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Black Sea Cruise: Sevastopol, Ukraine - overnight and Chersonesus

The cumulative effect of much less than my usual 7 hours of sleep and two half-day, group excursions yesterday left me really tired and less than enthusiastic about the prospect of the two half-day excursions in Sevastopol. As well it was grey, chilly and raining. So while most of the passengers went off on the morning excursion, I opted for a Swedish massage in the Athena Spa to ease my hard-worked muscles.

There, Colleen, a charming, petite, young South African (also from Cape Town), who was delighted to chat to me in Afrikaans, dug into all the pressure points with a strength than belied her small stature. After the massage I read and relaxed for a bit and then took my Kindle down to the dining room and enjoyed a quiet lunch with a smart detective who was just about to solve his case.

It was still grey and raining when the afternoon tours left and I decided to stick to my original decision and just enjoy some "me" time.  I went down to the empty Ambassador Lounge with my music and dance shoes, and spent an hour on the dance floor inducing endorphins and clearing the cobwebs out of my brain to some great dance music. That felt great.

I then tried to get onto the internet to clear out email and stuff but the connection kept dropping so eventually I gave up and decided to relax for the rest of the afternoon and read. Carol and Robert who did both the excursions came back very impressed with what they had seen. I was sorry I missed the sights but felt much better for the time off.

After dinner and dancing, the guests were treated to a performance by the Black Sea Navy Ensemble of Song and Dance. Founded in 1932 in Sevastopol, Ukraine, this ensemble gives over 150 concerts a year on ships and in the military units of the Black Sea navy in cities throughout Ukraine, Byelorussia and Russia. They also tour to England and other countries of Eastern Europe. Their repertoire includes sailor and soldier songs, Russian and Ukrainian folk songs and dances, and musical works from Russia, Germany, Italy, England, Greece and Poland.

The MV Aegean Odyssey remained overnight in Sevastopol, so there was a morning excursion before the ship left for Odessa. This excursion was to the ancient city of Chersonesus. The guide on this trip was very informative and I tried to keep up with my notes.

Sevastopol is the second largest port in the Ukraine, after Odessa. The city is one of two that enjoys “special status” in the Ukraine. The first is Kiev, the capital. Sevastopol, the hero-city,  is a strategically important naval base, as well as a popular tourist destination.  It used to be the home of the Soviet Black Sea Fleet, and today houses the headquarters of both the Ukrainian Naval Forces and the Russian Black Sea  Fleet. The city was founded in 1783 by Catherine II of Russia.

The excursion this day took us to Chersonesus, an  ancient Greek port city founded in the 5th century BC. The name Chersonesus translates as peninsula. The city was located on a long Cape between two bays. There are three main periods of the city’s existence. The Greek period, from the 5th century BC, the Roman period and the Byzantine period. In the 14th century under Khan, in 1399, the city was destroyed for the third time by the invading Mongol Tatars.

The archeological site which has been under excavation since 1827 spans about 40 hectares or 100 acres. It is historically important in that Prince Vladimir of Kiev was baptized in 988 in one of the churches and this was the start of converting the pagan Slavic regions to Christianity. Vladimir apparently wanted to marry Princess Ann and came with a big army to Byzantium. She did not want to marry a pagan, and so he was baptized and converted to  Christianity, founding Russian Orthodox Christianity in Russia. Too smart to "marry a man today and change his ways tomorrow" (can you name the character and the musical?) she insisted on changing his ways in advance!

p1110063-w500-h500.jpgAs you enter the archeological site at Chersonesus, the most prominent features are the thick ancient Greek stone walls that surrounded the city, separated by a short distance from outer Romans walls built later. The area between these two walls was known as the Corridor of Death, because if invaders managed to get over the Roman walls they would be trapped in the area between the walls like sitting ducks.

In the distance the bay is known as Quarantine Bay because ships had to stay there until it was certain that they were not bringing any diseased passengers.

We proceeded along the path to the “antique” or ancient Greek theatre. This is the only one of its kind in all the territories that were part of the Soviet Union. It was excavated in the early 19th century, around 1827, and while the bottom two rows of benches are original, the other seats are reconstructed. The building blocks were very large. Apparently the Greeks relied on balance and pressure to keep them in place while the Romans introduced cement.

Next we went to the central square where the mint produced the first coins of Crimea around 380 to 390 BC. The two figures on the coins were Hercules, and the Virgin Goddess (Artemis or Diana).

We walked past floor mosaics that had been saved from the ruins of some Byzantine churches. There were designs of catalpa, ivy, fish (the sign of Jesus) and a peacock. Large vases and urns, buried partially in the ground, served as “refrigerators” to preserve food and wine.

There was an interesting story behind the large bronze bell in the tower that stood on the  promontory. The Russians captured a Turkish ship and melted down the guns to make bells for the monastery. In the Crimean War the French occupied this area and when they left took artifacts with them including this bell. It hung in the Cathedral of Notre Dame de Paris between 1856 and 1913. On the 300th anniversary of the reign of the Romanovs, France gave the bell back to Russia and it was placed on this hill.

The next interesting section of the ruins was the house of the “rich winemaker”.  You can see the three pressing grounds where the grapes were trodden and the juice flowed into the reservoir where it was left to ferment.

Our guide told us that it was considered barbaric to drink pure wine. The Romans diluted their wine with water. I chuckled to myself because I always tease my sister-in-law who puts ice into her wine, that she is ruining some really great wines. I don't use ice so I guess I am a barbarian at heart.

We finished our tour of Chersonesus  in the museum. The Greek and Roman sections were under construction and closed to the public but we saw some beautiful Byzantine pieces in the Medieval Museum section. There is an intact example of a steatite icon – this stone was very common in the region and widely used for making icons.

We returned to the ship in time to hear the before- dinner talk by Professor David Tompkins of Carleton College, on Odessa, the Multicultural Jewel of the Black Sea. Next day we visit the city of Odessa.