Sevastopol: Crimea’s Shifting Seaport

Who knew that a summer vacation could turn into a such a valuable lesson in Eastern European politics, history, and geography for my boys? Our recent cruise to the Black Sea included stops in Greece, Turkey (covered in my recent post “Where East Meets West”), Russia (“Sochi: Sub-tropical Olympic City”), and Ukraine. Thanks to this unique family trip, my kids have a deeper understanding of the ever-changing current events unfolding in this part of the world. How fortunate to have experienced Crimea during peaceful times.

Our Regent ship’s itinerary included a stop in Sevastopol, the coastal, Black Sea city in the southwestern part of the Crimean Peninsula; its subtropical climate has made it a popular seaside resort destination. Crimea extends out into the Black Sea—it’s basically an island, except for the narrow strip of land that connects it to the Ukrainian mainland in the north; (it’s eastern shore is separated from mainland Russia by just a narrow strait of water.)  During its complex 2,000-year history, this territory has changed hands numerous times – Greeks, Romans, Byzantines, Ottomans, and Russians have all called it their home. In 1991, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, it became a Republic of the newly independent Ukraine, and home to the Russian Black Sea fleet. Since then, the city’s status has remained calm until recent events—Russia’s annexation.

Artillery Bay, Sevastopol, Crimea, Crimean Peninsula


On an already warm, cerulean-sky morning, we embarked on a walking tour of Sevastopol’s sun-drenched, bustling port area. It was surprising to see the Mediterranean-style architecture, palm tree-lined boulevards, and colorful sailboats floating through the harbor area. The city’s seaside promenade was filled with souvenir shops and terrace-fronted restaurants with menus written in Cyrillic script—not surprising since the majority of the population is Russian. Rich with thousands of years of history, our local guide pointed out that Sevastopol is a living museum—1,800 monuments dot the city.

Monument to Scuttled ships, Sevastopol, Crimean, Crimean Peninsula

The “Monument to Scuttled Ships”–Russian ships, flooded to form a line of defense from the Allies during the 1854 Siege of Sevastopol

The next stop was Chersonesus, the archeological remains of the ancient Greek colony dating from the 5th century BC, nicknamed the “Ukrainian Pompeii” or the “Russian Troy.” Wandering amongst Greek theatres, Roman temples and columns, we watched the locals as they took advantage of the seaside location, diving into the dark blue waters from the narrow strip of beach that abutted the ruins.

Chersonesus, Sevastopol, Crimea, Crimean Peninsula

In Greek, Chersonesus means “peninsula,” an appropriate name for this ancient seaside colony

Nearby is the recently restored Byzantine-style St. Vladimir Cathedral, built in the 19th Century; it’s the cradle of Russian Orthodox Christianity. Covering our arms and legs in respect before entering, we studied the dramatic marble-clad interior punctuated by bold frescoes, mosaic tile-inlaid floors, and vibrant stained glass windows, committing it all to memory since interior photography was forbidden. Outside, we took a break from the sun’s heat, pooling our Ukrainian hryvnia to buy soda bottles and freshly baked pampushki (garlicky rolls) from a nearby vendor.

St. Vladimir Cathedral, Sevastopol, Crimea, Crimean Peninsula

St. Vladimir Cathedral commemorates the baptism of Prince Vladimir the Great of Kiev

A must-see is the Panorama Museum, which memoralizes the defense of the city during the 1853-1856 Crimean War. Opened in 1905 on the 50th Anniversary of the defense of Sevastopol, the cylindrical building houses the impressive 377-foot long, 46-foot high circular canvas of the famous battle as depicted by artist Franz Roubaud. An 80-step climb to the top of the display reveals the massive work of art, an impressively accurate portrayal, which is best viewed by walking around the elevated observation platform in the center of the hall.

Outside the museum, the boys stopped in the parking lot to admire a vendor’s display of Soviet-era memorabilia artfully arranged on the hood and roof of his beat up, Trabant. As they picked out brass military pins and wool caps, the gentleman patiently explained the unit each item hailed from—Air Force, Army, Navy—with some vintage Aeroflot wings and KGB insignias thrown into the mix.

Trabant, Sevastopol, Crimea, Crimean Peninsula

A “vintage” Trabant–a popular Eastern European car–makes an appropriate backdrop for a display of Soviet-era memorabilia

Now, at home as we turn on CNN, read the Times, and watch as another chapter of Crimean history is written, we feel very fortunate to have visited the Crimean Peninsula and learn about its multi-faceted heritage and culture. We only hope that recent events are settled peacefully, not only for the residents, but also for those who have not yet had the opportunity to experience and appreciate first hand its rich and unique history.

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Sochi: Russia’s Sub-tropical Olympic City

Sochi: Russia’s Sub-tropical Olympic City


Our recent family cruise on the Black Sea included a fortuitous stop in Sochi, Russia. We embarked in Athens, sailed across the Aegean Sea and the Dardanelles to the Sea of Marmara, up the Bosphorus Strait through Turkey, where our ship, Regent’s Seven Seas Mariner, entered the Black Sea. Besides being an exceptional lesson in world geography for my boys, it was an opportunity to explore several unique ports in four countries on this lovely turquoise sea. Most memorable was Sochi, located close to Russia’s border with Georgia.

At the time of our visit, the 2014 Winter Olympics (February 7th -23rd) seemed very far off. I noticed only a small billboard in the port announcing this upcoming international event that would draw thousands of visitors to this city, established as a fashionable resort under Stalin and home to his dacha, or summertime residence. While the mighty snow-capped Caucuses, Europe’s tallest mountains, loom above the harbor, this tourist destination actually enjoys a sub-tropical climate in its lower elevations and features inviting sand and pebble beaches and graceful palm trees along its coast. The Olympic events will actually be split between the coastal and mountainous districts, roughly 30 minutes apart.

As we strolled along the lovely sea promenade in shorts and t-shirts under bright skies and sunny 77 degrees Fahrenheit weather spending our rubles on cold bottles of water, it was hard to imagine Sochi serving as this winter’s Olympic venue since its average February temperature is a balmy 50 degrees. It is actually the warmest city to ever host winter Olympic games and according to Time, for the past year, Russia has been diligently stockpiling snow and inventing ways to keep every flake frozen.

Our visit to Sochi included a tour of the Russian Tea Plantation, the only one in the country and because of the city’s unique climatic conditions — warm, humid and consistently sunny — it’s the northernmost such farm in the world. Up in the mountains an agronomist, who specialized in the technology of growing tea, greeted us near the fields and expounded on the distinctive history of tea in Russia. A quick hike down a forest path led us to a wooden izba (chalet) where we were treated to a tea tasting and serenaded by a folklore troupe in traditional dress — their lively Russian melodies accompanied by accordions.

Servers produced traditional Russian samovars to dispense the freshly brewed black tea, which was served with delicious homemade breads and pastries, honeys, nuts and jams. We explored the Russian handicrafts – matryoshka (nesting) dolls, lacquered boxes, and painted clay figurines — in the tiny gift shop at the front of the chalet. On our journey back down the mountain, into the city proper, I gazed up at those beautiful and majestic Caucuses, and prayed for snow in February 2014.

Sochi, Russia

Sochi’s Sea Terminal and its notable 71-meter high steeple tower

Sochi, Russia

Sochi — Russia’s Riviera on the Black Sea

Sochi, Russia

The view of the Caucuses from the Russian Tea Plantation

Sochi, Russia

A Russian folklore troupe performs at the Tea Plantation

Russian matryoshka nesting dolls

Russian matryoshka nesting dolls

For more information:
Sochi Winter Olympics

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