We arrived in Istanbul in the early morning with a mist on the Bosphorus, and a sunny day in store. Istanbul is a enormous city, growing from the around 1.5 million when Martin first visited in the late 1960s to around 14 million. With the two bridges connected the Asian and European sides of the town it is bustling and busy with ferries criss-crossing the Bosphorus and a very modern efficient tram system (very simple to use and well-worth using if you staying anytime and want to explore on foot).
We had a day and a night on the ship before we disembarked finally so we took advantage of the tours and started with the tour of Old Istanbul.
This began with a tour of the Blue Mosque, with its intricate blue tiles covering every conceivable wall and roof space, 6 minarets and stained glass windows pointing to the huge dome. It was crowded even early in the day and as it is a functioning mosque it was necessary to take off one’s shoes and for the women to cover their heads with a scarf not a hat!).
Then the highlight- the Underground Cistern which dates back to the 6th century and was built by the Emperor Justinian in 532 to enrues that the town had it’s own water supply that could not be ransacked by invaders.It is in amazing condition as it was ignored by the Ottoman empire who want use water uneless it is flowing and is now a mecca for tourists. If you do little else in Istanbul, visit the Cistern… it is wworth going down all the steps, queueing and standing under dripping water.
Finally we visited the Hagia Sophia, originally built as a Christian church under Constantine the Great, and rebuilt by Emperor Justinian. Justinian certainly left his mark on Istanbul, he was determined that this building would suprass all others in splendor and it is certainly awesome. Taken over by the Turks and turned into a mosque as it remained, being rebuilt and renovated until 1935 when Mustafa Ataturk had the foresight to turn it into a museum. It too is certainly worth a visit and will impress with its grandeur and incredible feats of civil engineering.
Our afternoon excursion was a more leisurely cruise on the Bosphorous. This took us up the European side of the straits and down the Asian side. With a stop at a waterside cafe for some local yoghurt (very good) and a Turkish coffee.
A beautiful sunny day made it all the more impressive.
Our next ports of call were Varna and Nessebur in Bulgaria. We disembarked at Varna early in the morning after sailing through the night. Today Varna is a major tourist destination in the region.
A watery sunshine and a chilly breeze greeted us as we took a bus and walking tour of the sights of the city. As with so many towns around the Black Sea the history goes back to Roman times and earlier, and there are many Roman ruins around the harbour side. As with the other cities we have visited it too was an important link in the Ottoman empire, it see-sawed between control by the Bulgurs and the Turks for centuries,
We were taken to the Roman Baths where it is possible to get a picture of just what a big enterprise these were and how sophisticated Roman engineering was. We also visited a Roman market place where the mosaic floor was remarkably preserved despite a flood in recent years which had ruined some of the mosaic. On the down side it is all a bit fusty and in need of a clean, but it remains remarkable.
The Ethnographic Museum was another stop. This is in an Ottoman town house built by one of the upper classes almost entirely of wood. It houses local crafts and folk costumes and was an interesting overview of the culture of the region. Other tours we were offered today included the Balchik Botanical Gardens, Balchik being a coast town just outside Varna, and the tour included a tour of the palace built in 1936 by King Ferdinand of Romania for his English wife Queen Marie. But as we only had a half day in Varna only one tour was possible. Often we will take ourself off to explore, but when a ship only calls into a port for a half day, unlees you have made private arrangements, taking a town tour is really the only way to see a place – sometimes you will find the port is out of town and just getting into town can talk precious time. We left Varna at lunchtime and headed to Nessebar, also known as Nesebar. Sailing into the port in the late afternoon sun was magical. It is a very pretty port and you can see why it is a major resort, not just for local but also British and German tourists.
We had a night and a day in this town, so as soon as the ship had docked we set off to walk the old part of town, right beside the port. This town too is steeped in history – going back 3,000 years. One of the most important Byzantine towns on the west coast of the Black Sea in Byzantine times, it has many churches, Roman ruins and 19th century wooden houses. It is also has a vibrant tourist sector with many shops, cafes and restaurants.
The excursion we chose the next day was the Bulgarian Village. We set off in a bus which took us on a tour of the country side and gave us a quick look at the resort of Sunny which has around 500 tourist hotels and sandy beaches. The village we visited was Goritsa, a sleepy little village populated by many retirees, where we visited the tiny local Orthodox Church, located in a small house, as this was the only way these Christians could worship in the time of the Ottoman and Muslim domination. The priest and his wife spoke very good English and gave us an excellent overview of how their church operated and their lives.
There followed morning town at the home of a local family who greeted us with the traditional home-baked bread which you eat sprinkled with a mix of cinnamon and salt (delicious), home-baked sweets and cakes (a baklava of course and other sweets baked with filo, shortbreads including kourabiedes, and homemade cheese. The master of the house also made very good wine and had a distillery making rakia. They were warm and welcoming and it was a delightful interlude.
A visit to the local majoy followed and we were back at the ship by lunchtime. More time to explore in the afternoon then we sailed for Istanbul in the late afternoon
Just back from an excursion into Constanta, Romania. We did not particularly warm to it. It is a town that has seen better days, many of the beautiful ornate mansions were requisitioned by the Communists and are now crumbling, because their owners, having got them back can’t afford to restore them. The picture is of an ornate and potentially captivating building by the waterfront, that has been everything from a home to a wedding reception house to a casino, but now in disrepair.
We did a walking tour this morning and were shown the old Roman ruins, of which there are many, including an amazingly huge mosaic floor of a former market that has been unearthed by archaeologists. Unfortunately they don’t seem to have the money to keep this in good condition either, so it’s future is probably threatened.
It was freezing… we thought it would be warm and sunny, as the last 2 days at sea were idyllic as far as sunshine goes… so it was good to get back to the ship and a bowl of soup.
Before our 2 days at sea, we ventured onto Russian soil at Sochi, the place of the Winter Olympics in 2014. Sochi has been described as spectacular and the mountain peaks that form the background were the site of the Olympics. It was a freezing, wet day and we opted for the excursion to see the sights and visit Stalin’s Dacha. A visa is essential for Australians entering Russia and they are very expensive and not worth if for a half day’s stopover, so there was no chance to do an independent walk around the city. Our first stop was the Matseta springs, a sulfur spring spa popular with many Russians and the reason why Stalin built one of his many dachas there.
When we arrived at Stalin’s ‘holiday house’, we found a grim dark green building, which was mostly closed to the public, even his swimming pool which was on the itinerary was closed for renovation. Kept nearly as it was in Stalin’s time, with a life-size wax figure of Stalin sitting at his desk in his office, it was quite unnerving.
We have been listening to lectures on board by experts in diplomacy and Byzantine and military history and this has added to the tours and made the excursions much more interesting … one reason we chose this trip.
So now we have 3 more ports of call, the final one being Istanbul. Next it’s Varna, then Nessebur, then Istanbul.
Batumi, Georgia is our port of call on the following day. The sun shines and the air is chilly in the early morning as our guide leads on a walking tour of the city. As with all guides, Salome is very proud of her city and it is certainly putting on its Sunday best on this day. The building sparkle in the early morning sun, especially the odd folly that may become a hotel with a ferris wheel attached to the side high off the ground and a shiny spear pointing to the heavens.
We walk throught cobbled streets with well-kept houses and reach Neptun Square, a modern central square opposite the mosque. Service is beginning but we creep into the back of the church and watch the ceremony briefly, taking in the incense fumes and the devout crowd.
Then it’s a bus trip to the Botanical Gardens. These are 20 minutes drive outside the city and high in the mountains. We are lucky that our guide knows her plants and she takes us through the sections of the gardens divided into various geographical regions, including, surprisingly, Australia. The view down to Batumi city is spectacular.
Lunchtime has us back on board, then a walk through another part of the city, less salubrious, and a place of gambling houses, pawn houses and money exchanges. Batumi is apparently a paradise for Turks who cross the border to gamble and enjoy an alcoholic drink! Apart from tourism the city’s economy is based on oil refining and tea as the climate is ideal for tea plantations.
The afternoon offers a special performance of the Adjara Company of Song and Dance at the State Musical Centre. This has been organised for the ship’s passengers and proves to be a captivating performance. The Musical Centre is modern with good acoustics and the performance is a precise and coalourful display of Georgian dance and music. We are treated to musicians and singers as well as dance performances and come away with a lasting memory of this part of Georgian culture.
Trabzon, further along the Turkish coast, is our next port of call. Established round the 7th century with expectations that it would be part of the great caravan route to Persia, it is a port that you are unlikely to visit unless you travel by ship. Steeped in history of course, the port does little to give this away, it is industrial looking and in the seedy part of town. We have not chosen to do a tour of the city and visit the Agia Sophia founded in the mid 13th century, but to take the bus trip to the Sumela monastery.
Sadly it is raining. But that doesn’t stop the modern coaches which barely straddle the mountain road heading out of town and up into them misty mountains. These are the Pontic Alps, the snow is melting on the mountain tops and there are furious waterfalls crashing into the gullies crossed by the road.
The Sumela Monastery, on Mela Mountain, was founded in the 4th century when an icon of the Virgin Mary formed the nucleus for a religious order and wasn’t abandoned until 1923.
It has been rescued and is currently being restored. Attached to a sheer rock cliff, like a wasp’s nest, the monastery is an amazing feat of engineering by the monks and their workers. Self-sufficient with a bakery, a kitchen, water supplied by an aqueduct, a library and student’s rooms it is entered via the guard room after climbing steep stairs through the forest.
It is now a major tourist attraction and we were one of many parties making the trek up the mountain from the carpark.
There is much work still to be done on the monastery which has been seriously defaced by graffitti over the frescoes, but you can’t destroy the location and sheer magnitude of the construction which covers the side of the mountain and, we were told is also accessible by tunnel and from below – but that is closed to the public. When there has been more restoration work done, it will be an even more awesome piece of history.
We also have the afternoon in Trabzon – so we set off into the town. Firstly taking the wrong turn into a seedy local market, then re-tracing our steps to the central square and the hub of the town’s social life on a Saturday afternoon. We enjoy a fresh bream, split in half and grilled to perfection, accompanied by salad and tomato/chilli paste and a complimentary baclava with tea. Just next door an excellent sweet shop beckons and we buy plump dried apricots and figs, Turkish pastries and pistachio sweets to take back to the ship.
We set sail from Cannakale in the late afternoon and headed down straits towards the Bosphorous and Istanbul. By 6.00 a.m. we had reached the outskirts of the city that was once called Constantinople and by the time we were up we were passing under the first of the great bridges. The morning was misty, the sun was watering trying with an orange glow to be seen through the thick grey clouds, but without success.
Once we had passed the new (third) bridge being built to cross the Bosphorus we were into the Black Sea and on our way to Sinop. Before we decided to take this cruise I knew very little about the Black Sea, except that Sebastopol and the Crimea were somewhere on its seabord so Sinop was not a place I ever expected to visit. It took 2 nights to reach this town in Turkey on the southern seabord of the Black Sea. Legend has it that Sinop was founded by the Amazons, history has it that whoever it was the first habitation was around 700 B.C. It was a focus for the trade route for thousands or years, and many of the great civilizations fought over its possession. The city walls that still stand in many places, are over 2000 years old ahd have been built upon many times over the years. We took a walk with a guide to the mosque and the folk museum, then set off on our own. We found a delightful coffee shop/music coffee bar tucked into a courtyard. Here a young man, whose English was very good, served us an excellent Turkish coffee and treated us to an impromptu performance on his instrument, a bit like a mandolin, but made from a butternut pumpkin shell.
A bakery tempted us inside and we bought freshly baked turkish bread and a couple of pastries before heading back to the ship for lunch. Minerva set sail early afternoon for the next port of Trabzon.
Next day we set off to explore the Plaka by daylight and explored the narrow streets and laneways of the old town beneath the Acropolis. After sampling ouzo in an ouzo bar – yes at 11.00 a.m.! – we caught one of the tourist buses and did a tour that took us to the Acropolis (which we didn’t climb thinking we might come back) and down to the port Piraeus. Beautifully warm sunny weather and a good reintroduction to Athens, which reminded us of Buenos Aires with it’s broken footpaths, graffiti and abandoned building sites. We couldn’t leave Athens without finding a Lukumades bar. We loved these Greek sweets when we were here before and we found a modern take on the old bars in the Plaka. Two enterprising young guys are filling them with chocolate and banana cream as well as the traditional honey and cinnamon… we preferred the traditional…. of course they too are accompanied by Greek coffee!!
We boarded the Minerva that afternoon. Then after unpacking found a taxi to take us to the old port, and found a taverna on the water’s edge where we had a plate of really fresh seafood, a Greek salad, and a rice dessert with more mastika! And of course Greek coffee.
The ship left Piraeus the next day at lunchtime and we arrived at the beginning of the Dardanelles early this morning. We got up early to see the entrance and to enjoy the sunrise over the Turkish countryside.
Our excursion departed from Cannakle at 9.30 and we bussed to a ferry that took us across the straight and off to the battlefields. Unfortunately we missed the intended ferry and had to wait for the next short which cut our visit short by a museum visit… but we managed to visit Anzac Cove (the site of the ceremony a couple of days ago), the cemetery at Lone Pine and other sites of the Gallipoli battle. With a grandfather who landed at Anzac Cove at 4.a.m. on 25th April 1915, in the first Australian contingent, it was a special moment to stand on that very beach just over 100 years later.
Our adventure in Norway ended in Bergen. The new adventure would begin in Athens, Greece 2 days later. Our last day in Bergen was very wet… not unusual for Bergen we were told, in fact quite normal. It is didn’t deter us from riding on the cable car up to the top of a mountain and looking down on a toytown Bergen through the mist and raindrops. The best way to see Bergen, whether it is rainy or sunny.
The following day we travelled to Greece. An investigation of the flights, flight times and our need to be in Greece by a deadline, meant that the best way to go was from Bergen to London and London to Athens.
It is over 40 years since we were last in Greece. Then we were young backpackers, exploring a part of the world we had fallen in love with while living in Melbourne and discovering wonderful Greek food and making Greek friends. We spent our last dollars on Corfu, in Athens and then travelling up to Thessalonika, in glorious summer sunshine. We discovered loukamades, watched our first Greek wedding and were thrown a parcel of Greek almonds we later learned was a bombonniere, swam from a pristine beach in Corfu and explored an unfenced Acropolis.
The Greece of 2015 is very different. Freeways, large hotels, English signs, English speaking in shops and wherever we go intense traffic. 40 years ago the traffic was chaotic and noisy, but nothing like it is now.
After checking in to our hotel in the heart of the city, we set off into the Plaka to find a Greek taverna. And we did. Daphne’s is a delightful restaurant nestliing into a ruin, with vine and bougainvillea covered courtyards and attentive waiters. I asked for retsina, to the surprise of the waiter, but it was not available, however everything else was.
We dined on a grilled eggplant salad, dolmades, grilled calamari and spinakopita, with two glasses of excellent Greek wine. We followed with a plate of Greek sweets, galactoboureko, kataifi and balaclava, Greek coffees and a glass of mastica. An excellent re-introduction to Greece!
Our journey south takes in the same towns we visited on the way north at different times of the day. This time we visited Trondheim in the morning and though the wind was icy, the sun shone and we took advantage of the two and half hour stop to take another walk in the town.
As we depart Trondheim we sail past Monk Island. Now a holiday island with a beach frequented by the locals in the summer months, it is a former place of execution and home to a Benecdictine monastery.
After lunch we stop at Kristiansunde – and the sun comes out. The fjords are mystical in the sleet and mist, in the sun they are magical.
Tomorrow is our last day. We must pack our bags, then we will sail through the tight waters of the
Sognefjord, the longest and deepest fjord in Norway. On our journey north we sailed this passage of thousands of islands at night.
It has been an amazing trip, we feel we have only just started to learn about the Norwegian fjords, I am sure we will return.