CRIMEA, November 19, 2012 – Magic was in the air as the sun’s first rays touched the orthodox cathedral over looking the tranquil inner harbor below, refining its iconic onion domes into glittering golden orbs as we glided into the storied Crimean Black Sea port of Yalta.
“Eureka, I have found it!” How else could a California 49er celebrate his long sought-after Crimean treasure that I had marveled for in the pages of books?
The Crimea is a peninsula at the top of the Black Sea discovered by Greeks, inhabited by Scandinavian traders, conquered by Mongols, Turks, and finally by Catherine, the Great of Russia. It served as the “Bread Basket” of Russia and all the former Soviet Union until 1992 when it gained independence from Russia and became a self-governing state of the Ukraine, Europe’s second largest country, which also won its own sovereignty from Russia the same year.
Throughout most of the 20th Century, however, the Crimea was in the Soviet Union and off-limits to Western travelers beginning with the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917, then during World Wars I and II and throughout the Cold War right to the close of the last century.
But now, after sailing 1,000 miles from Istanbul, we had reached our prize: the fabled Black Sea Riviera on the shores of the Crimean Peninsula. Yalta, founded by the Byzantines at a point equidistant between the Equator and the North Pole, was the first of two Crimean treasures we would uncover. It would be followed by storied Odessa.
Considered the most glamorous resort on the Black Sea, Yalta was favored by Russian literary figures Chekov, Pushkin and Gorky. Along the waterfront promenade, a bronze monument of a lady with a dog in her lap honors Chekov’s famous 1899 short story Lady with Lapdog.
We arrived in Yalta, aboard the new Seabourn Odyssey, which was also celebrating its inaugural season of sailing in Black Sea waters. Stepping out of the cruise terminal onto Roosevelt Street we certainly felt welcome. Further on, a stern, finger-pointing WWII-era depiction of Uncle Sam directed us ahead to a popular waterfront café.
Half an hour later, a group of my shipboard companions and I entered the magnificent seaside Livadia or “The White Palace,” a health resort of Russia’s tsars since 1861. Livadia gained even greater renown in 1945 as the venue of the WWII Yalta Conference where the Allied leaders, Roosevelt, Churchill and Stalin met to coordinate the final defeat of Hitler’s Third Reich.
We began our visit in the marble colonnaded main conference hall of early Italian Renaissance style where the final accords were signed. Then we inspected each of the Allied leaders’ private studies. Finally, we were shown an intimate round table where the three Allied leaders talked in private. By now I was tempted to plop right down in Stalin’s chair to cool my aching feet. But I didn’t.
Upstairs we were escorted into the Romanov apartments where the tsars’ families spent their summers. The visit concluded in the study of Alexander II, the last Russian Tsar who, with his entire family, was abducted and assassinated by the revolutionary Bolsheviks in 1917. A framed photograph, the last of the royal family, graced a wall. That familial image hung heavy over us as long after we left the room behind.
Our palace visit, however, ended on a high note – at a high tea in its formal inner garden. Enhanced by the lively strings of the balalaika and the voices of the Kalinka folk singers, the traditionally-costumed performers invited the tea guests…all comrades by now… to dance arm in-arm with them around the courtyard’s gorgeous fountain.
Returning to the ship on the waterfront promenade, bathers lazed on the sands and an amusement park was in full swing as loudspeakers blared out Michael Jackson hits. Over seeing it all was an imposing statue of the communist revolutionary Vladimir Lenin, now frozen and forced forever to gaze on the triumph of a free society over the one of tyranny he fashioned.
On another bright morning, we sailed into Odessa, founded by the Khan of Crimea in AD1240. Its harbor, now the largest on the Black Sea, held a fascinating collection of vessels, from a mega-yacht named “Allah,” obviously the plaything of an Islamic believer bountifully blessed to a classic three-mast sailing ship Amerigo Vespucci that served as a training vessel for Italian naval cadets.
From our berth, directly before us, was a broad staircase from the water up to the city. This was the Potemkin Steps where the seeds of the Communist Revolution were sown in 1905 when mutinous sailors from the Russian battleship Potemkin joined in a workers’ rebellion. The event was immortalized in film by the Russian cinematic genius Sergei Eisenstein in his 1925 classic The Battleship Potemkin.
I climbed all 157 steps to the top and to the feet of the statue of the Duke de Richelieu, the French architect chosen by Catherine the Great to build the city in French Renaissance style.
From there, I began my stroll along historic Primorsky Boulevard beneath a canopy of century-old lime and chestnut trees. Glancing up, I saw a familiar figure on a balcony of the landmark Londonskaya Hotel. Of course, it was Vladimir Putin, Russia’s Prime Minister attired in a smart business suit. On second glance, I realized it was just a mannequin. But it shows exactly how the newly independent Ukraine still regards its bullying communist “Big Brother” of yesteryear even today.
Further on, I encountered the beautiful Viennese baroque-style Opera House and its terraced gardens that dominate Odessa’s cultural center.
Just across the street, stretch limousines were disgorging wedding parties in all their newly-acquired capitalistic finery, surrounded by video crews and wedding photographers to record the newlyweds’ visit to city hall to register their extravagant marital union.
The day ended with champagne and caviar in the opulent ambiance of a 19th century noble family residence followed by a violin concert in the Golden Hall of their palace.
Then, before I knew it, we were at sea again, aboard Seabourn Odyssey, with a storehouse of treasured Crimean memories to last a lifetime.
IF YOU GO
Summer is best for Black Sea Riviera cruising. Arriving by sea is relaxing and exhilarating. Seabourn’s small group shore excursions and private tour arrangements at ports-of-call afford “insider” access to many venues and events unavailable to the independent traveler. Turkish visas may be conveniently obtained on entry at the Istanbul Airport on arrival.
In 2013 Seabourn has three Black Sea sailings to Crimean ports from Istanbul June 22, July 27 and August 31. Other Seabourn Black Sea ports-of-call are Nesebur, Bulgaria; Constanta, Romania and Sinop, Turkey. Cruise fares from $3,499 per person based on double occupancy. Gratuities are neither required or expected. Air additional.
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