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Greece, Turkey and the Black Sea, 2013

by Harry R. Matthews

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Lorraine's blog of this trip is at nzdreamer.com, check it out for a different view.

Lorraine and I flew to Athens and boarded Sea Dream 1, a 100-passenger "yacht" that is somewhere between an overgrown motor-boat and a shrunken cruise ship. Sea Dream was major delight to "sail" on. The relaxed, informal but civilised, atmosphere on board was striking and she successfully combined many of the advantages of larger and snaller vessels. She took us round the Aegean Sea stopping at several beautiful Greek islands, (images 1 to 30) ending up in Istanbul, Turkey. In Istanbul, we joined an Australian tour group under the auspicies of The Captain's Choice, and spent an interesting few days viewing the sights of this city that joins Europe to Asia and combines secular, Christian and Moslem ways of life (images 31 to 38). There was clearly serious tension here, and wherever we went in Turkey, between the secular state set up by Turkey's liberator, Ataturk, and a new movement towards Moslem customs. For example, we saw two examples where historic buildings had been previously either Christian or Moslem, at different times, and that Ataturk had declared should be reclassified as museums. This strategy for providing access to both Christians and Moslems has been working well for decades but now they had both been reclassified again, as mosques. Apart from the dress code, the most dramamtic effect for us was the covering up of all the Christian wall and ceiling paintings, a major attraction of these buildings.

On a personal note, I have little patience for either Christianity or Islam. While there are moderates in both religions, and I respect some individuals that I know, how can any organisation, en-masse, stand aside and tolerate crimes like the Roman Catholic cover-up of child molestation and Moslem religious terrorism?

From Istanbul, we flew to Kapadokkia. There we experienced the sight-seeing highlight of the whole trip, a dawn hot-air balloon ride over the rugged and unusual geological formations there (images 39 to 48). We stayed in a unique hotel, much of which was carved out of the limestone in the style of the region. A very long bus trip took us to Pammukale and its fascinating limestome terraces (images 48 to 54). More bus time took us to Ephesus which, on a crowded hot summer early afternoon, was a major photographic challenge (images 55, 56). Here we boarded another ship, Island Sky.

Island Sky took us to Troy and Gallipoli (images 57 to 63). An appropriate start got us to ANZAC Cove early on a beautiful morning and we had time to explore this now-peaceful place that looms so large in the history of Australia and New Zealand. Later, our tour took in some of the other memorials on Gallipoli. It was moving to hear from our Turkish guide of the losses and deprivation suffered by the Turkish forces defending their country from the Allied invasion.

After Gallipoli, Island Sky headed for the Black Sea. We passed through the Bosphorous at night and enjoyed the lights of Istanbul as we sailed past (images 64 to 69) with Europe on one side and Asia on the other.

Island Sky also accommodates about 100 passengers. She is owned by Noble Caledonia but had been chartered by Captain's Choice for our group. I can't recommend this ship. The food was aceptable to terrible (e.g. mouldy yohurt, widespread food poisoning on board) and the public spaces were small and over-crowded. Lunch was served on deck, in a single seating, but there was not enough space for a full ship and so passengers who were not aggressive enough to secure a space were simply not served lunch. Some basic services of a "luxury" ship were missing, like room service and useable Internet access.

Island Sky did, however, take us from port to port without any navigational incidents - something we don't take for granted anymore. We stopped first at Samusun and Trabzon, two ports in northern Turkey. From Samsun we visited Amasya (images 70 to 74). The highlight was the monastery, south of Trabzon, dedicated to Mary (images 75 to 77) which had been built in a very remote mountain area accessible only on foot up many steps and over treacherous tree roots. We enjoyed the journey and the mountain scenery as well as the monastery itself.

For me, the most interesting of the former Soviet Union cities that we visited on the last stage of our trip around the Black Sea is Batoumi, in Georgia (images 78 to 81). Georgia had an extremely difficult time asserting its independence after the break-up of the Soviet Union and is just beginning to emerge from the economic embargo imposed by Russia as a punishment for declaring independence. Batoumi is in the beginning of a building boom funded by Turkish tourist gamblers. It looks as though Batoumi is set to become to Turkey what Las Vegas is to California. I greatly enjoyed their quirky modern architecture; not as tacky as Las Vegas and much more original.

Images 82 to 86 are from Yalt and Odessa, further round the Black Sea. We also visited Sochi, Sevastopol and Constanta before leaving the tour in Istanbul. As an aside, Captain's Choice bumped us from the final group tour that we had booked, making our journey home much worse than it needed to be. I can no longer recommend Captain's Choice as a reliable tour company; we have canceled an upcoming tour that we had booked with them.

On our way home, we had a 2-night stop-over in Dubai. On our full day there we took a city tour in the morning (which was mediocre) and a desert tour in the afternoon evening (images 87 to 92). The desert tour was fascinating, especially the sunset and the Bedouin camp set up for us where we ate a traditional dinner and watched a belly dancer.

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