Category Archives: The Black Sea

Monday – Heading Home

Today, we said farewell to the Minerva and headed for home.

First, we had to pass through immigration at the port before boarding a bus to take us to the airport. Istanbul airport is a massive, busy airport, where all luggage and passengers are passed through scanners BEFORE checking-in. Both Tracey and I held our breath as they weighed the suitcases, as Turkish Airlines weight restrictions are smaller than those of Aegean Airlines, we’d had to lose 3kg per suitcase.

Once we’d checked-in, we had to queue for Passport Control, followed by yet another security check, as our hand luggage travelled through the scanner.

An hour and a half later, we boarded the plane for a 3 and a half hour flight, one in-flight movie (The Monuments Men) and an in-flight meal (very nice), back to Heathrow Terminal 2 (losing two hours in the process).

Once through Passport Control at Heathrow, we were able to pick up our luggage and hail a Hotel Hoppa bus back to the Mercure Hotel, where Tracey’s car was waiting. Four hours later… we were home…

So that’s that…

… until the next time.

In July, I will be joining the Marco Polo for its 50th Commemorative Voyage to Greenland and Canada…

Watch this space…

Sunday – Istanbul, Turkey

Today we arrived at the end of the line (for this cruise, at least)… one of our favourite cities, in fact… Istanbul, in Turkey.

The last time we visited Istanbul was in 2012, travelling on board Fred Olsen’s Black Watch. We fell in love with the place then, and it was with great anticipation that we went ashore today.

One great difference from our last visit was the berth. In 2012, we were parked on the small quay by the old part of the city, providing remarkably easy access to its main attractions. This time around, the Minerva was parked in the main Cruise Terminal on the opposite side of the Haliç – the primary, horn-shaped estuary of the Bosphorus – also know simply as ‘The Golden Horn’. As we had deliberately avoided taking on any tour escorting duties today, to maximise our own free time, we pondered briefly which would be the best way to get into the city before plumping for walking it. There are buses, of course, and a tram passes directly past the port entrance, but walking it turned out to be the perfect choice; it only took us about 30-40 minutes before we’d crossed the Galata Bridge and were in the hubbub that is the centre of Istanbul.

Istanbul_01

It’s difficult to describe the excitement of Istanbul to anyone who hasn’t experienced it themselves. With a population of over 14 million inhabitants, Istanbul is the largest city in Europe, and the the fifth largest in the world. It’s massive, and always busy… even on a Sunday, like today.

Having reacquainted ourselves with the hussle and bustle of the place, marvelled at the lines of fisherman stretching across the Galata Bridge and the non-stop movement of ferries as they pass under the bridge and pass to and fro along the harbourside, we headed towards the first large mosque to greet us – known simply as ‘New Mosque’. As with many of the mosques in Istanbul, it’s free to enter, but visitors do have to take their shoes off before stepping onto the carpet that covers the whole of the interior, and women have to cover their head with a scarf. The inside was beautiful, and quite serene; I’m always amazed by how much of a huge, empty space they are, every surface decorated and lit by lamps that hang from long cables attached to the underside of the great, central dome.

Istanbul_02

After the mosque, we paused for a drink in a small cafe before heading on up to Hagia Sophia, which was a mosque until 1935, when it became secularised, and was turned into a museum. It attracts huge numbers of visitors, as you can imagine, and we had to join a long queue to get in (fortunately; no matter how long queues seem to get in Istanbul, they always seem to move quite quickly, and you’re never stood around for too long). Inside, the place is magnificent, and quite vast. We headed up to the second floor, to get the best views across its central area, much of which is, unfortunately, currently covered in scaffolding.

Istanbul_05

We ate lunch in the the Hagia Sophia cafe before heading towards our next destination; Topkapi Palace. We spent a whole afternoon here on our last visit, but the one part of the Palace that we didn’t get to see then was the Harem… which we intended to rectify today. The Imperial Harem is where the Sultan, his family, concubines and eunuchs lived, and was worthy of the extra €15 each – or it will be when they’ve finished renovating it, and opened up the whole of it to visitors.

Istanbul_04

After the harem, we wandered through the rest of the palace, which was thronged with visitors; far more than our last visit. After battling through the crowds, we decided not to join the long queue for the Treasury, and that we’d had enough. Topkapi Palace is a sprawling, mesmerising place, but the crowds of people milling around it start to get to you after a bit, and we longed to be outside , enjoying the rest of the city…

Istanbul_03

We walked to the Grand Bazaar, only to find that it is closed on Sundays, which is a pity, but we still enjoyed (if getting slowly lost can be described as enjoying) navigating our way back towards the river. Finally, after walking along several quiet streets, it began to get busy again, until we were back in the hustle and bustle of the Spice Market.

Istanbul_06

Since 2012, we’ve spent three years promising ourselves that, should we be lucky enough to get to revisit Istanbul, we would treat ourselves to a meal in one of the restaurants that line the underside of Galata Bridge. Here we were again, so we were able to fulfill our promise. Sadly; after having enjoyed another great day in one of the most exciting cities in the world, our meal on the bridge turned out to be a total disappointment. As you walk across the bridge, past the restaurants, their owners (or people trained in the art of luring) vie for the attention of passers-by and try their best to talk them into eating at THEIR restaurant. Having already decided that we’d like to eat somewhere on the bridge, it was only a matter of being lured by the right one. The meal was completely underwhelming. Maybe we’d been spoilt on the Minerva, but I don’t think so. The discount that we’d been promised on entry had to be haggled out of them at the end, and the free pudding came out of a choice of one. The meal felt like something that had been cooked by an amateur chef… we were seriously disappointed, and couldn’t get out of there quick enough, and back to the ship.

The meal thing was a minor blip on an otherwise perfect day. Once again, Istanbul had not disappointed – although, we won’t be eating on the bridge again in a hurry.

Which brings our Black Sea Empires cruise to a close. Back on the Minerva, we headed for the restaurant, were we stuffed ourselves on ice cream and pudding, then, after getting changed, we went up to the Orpheous Lounge where the resident musicians were gathering for an informal, final ‘Jam Night’… a great end to a fantastic day, and a thoroughly memorable trip.

Saturday – Nessebar, Bulgaria

Nessebar charmed us today. We had a good feeling about the place when we arrived yesterday evening, but to have had a whole day to wander around the town has been an utter delight.

Nessebar old town is situated on a small peninsular attached to the mainland by a single causeway (with a road on it). It isn’t a very large place at all, but it does seem to pack a lot into a small space. There are a dozen or so small churches and countless Roman buildings in varying states of antiquity. Right alongside the quayside (which is so small it even made the Minerva look big), there’s a Roman amphitheatre, elsewhere on the island (which it seems like it is, even though it isn’t actually an island), there are similar ruins.

Nessebar_02

The place is clearly designed for tourists. Having shaken off its communist roots, Nessebar has lots of touristy ‘tat’ shops, bars and restaurants. This is usually enough to put me right off a place, but it doesn’t seem to detract from the quaintness of Nessebar’s small cobbled streets and oldy-worldy, wooden-framed, shambles-like buildings.

Nessebar_01

Nessebar_03

We bought ourselves a multi-ticket that allowed to us to visit five of the churches without having to keep laying out more cash. Some were more interesting than others, it has to be said, but it passed a relaxing hour or two. We walked onto the casueway to photograph an old windmill situated there, and after a light lunch at one of the bars that overlooked the sea, we spent the rest of the afternoon circumnavigating the outside of the island and spending a little bit of money in a couple of the shops.

The only downside we found was that some of the street-sellers and bar owners were a little bit aggressive in trying to tempt us with their wares… never a good thing. I was also rather fascinated by a large building in the centre of the town that advertised itself as ‘Nessebar Film Museum’. Having checked out its facebook page, where it appears to feature some genuinely interesting film props and costumes, it was a little disappointing to find it closed (it looked permanent, but I can’t be absolutely sure of that…).

We’d also hoped to visit something Tracey found on Trip Advisor, called ‘ECO-Bar By Michael’, which is, by all accounts, a fascinating place to relax and have a drink, with secret little turtle pools, fairy grottos and waterfalls and quirky corners. Sadly; it, too was closed. A local bar tender told us that it would be closed because it is out of season; someone else told us that Nessebar can get very busy in the height of summer. I can certainly imagine the streets heaving with visitors, and am glad that we were able to visit it when it was a little less crowded (shame about the eco-bar, though).

Friday – Varna, Bulgaria

Today, we arrived in Varna, Bulgaria.

This morning, we visited a ‘Petrified Forest’ on the outskirts of Varna (roughly a 30-minute drive) that, quite frankly, is neither petrified, nor, strictly speaking, a forest. The area is very reminiscent of other limestone-eroded natural parks (check out Brimham Rocks in North Yorkshire), that result in weird stone shapes and an air of spirituality.

Unfortunately, we only had a mere 30 minutes there. I could quite happily have spent several hours exploring the rocks, but this was only the first part of a two-part excursion, and our guide had a strict timetable to work to (and she was sticking to it no matter what…).

Varna_01

 

Varna_02

 

No-one knows exactly why, or how, the ‘petrified forest’ comes to be there. Natural erosion certainly seems to be the logical explanation for most of the rocks, but a stone circle and pillar-like quality of many of the rocks, and knowing that the area would, some thousands of years in the past, have been on the seabed suggests an ancient Atlantis-style civilisation.

Whatever one chooses to believe, the Petrified Forest is definitely worthy of a visit (and certainly worth much longer contemplation than we were permitted on this occasion).

The second half of our excursion meant driving back into Varna to visit the Archeological Museum.

This proved a little bit tricky on account of there being lots of road-resurfacing taking place around the site; a couple of calls had to be made to secure a parking spot within walking distance of the museum.

When I’m in the mood, I quite like museums. Archeological museums come in all shapes and sizes, and, despite its impressive size, I’m afraid this one didn’t really engage me. Our guide was very good, regaling us with lots of information about the exhibits, smattered with a good sense of humour, but there’s only so much dug-up stuff you can take before your brain turns to mush. Things took a distinctly interesting turn, however, when our guide led us up to the second floor, where a group of seven singers was waiting for us. They sang three unaccompanied Bulgarian Orthodox songs for us… and it was absolutely fantastic!!

The group consisted of four men and three women, and the sound they made was truly angelic. The guide told us that none of the singers were professional, and that they all sang purely for pleasure. At the end of the performance, though, there was an eager queue to purchase their CD… a magical moment! Unfortunately, I have no photos of the event, as no photography is permitted in the museum; I did manage to record the songs via my mobile phone, though….

We were back at the ship for just gone 12 noon. At 1pm, we set sail again. This confused a few passengers; why would we only spend half a day in Varna, then travel a mere 50 miles to another Bulgarian port – Nessebar?

It being a half-day, I ran my final workshop this afternoon, at 3pm, while we were at sea; Seaspray and Sandpaper… now my work is done here… At approximately 5pm, when we arrived in Nessebar, the question of why we’d left Varna early, I think, was answered without any confusion whatsoever…

At the outset, it was easy to see that Nessebar is an extraordinary place…

We had an early dinner and went out into the town to check it out.

I’ll have more to say about this little place when we explore more fully tomorrow (we’re here on an overnighter). Suffice to say that we wandered through little cobbled streets until we came across a small bar overlooking the Black Sea, where we enjoyed a couple of drinks before heading back to the ship… we have no tour escorting duties tomorrow, so we’ll have all day to enjoy Nessebar tomorrow.

Thursday – Constanta, Romania

Today, we arrived at Constanta in Romania. Having no escorting duties and a whole day to ourselves (bliss), we decided to have a leisurely trip into the town by shuttle bus – see what’s occurring, then make our way back to the ship on foot.

Constanta as a whole is quite vast; it stretches out, around a large bay, to a modern city with high-rise apartments and office blocks. In comparison; the Old Town isn’t very big at all. It has a central square with a handful of small cafes and bars, off which there is a large archeological museum and several old churches of varying denominations and a mosque. Alongside the Archaeological Museum are the remains of a large Roman Mosaic, housed in its very own protective building. We paid a small fee to view it (and were duly impressed), then spent some time sat outside a small coffee shop supping coffee and beer and using their free wi-fi (we sat outside, by the way, because the inside was full of people smoking… how we’ve come accustomed to smoke-free environments…).

One thing that caught my attention, and I thought was quite distinctive, was how many of the street names, mounted on ornate wrought-iron posts, were hand-painted.

Constanta_01

We headed towards the beach, but discovered the beach is a hard-hat work-in-progress area; no swimmers and sun-loungers – just a lot of diggers and site huts; it’ll be nice when it’s finished, though.

Constanta_02

For a small fee, we were able to climb the inside of a minarette in the mosque, to enjoy panoramic views of the town below us. In fact; everything in Constanta, if it cost anything at all, was nothing more than a very small fee. Two cappucinos and a beer in the coffee shop only cost us the equivalent of about £3.50 – entrance to the Roman Mosaic was no more than about £1.50 each, as was the fee to climb the minarette… We were so surprised at how cheap things were, we ended up struggling to find ways to spend the Romanian currency that Tracey had mugged the cash-machine for.

It was cool all morning, and at one point, we even had a thunderstorm and rain. By the time we’d returned to the ship and had lunch, however (having failed to find a suitable place to eat and spend our Romanian currency), the temperature had risen and the afternoon turned out pleasantly warm and sunny. There were a few things I needed to do internet-wise, so Tracey went off for another walk for a couple of hours, while I made use of the free wi-fi (along with most of the crew from the Minerva), in the terminal building.

Constanta_03

Later on in the afternoon, we were sat on the back deck watching the sun go down over the extensive shipyards that surrounded us. As massive cranes lurched like giant robots above ships and tugs, kicking up dust and spray that partially obscured more cranes and ships, I was reminded of just how artistically inspiring industry can be, and added ‘Industrial Landscape’ to my growing shortlist of YouTube painting demonstrations to do…