Black Sea

For generations, the Black Sea was the most cosmopolitan holiday destination in Europe - its coast a succession of stylish resorts favoured by the Soviet elite, thrill-seeking aristocrats tired of well-trodden paths of Europe's 'Grand Tour', and, quite simply, those who knew a good thing when they saw one. Now, the Black Sea is sparkling again. And, from Istanbul to Odesa, offers a scintillating mix of east-meets-west hospitality, elegant spa towns, grand cities, stunning coastal scenery and glorious sunshine.


The lozenge-shaped spur of land which juts into the far north of the Black Sea is the Crimea: now an autonomous region of Ukraine. Here, along the coast, are mountains, vineyards, fairytale castles and mile after mile of shingly, peaceful beaches. This is a fascinatingly historic corner of the world - the western terminus of the great Silk Route, ex strong hold of the Greeks, Ghengis Khan, the Byzantines and Imperial Russia, The Crimea's patchwork culture reflects its chequered past.

But it's natural beauty which is dramatically to the fore in the coastal park of Kara-Dag. The area's savage beauty is the result of an ancient volcanic eruption, but it's been smoothed over time into verdant valleys, rich in wildflowers, sparkling bays, and rare and delicate orchids. The land is a jumble of rare and semi-precious stones, too, such as amethyst, onyx and jasper: many of which are mined and cut into gemstones for the world's jewellery markets.

Steppes and mountains rise above the forests, providing breathtakingly panoramic views, crisp, clean air, and sudden glimpses of soaring eagles. This is, without a doubt, a very special place.

Great points to explore west of here include the pretty seaside resort of Sudak, with its vast, medieval Genoese fortress, captured by the Tatars but still breathtakingly intact, and the port city of Yalta, with its rich maritime heritage, buzzing seafront and wealth of nearby attractions. Yalta's also home to some of the most eye-catching palaces, castles and stately summer houses: home to many of Imperial Russia's leading families, and, later, the Soviet elite. You'll see them punctuating the forested skyline, each claiming their own little chunk of private waterfront - and many now open as museums.

The White Palace of fabulous Livadia, designed by architect Nikolay Krasnov in a fanciful Renaissance style, was constructed a hundred years ago, and looks as fresh as it did in 1911, when it was a summer residence of the last Russian Czar, Nicholas II and his family.

The turreted and onion domed Cathedral of Alexander Nevsky looks like an elaborate fondant fancy, with its baby pink and blue walls, gleaming icons and richly decorated eaves.

Far more human-scale, and all the more rewarding for it, is Checkov's House, the Yalta home where Anton Chekhov wrote the classics, The Cherry Orchard, and Three sisters. It's now a museum, with a delightful garden and tea shop attached.

As a reputed health resort, Yalta's home to many spas, 'sanitorium'-style outfits which mightn't look like your typical 'Western' spa, but promise mineral-rich treatments, natural spring water spas, and reviving massages.

It might look rickety, but take the Yalta Cable Car up the mountains that rise behind the city for a fantastic view of your ship, way down below, and the vast expanse of the Black Sea.

The Byzantine-styled Church on the Rock, perched on a rocky bluff 400 metres above Sea Level, is a prime tourist spot, and its interior is a dizzying mixture of colourful mosaics and icons painted in the Italian style. Interestingly, after the revolution the church was closed, the murals painted over, and the church was turned into a café until it was closed in 1969, and later reopened and re-consecrated in 1982.

Along the coast at Alpuka is a most remarkable palace designed by British architect Edward Blore, who was also responsible for parts of our own Buckingham Palace. This creation, however, looks more Scottish than English, and was commissioned in 1828 by Count Mikhail Semyonovich Vorontsov, Russian ambassador to London for over 20 years, to be his private summer resting place, close to the major seaport of Odessa. The south face combines Russian and Moorish elements, while the north side looks for all the world like a highland Scottish transplanted in the Caucuses. The parkland surrounding the palace offers stunning views out to sea, while the interiors - open to the public - are richly adorned with paintings, tapestries and Tudor-style furnishings.

The rocky Black Sea bays around here, due to the lack of sand, are ideal for scuba diving. Balaklava is one of the best spots, and has plenty of reputable diving schools ready to take you to the large reef just offshore. Further offshore lies the underwater world of Chersonesos, once a major Byzantine trading post, lost when seawater rose rapidly, flooding the valleys surrounding the original lake: they call this place the 'Ukrainian Pompeii' and you can visit part of the city's remains on the shore line, too.

For years, the major seaport of Sevastapol was decidedly off-limits to Westerners - as this was (and still is) the home of the Black Sea fleet.

At the height of the Cold War, this was a military zone of immense strategic importance- but now, under Ukraine command, you can visit the fleet, take photos, and peer into the subs which surface in the harbour.

Odessa is a large Ukrainian city with the requisite roll call of impressive museums, ruler-straight processional boulevards and soviet-era housing blocks. It's also a sunny, outdoorsy kind of place, with a welcoming, cosmopolitan street life, lots of excellent restaurants and a trim and beautiful promenade.

Along the seafront you'll find plenty of beach resorts, bars, and sunny lawns to stretch out on. Odessa's string of beach-front activities run for over twenty kilometres either side of town, with the Lanzheron, Otrada and Delfin great spots for stopping and watching the world go by.

In town, the ornate and historic Opera House is worth a look, and the impressive Odessa Art Museum features Russian, Ukrainian and European art from the 15th to the 20th centuries in 26 huge galleries.

Constanta, Romania's second-largest city, is a jumble of big-city bustle and, further out, pleasant beach resorts and pristine forests.

The Genoese-built lighthouse at the harbour dates from 1860 - and there's a great history lesson to be had in the adjoining Naval History Museum: which is, in fact, a good introduction to the country, as well as its fleet.

In the heart of the town Victoria Park (Parcul Victoriel), still has remains of the city wall built by the Romans in the third century AD. The Museum of Art. (Blvd. Tomis) offers a permanent collection of Bulgarian and European paintings, but the Folk Art Museum (Blvd Tomis) is, perhaps, an even better - and more enjoyable introduction to the folk art and crafts of the country.

From here, excursions to the historic ruins of Histria, the oldest remains of any Romanian settlement, or the thriving seaside resorts of Mamaia, Eforie and Mangalia, with their spas, bars and pleasure gardens offering traditional family fun for Romanian families and, increasingly, holidaying Europeans.

Nessebur is one of Bulgaria's most enjoyable seaside towns - with bright and brash Sunny Beach just three kilometres away - but there is much more history to this place than first meets the eye. Nessebar's 9000 year-old Old Town rises from a peninsula jutting out into the Dead Sea. Now, the majority of the sites date from between the 11th to 14th centuries - and consist of fanciful churches, two-storied period houses and narrow, sun-shaded lanes burrowing to peaceful squares and taverns. It's a real Black Sea highlight.

Varna is another delightful Bulgarian Black Sea resort, with wonderfully golden beaches (quite a rare thing along the Black Sea coast). It's also known as a centre for 'balneotherapy' - spa treatments using natural mineral springs which well up along the coast from here. The town's Seaside Park is home to the delightful Seaside Baths, the Navy Museum, the Museum of Natural History, and the Aquarium as well as a Planetarium: this is a traditional seaside town that puts on quite a welcome.

Istanbul, Turkey's kaleidoscopic capital, is known as the city where East meets West, and as such, is a fascinating jumble of Asian, Caucasian, Middle Eastern and European influences. You can read more about Istanbul here. (link to Istanbul guide) but, in a nutshell, you must visit the stunning Blue Mosque, the Grand Bazaar (the largest marketplace in the world) and enjoy the views of the Bosphorus from the Old Town, where the glittering Topkapi Palace dominates.

Take time, too, to wander the village of Ortakoy, with its chi-chi galleries, book shops, cafes and bric-a-brac stalls a real change of pace from the hectic thrum of the new town.

Holiday resorts around Istanbul include the vibrant town of Igneada, near the Bulgarian border, with its excellent fish restaurants and handsome, crescent shaped bay, and Kilyos, only 35 km from the capital, and a popular bolt hole for stressed Istanbulites.

Vibrant, green and humid, Turkey's northern Black Sea coast is a world away from its dry, hot and arid Mediterranean coastlines so popular with holidaying Brits. Here, the land is gentler, more rounded, and a lot more peaceful. It's a land of ancient Byzantine ruins, authentic fishing villages and the occasional popular seaside resort, such as lovely Akcakoca, with its Genoese castle, great watersports and long, sandy beaches drawing Turkish families and intrepid European holidaymakers intent on seeing the 'other side' of Turkey.

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