Istanbul, the Aegean and Black Seas, and a temperature swing of 30 degrees
We booked the Celebrity Constellation cruise in March of 2012, soon after the cruise was announced by Celebrity. We had not been to Istanbul or cruised the Black Sea and jumped this one. Our early planning paid off when I found a great price for airfare for $825 round trip from Orlando on United. We prefer to fly Delta, but Delta’s prices were hundreds about this fare. Jacksonville is our usual departure airport, but flying out of Orlando saved us about $400.
When booking our hotel in Istanbul, I did my own research and was prepared to go with a hotel, but another member of the cruise critic website had booked at the Hotel Lausos. The location was great, a block from the Hippodrome, offered free breakfast, free pickup at the airport for about 90 euros per night. So many Constellation cruisers booked at the hotel, the hotel had a special tea for us; allowing us to get to know our fellow cruisers before the cruise.
Further, while many of Celebrity’s excursion prices were very reasonable, those for the Ukrainian ports were limited and expensive, but I found great private tours there and organized them on cruise critic. Also, I organized transportation from the hotel to the ship and ship to airport at the end of the cruise. The transport cost 5 euros each to the ship and 7 euros each to the airport. All these plans worked out well, except for the weather. Istanbul temps from September 21-25 were in the 70s and very nice, as were our ports in the Aegean. We had temps in the low 80s and it was glorious.
Nature demonstrated its power after we entered the Black Sea as September ended. A storm from the north brought us high winds and temps ranging from high 40s to mid-50s F. The storm caused the Captain to divert from our first Black Sea port of call at Yalta, to Odessa, Ukraine. We heard that the storm had virtually closed the port of Yalta. The Captain’s decision proved to be a wise one; however, the cold weather persisted.
I had researched the typical weather in these ports, as well as projected weather (on weather channel, you can get a weather forecast 10 days ahead. Predictions for Ukrainian ports were temps in the high 60s. That was not to be and my light jacket with extra t-shirts and shirt (four layers) still left me chilled when out in the open. I have never had such a swing in the weather on a trip. The locals told us the weather was typical of early winter. In the future, I will always take a jacket and whatever it takes to keep warm, in the event of unusual weather.
We arrived mid-day and the Hotel Lausos had a driver pick us up at the airport (no extra charge). The traffic was awful and we were glad to arrive at the airport as our aggressive driver probably violated the traffic laws on several occasions. A couple of times the driver went up a one-way street in the wrong direction. The hotel was located in the old (Sultanahmet) district of the city, with its narrow streets that were probably set hundreds of years ago. The hotel had about 50 rooms and most of them became occupied by Constellation cruisers within a couple of days of the cruise. Service was great, the free breakfast excellent, with Turkish and American options and the hotel clean and tidy. TripAdvisor had given Lausos good ratings, but reviews mentioned that its rooms were small. That proved to be true. The hotel room had a whirlpool bathtub and room safe. The bed was comfortable, but we had to leave our clothes in our suitcases since there was no place to store our clothing. Our cabin on Constellation was larger than this room. Still, the hotel was great and we spent little time in our room. We were able to walk to most of the sites in the city. Also, good restaurants were close by. The hotel staff was friendly and always helpful. We would stay there again, if we visit Istanbul once more.
We enjoyed the Turkish food in Istanbul. Turkish food is similar to Greek, Egyptian, Arabic and Israeli food. Moussaka, Kabobs (lamb, chicken and beef), yogurt, hummus and baklava are notable examples of Turkish food. I had searched on TripAdvisor and written down some restaurants close to the hotel Lausos. Every place we dined was great. We enjoyed great meals at the following restaurants:
Amedros Café and Restaurant
Amedros is located about four blocks from Hotel Lausos on Divanyolu Cad. which is on the street were the tram runs. It is a busy street with many restaurants. Amedros is in an area with several other restaurants.
East-West Erhan Café and Restaurant
Erhan is on Binbirdirek Mah. Klodfarer Cad. about fifty yards from Hotel Lausos. It specializes in Turkish and Kurdish dishes. We ate at Erhan twice and with a large beer paid about 75 TL ($38) each time ($1=2 TL). The owner was Kurdish and we talked with our waiter, who was Kurdish. He stated that of Turkey’s 75 million people that one-third (25 million) are Kurdish. I knew that the percentage of Kurds was significant, but did not know it was one-third of the population. The food was great and price reasonable.
Lady Diana Hotel
This hotel has a rooftop restaurant with great views of the Blue Mosque, Hagia Sophia and the city. It is located at Binbirdirek Mah. Terzihane Sok. No:9. The food was excellent, but you pay for the view, as the prices were almost double the prices at Erhan. Still, the view was worth the prices. Several of the Constellation cruisers ate together at this restaurant and enjoyed the ambiance of the view.
We visited most of the main sites in Istanbul, specifically, the Blue Mosque, Hagia Sophia, Basilica Cistern, Topkapi Palace and Harem, Istanbul Archaeology Museums, Byzantine Hippodrome, Spice Bazaar, Grand Bazaar, Spice Bazaar, Chora Church and Theodosian Walls.
After arriving on 21 September, were had the usual jet lag, but visited the Hippodrome and Blue Mosque that afternoon.
The Hippodrome was the Byzantine version of Rome’s Circus Maximus. Directly west of the Hippodrome was the Emperor’s palace. Emperors had a private path within the place building to the Emperor’s box at the Hippodrome. The Blue Mosque is in that location today. Most of the structures of the Hippodrome were taken to construction buildings in the area. The Hippodrome is now something of a large oval square with column at one end and the Obelisk of Thutmosis III in the middle. The Hippodrome was enlarged by Emperor Constantine in the fourth century when the capitol of the Roman Empire was moved from Rome to Constantinople. The Hippodrome could seat 100,000 spectators. Chariot races were popular in those days.
When we arrived at the Hippodrome, we found it to be partially filled with stalls of a cultural exchange exposition between Turkey and Korea. The Blue Mosque is an imposing structure adjacent to the Hippodrome. It has six minarets rather than the usual four. We entered the courtyard adjacent to the mosque and were approached by a man offering to guide us through the mosque. He said we could pay him what we desired after the tour. I should have said no, but agreed. His half hour tour of the mosque was fine, but I had already read most of the information in my guidebooks. I offered him 10 TL ($5) and he indicated he was insulted, so I added another 10 TL. He still was unhappy, but we left him in any event. We were approached frequently by locals and some would try to just chat with you then lead up to the solicitation visit at a run shop. From then on, we just said no.
The Blue Mosque was a very impressive structure. It was constructed from 1609 to 1616. The Sultan meant to build a mosque that outshined Hagia Sophia, which is not far away. Hagia Sophia was the Byzantine cathedral built by Emperor Justinian in the 6thCentury AD. The interior of the mosque is very impressive with its beautiful blue tiles and many windows. Before entering, we removed our shoes and carried them in a plastic bag provided at the entrance. Ginny had brought a scarf to cover her hair. If you plan to visit the Mosque, you must avoid visiting during the Muslim prayers. Muslims pray five times a day, but for some reason a sixth prayer call exists for the Blue Mosque. Inside, there are carpets on the floor for prayers and the wide front of the mosque points toward Mecca, which is designated by the mihrab, a structure next to the pulpit where the Imam preaches.
The next morning, after sleeping 12 hours to recover from jet lag, we set out to visit Hagia Sophia and Topkapi Palace. I had purchased museum passes for each on the internet, so we could skip the line waiting to buy tickets. The only snag with this plan was that our home printer printed the scan able passes on a slightly reduced scale, which did not work on the museum scanner. The museum attendants reprinted our passes for Hagia Sophia, Topkapi and the Harem, but took a few minutes. We decided to purchase the audio guide for each museum that we visited in Istanbul, and I highly recommend that option. You don’t need a guide and you save on paying for guided tours. The audio guides are easy to use and well understood. We paid 25 TL ($12.50) each for admission and another 10 TL for the audio guide. The prices were similar for admission to Topkapi (Harem another 15 TL). Hagia Sophia was an engineering marvel to have been constructed in the 6th Century. Two earlier, lesser buildings were destroyed by earthquake and fire. Justinian wanted a building to last, so the domed roof was the largest cathedral in the World for a thousand years. Buttresses were added by later Emperors to support the dome and walls. The Ottoman Turks converted the building to a mosque after 1453 and the building was converted to a museum by Attaturk, the founder of the Turkish Republic in 1935. The building includes the minarets added by the Ottomans, in addition the mihrab and pulpit for the Imam as well as panels with quotes from the Koran. The Ottomans plastered over the mosaics in the cathedral, since Islam does not allow human forms to be displayed in art. Ironically, this acted to protect the beautiful mosaics. It takes less than two hours to go through the museum using the audio guide and taking in all the mosaics and other impressive features.
The Basilica Cistern entrance is located not far from the Blue Mosque and Hagia Sophia. The cistern was built by Emperor Justinian to provide water for his palace and the surrounding area. The cistern is huge and while underground, supported by many columns that were taken from other buildings in the 6th Century. You can see that the columns are of different styles and types. Some have art work on them, such as the Medusa column. The cistern was used during the James Bond movie, From Russia with Love. It takes less than an hour to go through the cistern. The audio guide is somewhat useful, but not as good as in the other museums.
Topkapi and the Harem
After visiting the Cistern, we had a light lunch and then moved on to Topkapi and its Harem. We purchased the audio guide for both. We spent the rest of the afternoon going through the Museum and Harem. Topkapi is spread over a large area and includes hundreds of rooms. The first portion of the museum includes the Imperial Gate and Courtyard, kitchens, porcelans, silver items, weapons. The Treasure room is very impressive, with its thrones, and jewels (like the crown jewels). The Topkapi Dagger is included. The 18th century Topkapi Dagger was meant as a gift from Sultan Mahmud I to Nadir, the Shah of Iran, but he unfortunately died before it could be delivered. There are several pavilions in the palace that are impressive structures. They are located close to the north end of the palace, near the Golden Horn (water). There is a section for Islamic relics that included items important to Muslims, such as the Prophet Mohammed’s signet, sword and bow.
The Harem is notable for its decorative tiles and baths and courtyards. The Harem held the Sultan’s wives and concubines. Large Ethiopian eunuchs controlled security at the Harem. We learned that the Harem included women that the Sultan never met, but were sheltered there for some reason.
The palace and Harem took more than three hours to go through with the audio guide. We finished in late afternoon and thought we were museumed out, but we still had more museums to see.
The next day we wanted to visit the Chora church. The Byzantine church is now a museum. It was located about 4 or 5 miles from our hotel. We could have taken the tram to within a mile and a half of the site, but it required a transfer. We decided to take a taxi. The taxi cost 25 TL with tip included. The church was located in a residential area near the ancient city walls built by Emperor Theodosius, so we planned to walk from the church to the wall and follow it about a mile to where the street along the Golden Horn. The Golden Horn is an inlet of the Bosphorus dividing the city of Istanbul and forming the natural harbor. The Chora was a relatively small church compared with Hagia Sophia, but contained many mosaics that were well preserved. We found the mosaics to be spectacular and well worth the visit. It reminded us of Byzantine mosaics we saw in Ravenna, Italy. After visiting the museum, we walked north for a short distance to the remains of the city walls. Much of the walls were ruins, but in some areas the walls were more intact. In particular, a restoration effort was underway on one section of the wall, demonstrating a massive and formidable barrier that protected the city for over a thousand years. On our way toward the street facing the Golden Horn, we got lost, but friendly locals pointed us in the right direction. We made it too street, turned south on our way towards the Spice Bazaar. We probably walked about four miles to the Spice Bazaar, but the exercise felt good and we saw parts of the city that were not normally exposed to tourists. We saw a wide range of homes and businesses. We saw some housing that could be described as unlivable in most countries, but those building were likely abandoned. Other houses and apartments were modest but clean. Other dwellings demonstrated some level of prosperity.
Spice Bazaar and Grand Bazaar
The Spice Bazaar was a mini version of the Grand Bazaar, but was interesting, due to the many stalls or shops that offered many spices, with the spices piled up in separate boxes like in a Chinese apothecary. There were other items sold in the spice bazaar, like dried fruits and foods, cooked, packaged or uncooked. It was very picturesque and worth the trip. The Bazaar is next to a mosque and built in an L shape. The Grand Bazaar is much larger and over a half a mile from the Spice Bazaar. Between the two bazaars are more shops. By the time we reached the Grand Bazaar, we had clearly been overexposed to shopping. The Grand Bazaar looked like a shopper’s paradise. We did not go through the entire Bazaar, which would take hours. I am glad that we saw the bazaar, but since we had walked from the Chora church we did not linger very long to shop.
That afternoon, the Hotel Lausos had the tea for our group of Constellation cruisers. There were about 24 participating and we all enjoyed getting to know each other. Several of us went to eat at the rooftop restaurant at the Lady Diana Hotel, which had great food and a great view of the city.
Istanbul Archaeology Museums
The next day we slept a little late due to our heavy schedule of sightseeing the previous days. This was our last full day prior to moving to the ship. We decided not to take a Bosporus cruise, since our ship was going to make two transits of the Bosporus. That turned out to be a good decision, since I had two guidebooks of Istanbul and the DK Eyewitness Travel guide of Istanbul had an excellent section on the key buildings and features facing the Bosporus. The Eyewitness Travel guide was great, with much detail and a great map of the city. I also had a Rick Steves Istanbul, which was helpful, but probably unnecessary since I had the Eyewitness Travel guide.
The Archaeology Museums were great. We spent four hours there and loved it, but at the end were definitely museumed out. We did use the audio guide, which was excellent. Admission to the museum was only 10 TL.
There were three museums. The first museum we visited was the Museum of the Ancient Orient. This museum contained antiquities from Egyptian, Hittite, Assyrian and Babylonian civilizations. It contained friezes from the Ishtar Gate of Babylon, which reminded us of a similar exhibit at the Pergamum Museum in Berlin. There was a large and impressive collection of Hittite items. The Hittites were a Semitic people with an empire that was centered in Anatolia in the second millennium BC. The Hittites challenged the Egyptians. One of the most interesting exhibits is the Treaty of Kadesh, circa 1269 BC between Egypt and the Hittites. The treaty included provisions for the protection of the citizens of both empires.
The second museum that we visited was the Cinili Pavilion with Turkish Tiles and Ceramics. This museum includes many beautiful works of art in tile.
The third and most impressive museum was the Museum of Classical Archaeology. This museum was quite large with many impressive items. It included a huge span of history, but much was ancient Greek, Roman and Byzantine. We saw many sarcophagi (ancient burial containers) with magnificent sculpturing. The so called "Alexander Sarcophagus” was awesome. It was not actually Alexander the Great’s sarcophagus, but built for another King, but depicts Alexander’s victory over the Persians. There were several impressive busts of Roman Emperors, as well as a bust of Alexander the Great. The museum is loaded with impressive items and is a must see if you visit Istanbul. However, after four hours of non-stop museum hopping, we had reached our limit. We wandered back to the hotel to relax a bit and planned an early dinner, since we were part of a group that planned to see a Whirling Dervish show that evening.
Mevlevi Sema Ceremony of Whirling Dervishes
Several of our Hotel Lausos group opted to see this ceremony, which was arranged by Marianna. It would be wrong to call it a show, since the participants consider it a religious ceremony. Apparently, the participants have a religious experience by whirling in a counter clockwise manner for about half an hour. They did stop a few times during the ceremony. The show or ceremony was interesting and we learned something of the Sufi Islam. The ceremony had is origin in the 13th Century. We were all impressed by the ability of the men to constantly spin for many minutes at a time. However, all agreed that after seeing the ceremony, we would not likely wish to do it again.
After the ceremony, we returned to the hotel, but again visited the rooftop of the Lady Diana Hotel for a nightcap. Again, we enjoyed the awesome views of the city, particularly the lit up Blue Mosque and Hagia Sophia.
The next day we checked out of the hotel and our group moved on to check in the Celebrity Constellation. I had arranged for a bus transfer for 14 persons from the hotel to the ship at the cost of 5 euros per person (also for 10 persons from the ship to the airport at the end of the cruise for 7 euros per person). I had found the transfer on the internet with eyewitness travel. I learned that being in charge of such a transfer has its problems. I had located the office of eyewitness and pay for the transfers in advance. When the bus arrived at eleven that morning, the bus had 14 seats, but one was for the driver. The driver got on the phone and another vehicle appeared very quickly, so we all made it to the ship without delay. I emailed eyewitness while on the ship and the response was that the additions vehicle had been arranged in advance. That is possible, but I have my doubts, in any event the transports worked out just fine on both ends of the cruise. We saved a lot not just taking a taxi for both transfers.
I had booked the cruise soon after it was announced. Being active on cruise critic, I was able to connect with many of our fellow cruisers in advance. Before the cruise, Ginny and I had not met any of the people on the cruise. However, after exchanging messages on cruise critic and email, I felt that I knew some of our fellow cruisers already. Through cruise critic many of us booked at the Hotel Lausos, which allowed us to meet and socialize prior to the cruise. Also, I arranged the transport as previously explained. Further, I organized tours for the Ukrainian ports, since Celebrity’s excursions for those ports were either too expensive or not extensive.
Celebrity has three options for dining for all but a small portion of its passengers. You can dine at 6pm or 8:30pm at your same table every night, with the same wait staff and same table mates or select dining, which allows you to eat when you want, but you will likely have a different wait staff and different table mates. We have done both 6pm dining and select dining and prefer the 6pm. Also, Celebrity allows you to tie your dining request to others. We selected a table for 8 and via email; three other couples opted to join us at the same table. This was a great choice, since we had a connection with the other couples. We were at table 302 and our table mates were Marianna and Charlie from Long Island, NY, Pattie and Dennis from Madison, Wisconsin, and Tom and Sue from Northern California. Ginny and I very much enjoyed dining with our new friends. Our dining experience was enhanced by our wait staff, which took care of us during the cruise. Our head waiter was Gardita from the Philippines, assistant waiter, Arslan from Turkey and sommelier, Mehti also from Turkey. Service was excellent, as it usually is on Celebrity.
The embarkation process was uneventful and we boarded the ship about lunch time. Our cabins were not ready, so we had lunch at Bistro on Five, a crepe restaurant that we enjoy (cost $5 per person) as opposed to the usually crowded buffet. After lunch our cabins were ready and we moved up to our cabin (7171). We had the same cabin on Infinity on another cruise and like the angled balcony, which is larger than most on that deck. My suitcase arrived soon, but Ginny’s was two hours later (don’t know why).
After five cruises, Ginny and I qualified for Celebrity’s elite status, which includes some notable benefits. Primary benefits are a free happy hour from 5-7pm with free drinks; 90 minutes of free internet use; priority tender tickets; and one free bag of laundry each. I estimated that we spent about $300 less on alcohol on this cruise than we usually spend, probably due to the free drinks at happy hour. We were well taken care off during happy hour by Sasha, our waitress from Jamaica. Since the drinks are free, no service charge is added for the wait staff, so I had some dollars to tip. It was appreciated. After a few days, Sasha would have our favorite drinks for almost before we sat down. Also, the free bag of laundry (we only used one free bag) allowed us to not bring a carryon bag. We downsized our packing to just one checked bag each. This worked out well, until we were hit with the unusually cold weather in the Black Sea. I should have brought my heavy leather jacket instead of lightweight jacket.
We found the entertainment on the Constellation to be about what we have experienced on other Celebrity cruises. However, we did not go to all the shows. The cruise was very port intensive and we had excursions or tours that wore us down a bit, especially when the weather turned cold. Still, we did enjoy about half of the shows. We very much enjoyed violinist Kateryna Sychova, a talented Ukrainian that performed classical, jazz and Ukrainian, Armenian, Irish traditional and American Country music. The string trio of young women was excellent. We enjoyed the IHollywood show by the Constellation singers and dancers. That show was not the same as we had seen on other IHollywood shows on other ships. Also, we enjoyed the Celebrate the World, which we had seen a few times on other ships, but still enjoyed. Peter Cutler was great, especially singing opera. The Ukrainian folk show was excellent and the cirque de soleil act was good.
The fitness center was not used much in this port intensive cruise, but I did use it on our one sea day. It was clean and well maintained. Ginny and I also took advantage of our one free trip to Persian Garden to the saunas there.
We also used the hot tub a few times in the covered pool area. It was especially nice when the weather turned cold.
Now, the ports, I think are the most important part of the cruise. The cruise included three ports that we had previously visited on a cruise in 2010, but we opted to take excursions to see things that we had not seen before.
We chose an excursion to Corinth (on the isthmus to the Greek Peloponnese). The tour was PR01 Ancient Corinth and Canal Cruise. Our tour took us first to the ancient city of Corinth. Corinth rivaled Athens as a major city state. Actually, the city that we visited was one from the Roman era, since the ancient Greek city had been razed by the Romans in 146 BC. The Romans rebuilt the city. The apostle Paul visited the city in AD 51 or 52. Our tour guide was excellent and had a very good knowledge of ancient history. She took us through the city and museum, pointing out significant features of the city and how people lived in ancient times.
After visiting the city, we were bused to the dock where we boarded a boat for our transit through the Corinth canal. The canal was completed in 1893. It is four miles wide and a sea level canal. Our boat transited the canal twice, so we returned to the same dock from which we had departed. During the cruise, we had a lunch with Greek food that was pretty good for a tourist buffet. The canal was interesting, since it was cut through stone and we had very high walls on both sides as we transited. This excursion was good and I would recommend it to others that have visited Athens before and seen the major sites there.
Mykonos was our next port and we elected to take the Delos tour. The tour was MK01A Ancient Delos. Celebrity’s price of $74 per person was a very reasonable price. While you can take the ferry from Mykonos on your own for 17 euros ($22), having a guide is well worth the excursion price. We had chosen not to take the Delos tour on an earlier NCL cruise, because NCL’s Delos tour exceeded $100 per person.
Delos Island was reputed to be the birthplace of the god Apollo. There was a Temple of Apollo on the island. Delos was home of the Delian League, founded in 478 BC as an association of Greek city-states, under the leadership of Athens, whose purpose was to continue fighting the Persian Empire. It evolved into the Athenian Empire and the treasury that once was kept on the island was taken to Athens by Pericles prior to the Peloponnesian War (with Sparta and its allies).
Our guide took us through the residential area and some of the dwellings, explaining how people lived during the Roman era. She pointed out some art and features of homes, including cisterns to collect water and the ancient sewer system. We then visited the sacred area with the Temple of Apollo and Terrace of the lions as well as the ruins of other ancient buildings. The original lions had been taken inside to the museum for protection. Our trip was completed by a visit to the museum which housed the lions as well as mosaics and statues. We then returned to Mykonos, where we had lunch at Niko’s restaurant, where we had dined with Jack and Jason in 2010. We saw the same or a similar large pelican nearby. Some things never change. The Delos tour is excellent for those interested in ancient history.
Having been to Ephesus before, we chose an excursion that included the Terrace Houses. We did the plain vanilla tour of Ephesus the last time we visited there. The terrace houses proved to be well worth the second visit to Ephesus. Apparently, the houses were covered by a wall of mud that preserved much of the art work on the walls and floors of the houses. The tour was KD28 Ephesian Modus Vivandi and included the terrace houses St. John’s Basilica and a good lunch. Our guide was excellent. Our second stop was at the Basilica. The Basilica was below an ancient Byzantine fortress and enough remained of the building to get a sense of what it was 2000 years ago. Our lunch was at a hotel and excellent. We were greeted by people dressed as Romans and the lunch was billed as a Roman lunch. The carpet demonstration was very close to the cruise port, so after the demonstration, we excused ourselves and walked a few blocks back to the ship.
TRANSIT OF THE BOSPHORUS
We had a second sea day, but Celebrity dressed it up as Bosphorus Strait (cruising). It was exciting, passing by Istanbul and going through the Bosphorus. Most people, myself included missed the Dardanelles transit, since we entered the Dardanelles at 4am. We passed Istanbul between 12:30 and 1pm. It offered many photographic opportunities. Viewing the city from the water gives a new perspective. We decided to go to the deck 12 viewing on the bow of the ship. It was very crowded and the plexiglass needed cleaning, but you could stand briefly on a lounge chair and take photos over the plexiglass. We stayed there until we crossed under the second Bosphorus bridge and went back to our cabin, were we could see the European side of the Bosphorus. It was like being on a river cruise. We saw old fortresses, Naval Schools, Mosques, villas and other historical buildings. My DK Eyewitness Travel guide of Istanbul had a nice section on notable buildings and features on the Bosphorus, so we were able to view and understand what those buildings were. We passed through it again at the end of the cruise, so we were able to view the wonderful scenery again.
THE BLACK SEA
Visiting the Black Sea was one of the draws of this cruise. We had never been to the Black Sea, but had been to Kiev, Ukraine in 2011. We had three ports in Ukraine to visit, Yalta, Sevastopol and Odessa as well as Burgos, Bulgaria. The weather turned around the planned itinerary. Soon after we entered the Black Sea, we noticed the waves picking up with more ship movement. At dinner, the Captain came on to announce that due to a storm in the Black Sea, we were diverting from Yalta to Odessa. Sevastopol and Yalta were to follow our two days in Odessa.
Pattie and Dennis, at our table #302 immediately got up (didn’t finish their dinner) and went to Guest Relations to call their taxi driver in Odessa. Dennis’ family came from Ukraine and he and Pattie had planned to have a taxi drive them over half way to Kiev to the two towns were Dennis’ family originated. Celebrity was nice in providing free phone calls for those of us that had arranged private tours in Ukraine. Guest Relations did assist us all. My tours in Ukraine were private and I was able to contact the tour companies in Odessa and Sevastopol to confirm that the tours were still to go on.
When we docked in Odessa, the temperature was 9 degrees C, which is less than 50 degrees F. I put on a t-shirt, regular short sleeve shirt and then my light jacket. I was still a bit chilled when outside in the wind. Ginny was chilled and after we had tea and cake about lunch time, our guide talked the restaurant into loaning our group three orange blankets for three ladies to use during the day. Ginny had one of these blankets and was glad to have it.
Our guide told us that the weather was more like what Odessa has in November or early winter. It was unusual for this time of the year. The weather channel predicted highs in Odessa of 68 degrees F. Olga was our guide. She was with Odessa walks. (www.odessawalks.com, firstname.lastname@example.org ) The tour was the Grand Tour of Odessa with a visit to the Opera House:
The tour itinerary:
10.00am " meeting with Odessa Walks guide at the disembarkation point on the cruise ship pier
10.05am " a walking tour through the historic city center. This tour will take you through two hundred years of the city's history. We'll get to see the city's landmark sights as well as ever so picturesque backstreets and Odessa's hidden gems.
Sights to be covered:
• City's landmarks: Potemkin steps, Primorsky blvd, Duke de Rischelieu Statue, Kateriniskaya square, Deribasovskaya street, City Garden, St Nickolas Church (=Transfiguration Cathedral)
• Odessa's palaces: Sheikh's palace, Vorontsov's Palace, Tolstoy palace
• "Off the beaten track” sights: Monument to the Bribe, Gogolya street, Odessa's courtyards,
12.00am "12.30am - tour of Odessa's Opera Theater interiors
12.30am - 1.30pm - continuation of a walking tour
1.30pm - 2.30pm " lunch with Ukrainian/local twist in a local restaurant
2.30pm " 4.00pm - tour by car: "Undiscovered Odessa” and Odessa's market. The tour will take you further to the city center once populated by the city's first craftsmen, later by artists, doctors and men of science. This is the area where the oldest city market and the second in the world bacteriological lab are. Sight's to be covered:
• Odessa's oldest market, founded in 1810.
• Naryshkin palace, Pototsky palace
• Odessa's "medical quarters”: following the steps of Pavlov, L. Paster, Sechenov and many other men of science, who lived and worked in Odessa
4.00pm " a tour by car to Odessa's neighborhoods: French boulevard, Shevchenko park
5.30pm- drop off at the cruise ship pier.
Olga was an excellent guide and our tour was great. The price was $60 per person and an additional $9 for admission to the Opera House. Odessa was an interesting city. It had marvels like the Opera House and Russian Orthodox Cathedral, with other historical buildings. However, you could see that the Ukraine is still recovering from the collapse of the Soviet Union and the communist system that had almost put the country on a third world level. Olga was a Russian speaker that had lived in the United States for some years. She did not speak Ukrainian, as about half of the Ukrainian people. The Ukraine is something of a divided country with the western half Ukrainian and more oriented to Western Europe and the eastern half (including Odessa, Sevastopol and Yalta) more Russian oriented.
The Opera House was really awesome. It had a stairwell that reminded me of one in the Hermitage in St. Petersburg. Some passengers on our ship managed to go to the Opera House on the overnight that we had in Odessa. We did not try to do that, since we had a full day’s tour and did not wish to go back out again.
The next day, we had a half day tour of the Catacombs. Cost was $25, which was reasonable. This was the tour as provided by Odessa Walks:
Odessa Catacombs tour
Odessa's catacombs are the largest labyrinth of the underground tunnels (2, 500 km). They were home to smugglers, criminals and World War ll protestants (partizans). After WWll, most of them were closed, and now only one section is open for public visits. This section also houses WWll partizan museum. During the tour, you'll get to walk through the underground tunnels (you'll spend about 40 min inside the catacombs), see how people lived there for almost 2 years during Odessa's occupation and also visit the "on the ground" WWll partizan museum. This section of the catacombs is located in the city suburbs (in the village), 15 km away from the city center. So, you'll get a chance to see some remote Odessa's districts and a little bit of countryside.
We were amazed that people could live two years underground. They had to wash their clothes twice a day. We learned that most of the partisans were eliminated by the NAZIs; however a 13 year old boy had survived the war and just passed away last May.
I would highly recommend Odessa Walks with Olga if you ever visit Odessa.
Our next port was Sevastopol, which was a tender port. The tour that I arranged was with Anna Ermakova (email@example.com).
Our group met at Guest Relations at 8am in order to meet our tour guide at 9am just off the dock. Some of our group didn’t have priority tender tickets, but had managed to acquire tender # 3 tickets, so we departed together, when tender #3 was announced. We met Olga, our guide (not the same Olga in Odessa), who Anna had provided. Olga turned out to be an excellent guide and very well informed. Our tour was extensive, since it covered four major items:
In 7 hours you can visit the most interesting places of interest in Sevastopol area. I suggest the visits to
- Bakhchisarai, - "the city in the garden" located in 35 km to the North from Sevastopol- to visit the former residence of Crimean Khans who ruled here in the 15th-18th centuries. You'll see Divan Hall, Falcon Tower, Great Khan Mosque, the harem buildings, the Fountain Patio with Fountain of Tears glorified in poetic lines of Alexander Pushkin.
In Bahkchisaray you'll continue to Assumption cave Monastery located in the mountainside and considered to be one of the most ancient Crimean cave monasteries. Its foundation was connected with the iconoclasm in Byzantium.
Lunch at Tatar cafe is recommended (Crimean Tatar cuisine).
In Balaklava (12 km from Sevastopol downtown) we'll visit the former Soviet top-secret underground military complex (submarine pen) located in one of the rocks.
When back to Sevastopol you'll visit the world-famous Panorama "The Defense of Sevastopol, 1854 - 1855".
This tour is $440. (this fee includes my guiding and transportation but doesn't include entrances and food but Admission fee is $10 per person each of them).
We had a nice drive through the countryside to Bakhchisarai to the palace of the Crimean Khans. It took us past the valley of death where Tennyson’s Light Brigade charged Russian artillery as well as other notable landmarks of the Crimean War. The Khans’ palace was very interesting. I was not expecting such a well preserved palace. After the Khans Palace we went to see the Assumption cave Monastery, which was in the side of a mountain and in caves. There was a good walk up the hill, but our small minibus was allowed to drive up rather close to the monastery, while the Celebrity busses could not go that far. It was very scenic with beautiful rock formations on the opposite side of the mountain. The monastery had several more modern buildings in the valley below the caves.
After the monastery we had a great lunch at a Tartar restaurant in town. The price was good, only about $17 for two persons.
We learned about the Crimean Tatars that were a Turkish type people that migrated from Asia into Crimea. Stalin thought the Tartars were too friendly with the Germans in the WWII occupation (Hitler promised them independence), so he deported the entire people to central Asia after WWII. Almost half of the tartars died in this relocation. During the 80s, Gorbachev arranged for them to return to Crimea on their own. About 250,000 did return to Crimea. The Tartars that we met looked more like Turks than Asian people.
After lunch, we drove to Balaklava to visit an abandoned Soviet submarine base used during the Cold War. The former base is a museum and visited by many Russian Navy sailors from the nearby Russian base. We learned that the Ukrainian Navy still has one submarine. The visit to the former base was interesting. We saw the pens were the subs were kept and channels to the sea. Also, we saw the place were nuclear weapons were kept and transferred to the subs. The museum included some weapons and uniforms of the era as well as a section dedicated to the Ukrainian Navy.
Our last stop in this long tour was to see the magnificent Panorama of the battle of Sevastopol. The Panorama reminded us of the Cyclorama in Atlanta, Georgia of the Battle of Atlanta. The Panorama had been damaged in a German firebombing in WWII, but reconstructed by the Soviet Government. The Panorama was amazing.
All in all, I considered our tour of Sevastopol to be great. We were so glad that we could see Sevastopol due to not being able to see Yalta the next day.
I was excited about seeing Yalta, especially the Livadia Palace, the former summer residence of Czar Nicholas II. The famous Yalta Conference was held in Livadia Palace. Unfortunately, that was not to be. Our group was prepared to depart on tender #3, but after tender #2 the Captain suspended tendering due to high winds and heavy waves. Later the tendering was resumed only to pick up passengers that had made it ashore.
Celebrity allowed me to call Anna and Olga to cancel our tour, so they would not be waiting any longer at the dock.
Sure, we missed Yalta and we endured the terrible weather, but our cruise Black Sea adventure was still good. It would have been wonderful at 68 degrees.
Our last Black Sea port was Burgos, Bulgaria. We took a Celebrity tour, A506 Historic Varna. Because of a change in the ports we arrived in Burgos two hours late and did not start our tour until 11am. The tour was 8.5 hours, so we did not arrive back at the ship until after 7pm. The tour involved almost two hours each way from Burgos to Varna. We enjoyed visiting the Bulgarian countryside, but I think some of our tour thought it was a long way to drive.
On the way to Varna, we pass through the Bulgarian Rivera. Bulgaria has become a tourist mecca with visitors from Russia, Scandinavia, Britain and Germany. Apparently, hotels are very inexpensive. We saw several attractive hotel and apartment buildings. However, we saw half-finished apartment buildings as well as some that appeared finished but not used. Overbuilding had hit Bulgaria as well as the USA.
The tour started out with lunch, since we were late starting. Lunch was good. We then visited the remains of Roman Baths. Our guide explained the significance of the baths and how business was frequently done there, as well as the bathing process. The baths as Varna were the fourth largest Roman baths in the World.
Next we visited the Archaeological Museum. The museum has some amazing gold from 5000 year old graves. Our guide pointed out key sites in Varna. Our last stop was at the Assumption Cathedral, which was filled with beautiful art.
Our ship arrived back in Istanbul on 6 October at 2pm, one day before our cruise ended. Ginny did not go out, but I went out for a couple of hours, walking up to Taksim Square. This is a large square in the newer section of Istanbul that was the site of anti-government demonstrations in months prior to our cruise. The square has a large park nearby and the square itself is very large. That area of the city had a modern mall like one would find in Europe or the US. This portion of the city was more modern than what I saw in the older section of the city.
Our trip home was a long one. We had arranged for transport to the airport at 8am. We arrived just before 9am and our flight was not scheduled until 1:55pm. I had quite a time trying to find anyone connected with United Airlines. Finally, I found a ticket booth (not for checking luggage, just purchasing tickets). There was a small sign indicating that we could check in at H 7 starting at 10:55am. We had some time to wait, so we moved to the Burger King and waited until about 10:15, then moving to get in line for checking in for our flight. On arrival, we found a very long line. There were two United flights leaving at the same time. It took us about an hour and half to check our bags. Then we moved through immigration, and finally to our gate. At our gate, there were contracted local agents that kept checking and rechecking our document, for whatever reason. We made it to Newark and then found our flight to Orlando was delay. We managed to stay awake until we boarded the plane and both fell asleep until shortly before arriving in Orlando.
After retrieving our car at Cheap Airport Parking (Orlando Marriott) we checked into our hotel and the next morning departed for home.
It was a great trip, with the cold weather in the Black Sea the only real negative. I still loved the trip. The bad weather was not Celebrity’s fault. We will be better prepared for such unusual weather on our next trip.