A 12-day voyage through 2,000 years of history

The Black Sea has endured wars, revolutions, and the rise and fall of empires. Suzanne Cadisch took a cruise around its ports

Sunday 11 July 2010 00:00

Half a league below us lies Tennyson's "Valley of Death". This is Lord Raglan's terrible vantage point, high above the plains of Balaclava, where the hapless British commander watched his Light Brigade charge to their fate in 1854.

The Russian cannons that decimated "the noble six hundred" echo through the years and across these rolling Crimea valleys where so many rival armies have slaughtered one another for possession of that priceless Black Sea jewel – Sevastopol.

Through the Soviet era, this top-secret home of the USSR's Black Sea Fleet was closed not only to the world but also to non-resident citizens, so it was almost unbelievable to be sailing into the port at sunrise aboard a luxurious cruise liner and docking among the drab grey warships of Russian and Ukrainian naval forces.

As extraordinary as it was a day earlier to be berthed at the very foot of the Potemkin Steps in Odessa, where the seeds of the Russian Revolution were sown in 1905. And a day later to moor in the heart of Yalta, where Churchill, Roosevelt and Stalin decided the destiny of the world in the closing months of the Second World War.

But then this is no ordinary cruise line. The newly rebranded Azamara Club Cruises promises to deliver the destination in a unique way, and it does: smack between the eyes. The size of the two Azamara ships, with just 694 passengers, enables them to get into ports denied to bigger liners. But it is the overnight stops – three on this 12-night cruise – and the late departures that let you get under the skin of the places you visit.

I join the Azamara Quest in Istanbul, where my balcony view is of Topkapi Palace atop the sprawling city. The call to prayer bounces between hundreds of minarets, and a short stroll plunges me into the sensuous assault that is modern Constantinople. This schedule means I can drink a pungent Turkish coffee in the shadow of the Blue Mosque at dusk, take in a display by the hypnotic Whirling Dervishes and enjoy a bubbling water pipe in a narghile café before wandering back to my floating hotel as late as I like. And there's still another full day for more mind-blowing Byzantine and Ottoman sites and shopping in the clamour of the Grand Bazaar.

Then, day three, and bam I'm in Varna, Bulgaria, for a glimpse of this former Eastern Bloc country's turbulent transition to capitalism and where it's hard to spend the few lev I withdraw from the ATM. It's hard to imagine a greater contrast to Istanbul. But that's what characterises this cruise: the sophisticated see-saw between east and west, ancient and modern, opulence and deprivation, the histories of classical civilisations and great military campaigns. This voyage bristles with iconic landmarks and cultural linchpins.

In Odessa's vast labyrinth of catacombs I taste partisan life under Nazi occupation before spending the evening promenading the city's crowded boulevards, returning next day to drink in more of its atmosphere – and the local honey and pepper vodka.

Dawn on day six brings Sevastopol to my door. Here the famous 360-degree panoramic canvas, with its huge battle scenes and 4,000 figures, puts me at the epicentre of the fight to defend the city from the British and the French in 1854.

Yalta, the final port of call in the Crimea, is a Russian-style Southend with a Riviera climate where the last tsar chose to build his summer retreat, Livadia Palace, which is as memorable for its Romanov family snapshots as the photos of the Big Three wartime leaders carving up Europe here in 1945. There's also the playwright Anton Chekhov's house to see (complete with cherry orchard) and the romantic Swallow's Nest castle, teetering on the edge of a 130ft cliff.

Two days at sea are just what I need at this stage in my odyssey, to recharge in air-conditioned comfort, where ever-smiling officers and crew always go the extra mile. Fares include good wine with lunch and dinner so you don't have to worry about the bar bill. And there's complimentary bottled water, speciality coffees, canapés, flowers and fruit in your cabin, fluffy robes and luxury bathroom products for everyone – not just suite guests.

But even on board, the experiences don't let up: dolphins play around the ship as it heads slowly westwards, the entry to the Bosphorus carefully timed for daylight. On deck next morning, destination lecturer Jon Fleming talks passengers through this busy waterway, past its fortresses, palaces and Florence Nightingale's hospital, and resumes his commentary once the ship has crossed the Sea of Marmara into the Dardanelles, where the ancient site of Troy stands opposite the verdant Gallipoli peninsula that ran with the blood of a quarter of a million soldiers in the First World War.

From the modern Greek port of Volos – home of Jason and the Argonauts – a trip to the dramatic rock-top monasteries of Meteora takes me straight into a scene from Avatar. And next it's an overnight stop in Kusadasi, bustling Turkish seaside resort and gateway to Ephesus, where the extraordinary remains of Roman houses, temples, theatres and the spectacular library bring me face to face with the ancient world and the birth of Christianity.

This voyage ends in Athens where there is time to scale the Acropolis and explore the stunning new museum – still missing, to our national shame, the Elgin marbles – before the flight home. I've packed at least four holidays into one, but thanks to the clever pace and the calm and classy vibe of the ship, I never felt the need to miss a moment.

Compact Facts

How to get there

Azamara Club Cruises (0844 493 2049; azamaraclubcruises.com) offers a 12-night Black Sea cruise on Azamara Quest, departing 3 August 2010, from £2,464 per person, based on two sharing a balcony cabin, and from £1,984 per person, based on two sharing an inside cabin. Fares include wine by the glass with lunch and dinner, bottled water, gratuities and shuttle service in port. The Sevastopol Battlefields shore excursion costs about £55 per person and a day-long tour of Yalta's sites, including lunch, costs about £130 per person.

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