Nautica Black Sea Serenade Review July 2009
We joined Nautica in Istanbul having organised our own flights from London and a private transfer from the airport with Istanbul Airport Shuttle (22 euros). It was our second Oceania cruise out of about 25 in total, and as expected was thoroughly enjoyable. The food and service were as good as we had experienced on Insignia last year. Rather than adding to all the existing good reviews of Oceania ships I intend to focus on the Black Sea ports.
I always try to do a lot of research before a cruise as we prefer to explore on our own than on organised tours and this is especially important for us in recent years as my husband uses a wheelchair for any distance more than a couple of hundred yards. Some of the ports on this itinerary were quite difficult to research as there was very little information available. I hope the following may be of help to future visitors.
Our third visit to one of my favourite cities and we had the luxury of starting the cruise with an overnight stay. We had visited the main attractions before and, being a Sunday, the Grand Bazaar was closed so we decided to start with a look around the new part of the city. Leaving the port we turned right and walked along to the tram stop, bought "jetons" (1.5 Turkish Lira each = 60p = $1US) and took the tram one stop to Kabatas. This is the end of the tram line and from there we used the underground funicular (well signposted, disabled access lifts and uses the same "jetons") to take us up to Taksim Square. There was a large military parade in progress, something like remembrance day it seemed, with hundreds of soldiers, military bands etc, but once they left the square was quite deserted.
From there we walked along the main street of Istaki Kadesi (follow the old trams to find the right street). Most of the shops were open and there were a few street vendors too. Our plan had been to take the "Tunel" funicular back down but we seemed to miss it at the other end of the main street (there was a Metro station which I think was probably the place) but we kept walking down, found the Galata Tower, and continued along a steep downhill street which brought us out by the Karakoy tram stop at the Galata Bridge. From there we took a tram up to Sultanhamet, the central part of the old city. The Blue Mosque, Cistern & Hagar Sophia are all easy to find within this area as is the Grand Bazaar.
However, this time we wanted to visit Topkapi Palace, as we had neer previouslly been there. From the map it looked as though we had to walk down the hill to get in, but in fact from that entrance we had to push back up a steep hill to get in (entrance 20 Turkish Lira = 8 GBP = $12US each). The palace is huge, they have tried hard to give wheelchair access wherever possible but of course by the nature of an old building some parts were difficult. but we enjoyed a couple of hours wandering around and looking at several exhibitions (did not visit the Harem which would have been 15 lira extra). On leaving we found an exit which led to a gate just behind Hagar Sophia - a much easier route for anyone else who wants to visit ! Just follow the road with Hagar Sophia on your immediate left and you will arrive by the Topkapi wall.
We then walked down the hill to the Spice Bazaar at the bottom of the hill near the Galata Bridge, which was open and very busy even though it was Sunday, and some internet sites had said that it would be closed.
From here it would be walkable back to the ship but we opted for the tram again, as we find them so convenient and easy to use in Istanbul. Getting on at the Emminunou stop almost outside the Spice Bazaar involves quite a lot of steps down to an underpass and, surprisingly, there is no disabled access lift at this stop. Fortunately husband can manage the steps and I can carry the wheelchair ! We got off at the Tophane stop, to the old city side of the port and waked back - there is very little difference between the distances of the 2 tram stops to the port - just a few minutes walk either way.
The old town is on an island linked to the mainland by a causeway and we tendered into a harbour close to the old city. I had been nervous about the accessibility here due to the hills and cobbled streets and Oeania's daily newsletter "strongly discourages the use of wheelchairs in this port". We decided to try with the backup plan of going to the beach if it was impossible to see the town. The cruise terminal itself was very hard work, numerous steps up and down into the customs building etc and from there we were immediately greeted with a huge flight of stone steps up to the town. However, there were some shops along a flat road to our left and passing those we arrived at the bus terminal, from where there was a nice gently sloping smooth tarmac slope up to the main square of the town. I would recommend this route for anyone other than the most active.
The old town of Nessebur/bar (the spellings seem to be interchangeable) is lovely, full of wooden houses and pretty little churches made from small bricks (in various states of repair). These days it is really a giant bazaar of several streets and squares (only about a quarter o f it cobbled, the rest is easily accessible for wheelchairs) and the tourists flock in from the nearby beach resorts for a day of shopping. By lunchtime there were.hundreds of people waiting for buses back to Sunny Beach (fare 1 lei, I was told) and there was also a little train that cost 3 lei. We had bought a few Bulgarian Lei from home (1 lei = 50p) but there were plenty of ATMs in town. There we also a lot of money changing shops, although one shopkeeper told us not to use them as they sometimes give out fake money.
We debated a trip to Sunny Beach but the weather was not wonderful, it was cloudy and cooler than expected, so instead we walked across the causeway to have a look at new Nessebur. There are some hotels there and a few shops but nothing much. Further along the coast we could see some large hotels on a nice-looking beach but we did not walk that far, returning instead to the old town to use up our last few lei.
The cruise terminal here is modern and bright but located in the middle of a large commercial port. There is a shuttle bus to Ovida square in the old town of Constanta about a mile or so away for $20 (yes $20 US for a maximum 3 mile round trip on bus - a rare black mark for Oceania!) but it was not a hard walk, even though it was hotter today. To begin with there is a long, flat, straight road to the port gate, which must be close to a mile. On the left just before the gate was a large bank with an ATM where we drew some Romanian Levs as we had been unable to buy any before leaving UK. We got 100 levs which was just over 20 GBP (so 1 lev = 20p = 30c US) but in fact the minimum withdrawal of 50 lev would have been plenty.
Once out of the port the casino building (no longer operating but an attraction of the city) is on your right and there is a short hill which leads up to some Roman ruins (less than impressive but work a quick look) just in front of the cathedral. The cathedral was quite nice - the entrance is on the left coming from the port, and continuing up that same street for a few minutes brings you to Ovida square. This square (actually more like a triangle) is home to a large archeological museum, which we did not visit but it looked very busy. Next to the museum is a smaller glass building housing the Roman mosaiacs (entrance 5 lev) and this was worth seeing, we thought. Beware of the toilet attendant on the square - she refused our offfer of a euros each but nearly frogmarched us to the museum cash desk to get change for her 1 lev fee !!!
There seemed little else of interest in the old city - as generally reported it is quite grotty and most of the buildings are in a serious state of disrepair. I had read on the internet about a double decker city tour bus aand had asked the local tourist representative about this when she came aboard Nautica that morning. I do like the availability of a local representative most port days on Oceania but on this particular trip found several of them to be quite negative and unhelpful. The Romanian lady first denied the existence of a tourist bus but when I persisted and showed her the internet pages I had printed out she 'remembered' and marked on a map where we could get it - on the corner of Tomo Boulevard and Ferdinand St (on some old maps still called Republikki). So we walked up Tomo Boulevard from the old sqaure towards the new part of the city, which was slightly nicer but nothing special. We found the bus stop then walked a couple of blocks beyond to the pedestrian shopping street (Stefan St) (found a free wifi connection outside Western Union which was useful) but soon returned to catch the bus.
The 'City Tour' bus is in fact a shuttle service to the nearby beach resort of Mamaia, but the advantage is that it runs right up the beach strip to serve the hotels whereas the local bus to Mamaia seemed to terminate at the very beginning. We got off the bus (fare3 lev - very reasonable) at the central stop of the beach strip by the casino and this seemed to be the main part of a typical beach resort - shops, fairground rides, cafes, bars and a cablecar stretching for miles along a nice sandy beach..
I enjoyed a swim in the sea at last, although it was not as warm as expected, and we sat in one of th beach front bars for a while (about 5-7 Levs for a beer or soft drink) before catching the bus back to the station. Tired by then, and still having 30 Levs to spare, we decided to get a taxi back to the port rather than try to work out the local bus. We told the driver to stop when his meter got to 30 Levs and in fact that took us just to the port gate (but I don't think he went the most direct route !). In any event taxis are not allowed into the port so we had to walk the last mile back along the straight road. So for anyone unable or unwilling to do that walk both ways the only options here are a tour or the $20 shuttle - and to be honest there is very little within easy walking distance of the shuttle drop off, so a tour might be preferable if you are not up for the walk. Constanta is certainly not my favourite port, but I must say we had a nice day, especially on the beach at Mamaia.
As expected, Odessa was a beautiful city full of amazing buildings, the opera house being the best of the lot. The cruise port is widely reported as being "right at the bottom of the Potemkin steps" which is it but there is quite a walk out of the terminal and across a long bridge over several railway lines then down some stairs (or sloping road, as we did) to the bottom of the famous steps. Fortunately there is a free funicular that runs just to the left of it and saves climbing 200 steps. At the top you find yourself in Primorsky Boulevard, a nice park along the top of the cliff. Turning left leads to the City Hall and several museums, from where the Opera House comes into sight. Nearby we found a Bank of Piraeus which had an ATM with English instructions and withdrew some local currency (12 hryvnia = 1 GBP so 1 hryvnia = 8p = 12c US). This was another currecny that seemed to go a long way - in all 3 Ukrainian ports a soft drink or beer or ice cream was about 5/6 hryvnia from a stall or about double that in a cafe, public toilets cost 1 or 1.5 (and the attendants always seemed to have change).
After looking around the outside of the fantastic opera house we wandered down a road to the side of the large Mozart hotel and came to a park which turned out to be the city garden. Now, I am not usually a bad map-reader but I never did get my bearings in Odessa. The layout of the streets did not seem to correspond with either the map I had printed from the internet or the ones given out by the tourist information lady - but it did not seem to matter much as we found lovely things to look at just by wandering around.
Leaving the city gardens at the other end we turned left and soon arrived at an impressive building called the Vorontsov Monument - not sure what it was but it was surrounded by another nice park and a reasonable sized art & crafts market.
Continuing down the same street eventually lead to the Cathedral - it was further thn it looked on the map and when we got there only the crypt was open, but it was nice enough.
We made our way back to the funicular by a slightly different route (found free wifi near McDonalds in one of the main streets) and again enjoyed our day. Do be aware that maps are of little use here unless you have one with the street names printed with the cyrilic alphabet as well as English, as only the cyrilic ones are used on street signs and hardly anyone seemed to speak English.
Sevastopol was another nice city and the map here seemed far easier to follow. From the port there is a road leading the short distance up to a square from where we walked along a very nice seafront park to the main sqaure of the town, Lazarev Square (according to the map - again the street names were unrecognisable). Turning right at the roundabout (just past McDonalds) brought us into the central market. Later we followed the main street heading towards the famous Panorama Museum, visiting one of the catherdrals on the way. Unfortunately the Panorama is on top of a hill far too steep for us to climb with the wheelchair, but people who had visited al seemed impressed.
We walked back towards the ship along the seafront (Lenin) street which looked more direct but was not a very interesting walk, I think the other route was much nicer and did not seem much further. The tourist information lady had said 45 minutes to walk from the ship to the Panorama and I think that would be about right, it must be about a mile and a half to the bottom of the hill. There were horses there to take people up to the museum (husband declined this !!).
Apart from the Panorama there are monuments all over the city, mostly military I think, but it made it an interesting city to explore, nicer than I had expected,
Russia can only be visited independently if you hold a Russian visa, which are difficult and expensive to obtain, which is a shame as Sochi looked like a nice resort town and we docked right on the promenade between 2 busy pebble beaches. However, one of our Cruise Critic group was kind enough to put together a tour with Sochi Holidays (www.sochi-holi.ru). It cost $70 US each for 10 of us for 5 hours with a driver and excellent English-speaking guide. We visited an Orthadox church, walked along the lovely seafront park then drove up Akhun Mount, 600 metres above sea level, to climb the observation tower for amazing views of the surrounding city, sea and mountains. From there we drove to Stalin's Dacha (holiday villa) which was interesting, visited a glorious old Spa Hotel from the Soviet era, sadly somewhat decayed now, and enjoyed a sightseeing drive around the city before returning to the ship at 2pm. This was considerably cheaper than the ship's tours and we saw much more. Also, all of the ship's tours stated that they were unsuitable for passengers with wheelchairs or walking difficulties, whereas our driver and guide really put themselves out to help - the only thing Paul could not do was the tower climb, everywhere else was fine. It was a very interesting day and highly recommended for anyone visiting Sochi.
All cruise lines like to encourage the belief that any guests not on one of their own tours needs a visa to be able to get off the ship, but I can confirm that (as in St Petersburg when we toured with Red Oktober a few years ago) there was absolutely no problem or query- our tour leader had given our names to the immigration officers in advance and we simply walked through with everyone else and were met by our guide outside immigration, where we paid cash for the tour on the day.
Yalta is a beautiful resort city located in a bay surrounded by huge mountains, a really stunning view. Even though it was a hot, sunny day the mist never quite cleared from the mountain tops. Again the port is right in the centre of town and there is a nice promenade with many cafes, stalls and designed outlet shops (but not particularly cheap from what I saw).
The tourist info lady gave out good maps on board and was informative about public transport - bus 5 or 11 goes from next to the cathedral to Livadia Palace (of Yalta Conference fame) and there is a ferry from the jetty about half way along the seafront that goes to the pretty Swallows Nest Castle. We decided against Livadia as it was very hot and we didn't fancy getting on a crowded bus. There were also taxis offering tours for $20 per hour to both of these main sights. We investigated the ferry but there were no English timetables and the Swallows Nest ticket booth wasw closed when we walked past fairly early. We intended to go back later but time went on as we explored the city, visited the Alexander Nevsky cathedral (the nicest on this trip) and the huge market area near the port (shown as a 'shopping area' on the map - follow the pedestrian street behind the Kodak centre) so we did not get around to it, and with anearly sailaway of 4pm we found plenty to do in Yalta itself. There are several grey pebble beaches but they were completely packed with people enjoying the weather - there was hardly room to stand on the beach, let alone lay down a towel, but the whole place had a nice family fun atmosphere. (Free wifi outside a large hotel at the far end of the beach, near a small tourist craft market) And as we left port we could see the Swallows Nest castle in the distance.
The following day was at sea but an interesting one as we sailed through the Bosphorus, passing Istanbul in the morning and the Dardanelles in the afternoon, passing quite close to the Galipoli monument early evening. the cruise director gave commentary at the points of interest.
Since our last visit about 8 years ago the cruise port has developed enormously and in fact the whole town has cleaned up a lot to the extent that the bazaar is now more like a shopping mall. But it is still a nice place to visit and wander around the shops within a few steps of the port.
When we tired of shopping we went to the city beach a short walk to the left from the port. It was nice to have a swim and cool off, but the water was not very clear or, probably, very clean. But it is handy and you can rent a sunbed & umbrella for 5 lira if you want to stay longer. Maybe another time I would get on one of the many minibuses that pass the port every few minutes going to Ladies Beach a couple of miles away.
We broke the habit of a lifetime and stayed on the ship - Paul hates heights and would not go up the cablecar, on our last visit I had taken the cablecar up and walked down.
We had to vacate our cabin by 8am and leave the ship by 9am, breakfast was available until 8.30am so it was not too early a start. Our flight home was not until 7pm and from internet research had found that we were able to leave our cases at the Student and Traveller's Inn in the Plaka District for 2 euros per bag for the day.
It was our 4th time in Athens and in the past we had been rather unlucky, delayed by general strikes and overcharged by argumentative taxi drivers, and my impressions of the city have never been that good. But I must say that this time everything worked smoothly, the taxi driver had quoted 20-25 euros for the journey and although I could not persuade him to switch on his meter he asked for 25 at the end which was fine by us.
We duly left our bags in the luggage room at the Students Inn and paid our 4 euros. No receipts were issued for either our money or cases, receptionist assured me he would recognise me and it was not necessary. We had already made sure that my jewellery, laptop etc were in our day bag and nothing of major value in the cases, but there was no problem, they were there safely waiting for me when we went back later in the day.
Having focussed on the Acropolis on previous visits we decided to do something different this time, walked first through the (wonderfully wheelchair accessible) Plaka to the flea market at Monastiraki then from there to Syntagma Square, mainly to check out the airport bus departure point but while there we saw the changing of the guard at the Parliament building. Later we walked through the lovely National Gardens, where is was much cooler than in the city, to visit the Temple of Olympian Zeus (2 euros each to go in but nearly as visible from the road really) and Hadrian's Arch. From there we wandered back through the Plaka to collect our suitcases then returned to Syntagma Square to catch the 4pm airport bus (X95 - runs every 15-20 minutes, costs 3.20 euros each).