The West

Black Sea gems
Livadia Palace, where Stalin, Churchill and Roosevelt met after WW2 / Pictures: Barry O'Brien

While the city of Sochi has leapt into public awareness courtesy of the Winter Olympics, other Black Sea ports of Nesebar in Bulgaria, Odessa and Yalta in Ukraine, Constanta in Romania and Sinop in Turkey are hardly destinations that spring readily to mind.

Nevertheless, they are just as spectacular in their own way. Previously largely neglected, they are now becoming popular on cruise ship calendars.

Wife Pat and I discover this on a Seabourn Odyssey cruise starting in Athens, then travelling to the Greek Islands and through Istanbul into the Black Sea.

Nesebar, known as the Pearl of the Black Sea, was an unexpected jewel in the itinerary. Listed by UNESCO as a World Heritage site, it is a charmingly historic and stunningly picturesque seaside resort on the Bulgarian coast.

The old town is on an island connected to the mainland by a narrow strip of land. More than 40 places of worship, dating from the 6th to the 12th century, were once in use but now most are in ruins with only seven still operating.

Narrow cobblestone lanes meander, maze-like, from the ancient fortress wall to the well- preserved 18th and 19th century stone and wood houses. Street stalls selling souvenirs, including jewellery, pottery, religious icons, needlework, leather goods and antiques are dotted along the way.

Connections to the distant past abound in the area. Constanta, in Romania, dates back 2500 years. Legend has it that Jason landed here with the Argonauts after discovering the Golden Fleece.

Odessa is a beautiful city of parks and trees, impressive architecture, grand statues and spluttering Lada cars.

There's an old joke about the famous - or infamous - Russian vehicle: What's the difference between a Lada and a golf ball? You can drive a golf ball 200m. Despite this, it seems they keep on keeping on because we saw some that had seen better days but were still chugging along.

A statue of the Duke of Richelieu, a French royalist who served as a commissioned officer in the Russian imperial army and was later appointed the first governor of Odessa, is given a prime position at the top of the 192 Potemkin Steps leading to the waterfront. We were glad we walked down rather than up. Although why the duke was dressed like a Roman and wearing a toga was a mystery.

Yalta is quite beautiful, with much modern history. It was once the playground of Russian nobility, attracted by its subtropical climate as they escaped the fearful Moscow winters. In 1945 the Yalta Conference between the "Big Three" powers - the Soviet Union, US and UK- saw Stalin, Roosevelt and Churchill divvy up the spoils of war at Livadia Palace.

The fairytale-like Massandra Palace, also in Yalta, was used by Stalin as his summer residence, or dacha. It is said he would hold lavish dinners where the alcohol flowed freely.

Stalin would drink sparingly but encouraged his guests to partake. With tongues loosened by the end of the night, he would know all their secrets and conspiracies. Some guests were never seen again.

As we were ushered out through the inevitable chain of souvenir shops, we were greeted by a balalaika player dressed (despite the very hot day) in a heavy coat and bearing a wild moustache. The only change I had was a coin worth about $3.

As I dropped it among the very small change, his eyes lit up and I thought he was going to kiss me.

When we berthed in Istanbul we found the Grand Bazaar a thriving, buzzing shoppers' paradise.

Just a glance at an item would bring a salesman hovering, eager to make a sale. We looked at a number of bags in various stores and eventually Pat settled on one.

"This is a beautiful leather bag and because you are my first customers of the day I'll give it to you for the bargain price of 200 euro," the young salesman said.

I shook my head and ushered Pat out of the shop in true bargaining fashion, ready for the joust.

"Sir, sir, it is a bargain at 200," he pleaded, trying to block our path. "OK, how much will you give me?"

"Fifty dollars," I said, thinking it was a low amount to start the bargaining.

"OK," he said, without batting an eyelid. I wondered at what price I could have purchased it.

The service aboard Seabourn Odyssey was perfect, bordering on excessive. At the morning and lunch buffet, the waiters - most of whom knew us by name by the second day - insisted on taking even the smallest bowl to the table.

Waiters escorted guests arm-in-arm to evening dinner and had the knack of finding the perfect dining companions in the open-seating dining room.

A case in point was earlier, in the Greek Islands, when Odyssey captain David Bathgate changed the schedule when he heard there would be three other ships in the planned itinerary ports of Mykonos and Santorini.

It was a masterstroke as the weather turned so windy the other ships didn't get into Mykonos at all. We were the only ship in port when we visited.

What's more, when we arrived in Santorini, the cable cars to the top were waiting for passengers, whereas on a busy day, large queues and long waits are common. The alternative to getting to the town on the top of the cliff is by donkey.

We chose the cable car up and walked down the donkey path on the way back. It gave the term "donkey drops" - normally used to indicate loopy deliveries in cricket - a whole new meaning.

However, as soon as one of the multitude of well-fed donkeys responded to the call of nature, a man with a shovel and broom was on the scene to clean up.

We found Kusadasi, on the Turkish coast, great fun as long as you can withstand the onslaught from the traders, each with their own catchcry to entice you to spend money. "Come and see, it's almost free!" "How can you pass my shop window without looking?" "Why do you pass when I have a thousand jewels?" "Now it's my turn!" "Please, pleasure your eyes."

Kusadasi specialises in beautiful leather goods, jewellery and carpets. The silk carpets aren't cheap but they are exquisite, handmade masterpieces woven from the produce of millions of silkworms, originally smuggled out of China in the 11th century. It takes about 3000 silkworms to make one pound of silk.

An exclusive free evening concert under the stars in Ephesus is a feature of every Seabourn visit to Kusadasi.

The concert under the stars in the Ephesus amphitheatre.
While popular classics filled the warm night air in the ruins of the 2000-year-old amphitheatre, the wine flowed freely, accompanied by generous helpings of nibbles. It was a highlight of the cruise.

On returning to the ship, all the chefs and waiting staff were on hand to welcome us back - with more food and wine.

fact file

Cruise the Black Sea on a round-trip Istanbul itinerary on Seabourn Odyssey's seven-day Black Sea Odyssey departing on August 2, priced from $4499 per person twin share. Travel agents, seabourn.com or 13 24 02.

The West Australian

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