian times in general) were Mary Seacole, sometimes called ‘the black Florence Nightingale’, and the chef Alexis Soyer, whose movable kitchens were only decommissioned by the British Army a few years ago.
It was great to see these people come alive, especially in conjunction with the tours of Sevastopol. A sprawling seaside city with wide avenues and beautiful greenery, bursting with naval glory, Sevastopol impressed us a lot; we were able to see the ‘valley of death’ where the Light Brigade made its fateful charge, and the panorama of the Crimean war battlefield, one of the largest battle paintings in the world. The tour of the decommissioned submarine repair plant in Balaklava was for me, personally a little disappointing — no serious effort had been made by the authorities to turn the long corridors and hangars into a meaningful museum experience — but some of the passengers were perceiving it as a relic of the Cold War, and were suitably impressed.
Sevastopol and Balaklava were full of Russian bikers, who were gathering there to meet up with Vladimir Putin. In the evening, we had a visit from the Black Sea ensemble and choir; they entertained us with song and dance, and it was great fun! Sasha and I found that we remembered lyrics to many of the songs from our childhood years.
Odessa was the final stop in Ukraine. Neither I nor Sasha have ever been to the city, though Sasha’s parents had studied at the local university at the time of her birth (but she was born in Simferopol, the capital of Crimea). Odessa figures prominently in Russian culture through countless references, from Pushkin who was much happier in the cosmopolitan city with its fine restaurants and opera than in the provincial Kishinev, to Isaak Babel’s tales of the Civil war of the 1920’s to the pithy wit of one of today’s best-known Russian satirists, Mikhail Zhvanetsky. To many Westerners it would be known thanks to the iconic staircase from Sergei Eisenstein’s masterpiece “Battleship Potemkin”, many times pronounced the best film of all time.
The staircase was there, and it was a strenuous climb when we ventured into the city on our own, especially since the cable car didn’t seem to be functioning (or at least one had to wait ages for it). During the morning tour we saw many highlights of the city, including the famous statue of Duke Richelieu, Odessa’s first mayor, and the exquisite opera house.
The archaeological museum was a treasure trove of ancient artifacts from all over the Black Sea region, and it even sported an Ancient Egypt collection (ancient Egyptians did not make it to Odessa, but local collectors were quite interested in Egypt).
‘Voyages to Antiquity’ employ a large staff of local guides, who were all very professional. With a tinge of pride, probably misplaced, I noticed that guides in the former Soviet countries were better than elsewhere. I was especially impressed by Natalia, our guide in Sevastopol (like other lecturers, we were moved around different tour groups, and as a consequence we saw and heard more guides than other passengers), who was witty, brilliant, with an amazing English vocabulary and grammar, and whose knowledge of history was impeccable.
The last stop before returning to Istanbul, the port of our departure, was Nessebar, a tiny town on a tiny peninsula on the Black Sea coast of Bulgaria. Sasha could not go ashore because she did not have the visa, but she spent a quiet relaxed afternoon on board the MV Aegean Odyssey, while I walked with the group along the short but strenuous itinerary of countless churches (Nessebar is famous for its old churches and monasteries) and the museum.
The town itself was crowded with tourists from all over Europe, but mostly, it seemed, from Russia and Ukraine. We had talked with some fellow passengers about going to the beach, but the sea was choppy, and it didn’t seem like a good idea. By the way, the last couple of days of the voyage were the only ones when one could actually feel that the ship was moving on water; we were blessed with very calm seas throughout most of the journey.
Jim’s last lecture was about the Barbaric peoples living around the Black Sea (Thracians, Dacians, Scythians…) and the traces they left in Classical Antiquity and in our culture, including pants (that is, trousers) and shopping malls (the first true example of the latter being Trajan’s market in Rome, built with the booty of that emperor’s Dacian campaign). Alison organized a get-together for all of the lecturers and an improvised Q&A session, which, unlike most of the lectures, was not packed, but we got our share of unexpected and interesting questions (especially Jim).
In conclusion I have to say that this cruise turned to be one of the most interesting journeys I’ve ever had. The experience of the ship was pure delight: it was impeccable, manageable, beautiful — not just because it was such a wonderful vessel, but also because of all the people working on it. The crew saw to everything and was consistently courteous without being servile. The food was simply great, not every haute cuisine restaurant on firm ground can boast such menu and service as the Marco Polo.
The library, carefully selected by Ann Carr and the good people from Blackwell’s of Oxford, made me want to spend a year aboard the ship to have time to read as many books as I could; I’ve never seen a selection like that anywhere outside the best university libraries. And, of course, one of the best things about this journey were the people we met and made friends with — a most interesting crowd if there ever was one.
We are deeply grateful to Voyages to Antiquity for inviting us to be a part of this fantastic experience, and we hope to be there again.”
Due to the popularity of this cruise itinerary, Voyages to Antiquity will be operating this cruise twice in 2013 and one of the dates is almost fully booked already. If you do wish to visit the Black Sea region, make sure you check the itinerary ‘O’the Wild Charge They Made’ and get in touch soon.
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