Friday, April 10, 2009

Black Sea Adventures

Wednesday, April 08, 2009
The six of us met our guide, Maria, at 8:30 this morning and climbed into a minivan for the long ride to Bakhchisaray [bok-CHIH-suh-ree]. The town was once the capital of the Crimean Khanate, comparable to a Crimean empire. “Bakhchisaray” means “palace of the gardens” so the palace gave its name to the town which grew up around it.
Although we did not tour Sevastopol proper, it is important to note that the city has had a rich military history since it is located strategically in the Black Sea. It is most famous as a submarine base, especially during the cold war. Today, it serves as a base for both the Ukrainian and Russian navies. During WWII, 98 per cent of its buildings were destroyed, so the city as we saw it is only sixty years old, constructed mostly in Soviet-style architecture. It is not pretty despite the numerous statues, many of which honor Soviet leaders. While Ukraine is now an independent nation, Sevastopol has made no effort to change street names [for example] but embraces its history. The city was founded officially by Catherine the Great in 1792.
The Bakhchisaray palace is not a Disneyland castle, but is a collection of one- and two-story buildings set amidst plentiful open space and gardens. It dates to the Middle Ages and is, according to the printed description, a “vivid example of…Tartar culture.” Civilization of sorts in the area dates to the Eighth Century BC based on the discovery of graves from the Scythians and Taurs who lived here. In the Fifteenth and Sixteenth Centuries, Bakhchisaray became the capital of the Khan’s empire.
The palace dates from the early Sixteenth Century. Although the palace was built from 1532 – 1551, Maria said that the first ceremonial door we viewed was built in 1503. This door was a solidly built wooden one, now closed and locked to keep people out of the room behind it, and is decorated with marble carvings on the door frame. The décor highlights flowers and Arabic script, the latter because the Khans were Moslem.
We went from room to room, gawking at rugs, pillows, ceilings and wall decorations. Many of the rooms had stained glass windows, but these were added long after the Khans were gone. Originally, the windows were just openings, some window size and some really porticos. Since there was, obviously, no air-conditioning, the open construction encouraged air circulation and creature comfort. Many of the rooms had decorative fountains to help cool them. We visited the Khan’s private mosque which included a stained-glass Mogen David, the traditional Jewish six-pointed star. We found this somewhat ironic until Maria explained that this was a non-religious image -- at the time of its inclusion, the star was thought of as a yin-and-yang symbol of duality; at its center was the image of a turtle with its four feet, head and tail paralleling the symmetry of the star.
Since the entire complex has not survived, the harem we saw [pronounced hah-REM here and in Istanbul] may have been the living quarters of the Khan’s wife or mother. It was elaborate by the standard of the time, so we decided on our own that it was the Khan’s mother’s quarters; the wife would have been second best. The harem rooms contained a bedroom, a kitchen/dining room; and a formal living space. All were richly decorated although none of the furnishings were originals. After all, it has been almost 500 years.
We wandered through rose gardens waiting to emerge from their winter rest; saw the Khan’s private entrance to the harem; and the falcon tower that the women could use to see the outside world. In the tower and on the front porch of the harem were elaborate wooden screens used by the women to look out in such a way that no one could look in. Two of the screens had “bay windows” which permitted the women to see to the left and right as well as straight ahead.
In the center of the Palace grounds was a former parade ground. Used for military exercises centuries ago, it is now grass-covered and home to many bushes and trees. It looks a little like the Hippodrome in Istanbul without the fountains.
On the opposite side of the esplanade from the Khan’s quarters and the harem were the graveyard and two mausoleums. Marble ceremonial coffins were strewn about and Maria told us how to distinguish men, women and children’s graves – men’s had tall “pillars” on the corners; women’s had short pillars; and children’s had none. In the walls of the mausoleum were indentations with arrow-shaped tops indicating the direction of Mecca so people could face the holy city when they prayed [Mecca is south of Sevastopol].
We were expected at a Jewish community center at 1:00 and couldn’t be late because Passover began tonight and people had to get home early. We opted to skip a visit to another cave monastery especially because Maria said there were lots of steps; we learned our lesson yesterday. We drove past one of the monasteries on the way back to town – it was partly in the cliff-side but there was also a more traditional monastery in front, its blue dome flashing in the sun.
We arrived early at the JCC and got the complete tour of the medical clinic, the adult day care area, the dining room for the elderly, the multi-purpose room and, later, the after-school center.
The bulk of the time was spent listening to the unofficial archivist of the Jewish community from the beginning in the Eighteenth Century to the present. There have been Jews in the area since even before its official beginning although the original settlers died out with no connection to the immigrant Jews who started coming later. Artifacts showing the Star of David were found, however, lending credence to the theory of their presence. We saw a photo display of famous and/or heroic Jews of the past and learned a little about the present state of the Jewish community. Most surprising was that Jews can “come out” with no repercussions but many of the approximately 4000 Jews of Sevastopol still conceal their religious preference. MA, more than anyone else, noticed that there was little understanding of spoken Hebrew among our hosts. In fact, as we discussed over dinner tonight, they seemed like a little Diaspora, a community which has grown in isolation and has developed cut off from its past. In this, they are like the Russian Jews who emigrated in the 1970s and 1980s who were Jews by birth, not religion, and knew nothing of the religion.
We also discovered that there is no synagogue and no rabbi for these people, another sign of their isolation. In fact, the matzoh being distributed for Passover had been brought in from Kiev. When D asked about the matzoh, the center’s director insisted on giving us a box. This was welcome news for Scott and Karen because none of the rest of us really wanted it. We were encouraged to make donations to help maintain the center [which we did] and then left, glad for the cool air outside.
It was at this point that the Griswolds joined us. We had hoped to lunch on the way into town, but the Tartar restaurant Maria knew wasn’t open at 11:30 when we stopped by. She also told us that we would have been unable to use euros, dollars or credit cards but that we would have no problem in Sevastopol itself. Well, she was wrong. When we arrived at a restaurant after leaving the JCC, we discovered that the place dealt only in local currency, no charges. Maria said we could go to a currency exchange across the street but we balked at that. We didn’t know how much to get; we couldn’t use the leftover cash; and we were aggravated that the situation had arisen at all. She offered to front the money until the end of the day, but we didn’t want to do that either. Her final attempt was to suggest that we order and then exchange money since we would know how much we would need. We said, “No.”
We were all set to end the tour and return to the ship, but Scott wanted to see the Panorama. The rest of us were tired and hungry; Sharon had brought her snacks and water along and offered everyone beef jerky, but that wasn’t going to satisfy us; and MA and D wouldn’t get to dinner until 8:00, five-and-a-half hours away. Scott was insistent, so we went to the Panorama which was sort of on the way back anyway.
The Panorama is what we call a cyclorama. Opened in 1905, it celebrates the Battle of Sevastopol in the Crimean War. The battle took place in 1855 and last for weeks. The Panorama contains a 115 meter long circular painting which forms a 360 degree picture of the Battle as it happened on June 18, 1855. The painting, naturally, is on the outer walls of the circular structure. Between it and the visitors’ gallery are real cannon and other constructions to give the experience depth and verisimilitude. As one circles the observation deck in the middle of the gallery, one can see the battle going on in all directions. We were able to hear an explanation in [sort of] English as we walked to three observation points. The painting is populated with likenesses of actual participants and they are shown as would have been seen on June 18. The painting was done in grids and then the pieces were mounted seamlessly to form the cyclorama. The effort and artistry are amazing, but at least some of us were still too miffed to fully appreciate it.
When we left, Scott bought a booklet about the Panorama; it was their second visit and they wanted pictures which they couldn’t take inside. We waited in the tent-city shopping section and waited some more while Karen got her pin. Sharon, meanwhile, was so angry that she said she refused to buy stamps, post cards or anything since “they” didn’t want her money. We agreed.
We finally found our way back to the ship where D paid Maria the tour fee; reimbursed her for tickets at the Panorama and the Palace; and added a tip [despite his better judgment]. As we prepared to walk away, Maria presented us with a bottle of local wine as a “thank you” for being this year’s first cruise customers for the travel agency. We gave the wine to Bill and Sharon [Scott and Karen had the matzoh and we have the lemoncello from Fabrizio]. Most importantly, we were home! We dropped out stuff in the room and ate Laughing Cow cheese [from Barcelona] for lunch, then headed up to Deck Eight, skipping trivia. MA got an iced latte while D went to the computer area and sent a letter to the tour operator.
We were disappointed that the day ended on such a sour note because we had enjoyed the Bakhchisaray palace. The situation could have been avoided if we had had prior knowledge of the monetary peculiarities of Sevastopol. Not only did we not get the Tartar lunch promised in the tour description, we got no lunch. What we did get were negative feelings about our visit to Ukraine, especially coming just one day after our experience in Bulgaria.
Ah, well. Tomorrow is a sea day, so we can recuperate before we hit the trail again.

Thursday, April 09, 2009

We are at sea today after several days in the Black Sea. At the CC cocktail party the other night, Captain Gundersen remarked on how calm the Black Sea had been. He said that normally, one can expect rough seas, but we have been lucky for a month and we hope it continues on the return crossing.

We ate breakfast in the dining room, arriving a little past 9:00. The Prinsendam is heading generally west as we traverse the Bosporus again. Istanbul’s two intercontinental bridges slid by overhead as we approached the city. These bridges connect the Asian and European sides of this narrow section of the waterway which connects the Mediterranean and Black Seas. We watched the Topkapi Palace, Hagia Sofia and Blue Mosque as we glided by. As always, there was a light fog, so it was a bit magical. Around Cape Horn, into the Sea of Marmara and on to the Dardenelles as we head to Kusadasi, Turkey.

The rest of the day was a little less poetic. We came that close in trivia again [What was the Lone Ranger’s real name? What four Shakespeare plays have ghosts?]. After lunch, MA took a long nap while D played one-on-one blackjack and came home a winner. Before dinner, he tried to qualify for tonight’s blackjack tournament but didn’t expect his paltry 600 point s to qualify. When he checked after dinner, he found that there were only four contestants, an unusually low number even for this cruise. Luck was with him again as he won the tournament and $90 [less than the $100 awarded in the other competitions but not bad considering how few people paid their entry fees]. The hat he won will be worn proudly tomorrow in Kusadasi and Ephesus.

Friday, April 10, 2009

We are docked in Kusadasi [Koo-shuh-dah-si], Turkey, today. The weather gods honored us again with a beautiful day, clear skies and warm temperatures. We packed rain jackets as insurance against disaster and never took them out of the carry-all.

Kusadasi is a pretty little town, filled with vacationers and sun-worshippers in the summer, but a bit sleepy today because we are early in the season. In fact, we are the only cruise ship in port which is a good thing for us if not for the local merchants. The main attraction for us, though, is not here but a few miles away in Ephesus.

The four of us [MA, D, Bill and Sharon] met our guide Banu outside at 8:30 and walked to the port entrance to discover that we had another thirteen-passenger van to ourselves. We each had several seats in which to spread out and had plenty of leg room for a change. We drove through Kusadasi and nearby Selcuk to the ancient ruins of Ephesus.

Ephesus is probably best known because one of the New Testament books is the Letter of John to the Ephesians. According to legends, John spent several years preaching to and converting residents of Ephesus. Late in the tour, in fact, we visited the Basilica of St. John where John’s reputed remains were discovered; they were sent to Rome for entombment, but the ruins of the Basilica still attract visitors [including us]. We are at the point where one set of ruins looks pretty much like any other, but we were able to distinguish the baptismal pool in the ruins as well as the spot where the crypt was discovered. Otherwise, it’s all a blur of columns and arches [and cats].

We started the day in Ephesus itself. The town was built into a hill, so modern visitors start at the top and walk down, considerably easier than climbing up. Although one Roman ruin looks like another, this one was worth the trip. First, it is so large that it can’t be seen in one glance. It extends into the distance and around corners. In this, it reminded us of the remains of Pompeii. We first came upon what we thought was a small amphitheater when, in fact, it was a meeting room of some sort in the “official” side of the town. Apparently, this structure had been roofed, so it couldn’t have been an amphitheater since those were open-topped. We gawked and continued down the path, passing piles of clay pipe used for the distribution of water to all of the buildings in Ephesus.

It is impossible to remember all of the buildings, but the most memorable were in the commercial or public area of Ephesus. The two sections, official and public, were separated by an open gate made too narrow for vehicles to pass through, thus separating, but not isolating, them. Among the buildings were a brothel, a library, a public latrine, a public bath and the theater.

While there is no definitive evidence that the building identified as a brothel was, indeed, a house of happiness, there is nothing to disprove the theory either. Since Ephesus was a port town, there had to be one somewhere. And it wasn’t a secret to the populace or the visiting seamen – there is an advertisement and directional arrow carved into the marble sidewalk between the brothel and what would have been the harbor if it hadn’t silted up over the centuries. The ad included the likeness of a woman’s face; the directional arrow; a footprint; and a referral to the library. If a potential customer’s foot wasn’t big enough to fill the footprint, indicating he was too young, he was directed to the library; if it is was big enough, he was pointed toward the brothel.

The library was reputed to be one of the largest in the world in its time, third only to Alexandria and Athens[?]. Small by our standards, it allegedly had over 12,000 scrolls in its collection which was quite impressive for the times. Its reconstructed façade has been put back in place after a massive restoration effort; most of what we saw is from the original structure and it looks like something out of an Indiana Jones movie.

The latrine and bath were for visitors to Ephesus because every house had hot and cold running water as well as latrines and a sewer system. Waste water was gravity-fed down the hill to the Aegean Sea. Likewise, the public facilities were continually flushed by piped-in water. There were no individual stalls and no lids to leave up, but the ergonomics were pretty much what we have now. The use of togas afforded some semblance of privacy in an otherwise very public performance. The baths were like the one in Varna – fridgidarium, tepidarium and caldarium plus steam room – but on a much smaller scale.

The street was paved with marble, much of which is still there. On either side were businesses and, over them, housing. In some areas, there were only houses where the rich had more space and better views of the countryside and the long-gone harbor. We didn’t visit them because of the steps, but others said they were worth the climbing.

We passed but did not explore the commercial agora which would have been like the ones in Rome and Athens. Instead, we took the time to struggle up the ramp to the theater. A massive Greco-Roman theater, it was built into the hillside and was definitely not roofed; it is so big that it is used now for concerts and other performances. Banu said she wants to marry a man who is “crazy rich” so she can rent the auditorium and hold her wedding there! Having walked up ramps to enter the theater, we had to climb down marble steps to reach the orchestra area. It was here that MA slipped on the last step and landed unceremoniously on her tush. She struggled on but had a 3 inch long bruise to show as a result when we got home.

We continued past the sites of the Arcadian Way, the main road into town from the harbor; the Harbor Gymnasium; the Stadium and other collections of columns and rubble before running the gauntlet of souvenir shops to reach the van.

We also visited the alleged house of the Virgin Mary. Legend has it that she spent the last years of her life in this cavernous stone cottage atop a steep hill about 2000 feet above the valley floor. A twisting switchback road took us up the mountain and the constant twisting and turning reminded us of the drive to Positano. The view was as beautiful with the town of Selcuk laid out below us, appearing and disappearing as we drove higher and higher. The fields below became a checkerboard of fruit trees, mostly pear, and looked like a patchwork quilt. It was breathtaking.

The climb from the van to the house itself wasn’t as steep. Banu paid our way in and gave us the tickets as souvenirs [as she had done at Ephesus], then escorted us to the stone and brick house. It is considered a shrine by many and the interior no longer resembled a domicile. Instead, the main room was almost empty with a few straight chairs arranged as for a religious service. The one side room was likewise pretty sparsely decorated. There were religious pictures on the walls and tokens from several visiting popes, including Benedict XVI, but it no longer looked like a house. No pictures of the interior were permitted, either, so one must rely on memory alone. Once outside, we passed faucets set into a wall so that pilgrims could drink the “holy water” which came from an underground spring. We ran the gauntlet again and drove off.

Banu decided it was time for lunch, and no one argued with her. We drove back to Selcuk and went to Anton’s, a hole-in-the-wall restaurant which was so far off the beaten track it didn’t even have a track. Once again, we were the only Americans in an ethnic restaurant; of course, we were also the only customers, but Anton’s was not going to be on any HAL bus tours agenda.

We feasted on what we can only assume was traditional Turkish food. Banu and our driver certainly enjoyed themselves and Banu and the waiter/owner[?] explained what we were eating. We started with a chopped salad of carrots, cucumber, tomato and arugula served simultaneously with a dish that was a cross between and Indian kulcha, a quesadilla and a pizza -- it was dough filled with mashed potato, cut into pizza-sized wedges, cooked on a stovetop, not deep-fried. It was yummy.

Next came bread which we ate with Turkish meatballs. The meatballs were shaped like small sausages and made from beef and lamb. Although Turkey is a secular Moslem country, pork is not only not eaten, it is not cooked except in major tourist venues said Banu. She admitted that she is a modern Moslem woman who does not subscribe to many of the ancient practices. When the call came at 12:15 for mid-day prayers, she said that she does not see the need to pray five times a day or to wash ritually before prayers or meals because hygiene has improved since these rules were instituted.

Back to lunch – the wonderful meat dish was followed by a very sweet milk-and-rice dessert. It reminded us in taste of sticky rice in the Floating Market of Bangkok but was milkier in texture. Everyone except Bill loved it, but it was too sweet for him. Of course, we had Cokes, Bill had a local wine and Sharon had Efes beer, the local beer named after Ephesus.

After lunch, we visited the Basilica of St. John as mentioned earlier. The fact that he spent 2-1/2 years in Ephesus combined with Mary’s presence lends some credence to the theory that John and Jesus were brothers, but we’ll never really know. Still….

A quick stop at the remains of the Temple of Artemis/Diana showed us the one remaining pillar and a drawing purporting to be a schematic of the temple before the ravages of time, earthquakes and pillagers. Again, it became just another ruin.

We stopped for wine and olive oil for Bill and Sharon, who didn’t buy anything. MA found apple and pomegranate tea, though, so it wasn’t a wasted stop. We also visited a pottery demonstration and managed to leave some euros there, too, before returning to the Prinsendam. We won a double tie-breaker in trivia but gave our picture frames to Norm and Kay, our partners.

Rest time, dinner, reading and journal writing rounded out another full day.

Tomorrow – Santorini,

1 comment:

  1. I would have exchanged some money if I was that hungry. It isn't fun traveling with grumpy, hungry people who are getting older (smile!).