Minerva II in the Black Sea

The Black Sea has always interested us, so in May ’04 my husband, John, and I flew from London to Istanbul to join the ship Minerva II for a cruise called “Grand Baroque to Grand Bazaar,” May 22-June 5.

The plane had been chartered by the ship line, Swan Hellenic Cruises (U.S. office at 631 Commack Rd., Ste. 1-A, Commack, NY 11725; phone 877/219-4239). We like visiting London so didn’t mind the added airfare and overnight hotel.

This was our second cruise that year on this ship, not to mention a previous cruise on Minerva I. Mainly for the over-65 age group, Swan Hellenic is an excellent operation. They really take care of you. There are two things we particularly appreciate about cruising with Swan Hellenic: most shore excursions are included, with many choices at each port, and all tipping is included on ship and shore.

The Minerva II, originally a Renaissance Cruises ship, is beautifully appointed throughout. It has open dining, which we enjoy as we meet so many other passengers, most of whom are British. Five distinguished lecturers kept us well informed on the history, religion, architecture, art and the flora and fauna of the Black Sea. Our ports were well chosen, as follows.

ISTANBUL, Turkey — We had 24 hours to go on shore excursions or relax on ship. We pulled out the next day and cruised up the Bosporus toward the Black Sea, enjoying the sight of many reconstructed Ottoman homes lining the shore.

NESSEBAR (Nesebur), Bulgaria — We took a 2-hour walk in the Old City, a UNESCO World Heritage Site with lovely old wooden buildings and Byzantine churches.

In the afternoon we drove to Goritsky (Little Woods), a small village of mostly retired Bulgarians. We were divided into small groups and each visited a private home. The hosts were very hospitable, serving “salt” bread as a welcome symbol plus homemade wine and fruit drinks and treats. Very independent, they raise small animals and fruits and vegetables. There are few young people, as they have left for the city seeking employment.

VARNA, Bulgaria — a little tired and shabby. On a 3-hour tour we saw nice homes plus avenues lined with trees. It reminded us of Budapest in the ’70s. We visited the Ethnographic Museum and cathedrals where elderly women were selling handmade lace.

CONSTANTA, Romania — This is a modern industrial town with areas of attractive buildings and nice, tree-lined streets. Romans annexed this area in the first century B.C., and we visited an unusually large, Roman, third-century mosaic floor next to the archaeological museum; it resembled a very long carpet in its design. We also saw the impressive Orthodox Cathedral of Saints Peter and Paul with its beautiful frescoes.

ODESSA, Ukraine — In this second-largest country in Europe, after Russia, Odessa was a wonderful surprise! It’s a beautiful cosmopolitan city — shabby, but time and money could make it a second Paris. It’s a trade center, and people have settled here from all over. Religion is flourishing after being forbidden under the Soviets.

It’s 192 steps from the dock to the city center called “Potemkin Steps,” where a massacre occurred in 1905. We visited the richly adorned Ilinsky Cathedral, the archaeological museum, the opera house and a district of beautiful Italianette homes. The beautiful boulevards are laid out similar to those in Paris.

A government band greeted us on the dock when we arrived and when we departed. We found the people lovely and gracious. It’s a most interesting city to visit.

SEVASTOPOL, Ukraine — This city was opened to the outside only in 1992! Catherine the Great built a great naval base here — the Black Sea Fleet. In the Crimean War, the city was beseiged for 11 months, captured and destroyed in 1855. We visited the Watch Tower and an area of bombardment plus the huge, circular tableau celebrating the defense of Sevastopol and called the “Panorama” (1905) — excellent and totally realistic.

This is a gray city with many juniper trees and a sad history. Again, a band greeted our arrival and departure. We sighted no other cruise ships anywhere we traveled.

YALTA, Ukraine — This was the final refuge of many Russian aristocratic families during the revolutions. In 1920 Lenin decreed that all private property be turned into sanatoriums and health centers for the workers. Tsar Nicholas II’s summer residence, Levadia Palace (1911), was the scene of the historic 1945 conference between Churchill, Stalin and Roosevelt. It is now a museum with lovely grounds and many rooms to visit in their original state. Another excursion was to Nikitsky Botanical Gardens (1812), one of the oldest and biggest botanical gardens in the world. Again, a band greeted our ship.

SOCHI, Russia — This city was more prosperous looking than all of the previous stops. Many sanatoriums here. We drove to Dagomy’s tea plantation — beautiful vistas of the Caucasus Mountains. We had tea and refreshments and watched folk dances.

This was the first port that had extensive souvenirs for sale: amber, woodcarvings, silver, dolls, etc.

BATUMI, Georgia — We arrived one week after a bloodless coup. Poor, poor, poor. A band and what seemed like the whole town turned out to welcome us. Guides, top professional dancers and musicians were bused some three hours from the capital of Tbilisi. We were driven through the countryside to a second-century Roman fortress in Gonio, built at a strategic point on the crossroads from the west to the Caucasus.

A center for tea and citrus farms, this area has a subtropical climate. It’s also a major oil-refining center, using petroleum piped from Baku.

The highlight of the excursion was an outstanding 30-minute folkloric performance at the concert hall plus a reception with tables filled with homemade pastries, fruit, nuts, soft drinks, wine and tea. The optimism of the people, who felt they had a better future now, touched us all. The town waved us good-bye with the band playing until we were out of sight. Obviously, this was a favorite port for us all.

TRABZON, Turkey — Here, we felt we were back in modern prosperous times. We visited Ataturk’s villa, set in beautiful gardens; the Sultan Mehmet Mosque, and the beautifully sited, 13th-century church (now a museum) Hagia Sophia with its famed frescoes. We enjoyed mingling with schoolchildren here.

SINOP, Turkey — This is a busy industrial city with a ’50s to ’70s look. We took a 3-hour walking tour which included the Buyuk Cami, a dignified “barn” mosque which had been turned from cathedral to mosque and back up to four times between the 11th and 13th centuries.

We also visited an 800-year-old prison, now a museum, where prisoners had been taught trades. The prison was built into part of the walls of the city. These walls had been rebuilt many times with remnants of earlier occupations such as Greek, Roman, Byzantine, etc.

ISTANBUL, Turkey — Once the center of the Byzantine and Ottoman empires, this is a busy city with an exciting mix of architectural styles and cultures. We had been there many times, and out of several choices we revisited the Blue Mosque.

The next day we flew our charter plane back to London. This trip was an outstanding experience for us.

Ludington, MI