A cruise on the Black Sea offers the opportunity to explore Russian cities including Sochi, host of the 2014 Winter Olympics, discovers Gary Buchanan

Livadia Palace, the summer residence of Tsar Nicholas II in Livadiya, southern Ukraine © visittoukraine.com
Livadia Palace, the summer residence of Tsar Nicholas II in Livadiya, southern Ukraine © visittoukraine.com

As Crystal Serenity slipped her lines we edged seawards, slowly taking our leave from the mighty Golden Horn, threading our way past an armada of ferries whose wailing whistles added to the ineffable scene. It was a perfect prelude to our cruise.

For some reason, before going on this trip, the Black Sea had always escaped my radar, no doubt due to an irrational stigma that Romanian, Ukrainian and Russian ports would be too forbidding, not to mention downright dull. Dispelling these myths our cruise, absurdly rich in history, turned out to be as revealing as it was refined.

Known as the “Pearl of the Black Sea”, Odessa was founded in 1794 on the orders of Catherine the Great. The city grew rapidly as the principal port for the export of Russian wheat and its wealth is reflected in the many beautiful buildings that grace the wide boulevards. Pushkin wrote of it: “You can smell Europe, French is spoken and there are European papers and magazines to read”.

Archaeological museum in Odessa
Archaeological museum in Odessa

We climbed the 192 Potemkin Steps, made famous in the Eisenstein film Battleship Potemkin, to reach Primorsky Boulevard with its early 19th century mansions painted in a variety of pastel shades. From here it was a short walk to the Palace of Count Novikov with its brilliantly coloured stained-glass windows, marble fireplaces and impressive staircase; while in the Tolstoy Palace we wandered through the White Hall, Silk Lounge and Marble Lounge. Our morning tour concluded at the Gagarin Palace – home to the Ukrainian Literature Museum showcasing Pushkin manuscripts – and a private recital in the Golden Hall by a Ukrainian string quartet, which proved the perfect overture to lunch on the terrace of Crystal Serenity’s Lido Café.

The musical theme continued that evening as we headed for the Opera House. This theatre, first opened in 1810 and destroyed by fire in 1873, has been majestically restored and now boasts a magnificent Italian Baroque façade. Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninoff conducted on its stage, Caruso and Chaliapin sang, and Pavlova and Isadora Duncan danced. Inside the concert hall, inspired by the style of Louis XVI, we were treated to an enchanting performance of Giselle.

Appearing through tissues of morning mist, the 19th century neogothic castle, known as the Swallow’s Nest, heralded our arrival at the city of Yalta, set in a mountainous amphitheatre on the southern tip of the Crimean Peninsula. Our tour first took us to the white-stone Livadia Palace, former summer palace of Tsar Nicholas II, built in 1911. In the Great White Hall we saw the circular table where Churchill, Stalin, and Roosevelt determined the shape of post-World War II Europe in 1945. Wandering through the private apartments of the Tsar’s family we got a glimpse into the opulent life of the former Russian aristocracy.

Later we drove to Alupka and ambled through a landscaped park to The Vorontsov Palace. Designed in 1828 by the English architect Edward Blore, who also completed Buckingham Palace, this lavish residence is an unusual combination of Scottish castle and Arabian fantasy. Churchill stayed here during the Crimean Conference and it wasn’t difficult to imagine him conceiving the fate of Europe among the finely-carved marble sculptures of the Winter Garden. Our memorable day concluded with a tasting at the Massandra winery, sampling dry, dessert, and liqueur wines matured in oak barrels.

Vorontsov Palace © visittoukraine.com
Vorontsov Palace © visittoukraine.com

Pods of dolphins appeared off the starboard bow as we approached the coast of European Russia. Established in 1898 after Russia gained possession of the region in the Caucasian War, the popular health resort of Sochi, with its subtropical climate, became the epicentre of the Russian Riviera. Situated at the foot of the perpetually snow-capped Caucasus Mountains, the curative powers of the mineral-infused water from the Matsesta (fiery water) sulphur springs were the raison d’être for this spa resort.

Constructed in the early 20th century a host of sanatoria have made Sochi the holiday choice of politicians as well as the proletariat.

We took a tour to Stalin’s bottle-green dacha in Zelenaya Roscha (Green Grove). The dictator imported California pines to create a curious camouflage concealing this hideaway from prying eyes or offshore artillery. Built in 1937, and expanded for the last time just before Stalin’s death in 1953, the dacha is set around a pretty courtyard surrounded by palms and cypresses. The architect had built a small pool in the middle, to resemble a bubbling spring, but the night before Stalin’s first visit his chief bodyguard ordered it to be covered with sand and turned into a flower bed. Stalin, it seems, hated fountains as much as he loved cowboy movies, billiards and show trials. His favourite summer residence is not terribly inviting, with its dark wooden interiors, heavy curtains and scant lighting. But we were intrigued by the furniture, specially designed to accommodate the diminutive frame of the “all nations leader”. In the perfectly preserved Cinema Hall the spectre of Stalin eerily holds sway. In a corner his pockmarked-skin wax effigy, pipe in hand, is seated at a desk complete with vintage telephones.

Returning to the port we visited the 19th century Russian Orthodox Church of Michael Archangel and marvelled at the neoclassical architecture of Art Square, as well as the charming Summer Theatre dating from 1937.

In the afternoon I took a taxi to the recently renovated Town History Museum where a Soyuz 9 capsule that returned to Earth in 1970 after 18 days in orbit, was on display.

Sixty years after Stalin’s death Sochi is preparing to be host city for the 2014 Winter Olympiad next year. We saw the ongoing preparations including the Sochi Olympic Park in the Adler district. Not far away, construction of skiing venues was underway at Krasnaya Polyana (Red Valley). This global event will undoubtedly ensure this port becomes a highlight of any voyage around the eclectic ports that feature on Black Sea cruises.

Gary travelled with Crystal Cruises.

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