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17th November, 2020

Cruising the Black Sea

The Black Sea arguably ranks among as one of the world’s most unique body of water. This inland sea, which consists of layers of both fresh and saltwater, touches the shores of six different countries - Bulgaria, Georgia, Romania, Russia, Turkey and Ukraine.

Our Spirit of Adventure cruise, Ancient Wonders of the Black Sea, visits this wonderful region and there is so much to see and do here, from history to natural wonders, food to gold, and art to ancient archaeology.

With so many extraordinary places you can explore while circumnavigating the Black Sea, Neil Cron, Destination Experience Manager, thought it would be useful to showcase some of those places, not only where to find them but more importantly why they need to be discovered.

Tunis

A variety of spices laid out in a souk market

Wandering around in a souk or Arab market is a sensational experience for any visitor. Whether looking for souvenirs, wanting to enjoy the atmosphere or just have a wander around for a few hours; the souks in Tunis will not disappoint you. Grouped according to craft, you can find tiny shops selling jewellery and perfume, spices, carpets, fabric and an endless range of leather wear. Smell the heap of vividly coloured spices, taste the delicious makroud (a delicious almond cookie filled with dates or figs), and have a chat with the friendly shopkeepers. So much more exciting than the local markets at home.

The medina of Tunis is very easy to navigate as at all the main gates you'll find a large map with the streets clearly named, and there are small orange signposts pointing the way to the principal sights. The Rue Jemaa ez Zitouna is the medina's main street and is lined with craft shops and souvenir stalls. Fragrant incense and exotic perfumes compete with the mouth-watering smell of roasting mutton and the aroma of freshly ground coffee. The tap-tap-tap of silversmiths' hammers and the scuff of sandalled feet on paving stones all add to creating a truly atmospheric and memorable visit for those who love to explore either on a guided tour or independently.

Constanţa

Pelicans on Lake Fortuna, Danube Delta, at sunset

The port of Constanta, the country’s oldest continuously inhabited city, lies on Romania’s south eastern coast and is the Black Sea’s largest port and indeed one of the largest ports in Europe.

The call here provides a wonderful opportunity to get a glimpse of one of Europe’s last remaining truly wild natural habitats, the Danube Delta, Europe’s largest wetland area. Stretching over more than 2,500 square miles with one of the largest single expanses of reed beds in the world, the delta is home to an incredible abundance of water birds of all kinds, most notably pelicans of two species, herons, storks, cormorants and terns. It is also a favourite staging area for both migrant birds and wintering grounds for masses of migrating water birds from the steppes, the boreal forests and the tundra further north.

The enormous productivity of the many water habitats here has led to the delta harbouring the largest number of fish species anywhere in Europe, including the world’s largest fresh water fish — the endangered beluga sturgeon — which once used to wander the entire length of the Danube river all the way up into Germany. The delta is a haven for wildlife lovers and birdwatchers alike and can be visited on a full day tour from Constanta.

Odessa

The Potemkin Steps in Odessa on a sunny day

Catherine the Great founded the city in 1794, envisioning a glorious seaside southern capital. Creating an urban pearl on the shores of the Black Sea, her team of international architects didn’t disappoint. Fabulous frontages went up displaying an eclectic blend of architectural styles. Limes, acacias, chestnuts and plane trees were planted, adding greenery and shading streets to keep the Russian aristocrats who flocked here cool in summer.

One of Odessa’s most famous sights, the Potemkin Stairs, will no doubt be familiar to cinema buffs who will remember this iconic landmark from Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin. They feature in the film’s best-known scene where Russian soldiers massacre Odessans during a 1905 anti-tsarist uprising. Although the massacre never actually took place on the steps, they remain a key city landmark. Built in the 19th century to give the city direct access to the harbour, these immense stairs are now the most famous symbol of Odessa. Fortunately, the staircase’s length is only an optical illusion: from the bottom, it looks as if they were endless. In fact, there are only 192 steps with ten equal spans. Nevertheless, if you manage to walk up them (never mind run up them!) without stopping, that is a very impressive, albeit lung-busting, feat.

The stairs also offer outstanding views over Odessa’s port, and at the top a statue of the city’s first mayor, Duc de Richelieu, serves as the most popular photo spot in town.

Batumi

The statue of Ali and Nino

Walking along the coastline of Batumi is relaxing and full of cultural experiences. The boulevard is probably the oldest attraction of the city. Its construction started in 1881 when the Governor assigned Reseller, a German gardener to create a park along the shore of the Old Town.

Nowadays, the length of it reaches to 12 kilometres and is divided into ‘old’ and ‘new’ boulevards. You can see the original park with the new addition of modern benches, sculptures and fountains.

The Boulevard is full of many impressive statues, but the most significant of them all is located at Batumi Bay, where the 7m high statue of Ali and Nino offers a representation of eternal love and is an iconic landmark in Batumi. Created by Georgian artist Tamara Kvesitadze, the figures move towards each other, merge into one piece and then move away from each other every 10 minutes.

The idea to create this magnificent statue came from the book of the same name by Kurban Said. The book is about a romantic relationship between Azerbaijani Muslim Ali and a Georgian Christian daughter of a nobleman in Baku in 1918.

Trabzon

The Sumela Monastery in the Altindere Valley

Trabzon is the capital city of the Trabzon province and arguably one of the Black Sea region’s most important areas due to its many historical remnants and beautiful natural landscapes. From monasteries to mountain villages, fortresses to churches, there’s plenty to see in this town that demands to be discovered by visitors. Without doubt one of Trabzon’s most incredible sights, is the Sumela Monastery, a quite amazing structure, built by Greek monks in the 4th century. Seemingly carved into the Karadag Mountain, the monastery clings almost impossibly to a sheer cliff high above the evergreen forests of the Altindere Valley below.

This is one of the Black Sea region's unquestionable highlights. Indeed for many visitors, just seeing the exterior from the 'Seyir Noktası' viewpoint at the lower car park is well worth the drive from Trabzon alone. The monastery fell into ruin several times during its existence, but was restored by various emperors, reaching its present form in the 13th century as it became very renowned during the Empire of Trebizond. It continued to enjoy protection under the emperors, as well as by Ottoman Sultan Mehmed II. Abandoned in 1923, due to a forced population exchange between Greece and Turkey, the monks buried the famous icon underneath the floor of Sumela’s St. Barbara chapel, where it was later retrieved in 1930 and taken to the new Panagia Soumela Monastery in Greece.

The monastery includes several chapels, kitchens, student rooms, a guesthouse, a library and a holy spring. However, the Rock Church is most striking due to the many frescoes depicting biblical scenes from the story of Christ and the Virgin Mary.

The main trail to the monastery begins right with the parking lot, cross the footbridge past the restaurant, the path is easy to follow, but it’s pretty steep and it takes about 30 minutes to climb to the entrance.

Nesebâr

The magnificent interior of the Sveti Stephen Church, also known as the Iron Church

On a small rocky outcrop 37km northeast of Burgas and connected to the mainland by a narrow, artificial isthmus, pretty-as-a-postcard Nesebâr, the 'Pearl of the Black Sea’, is famous for its UNESCO listed Old Town and some of the best coastline in the country. The town wins hearts at first glance and it’s the ancient churches which are the main reason for the inclusion of Nesebâr into the UNESCO World Heritage List.

They date back to different centuries, from Church of the Holy Mother Eleusa (6th century) to Church of Christ Pantocrator (14th century). The most well-preserved is the Sveti Stefan Church. Built in the 11th century and reconstructed 500 years later, this is the best-preserved church in town. If you only visit one, this is the church to choose. Its beautiful 16th to 18th-century murals cover virtually the entire interior. As always its best to visit as early as possible to avoid the crowds.

Istanbul

The Basilica Cistern in Istanbul

No other city in the world straddles two continents; nowhere else has been the capital of two empires. This vibrant metropolis sprawling across the European and Asian sides of the Bosphorus Strait is unique and was the final stage on the legendary Silk Road linking Asia with Europe. Founded by the Greeks, later capital of the Christian Byzantine Empire, Istanbul blossomed anew at the heart of the Moslem Ottoman Empire following its capture by the Turks in 1453.

Both empires bequeathed Istanbul a wealth of superb buildings, mostly concentrated in the old city centred on Sultanahmet. Istanbul simply oozes history.

Of course, both the Hagia Sophia with its awe-inspiring central dome and gold mosaic-covered interior and the neighbouring Blue Mosque are absolute must see places to visit. Indeed, visit the incredibly photogenic Blue Mosque by entering via the Hippodrome rather than from Sultanahmet Park. Once inside the courtyard, which is the same size as the mosque's interior, you'll appreciate the building's perfect proportions.

Also well worth seeking out is the Basilica Cistern. This subterranean structure was commissioned by Emperor Justinian and built in 532. The largest surviving Byzantine cistern in Istanbul, it was constructed using 336 columns, many of which were salvaged from ruined temples and feature fine carved capitals. Its symmetry and sheer grandeur of conception are quite breathtaking, and its cavernous depths make a great retreat on summer days. Renovated in 1985 by the Istanbul Metropolitan Municipality and opened to visitors in 1987, it is now one of the city's most popular tourist attractions. Walking along its raised wooden platforms, you'll feel water dripping from the vaulted ceiling and see schools of ghostly carp patrolling the water — it certainly has bucketloads of atmosphere.

The opinions expressed are those of the author and are not held by Saga unless specifically stated.

The material is for general information only and does not constitute investment, tax, legal, medical or other form of advice. You should not rely on this information to make (or refrain from making) any decisions. Always obtain independent, professional advice for your own particular situation.

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