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Cruising the Balkans

Cruising the Balkans
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This October I decided to go on a Silversea cruise to the Balkans. I chose it specifically  because it was an area I knew very little about and I thought it would make a refreshing change from the mainstream ports I have visited on so many Mediterranean cruises.

This cruise combined some great historic sites in Turkey and Greece with sailing through the Dardanelles past Gallipoli to dip a toe into the Black Sea, visiting ports in Rumania and Bulgaria. Such an unusual itinerary had come about due to Mr. Putin’s shenanigans in Crimea, so I jumped at the chance to visit these more obscure ports of call.

To add a new dimension to the adventure,  I had also decided to travel on my own on a cruise for the first time. While I am not new to travelling solo, I was interested to learn how it would change the cruise experience and how it would feel to be a single traveller on board.

The ship was departing from Istanbul, so this was to be my first challenge as a woman travelling alone. My last stay in Istanbul had been 20 years ago and all I could  remember was just how male-orientated life there had been then.  Women were virtually unseen in the bar and café culture in those days. Would I feel intimidated? Would I end up staying in my room for 24 hours?

A very warm welcome

I needn’t have worried. Everyone from the courteous taxi driver, to the friendly hotel staff, made me feel very welcome. I even ventured out for dinner alone to a small restaurant recommended by the hotel receptionist. At the restaurant they made quite a fuss of me, bringing me the local home baked bread, which came puffed up  like a balloon. They showed me how to eat it, with olive tapenade, some olive oil mixed with sour pomegranate syrup and chilli flakes. It made such a tasty starter.

The only disappointment was not being able to have a glass of wine with my meal. Apparently, if any restaurant is within 100 metres of a mosque, no alcohol can be served. And there are now so many mosques under the fundamentalist regime that this  now affects many of the  city’s restaurants.

Next day I walked to the Grand Bazaar and enjoyed a couple of hours shopping for slippers, scarves and costume jewellery. As a woman alone, I learned very quickly not to stand still or look lost. Immediately I did I was approached by local men, trying to sell me things. However, if I kept  walking and limited any questions for directions to police or taxi drivers this eliminated the problem.

In the afternoon I boarded the ship and at tea time we set sail. I decided to go to the Singles Cocktail Party on the first night to get acquainted with some of the other single travellers. As the Silver Cloud is only a small ship with only 280 passengers,  there were only 12 of us – all women! However, it was a great way to meet and get to know one another and we all had dinner together that evening, comparing notes on excursions booked and places we had already visited.

Once the ice had been broken it was good to have a few friends to eat with or join on excursions without the pressure of being together all the time. I began to realise this could be a very pleasant way to travel.

One of the main reasons for choosing this cruise had been to visit the ancient city of Ephesus. Whenever I had been within striking distance of Ephesus before it had been in the height of the Summer and  I had been deterred by the heat. October would be more comfortable for walking around the ruins. I booked  myself on a half day tour and, I have to say, I  thought it was the best excursion of the cruise.

On reaching Ephesus after an hour by coach, I was astounded by its size.  I had been to Pompeii  in Italy earlier in the year, which had impressed me,  but this was 10 times the size of Pompeii. At present only 60 pc of Ephesus has been excavated, so they are constantly working on some areas. We visited  2 large mansions under cover,  which are still being excavated. These are worth visiting as they give you a real feel for the elaborate and sophisticated nature of the buildings. Not only had they underground heating, but they also used running water to cool the air in the heat of Summer.

One of the most memorable areas in Ephesus was the public toilets. With seating for 74, this used to be a truly  social experience – somewhere to go to share conversation while sitting on the loo. The row of toilets had running water along a gutter in front, where you could dip your personal sponge and clean yourself after. No need for toilet paper in those days!

Perhaps the most impressive site was the amphitheatre. With seating for 25,000, this was built high into the hillside. It is still used for outside concerts and the acoustics are said to be amazing.

Later in the day I visited the Grand Bazaar in Izmir. This was a totally different experience to the one in Istanbul, but equally fascinating. Built along a rabbit warren of narrow streets, it was heaving with people selling anything from pots and pans to leather bags. There were lots of wedding shops with very fussy wedding dresses, and lots of white satin suits for little boys with elaborate headdresses. It wasn’t somewhere to necessarily buy souvenirs, but it did give a very interesting insight into the local culture.

As we headed back towards the Black Sea we entered the narrow straits of the Dardanelles near to the site of the ancient city of Troy, and  then sailed for 3 hours through the Dardanelles on our way  to the Sea of Marmara.

As we sailed through this barren land, we passed various sites of the Crimean War  along its banks until we finally reached Gallipoli. The resident historian on board gave a very moving lecture about the Gallipoli campaign in the First World War. The whole campaign was a disaster from beginning to end, with such a dreadful loss of life – 43,000 British, 8,500 Australians, 2,500 New Zealanders. Short of supplies, constantly thirsty and dying of dysentery,  the survivors had to finally be evacuated. Next year is the 100 year anniversary and many relatives will be there at sunrise 25th April next year to commemorate their deaths.

On our way to the Black Sea our ship sailed along the Bosphorus, giving us a great view of Istanbul on the way. I have to say it was a wonderful experience to see all the mosques and minarets, mansions and palaces along the waterfront as we sailed past. It really is a city seen at its best from the water.

Our last port of call was a beautiful little-known town in Bulgaria, called Nessebar. It is known locally as the “Pearl of the Black Sea” or Bulgaria’s Dubrovnik”, and is now a World Heritage site. Its history dates  back to Antiquity, with lots of ancient ruins dotted about. The most fascinating buildings though are the  unusual 19th century wooden houses seen throughout the town.

Nessebar is built on a peninsula and it takes about half an hour to walk around the outer  edge. While there appeared to be  a very interesting organised tour, I decided  it was time to have a day off.  I wandered around the harbour and  found a wonderful little fish restaurant.  There I  ordered a selection of fish and a bottle of wine for next to nothing, and sat in the sun thinking how lucky I was to be in yet another fascinating place I’d never heard of before.

All in all, the Balkan cruise  was a really refreshing change and a wonderful introduction to a more obscure area of Europe. As for cruising on my own, I would be quite happy  to do it again.  I found cruising was  a really safe environment for a single woman, with as much company or as little as I wanted, whether it was at mealtimes or around the pool or on excursions. I would thoroughly recommend it to anyone feeling apprehensive about travelling alone.

 

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