Bone Voyage - Cruising the Black Sea

By Robert W. Bone

 The Acropolis and its Parthenon seen from a terrace at the Athens Intercontinental Hotel. Athens, with its seaport Pireaus, was both the beginning and the end of the cruise.ISTANBUL – For a few thousand years now, the Black Sea has had an image problem.

First of all, it’s not really black. Depending on the weather, its waters are as brilliantly blue as the Aegean or as wine dark as the Mediterranean. It’s connected to those two by the Bosporus, the narrow, 18-mile-long strait that divides Istanbul in half – northern neighborhoods in Europe, southern streets in Asia.

In ancient times the Romans were afraid of the Black Sea. So were the Greeks, mostly. At least they were until Jason and the Argonauts braved sailing through the Bosporus in their quest for the Golden Fleece.

The MS Rotterdam docked in Istanbul. This relatively new highway on reclaimed land skirts the base of the hill supporting the Topkapi Palace and Museum.No one seems to know why everyone has always called it “Black.” And it’s a mystery, too, why there are so few 21st-century cruises that follow Jason through the ancient strait, a genuine gateway to some of the most interesting cities in Eastern Europe.

A couple of millennia ago, the Black Sea was perhaps a relatively small, freshwater lake, fed as it is still by several well-known European rivers, including the Danube and the Dnieper.

Then an earlier round of global warming raised the world’s sea levels until the Mediterranean broke through the narrow neck of land in a sudden, massive flood drowning whole cities its wake. Some now say this was the historical basis for the Noah’s flood described in the Bible.

Odessa, Ukraine, is often noted for the Potemkin Steps, scene of a massacre in 1905, and the subject of the silent film called the Battleship Potemkin in 1925. When seen from the top, as here, an optical illusion hides the steps themselves revealing only the several wide landings. The MS Rotterdam is docked in the background.Even today, an unusual condition means that two different streams flow though the Bosporus in two different directions. Salt water comes in from the Mediterranean but underneath a current of fresher water that flows in the opposite direction – out from the Black Sea on top of the incoming salty current below.

Underwater explorers like Dr. Robert Ballard, of Titanic discovery fame, are interested in looking for evidence of ancient civilizations far below the surface. The sea’s denser salt water below kills virtually all life in its depth, but preserves even wooden structures, like ancient shipwrecks and buried cities from otherwise destructive microbes.

One of the few cruise companies that enter the Black Sea from time to time is Holland-America. In 2007, our excellent trip on the Rotterdam began in Istanbul and then progressed to Varna, Bulgaria, and Odessa and Sevastopol in Ukraine. That cruise then sailed back through the Bosporus again and retraced some already popular coastal ports in Turkey and some well-traveled islands in the Med.

bosphorus.jpg: Many cruisers found themselves on deck to enjoy the afternoon transit through the narrow Bosporus separating Europe from Asia. In some places the strait is less than 800 yards wide.Another Holland-America cruise this October will be a “12-day Black Sea Explorer,” on the Prinsendam which will sail from Athens and include Istanbul and Sinop, Turkey; Sochi, Russia; Sevastopol, Ukraine; Costanta, Romania; Nessebur, Bulgaria.  Similar itineraries will be offered in 2014.

Seabourn is offering a “7-day Black Sea Odyssey” with three departures this June, July, and August, sailing from Istanbul to Nessebur, Bulgaria, Constant, Romania, Odessa and Yalta in Ukraine, and Sinop, Turkey.

Among my most vivid memories is the afternoon we sailed through the Bosporus on the Rotterdam, providing us with some unusual and otherwise unobtainable views.

There we were, surrounded by the bustling, 10-million-strong city of Istanbul with its mosques, palaces and towers. It was a dramatic and glorious experience.

One of Istanbul’s architectural treasures, the Sultan Ahmet Mosque, known more familiarly as the Blue Mosque, dominates a view which can only be seen from a ship passing through the Bosporus. Cruisers could recognize many other major landmarks, including the Topkapi Palace and the Hagia Sophia Museum.

Robert W. Bone
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