It was 6:15 a.m. at the Sofitel Hotel, Athens Airport, and it was time to get up and head to the airport for a short flight to Thessaloniki. There, I joined a voyage around the Black Sea on Spirit of Adventure, a one-ship cruise line that specialises in discovery-style holidays for those older than 55.
Not that you have to be old to come aboard -- just older than 21 -- but within a couple of hours, it was obvious that many of my fellow passengers left their half-century behind some time ago.
The ship is small, fiercely British, and aimed at people who want to learn as they cruise -- both from the onboard lectures and the excursions. (You get one free tour in each port but can choose to pay for more.)
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My schedule meant I was only able to join this cruise half-way through. (It started in Piraeus, the port for Athens, and sailed through the Corinth Canal to Katakolon and Volos before I boarded.) But, it worked well, as I was familiar with what had gone before Thessaloniki.
I was particularly looking forward to a call at Monamvesia, known as the Gibraltar of the East (because it has a rock, just like Gibraltar). The name doesn't do this delightful town justice, given that it is so attractive. It's not the ugly building site with unattractive blocks of flats that Gibraltar has become.
At dinner the first evening, I was on a table for eight people -- all meals in the restaurant are dine-when-you-like open-seating with a self-service alternative, which is a great way to see new faces each day. Fellow passengers were keen to tell me what I had missed before joining the sailing. Ports were great, and weather was wonderful, except for one night when it was rough and most people had to skip dinner. They also mentioned that some guides were too full of information, and too much was packed in on some days.
I had already discovered that for myself. The ship had only just set sail from Thessaloniki when the first lecture of the day started -- there were none in the morning, as everyone had been sightseeing -- and there was another just 15 minutes later. That took us to 7 p.m., when many passengers wanted to be at dinner.
Nevertheless, these lectures are an important part of the Spirit experience, and the Sirocco Lounge was full for each one.
From Thessaloniki to Kepez
Thessaloniki, founded in 315 B.C. and named after the sister of Alexander the Great, is a big city -- the second largest in Greece, after Athens. I arrived too late to join any tours, but other passengers enjoyed visits to the archaeological museum, the Byzantine basilica of St. Dimitrios and the centuries-old tombs, where members of the royal family were buried.
More interesting for me was that it was the birthplace of Mustafa Kemal, who went on to become the first president of the Turkish Republic. "We stopped outside the house where he was born," single cruiser Gordon tells me over lunch. Kemal figured highly into our next stop, as he rose to prominence during the fighting in Gallipoli.
But that day, once all were aboard, it was time for lectures. Author Michael Arditti told the tale of Helen of Troy, which turned out to be a story of rape, kidnap and incest; retired diplomat Keith Haskell gave a brief overview of the Muslim faith. At dinner, I got roped into that night's team quiz. We came in a respectable second.
Kepez through the Bosphorus Straits
Kepez, a nondescript town that happens to have a port, is on the Asian side of the Dardenelles. Just across the waterway is the Gallipoli peninsula, where a half-million men died during the First World War. Some passengers have come on this cruise, hoping to find the grave of a relative who was among the dead; others want to see the place where their fathers fought.
There are included excursions to Troy, 34 kilometers away, and around Canakkale, the neighbouring city. I took the paid-for, full-day tour to Gallipoli. It was mainly out of historical interest but I, too, had a relative there -- a great step-grandmother, who was a nurse on one of the hospital ships that was moored at a nearby island. Every time I visited her, she regaled me with stories of her experiences.
The tour started with a short drive to the ferry at Canakkale, a 30-minute crossing from Asia to Europe and a brief stop at a museum to get our bearings and listen as Aykut, our guide, explained why Gallipoli became a major front in the war and how the campaign turned into a disaster for the Allies.
The facts are horrifying. About 250,000 soldiers died or were wounded on both sides during 250 days of war. (That's 1,000 people a day on a front line that wasn't even 10 kilometres in length.) After nine months of fighting, the Allies didn't even achieve their first day's objective.
Our drive around the peninsula included visits to cemeteries where Allied soldiers are buried, or thought to be buried, and a drive along the front line, where you can still see the trenches, just a single track apart. At the British memorial, Aykut said a few words -- "let's hope we don't have to live this again to understand it" -- before a wreath was laid. Many struggled to hold back tears.
Back at Kepez, officers were examining a gash, put in the side of the ship that morning when a tug failed in its duty as we were docking. It was patched up and made watertight, so we set off and headed north, on through the Dardenelles, over the Sea of Marmaris, and into the Bosphorus Straits before reaching the Black Sea.
The next day was a sea day, but any thoughts of a lie in were dashed by the pre-dawn news that we'd be picking up the pilot to go through the Straits at 6 a.m. At 6:30 a.m., Neil (the cruise director) came on the loudspeakers outside to point out the highlights as we sailed through Istanbul in the early-morning dark. The city's twinkling lights were an unexpected bonus.
Across the Black Sea to Odessa
Spirit of Adventure might carry an elderly crowd of travellers, but sea days are not a time of rest. There were four lectures that day on the European Union, garden writers, the horsemen of the Steppe and Chekhov, so it was time to get selective. I opted for the EU and Steppe. Also offered were painting classes, table tennis tournaments, spa talks (around a table in the Yacht Club bar) and lessons on using a digital camera.
Early the next morning, we arrived in Odessa, once part of the Russian Empire and the Soviet Union and now a part of the independent Ukraine. Like most others, I booked a highlights tour, which included a stop in front of a statue of Catherine the Great, who founded the city in 1794, providing a warm weather port for the Russian Empire. We also visited the Potemkin Steps, made famous in Battleship Potemkin, an Einstein film about the 1905 mutiny by sailors on the eponymous ship.
We also got to glimpse the city's famed Mother-in-Law Bridge -- so called because newlyweds put locks there to signify their eternal love, and mothers-in-law make sure they aren't moved.
Odessa is an unexpected treasure, featuring wide, tree-lined boulevards and elegant buildings in Classic, Renaissance and Asian styles -- products of its cosmopolitan history. One million people live in the city, representing 100 nationalities. Pushkin was exiled there for a year after the Decembrists uprising in 1825 -- what many call the first Russian revolution. Apparently, the romantic poet loved Odessa for the many "beauties" of different ethnic groups.
That afternoon, I took a paid-for tour of the catacombs, beneath a village outside the city. Odessa has the longest network of underground tunnels in the world -- 2,500 kilometers if laid in a straight line. These were dug out when the city was being built and were used by resistance fighters during the Second World War.
Sergey, our guide, said as many as 250 people at a time lived in the tunnels we visited -- which included a kitchen, beds, a communications headquarters and even a school -- and went out at night to carry out acts of sabotage. The Germans never dared to enter the tunnels because they feared getting lost and ambushed, but the partisans were betrayed, and the unit closed down.
Sevastopol to Yalta
From Sevastopol, I travelled to Balaklava to see the infamous battlefield where the ill-fated Charge of the Light Brigade took place during the Crimea War -- when France, Britain and Turkey fought against Russia from 1853 to 1856. It's a complicated story, but in a nutshell, the Light Brigade misunderstood orders and charged straight into the Russians' guns. In all, 196 cavalry men were killed, and 100 were wounded -- not a lot, considering how famous the event is.
The next stop was a nuclear submarine base in Balaklava itself, dug out secretly during the Cold War. Even people living in Sevastopol (just 20 minutes away) didn't know of its existence, and residents were not allowed to leave Balaklava, so they could not talk about it. Now they take you on tours through its tunnels.
We also had a few minutes to admire the attractive waterfront in Balaklava before returning to Sevastopol to visit the Panorama Museum, which houses a 360-degree painting of a scene from the Crimean War. There are real objects in front of the painting that meld into the picture to make the whole thing so realistic.
That evening, the whole ship went to a special concert, given by the Russian navy. In a word, it was fantastic.
We arrived in Yalta early the next day, just in time to see the locals setting up their stalls. They were not selling souvenirs, though. Instead, they had a selection of period costumes, wigs and thrones. You can choose which you want, dress up and have your picture taken. There was also one for bikers, complete with leather jackets, coloured wigs and Harley-Davidsons.
Most people opted to visit the Livadia Palace that day. It was built by Nicholas II, the last Tzar of Russia, although he only got to visit four times. In February 1945, it was the venue for the last conference between Churchill, Roosevelt and Stalin after the Second World War. With its limestone finish, the building is not ornate, but the location is stunning, offering views over the Black Sea. Much of the original furniture was looted by the Nazis, who occupied the area, but there are a few items remaining, which bear the HII monogram (which stands for Nicholas II -- H being N in the Russian alphabet).
Yalta itself felt very much like a seaside resort, featuring a long promenade that was busy with strolling locals, pastel-coloured hotels and a cable car that travels up to a viewing point above the town. Our docking alongside the promenade caused quite a stir.
In the afternoon, I took an excursion to Vorontsov's Palace, about 30 minutes outside Yalta, built on the edge of the water by Michael Vorontsov. He was once the richest men in Russia -- richer than the Tzar -- and owned 80,000 slaves. The views out to sea are stunning, as are those of the mountains behind. According to our guide, Vorontsov had a hill in the gardens levelled so he could see them.
Back over the Black Sea
Another sea day meant another packed programme of lectures about the Vikings and Diaghilev, but the mood was lightened by talks on the joys of growing old and the adventures of a diplomat. There were also spa talks and painting workshops.
There was also a "Ready, Steady, Cook" challenge between Captain Frank Allica and Cruise Director Neil Horrocks, with tasters all around as each dish was ready. The crew show was also a passenger favourite. "Don't forget, if you missed the sail through Istanbul last time, to get up early," Neil reminded us at the end. Unfortunately, he failed to tell us it would be raining.
The second Istanbul sail-through marked the end of the cruise. A couple of hours after we docked, I was in a taxi on the way to the airport, reflecting on what an amazing cruise it has been.
So much had been what I expected -- the friendly atmosphere on the ship, the strong desire among passengers to learn as much as they could about the places we were visiting, some fascinating destinations. What I hadn't expected was just how fascinating and how full of history they would be. After each day of sightseeing, I returned to the ship, awestruck and with a real sense of privilege to have walked through catacombs and once top-secret tunnels, where so many people lived in hardship. It was also interesting to have learned so much about the disastrous Gallipoli campaign.
I must also say a word about the guides, who were so knowledgeable, so enthusiastic and did such a great job imparting their knowledge -- all in a foreign language.
I wouldn't normally advise taking lots of ships' shore excursions because I think it's more fun to explore alone, but these Black Sea ports are different. Here, I'd advise doing as many as you can, even if it means booking two a day and only having time for a snatched lunch, so you get a real feel for the history and culture of the ports you visit. It'll cost a lot -- unless you go with Spirit of Adventure, in which case one is free each day -- but you might only pass this way once, and believe me, you do not want to miss a thing.