Friday, June 25, 2010

June 25th – The Battlegrounds of Sevastapol

In the 18th century, Sevastapol was constructed as the base for the new Russian Black Sea Fleet, and this is still a predominantly military city –. there's servicemen everywhere, military monuments all over the place, and the harbour is home to plenty of Russian and Ukrainian warships.

Being such an important strategic port, it's not surprising that the city has been the seen of some monumental battles over the years. In the Crimean War, Sevastapol was besieged by the British and the French for 349 days of constant bombardment; and then in the Second World War, the city was again besieged by the Germans for 2 years in which time it was virtually flattened.

We started with a visit to the Monument to the Scuttled Ships, that commemorates the time when the Russian Navy scuttled their ships at the entrance to the harbour, to prevent the British and French fleets from attacking the harbour. As we looked at the memorial, we were treated to a far more interesting spectacle - a gaggle of super-size babooshkas in their bikinis doing their morning exercises and beating their ample bosoms and yodelling like Tarzan, before launching themselves into the waters.

We then went to Balaclava to look over the "Valley of Death", where the tragic Charge of the Light Brigade took place. It was odd to look over this peaceful valley of green vineyards, and listen to our guide talk us through the troop movements and terrible miscommunications which turned a valiant cavalry charge into a suicide mission. We stood on the spot that the British commander, Lord Raglan watched his orders turn into a military disaster – it must have been stomach churning to watch.

Next, we went to the Seastapol Panorama, to see the Crimean War from Russian eyes, in an enormous 360 degree painting combined with real life sets, that illustrated the terrible conditions for the Russian troops to stunning effect – it was done so well that at times you couldn't work out where the painting finished and set began.

After lunch on board, we went exploring the city – something that you couldn't do for the entire Soviet period, up until 1997, when this was a "closed city", off-limits to anyone but the Russian military. Because the city was reserved purely for the military, no expense was spared in its harmonious ensemble of white neo-classical buildings, and there aren't the ugly apartment blocks to ruin the views. 90% of Sevastapol's population are still Russian, and I detected a less open and fun-loving atmosphere to the place, but nevertheless it's still another fascinating place to visit.

It appears that Friday in Sevastapol is the day for weddings, so there were countless overly-meringued brides posing at all the photo stops. My favourite was the tastefully dressed Dollyov Partonov look-a-like whose photo album I hoped that I've managed to muscle my way into.

June 24th – Odessan Odyssey

Today we experienced four seasons in one day, as the weather alternated between bright sunshine, dark clouds, strong winds and heavy rain.

Again we did the Odessa file up the Potemkin Steps and we went on a trail around the beautiful architecture of the so-called "Pearl of the Black Sea". This place has a really strong feel of St Petersburg, with all its grand neo-classical buildings painted in their pastel shades, but there's a much more relaxed feel to the streets – much less traffic and a lot less high-end shops selling overpriced luxuries to the new super rich. Even though there were a lot of old Ladas still chugging and smoking around the streets, there's also lots of BMWs with blacked out windows and Porsches parked nonchalantly in the middle of the pavement, which tell you that some people are definitely doing well here.

But when you see the grand ensembles of buildings, covered in plaster cherubs, columns, caryatids and other embellishments – some renovated, but many quite dilapidated - you can see that this place has a long way to go before it recaptures its 19th century glories, when it was one of the richest cities in Eastern Europe.

After a delicious and cheap lunch, we went to the Fine Arts Museum housed in a beautiful pink palace – we hadn't heard of any of the Russian or Ukrainian artists, but the quality was still pretty good (and it tied in nicely with Tracy's History of Art studies). What was most entertaining was how we were followed around by the old babooshkas looking on at us suspiciously, ready to blow their plastic whistles at any point if we stepped out of line - no matter how many beaming smiles you gave them, all you got was a withering look and a little toss of the whistle to remind you who was in charge.

June 23rd – Operatic Odessa

We got into Odessa at 12pm, so we rushed off the ship to explore this historic Ukrainian town. The ship docks really close to town, so we walked to the bottom of the famous Potemkin Steps, Odessa's most famous architectural setpiece, a monumental staircase of 192 steps leading up from the port into the town centre. The Potemkin Steps are most famous for the massacre that took place here in 1905, when Tsarist troops killed 2,000 protesters on the steps – a kind of Tiananmen Square Massacre that precipitated the Russian Revolution 12 years later (immortalised in Eisenstein's film, "The Battleship Potemkin".

The steps are the most touristy part of Odessa, but it was still an odd sight to see a baby crocodile with its mouth gaffer-taped up, a monkey (with mini oven gloves taped onto his hands to stop him from scratching people), and an owl, all being touted around for ignorant tourists to pose for photos.

Odessa was built from scratch in the early 19th century, as a kind of St Petersburg by the Black Sea, so it's full of grand baroque and neo-classical buildings in various states of (dis)repair. But as we soaked up the historic atmosphere on the elegant city centre, you couldn't help but notice how many very attractive young women there were walking the streets. The only thing that kept Tracy from slitting her wrists at the quality of the competition, was that most of them were dressed in some of the worst fashions I've seen outside of Skegness on a Saturday night. I've never seen so many tight-fitting dresses, mini-skirts, push-up bras and nylon in my life – it's like there wasn't enough nylon in the Ukraine to go round, so everyone was rationed into wearing as little as possible.

In the evening, I watched the first half of the England match, and then dragged myself away to go to the Opera to watch "The Barber of Seville". Typically, having sat through 2 dire England performance, we were actually playing well this time, but how many chances to you have to watch an opera in one of the most grand and ornate opera houses in Europe? Odessa's baroque opera house is dripping with gold gilt and fat little cherubs, and it was a wonderful setting for a really entertaining performance (even though the plot was so incomprehensible that one couple thought the whole thing had finished after Act Two and were ready to go, with the final plot-resolving Act still to go).

To make a wonderful evening even better, we learnt that England had won and are through to the next round!

June 22nd – Beautiful Bulgaria

From Varna in the Black Sea we travelled into the Bulgarian countryside to visit the symbol of Bulgaria and the nation's most treasured historical site, the Madara Horseman.

On the way there, our rather cynical local guide gave us his critique of where he thought Bulgaria had gone wrong in the 20 or so years since it left Communism behind. His theory was that after all those years under Soviet domination, where everyone had to do what they were told and didn't have to think for themselves, they now only thought about themselves and didn't care what effect their actions had on the rest of society. Into this social vacuum, a small super-rich and corrupt elite had accumulated enormous wealth at the expense of the rest of society, while most ordinary people struggled to improve their lot. He said he was glad that Bulgaria had now joined the EU, because "someone would now tell us what to do" – he genuinely felt that Bulgaria (or Bulgarians) couldn't be trusted to make decisions for themselves.

On our way out of Varna, we passed beautiful belle epoch architecture from the turn of the century just after the country had gained independence from the Ottomans; then rows of ugly and decaying concrete apartment blocks from Soviet times; then the gleaming shopping malls full of western brands from the last 5 years – "we have become a mall culture", our guide wearily told us.

The traffic in Varna was pretty heavy – "we take in all of Europe's second hand cars and are now just a scrapyard" - but once we got out of town the roads were delightfully empty, if a little potholed in places. As we passed by some beautiful farming countryside, our guide explained how many farms and fields are now lying idle, because after the fall of communism most of the collectivised farms were given back to the families of their original owners – however, by the 1990s, many of these farming families had been moved to the cities and were now factory workers who had no interest in farming, or had no knowledge of how to farm. It was sad to see the uncared-for lines of overgrown vineyards, standing wastefully redundant next to the well-manicured vines of a farm where someone had bothered to keep on top of things.

On reaching Madara, we made our way up to the edge of a sheer cliff face on foot, by passing through some beautiful green woodland, to reach the foot of the cliff where the Madara Horseman had been carved into the rockface, some 23 meters above us. Being about 1,300 years old, this remarkable carving of a huntsman on a horse spearing a lion, accompanied by his dog, is admittedly looking a little faint by now, but nevertheless it's quite remarkable for its detail and its age. We stood in front of the Horseman at the bottom of the cliff for about 20 minutes while the guide explained its history – as he reached the end of his explanation, one lady raised her hand and asked, "can someone tell me what we're meant to be looking at?". She'd been looking at a totally empty bit of cliff, wondering what all the fuss was about. Once we'd pointed out the right bit of cliff to her, she was relieved that this wasn't one of those magic eye puzzles where you stare for ages and still don't see it.

After the Horseman, we went to visit a local family to see how the country people live – often these house visits have a fairly contrived feel to them where you feel pretty embarrassed about the whole thing, but here it was a really charming atmosphere, and the warm welcome seemed totally genuine. They provided us with some simple but tasty snacks, and some local folk music blasted out on a screeching Bulgarian bagpipe and a more tuneful accordion. It was a really lovely time, and the best thing for me was that I got to play with a tiny 4 week old kitten and a docile puppy.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

June 22nd – Last Day In Istanbul

A Destination Lecturer who was on the ball would have remembered that the Aya Sofia (Istanbul's most amazing building) is closed on a Monday, so we shouldn't have left it till today to pay another visit there. So, instead, we had to settle for a trip to the Ancient Hippodrome, and to the enormous Blue Mosque that sits opposite. As we sat on the carpet in the Blue Mosque, taking in the awesome size of its dome, unfortunately the most over-riding sensation was one of a pervasive stench of cheesey feet. On another hot and sweaty day, the foot odour from the hundreds of other tourists with us who had removed their shoes was almost overpowering.

After this, we went to one of the city's oldest mosques, the exquisite Sokollu Mehmet Pasha mosque, which was built in 1571 by Sinan, Istanbul's greatest architect (the Ottomans' answer to Palladio or Michelangelo). In contrast to the Blue Mosque, we were the only visitors here, which meant we were given the full attention of the pushy caretaker, who initially appeared helpful, but quickly became annoying. He was really friendly as he tried to sell us some photos, telling us we could take our own photos, as long as we didn't use flash. Then, when we didn't buy his photos, he got really grumpy and said he'd told us we weren't allowed to take photos, and then followed us around, muttering away to himself. Fortunately, you'd be hard pressed to find two more brazen tourists than us, so we gave him big smiles and took our time, before thanking him ever so much for his welcoming attitude

To finish off our day, we went for a "quick" walk along the coast, passing the old Byzantine sea walls, back to the Golden Horn. Unfortunately, this was a lot lot further than we'd anticipated, and there were no seaside cafes to have a rest from the sun in, so it was a long hot walk back to civilisation. On the way, we were amazed to see how many people (actually men only) there were swimming in the less-than-clean-waters of the Bosphorous. This is one of the busiest stretches of water in the world, sitting alongside a city of 15 million people, so I think you'd need a strong constitution to swim in there.

Finally we made it to the Galata Bridge, where a pint of ice cold beer has never tasted so good.

June 21st – Trekking The Bosphorous in Istanbul

Today we did a long walk up the Bosphrous to Ortokoy, a charming former seaside village full of timber-clad Ottoman houses with their overhanging balconies. The walk took us up the coast road, accompanied by thundering traffic and past a couple of Ottoman palaces, before we arrived in Ortokoy, with its array of trendy cafes and restaurants.

Although Ortokoy has long been gobbled up into Istanbul's sprawl, the centre still has a villagey feel to it, and on a balmy Sunday afternoon there was a real holiday atmosphere to the place. After lunch, we took a boat trip up the Bosphorous towards the Black Sea, passing yet more palaces, more timber clad historic villages (that wouldn't have looked out of place in New England), and the enormous waterside residences of Istanbul's rich and famous.

On the way back, Tracy invested in a UPF shirt that will give here lots of protection against the sun as we tour around all these shade-less ancient sites. Having mentioned this purchase to a couple of friends, they pointed out that surely all clothes give you protection against the sun (hence T-shirt suntans etc) – prompting her to get on the internet. It appears that a denim shirt gives you 1000 UPF, while this fairly expensive shirt gives her just 30 UPF – she should have gone to Primark.

June 20th – Falling over a Cliff in Istanbul

On our first day in Istanbul, we lazily resisted the temptation to get up early for the sail-into this magnificent waterside city. Instead we got up late, and went for a walk along the Bosphorous to the ridiculously opulent Dolmabache Palace, the residence of the last Sultans. The Palace was commissioned in the mid-19th century, just at the time when the Ottoman Empire was beginning to fall apart, and it was becoming known as, "The Sick Man of Europe".

To cover up for their waning powers, the Sultans commissioned a ridiculously over-the-top palace that embraced the western styles and fashions of the countries that were rapidly eclipsing them – France, Russian and Britain. The Baccarat salesman in Istanbul must have been rubbing his hands with glee when the Sultan came calling, because the Palace is covered in crystal, plus lots of lavish gold and silver decoration – perhaps the highlight, or at least the biggest waste of money, was a huge crystal chandelier weighing in at four and a half tons.

As we explored all these rooms decorated in gold, we came across another golden oldie that was a relic of when Britain ruled the air waves. Yes, it was Sir Cliff Richard himself. Our excitement at meeting this 60s legend was slightly tempered by the fact that once we got on board, no-one (apart from the few English people onboard) had any clue who Sir Cliff was. Anyhow, the perma-tanned, ever-youthful Cliff graciously granted my request for a photo opportunity, probably overjoyed to finally meet one of the stars of the Destination Lecturing world.

So, having got over our extreme excitement, we caught the funicular up to Taksim Square, the centre of modern Istanbul, and the start of the city's busiest shopping street. As we walked around the bustling street with all the chains selling western styles and fashionable teenagers wearing skimpy tops and shorts, it would have been quite easy to forget that you were in a Muslim country at all.

Later that evening, a similar feeling applied, as we sat outside the incredibly crowded bars of the Beyoglu district, full of the uber-trendy young things knocking back the beers and cocktails. Looking around, the only thing that told us that we weren't back in Britain, was that it was warm enough to sit outside, and that no-one was fighting, being sick or shouting.

This part of Istanbul is so trendy that it's become pretty expensive, so for our evening meal we tried to get away from the busiest streets, to find something a little more reasonable. Having looked at and rejected countless menus as being too expensive, too touristy, or too quiet, we were eventually so weak with hunger that we ended up in a place without a menu at all. So, not having a clue what anything cost, we just ordered away from the trays of food they had keeping semi-warm in the kitchen. Despite our misgivings, as it turned out, it was very tasty and phenomenally cheap, so it was a good choice after all.

Friday, June 18, 2010

June 17th – Ephesus – Heat of Biblical Proportions

Unbelievably, it was 31 degrees when we left the ship at 7.15am for our tour of "Biblical Ephesus", and the day just got hotter and hotter. However, we were thankful for the early start, because at least we got to Ephesus before it got completely boiling; and, as the first people to pass through the gates, we were able to enjoy the site before it got overrun with tourists (we drove past the site later at 12ish, and not only was it 43 degrees by then, but there were loads of groups vying for the few bits of shade).

So, for the first time ever, we were able to take our photos of the magnificent Roman ruins with scarcely a tourist in sight to ruin the view. As you walk around the colonnaded streets, lined with marble, and see the grand temples,fountains and even public lavatories of what was the 4th largest city in the Roman Empire, it's amazing to think that only 30% of this extensive site has actually been uncovered by the archaeologists – there must be so many archaeological treasures underneath the fields that surround it.

But, what makes visiting Ephesus so interesting, isn't just the Roman side of things – this was also the site of many of the Acts of the Apostles. St Paul regularly preached in the huge theatre here (as well as writing his letters to the Ephesians), and St John and the Virgin Mary also spent the last years of their lives here.

Our tour took us to the House of the Virgin Mary – reputedly, the place where she lived and died – and we went to a Mass in the convent next door (the mass was said by one of the only two Catholic Turkish priests). Finally, we filled up our water bottles with holy water from the miraculous spring next to the house, hoping that some divine inspiration might turn me into an orator of St Paul's proportions.

By now it was getting truly roasting, so we were glad it was time for lunch, and we went up into the hills to a lovely remote restaurant, for what we billed as a "Biblical Lunch". Supposedly, the food was prepared using methods and ingredients employed during Christ's time, although we were just keen to know that we'd get more than five loaves and two fish, and if they'd turned the water into wine. Fortunately there was wine (and water), so we feasted on food that didn't seem too different from your standard Turkish fare, although I wasn't able to tell if there was enough to fill 12 baskets at the end of it all.

The food and the heat meant that we scarcely had the energy to see the ruins of St John's Basilica – once one of the largest churches in Christendom, before an earthquake struck. The church was built over the site of St John's grave, and was constructed out of stones taken from the ruins of the Temple of Artemis, one of the Seven Wonders of the World (this ancient wonder consists of one sad-looking column sitting forlornly in a field). At the end of being oven cooked in the Basilica, for once I didn't mind getting taken to one of the ubiquitous Turkish Carpet shops, because at least they had air conditioning.