A topographer will tell you that the Black Sea formed many millions of years ago in an elliptical depression between Bulgaria, Georgia, Romania, Russia, Turkey and Ukraine.
A historian would say that, in the 5th century, the Greeks referred to it as the "Inhospitable Sea" because notoriously belligerent tribes lived along its coast. But, later, after subduing the locals (particularly the ferocious Scythians, who used the skulls of unwanted visitors as wine goblets), they dropped the "in" and called it the "Hospitable Sea" instead.
And, a marine scientist would propose that its modern name derives from unusual micro-organisms that inhabit its waters and ink them with black sediment.
Contemporary travelers probably only need to hear the answer to one question: Is the Black Sea worth exploring by cruise ship? The answer to that is yes -- and you should go there soon before the modern plague of commercialism starts to erode its unique characteristics.
The Black Sea is one of cruising's best-kept secrets, a perfect antidote if you've had enough of the increasingly overcrowded and overtrodden Mediterranean. It offers every bit as much history and culture, alongside fabulous blond beaches and increasingly sophisticated cities, many of which are rich with stunning baroque buildings (despite also being products of the Soviet era). You can look forward to a wide variety of experiences on a Black Sea cruise -- one day soaking up the sun on the honey-sanded beaches of Varna in Bulgaria, the next exploring the cobbled medieval streets of nearby Nessebur.
You could find yourself discovering the magnificent parks and fine architecture of Odessa, the region's most sophisticated city; drinking in the history of Sevastopol, where the Light Brigade made its legendary Crimean War charge; or visiting Yalta, where Stalin, Roosevelt and Churchill gathered to redraw the map of Europe at the end of World War II.
There are beaches in most ports, but the majority of visitors are more concerned with culture than sunning themselves. Lovers of fine scenery, meanwhile, will find some of the coastal roads -- particularly the clifftop route from Feodosia to Sevastopol -- unforgettably spectacular.
Foodies can have a fun time discovering local dishes like Pelmeny (meat dumplings), Vareniki (a sweet version of the same, stuffed with cherries or ricotta cheese) or -- for the very adventurous -- a plate of barbecued sheep's testicles. (Apparently, they taste like chicken, but I can't swear to it from personal experience.)
Where Is The Black Sea, Exactly?
The Black Sea is an inland sea connected to the Mediterranean by the Bosporus (which bisects Turkey and leads into the Sea of Marmara) and the Dardanelles Strait (linking the Black Sea with the Aegean). It is bordered by Russia, Ukraine, Turkey, Bulgaria, Georgia and Romania.
Geographic high points include the Caucasus Mountains to the East and the generally sunny Crimean coast.
Istanbul, where Europe and Asia meet and mingle, is not only a fascinating port in its own right, but it's also the most prominent gateway to the Black Sea. Many itineraries will either start or end there or include the city as a major port -- often with an overnight stay to take in must-sees like the Hagia Sofia, Blue Mosque and Grand Bazaar.
Some itineraries operate between Athens and Istanbul, making a foray north to Black Sea ports. Others will incorporate a handful of destinations from Istanbul northward on roundtrip cruises from Venice. (You may also find a few Greek ports sprinkled in.) Some one-off Black Sea cruises operate from or to other ports, including Genoa or even Southampton.
Most Black Sea fly-cruises last between 11 and 14 nights, the time it takes to do the area justice. The season generally runs in spring and late summer/early fall.
Choosing a Cruise Line
Because some of its ports are relatively undeveloped and limited as to the size of vessels they can handle (and also because it tends to be the choice of more sophisticated cruise veterans who've already done the Med), the Black Sea attracts a high proportion of upmarket, small-ship operators.
In 2011 and 2012, lines such as Azamara Club Cruises, Silversea Cruises, Regent Seven Seas Cruises, Crystal Cruises and Seabourn Cruise Line will all cruise the Black Sea, as will culture-intensive Saga Cruises, Spirit of Adventure, Swan Hellenic , Voyages of Discovery and Voyages to Antiquity. Bigger ships, including those of P&O Cruises, Cunard, Costa Cruises, Holland America and Princess Cruises also visit the area.
If ocean cruising doesn't appeal, you could consider exploring the Black Sea by riverboat. There are two approaches. Danube cruises that operate all the way to the river's massive delta (by lines including Scenic Tours and the U.K.'s Noble Caledonia) will give you a taste of the Black Sea and a couple of the ports, such as Constanta in Romania, with excursions to Bucharest. But, such voyages won't take you to the real gems farther north -- Odessa, Sevastopol and Yalta. To see those places, you need to take a river cruise through the Ukraine, from Kiev to Odessa. These are mainly operated by Viking River Cruises (though you can find some package options using Ukrainian boats), with the journey from Kiev to Odessa spun out over 12 days. The vessel, Viking Lomonosov, is a kind of hybrid river/ocean cruiser, which it needs to be, as a chunk of the itinerary (Odessa-Yalta-Sevastopol-Kherson) is in the Black Sea itself, rather than on the Dnieper River.
Everybody visiting the countries around the Black Sea needs a full passport, and you should be sure to travel with one that has at least six months to run. The cruise line will arrange immigration clearance in all the ports; you simply hand over your passport at the beginning of the cruise and collect it at the end with a few new stamps in it.
Here's the lowdown on visas (although situations change, so you should always check with your cruise line or the appropriate consulate before traveling):
Citizens of the United States, European Union, Swiss Confederation, Liechtenstein, Canada and Japan do not need visas for entering the Ukraine, Bulgaria or Romania.
Most nationalities are required to have visas to enter Turkey. They are issued on entry (for example, at Istanbul's airport if you are flying there to start your cruise) and cost £10 or €10. (U.S. dollars are also accepted at the visa booth.) But, for cruises ending in Istanbul or calling there -- in other words, when you enter Turkey via a seaport -- visa charges are usually included in the cruise fares, and your cruise line will arrange the visas on arrival. If they're not included in the cruise fare, the charge will be added to your onboard account.
Almost all nationalities need visas to enter Russia. For ocean cruises calling at the Russian port of Sochi, the situation is the same as when you go to St. Petersburg; if you want to do an individual tour or explore independently (and Sochi does have good beaches very close to the port), you'll need to arrange an individual visa before you leave home. If you're simply planning to stay on the group tour, you enter on a group visa organized by the cruise line.
One note: Customs officials can be extremely stern and intimidating in former Soviet Union ports. Usually, they board the ship, and you're issued with a landing card to go ashore. Don't try to banter with them, and don't take photographs in the naval ports.
While the Black Sea is an extremely rewarding area to visit, travelers will find significant cultural differences between the ports there and the more familiar ports of the Mediterranean. Here are some of the things you may experience for which it's best to be prepared.
There's an element of "obeying the rules" that's noticeable on tours. Guides deliver their spiel in a set order and can get distressed if you try to hurry this along. In some museums and attractions, a kind of resident guide will be permitted to deliver their own speech, even though it's in Russian and the regular tour guide is perfectly capable of doing it in English. You end up with the tour guide interpreting rather than actually guiding, and everything takes twice as long.
Some tours include meals in local restaurants. Some of these are excellent, particularly in Yalta, which has a holiday resort feel. Others are heavy on pork and pickled vegetables and include huge platters of pig parts. The locals truly want to please and impress visitors, so try to taste as much as you can. Plum brandy is served with meals, and it's polite to do a shot and toast one another. Smoking is a popular activity, so don't be surprised in local bars and restaurants if people are puffing away with their meals.
Traffic in Sochi is chaotic as the city prepares to host the 2014 Winter Olympic Games. Patience is required. The presence of a visiting government official can slow everything down further.
Although many of the areas you'll visit are wealthy, relative to more remote parts of the former Soviet Union, you will stand out as a tourist. Batumi in Georgia is particularly poor. Dress respectfully, and try to keep the flashy accessories to a minimum. Animal welfare is also not a top priority in this part of the world. We were distressed in Sochi to see golden eagles and even a lion tethered at tourist spots for photo opportunities.
Other than buying souvenirs, you're unlikely to spend much ashore; most cruise passengers are out on tour all day with limited free time in port. In Romania, the currency is the new leu, and you can get notes from ATM's. In Bulgaria, it's the lev. Ukraine uses the hryvnia, and there are ATM's in Odessa. In Russia, it's the rouble, and in Georgia, where there are fewer ATM's, the lari. Confused yet? For small souvenirs -- military hats, comical Russian dolls, T-shirts, etc. -- it's best to use small denominations of U.S. dollars or euros. You'll lose out on the exchange rate, but change will be in local currency, which you can use for tips, coffees and so on. Before entering into transactions, make sure you know what the exchange rate is! And, if you plan to use ATM's, it's worth having one card that you can, worst case, afford to lose, as credit card fraud is high.
Cruising the Black Sea is like checking off a list of highlights. A lot of visitors are likely to go there only once, see everything and move on to a different cruise region. Each port has one or two big hits, and it's important to plan your shore excursions in order not to miss out. As the sightseeing is so intensive, an excursion-inclusive cruise, like those offered by Spirit of Adventure or Voyages to Antiquity, can be good value in the Black Sea.
Here are the must-see attractions of the major Black Sea ports:
Nessebur, Bulgaria. While Nessebur doesn't have one marquee attraction, walking tours are a good way to see the town, designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site because of its Greek antiquities. Other popular options include wine-tasting tours and visits to the homestead museum and archaeological museums.
Constanta, Romania. Most first-time visitors take a day tour to Bucharest, the capital, to see the largest palace in the world, built by former president Ceausesceu. The other big sights are the Greek, Roman and Byzantine remains at Histria, about an hour's drive away. There's not much in Constanta itself; beaches are wide and sandy, but they're strewn with litter.
Odessa, Ukraine. This beautiful city features wide boulevards and lavish Baroque architecture. The Potemkin Steps (featured in the cult film "The Battleship Potemkin") are a huge photo-op for most visitors. The Opera and Ballet Theatre, City Hall and Grand Mansions, including one belonging to the Tolstoy family, are the things to see. Most cruise lines offer an evening opera or ballet excursion; go, as the interior of the theater is breathtaking. You can also tour the catacombs of the city.
Sevastopol, Ukraine. There are three absolute must-see places. The Panorama Museum is an extraordinary artwork, in the round, depicting in 3D the 349-day siege of the city in the Crimean war. After this, the setting of the battlefields of Crimea takes on more meaning. The third highlight is the amazing Soviet submarine base (former, of course) at Balaclava. Now a museum, it looks like it came straight out of a James Bond film.
Yalta, Ukraine. Don't miss Chekhov's mansion, a pretty little museum packed with family memorabilia. The Livadia Palace is where Winston Churchill, Franklin D. Roosevelt and Joseph Stalin gathered for the Crimean Conference in 1945 that would divide up Europe after the Second World War. And, the Swallow's Nest is that iconic Yalta photo you'll see on all the postcards -- a fairytale castle, built as a folly in 1912 by a lovestruck baron for his ballerina mistress.
Batumi, Georgia. Not much to see here; some lines offer a folklore performance and a visit to a local family home.
Sochi, Russia. Sochi is a sprawling spa town with good beaches and a range of health spas, although we're not talking Canyon Ranch. The big thing to see there is Stalin's lurid green Dacha, preserved much as it was when he would come here for R&R. You can pose for a photo by his billiards table or by a wax model of Stalin behind his desk.
Trabzon, Turkey. The hillside Sumela Monastery, built in the fourth century, is the main attraction.
--by Maria Harding and Sue Bryant, Cruise Critic Contributing Editor