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Articles Blog

Filtering by Category: Eastern Europe

Yalta, Crimea

Karyn Planett

A gentleman by the name of Denis Garsten wrote in his 1915 work, Friendly Russia, "Yalta is one of the most obviously beautiful places I have ever seen. A town of white houses that struggle for a foothold between the great green heights and the blue sea, it has often been compared to Monte Carlo." Well with good reason for it is indeed one of the lovliest spots along the Crimean peninsula. And along with the glorious scenery is a gentle climate that treats the visitor to warm days and comfortable nights.

A Look At The Past 

Yalta was once the showplace of the Soviet States. It was here that the members of the 19th-century Russian aristocracy chose to summer, building magnificent mansions and estates, palatial villas that compare quite favorably with those lining France's celebrated Riviera. In fact, in 1860, the Czar himself ordered the construction of a royal palace in nearby Livadia. Of course, members of nobility and the like followed, creating other marvelous get-aways for themselves. 

With the nobles and members of the landed aristocracy came a collection of creative souls. Anton Chekhov, the Russian writer and physician took up residence here. Leo Tolstoy, the great Russian novelist and philosopher, followed as did the Russian writer Maxim Gorky and Tchaikovsky, one of the most popular and influential Russian composers. Sergei Rachmaninoff, the Russian composer, conductor, and pianist was also in residence and, as history tells us, even performed in Mark Twain during his 1867 visit to Yalta. 

The Effects of the 1917 Revolution 

The year 1917 signalled the end of Imperial Russia. Czar Nicholas II was overthrown and Lenin came to power shortly thereafter. One of his first offical decrees was to nationalize all institutions. Within three years Lenin and his forces had wrested ownership away from the aristocracy and declared Yalta free from their control. These magnificent buildings now belonged to the people. No longer were these mansion to be used for teas and lavish balls, they were to become one of the largest and most important medical centers in the whole of Russia. Soviet citizens, members of the ruling class, were rehabilitated here for a variety of illnesses in a number of sanitaria, many of them former palaces.

The Historic Conference 

As World War II raged across the European continent, with German troops occupying much of the U.S.S.R. Many of their soldiers were stationed in the Crimea. As the dark days of the war were coming to an end the world's most powerful men gathered at the Livadia Palace in the seaside town of Yalta. The year was 1945. The cast included the British Prime Minister Sir Winston Churchill; U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt; and the Soviet Premier Joseph Stalin. Among the major decisions reached by "The Big Three" was the decision to join together with France for an occupation of Germany; establish a founding conference for the UN that year; The Soviet Union's agreement to enter the war against Japan after Germany's defeat; and the guarantee of representative government in Poland. Basically what came out of the historic Yalta Conference was the design for Europe after the final guns were stilled. 

Today, the Livadia Palace is host to history buffs, world travelers, art enthusiasts, and just those who stumble across this magnificent, historic structure on their journey around the world. Some take greater interest in the section of the building utilized for a cardiac care center. Others simply want to stand where a great event in history occurred. Still others contemplate the great feat when more than 2000 workers labored, sometimes throughout the night, in the early 1900s to complete this great White Palace of Livadia. 

                                                                      Karyn L. Planett

Sevastopol, Crimea

Karyn Planett

Whether you’ve a month or one day to explore this historic city and its surrounds, you’ll sail away clucking, thinking you’ve missed so much. And, you will have. A return visit is a must when you’ve more time, much more time.

Sevastopol has long enjoyed glowing praise. John Foster Fraser wrote in his 1899 piece Round the World on a Wheel, “Whether Paradise is formed from the plans of the south coast of the Crimea, or vice versa, I don’t know, but they must be from the same design.”

Sevastopol’s monuments and museums greet you now, then await your return. But you’ll soon realize it’s not only ancient, wearing the long face of time but a fast-paced young city, as well, faced toward the future.

Chapters From Days Past 

Reaching back into the folds of time, this area on the Crimean Peninsula was called Laestrygonian, as reported in Homer’s “Odyssey”. He wrote about that spot known as Balaklava, an important and stunning section of today’s Sevastopol. And local scholars report that in the 5th Century BC a city known as Chersonese spread across these shores. But historians point to June 14, 1783 as the date the modern city was founded by Russia’s Rear Admiral Makenzie as a naval base, chosen for its large, quiet bays. 

Christianity flourished here. Why? Because Prince Vladimir was the first of Russia’s many powerful leaders to adopt the Christian religion. Sevastopol is therefore revered as the cradle of Russian Christianity. The number of churches scattered about fills in the architectural details. 

Recent Intrigue and Drama 

Due to its strategic location on the Black Sea, Russian authorities kept the clamp severely down on Sevastopol as well as Balaklava. Not even Russian citizens could visit without a special permit, for secrecy was a crucial Cold War weapon. It was a “closed city.” And debate raged far too long as to its ownership. This territorial dispute was ultimately settled in 1993 between the Russian Federation and Ukraine with a friendship treaty signed. Even so, discussions still flare occasionally between the parties. 

Both agree, however, on its status as a “Hero City.” During the Crimean War (1854-1855) Sevastopol suffered a siege at the hands of the Turks, French, Sardinians, and British. Horrific fighting raged for just shy of one year before the Russian army retreated though not before scuttling their entire fleet, effectively blocking the harbor’s entrance keeping their ships out of enemy hands. The famous Russian artist Franz Alekseyevich Roubaud painted a massive panoramic mural depicting the soldiers’ defense of the city. This important piece was presented to the public in 1905, damaged in 1942, restored eight years later. Military history buffs shouldn’t miss viewing this masterpiece. 

The city again felt the heavy hand of war during WWII when German troops bombed it for 250 days inflicting tremendous damage. Ultimately in German hands, it was renamed Theodorichhafen. Within two years, the Red Army successfully liberated Sevastopol and honored her people by reconfirming it a “Hero City.” Residents rebuilt their city from the ashes and rubble. 

As recently as April 27, 2010, a new treaty was ratified confirming Russia’s lease on the nearby submarine base until 2017. Though this ratification process was not without challenges, documents were eventually signed. 

Today, what you see honors this illustrious past. Streets bear the names of important Soviet and Russian military figures who are revered as heroes. Their tales are told in hundreds of monuments found here and there. Some count as many as 1800 in total. 

You Mustn’t Miss The Highlights 

The Monument to the Scuttled Ships is a must, viewed from the Primorsky Boulevard waterfront and Grafskaya Landing Quay. The Panorama Museum, described previous, literally transports you back in time to see and feel the “Defense of Sevastopol from 1854-1855”. Images represent a single day in this terrible time. And the 19th-century Vladimirsky Cathedral, with the graves of eleven admirals killed in the line of duty, is worthy of a visit. Bullet holes still mar the exterior, testament to the pounding this city took during the Crimean War and WWII, known locally as the “Great Patriotic War”. 

From Sapoune Ridge Lord Ragland, Commander-in-Chief of the British Army, watched the disastrous slaughter during the British cavalry’s charge in the Crimean War’s Battle of Balaclava, October 25, 1854. As captured by Alfred Lord Tennyson’s The Charge of the Light Brigade, into the valley of death rode the 600. A memorial here remembers those troops and others lost during the 1941-42 liberation of Sevastopol. Malakhov Kurgan (Barrow), an open-air monument pays tribute to many killed in battle including Vice-Admiral V.A. Kornilov. 

There’s also the impressive ruins of Chersonesus of Tauria. Also spelled “Khersonesos”, this site originally was Heraclea, a Greek colony from 442 B.C. 

For many, the highlight of Sevastopol is the Balaklava Nuclear Submarine Base, in operation until 1993. Three years later, the last Russian submarine sailed from this base. Now open to the public, visitors should enquire whether they’ll be able to visit privately, not on tour. If so, the Sheremetyev Submarine Museum is a must. 

With history swirling about in your head and your memory card filled with photos, pause to honor those who sacrificed in the defense of their fine city. And some day read Tolstoy’s “During the Crimean War” and “Sebastopol Sketches” depicting the author’s time as a soldier. 

                                                            Karyn L. Planett

Sochi, Russia

Karyn Planett

Temperate and Tempting

“Russians are connoisseurs of the cold.”
—Hedrick Smith, The Russians, 1977

Of course this little string of words rings true for, as Russians know only too well, an immense swath of their massive nation is blanketed in a thick coat of snow for the endless, dark chapters of winter.  Their choices, when faced with this bleak prospect, are to suit up and slog along despite the wrenching cold or somehow find their way to Sochi, the Black Sea’s refuge from the frosty blasts of freezing winds and shivering blizzards.  It’s here, according to enthusiastic promoters, that winter temperatures are surprisingly warm, practically balmy in comparison, promising 300 days a year of sunshine.  In fact, that’s exactly why Stalin picked it for his favorite dacha where he could retreat and ponder his next move on the world’s political stage.

In the Spotlight

Stalin wasn’t alone in his adoration of Sochi.  The kings of neighboring Abkhazia kept this area for their own from the 6th to the 15th centuries, building churches throughout the countryside.  The control was then passed to the Ottoman Empire, which ceded it to Russia in 1829 following the Russo-Turkish War.  Sochi became an incorporated city in 1896.  The resort grew during the Soviet regime when party officials relaxed here, taking mineral baths and medicinal cures offered by the lavish sanatoria including the Matsesta Bathhouse and Springs, plus opulent Rodina and the Italian-style Orzhonikidze.  Matsesta, for your information, means “firewater” and is so named for its sulphur springs that are high in minerals like sodium chloride.  Believers claim these curative waters are beneficial for those with, among other maladies, cardiovascular conditions.

The current President of the Russian Federation, Vladimir Putin, has attracted foreign investment for Sochi and courted the world’s attention by winning for his beloved city the honor of hosting the 2014 XXII Winter Olympics.  This is actually possible because the snow-capped Caucasis Mountains are literally a pebble’s throw from Sochi.  You can say that, though, of a lot of places because Greater Sochi is officially 90 miles long, making it Europe’s longest city and the world’s second longest.

And, speaking of sports, Sochi was home to two of Russia’s star tennis players Maria Sharapova and Yevgeny Kafelnikov during their early years.  Surely, more will follow.

The Sea, the Trees, and Tea

Beachgoers find a rather pebbly seaside along this stretch of the Black Sea.  But never mind.  Resorts line the seafront promenade with staged areas complete with artificial palms, colorful umbrellas, and all the amenities for enjoying a day at the beach.

And parks abound including Riviera Park, established in 1898 by Aleksey Khludov’s son.  Today, it’s home to the “Glade of Friendship” complete with trees planted by national and global dignitaries including every Soviet cosmonaut.  But, the grand prize in the Sochi open-space category must go to the Caucasian Biosphere Reserve found just north of the city.  Its 731,000 acres have been declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site and are definitely worth a visit.

Oddly enough, tea, yes tea, is grown in the hills of Dagomys some 13 miles west of Sochi.  In fact, this area is considered to be Russia’s tea capital.  And Russians do love their tea--in bone china, in porcelain as delicate as eggshells, or from traditional samovars.  This tea-growing region was originally established as a Botanical Garden by Nicholas II.  Today, it hosts visitors from around the world.

Strolling Through Sochi

The sea embankment area is known as naberzhnaya and is a good place to start.  Sit here and watch the passing parade of locals or make your way to the Winter Theater.  Completed in 1937, the 88 Corinthian columns and Neo-classical edifice complete its signature facade.  A 200-foot-high steeple identifies the Maritime Passenger Terminal dating from 1955.  And Stalin’s fingerprints are all over the landmark Railway Terminal Station, so typical of Stalinist architecture.

There should be ample time to sample a local dish or two.  And, why not?  Where else are you going to get zakuski (smoked or pickled fish), ikra (caviar) slathered on heavy dark bread, or some more commonly-known dishes including borsht (beet soup), blinis (pancakes) with a thick coating of jam, or pirozhkis (piping hot pastries stuffed with ground meat and vegis)?  Another specialty is a spicy bean stew called lobiyo.  For just a snack, there’s jelly-coated nuts called churchkhela.  All this may not be on “South Beach” but you’re only in Sochi once.

Or, maybe not.  Perhaps, you’ll want to return in a few years to witness the ongoing transformation fueled by foreign investors, resort developers, tour operators, and the curious traveler on the prowl for the world’s next hot spot.  Sochi just might fill the bill.

Nessebar, Bulgaria

Karyn Planett

A Glimpse At Bulgaria Past

Unless you’re a well-heeled traveler with a thick, dog-eared passport, you’ve probably not been to Nessebar previously. Or even Bulgaria, for that matter. ‘Tis a shame for this is a coastline rich with archeological treasures and architectural surprises. Globetrotters flock here, as well, for predictably sunny days and prices to satisfy every pocketbook, hearty food and a long history. A stint ashore in Nessebar gives you an introduction into this menu.

Bits About Bulgaria

The country is officially known as the Republic of Bulgaria, with a total population of nearly 8.5 million—86% of whom are Eastern Orthodox, the other 13% Muslim. The first Bulgarian state was recognized in 681 A.D. It faces the sea along its 354-kiliometer Black Sea shoreline with Varna and Burgas the major resort destinations. Those who call Bulgaria home are a mixture, with native Bulgarians accounting for the majority, 85% in fact. Turks, Gypsies, and Macedonians complete the ethnic tableau with smatterings of other nationalities tossed into the mix.

For the latter part of the last century, agriculture and manufacturing provided the economic base for the country. The economy reflected the ideals of the Soviet Union with cooperatives, collectives, state-owned businesses and the like. Not surprisingly, tourism has emerged as a significant employer, especially in the seaside areas with Eastern Europeans and Turks the major holidaymakers.

From 1946 until 1990, the nation was governed like in the Soviet Union with the Communist Party’s Politburo effectively making the decisions for the people. As this style of totalitarian government saw its demise all across Eastern Europe in the late 1980s, so too did the Bulgarian system fall. In 1991, the country became a democratic republic with a president elected to serve a 5-year term. Bulgaria entered NATO in 2004 and EC membership is targeted for 2007.

Knocking About Nessebar

Begin with the factoid that Nessebar’s old quarter has been declared a UNESCO World Heritage site. Why? Because it sits on a thin neck of land attached to the coast and has changed little for centuries. It stands as a symbol to the designs and decisions made by early settlers as far back the 6th Century B.C. Nessebar is, by all accounts, one of the country’s oldest towns. Your guides and guidebooks will describe in detail the ancient polis of Mesambria that appeared in the 6th Century B.C.; the Thracian settlement of Melsabria; the Roman invasion in the 1st Century B.C., and the conquest of Khan Kroum in 812. Under Tsar Ivan Aleksandur (1331-1371) the area blossomed into a cultural center as well as a seaport. Swallowed up into the Ottoman Empire in 1452, many of its stone fortifications were leveled. Thankfully others survived and can be visited today including towers, sanctuaries, sections of the old wall and gates that were used for safety.

Sights that shouldn’t be missed, if one is on that sort of mission, include something called the Bulgarian National Revival architectural ensemble. Sixty in all, if you’ve got the time. Typical of Black Sea coastal houses, they usually feature cool basements of stone, upper floors with decorative wood paneling, bay windows by the score, and corbels as support. Follow any cobblestone path and fine examples will be revealed before you. Those that garner the most interest include the houses of Mouskoyani, Bogatov, Rousiev, Captain Pavel and others. The latter sits perched on a sizeable stone foundation above the port and is typical of the Bulgarian National Revival style.

Houses Of Worship

The devout face of Nessebar’s people is reflected in the many houses of worship dotted across the skyline. In the past, there were more than three dozen in this tiny community. The Old Bishopric is recognized as one of the most important. Dating back to days of the 5th Century or the dawn of the 6th, it stirs a sense of awe due to its powerful dimensions. St. Stevens Church, also known as the New Bishopric, is “new” only relatively speaking. It dates back to the 12th Century, as believed by some experts while others contend it is much, much older. Visitors are asked to note that it has been preserved almost in its original design. It is claimed that color ceramic decorations were incorporated into the design in this church for the first time. Murals from the 14th-19th centuries are recognized as being of high artistic value. The iconostasis icons are especially interesting, as well.

Other churches of note include St. John Alyturgetos and Pantokrator Church, considered by many to be the town’s most picturesque. The features of note include colorful ceramic rosettes, a luxuriant interior, with artistic and architectural elements unique in their design.

Now if all this sightseeing is not your cup of tea, so to speak, you might pass the day attempting to master Bulgaria’s Cyrillic alphabet, or discussing the impressive body of “contemporary” Bulgarian literature including works by D. Dimov and D. Talev. Under communism, pieces addressing the issue of “Social Realism” were “encouraged” and used to promote the party ideals, so works from that period were considered rather uniform in style.

A new day shines on Bulgaria in so many ways. Chat up some youthful, eyes-to-the-future Bulgarian students and you’ll soon discover just that.

Constanta, Romania

Karyn Planett

Black Sea’s Breath of Fresh Air

“Constanta is the lung of Romania.”

So pronounced the first Romanian king, Carol I.  Well, graphic as that may be and worthy of further discussion, one might argue that Constanta today is more the pulse of Romania than the… ahem… lung.  Why?  Well, it’s here that vacationing Europeans flock to take the healing spa treatments, bask lazily in the predictable summer sun, dance away the endless nights, and picnic in the nearby forests responsible for the fresh air that so captivated our king.

Never mind.  Just know you’ve traveled halfway ‘round the world to the Black Sea resort town of Constanta that’s been luring visitors here for some 2,500 years.

The City Proper

Seems everyone says you must begin your look-about Constanta (pronounced Kohn-stahn-tsah) in Ovid Square, Piata Ovidiu in the local language.  Smack in the middle is a statue of Ovidius Puplius Nasos the famous Romanian poet, designed in 1887 by Ettore Ferrari (long before the fashionistas began wearing red hats sporting his last name).  Exiled here by the Roman Emperor Augustus during the final dozen years of this life (43-17 B.C.), it was here Ovid penned his famous Methamorphosis, Tristia and Elegias poems.

Dawdle here and attempt a bit of poetry on your own or saunter over to the Archaeological Museum, rich with fine examples of finds from Dobrogea, this part of Romania.  Important are the sculptures, Neolithic tools, weapons and objects from this ancient city then known as Tomis.

Nearby is a must-see, one of Europe’s largest mosaics, a floor from the Roman Period.  Built in the early party of the 4th Century, it originally measured a whopping 20 by 100 yards! 

There’s an interesting mosque close by, as well.  Called the Great Mahmudiye Mosque, it was constructed by King Carol I (the lung guy) in 1910 and features one of the world’s largest carpets.  In fact, it took a staggering 17 years for one master Turkish carpet-maker to weave this gift from Sultan Abdul Hamid in 1915.  Note, this masterpiece weighs an incredible 1,080 pounds!  Five times each day, the mosque’s muezzin climbs the 140 steps up the 164-foot-high minaret to call the faithful to prayer.  For him, especially, it’s fantastic this region is blessed with clean air!

Two other places worth a mention are the Greco-Roman-style Orthodox Church of St. Paul and Peter, dating back to 1883, and the Folk Art Museum.  Here you’ll find a collection of 16,000 exhibits including costumes, jewelry, and religious icons from the 18th and 19th Centuries.

Histria and the Hermitage

Thirty miles from Constanta stands the oldest and largest archeological site in Romania, Histria.  Founded in 656 B.C., these are the ruins of the first Greek city settled on the Black Sea’s west coast.  Baths, churches, basilicas and old ramparts are still visible.

St. Andrew’s Hermitage is a bit away from town, as well, but quite interesting for this is where the apostle lived.  He is credited with bringing Christianity to Romania and is today the country’s patron saint.

Maritime buffs will want to see the Genoese Lighthouse, constructed in the 13th Century by navigators from Genoa.  And a look at Tropaeum Traini is in order.  It’s the monument built by Emperor Trajan in 109 A.D. to glorify Rome’s victory over Scythia Minor, today’s Dobrogea.  Some 54 bas-reliefs highlight battle scenes from this period in history.

Unwind, Refresh, Recharge

Do as a legion of visitors before you have done… go to the beach for, as rumor has it, the sun shines here 300 days a year.  This nation’s Black Sea coast is known as the littoral and enjoys the same temperate Mediterranean-type climate as the French Riviera.  Plus, the nearby lakes are rich with precious minerals that locals claim contain curative properties.  They’re convinced the breezes near Mamaia Beach, a 5-mile long stretch of sand, are laced with mineral salts that cause good health by merely breathing in.  So, perhaps King Carol I was right after all.

Today, Mamaia is a developed resort area dating back one hundred years.  There are other beaches as well, with enticing names like Venus, Jupiter, and Neptune.  And, should the beach not be your cup of tea there’s the Casino, heralding back to 1909.  Elegant in its art nouveau style, the building was designed by French architect Daniel Renard.

Should you wish to sample regional specialties, try ciorba (a Romanian soup), grilled nisetru (sturgeon), mititei (grilled sausages), or miel fiert in lapte (lamb stewed in milk) followed by a supersweet baklava.  Some fine examples of regional red wines include Babadag, Ostrov, and Murfatlar the winner of 130 gold medals.

And, you mustn’t forget a souvenir or two.  Embroidered garments and table linens, traditional ceramics, plus woven carpets depicting the “tree of life” are always popular.

At day’s end regale fellow travelers with tales of your explorations, the same tales you’ll tell friends back home when expounding on the virtues of this exotic destination, Constanta, Romania.