A cruise around the Black Sea had been on my bucket list for a long time; but it never seemed to make it into the top three places. Then Russia invaded Crimea which became off limits for tourists which meant places such as Sebastopol and Yalta could not be visited.
However, an alternative flyer plopped through my letterbox. “In The Footsteps Of The Cossacks” – Noble Caledonia finds some interesting names for their tours! This was to be a cruise along a short section of the Black Sea to the River Dnieper (pronounced Neeper) from Romania to Ukraine visiting such interesting cities as Odessa and Kiev but avoiding Chernobyl and the eastern part of the country still in conflict with Russia. Not such a pricey option as the full circuit of the Black Sea it immediately appealed as an alternative.
We flew to Bucharest with Tarom, Romania’s national airline and were given what I called “a sort of hot meal” with the note that we wouldn’t get that with BA; in fact wouldn’t get anything with them….In case we were still hungry we were handed an enormous packed supper to eat on the coach as we drove 2½ hours to Festesti to join our boat, the Dnieper Princess. This vessel was much bigger than those of Noble Caledonia on which I had sailed in the past. The Princess has the capacity to take 230 passengers though Noble had an allocation of 50. The other passengers came from Germany, Switzerland and Brazil. This very jolly group of 22 were apparently descendants of Ukrainians who had emigrated to Brazil after the First World War.
Our first visit, by coach, was to the seaside resort and port of Constantia. We sailed in the afternoon after lunch on board and I spent a pleasant afternoon sitting on the top deck in the sun and watching the scenery as we glided by. In the early evening we met the Captain who sported a very impressive huge white beard, and white gloves. He looked like Captain Bird’s Eye! I was convinced his beard was false….
There were two restaurants on the ship; our allocation of tables was on the upper restaurant together with some of the Swiss; and the Germans and the Brazilians ate in the lower restaurant. However, when we, the Brits, went out on excursions on smaller boats we were paired with the Brazilians. All very diplomatic.
Our first stop in Ukraine was at Izmail where our local guide told us we were the first tourists to visit the area for 20 years. Not surprising after the problems with Crimea. But everywhere we went in Ukraine the local people, and the guides who took us around, were very hospitable and pleased to see us having had no tourism to speak of for many years. In Izmail we changed euros into local currency – 20 euros will probably see me through most of the week! Next stop was Vilkovo, known as the “Ukrainian Venice” on account of its many canals. They were mainly dried up as it was September, after a dry summer and not really navigable. In front of the local school we were greeted to a song and dance show by children in national costume. That evening we sailed into the Black Sea en route to Odessa. Here we docked at a very busy port; cranes and trucks and long goods trains.
Odessa is a beautiful city with magnificent 19th century buildings. According to a film we had seen on board the boat, Ukraine had been at war many times against Russia, then Poland, then Russia again, then Turkey, then anyone else in the region so it was amazing that the city’s buildings were in such good condition, especially the glorious Opera House where we were shown the Baroque interior. Unfortunately there were no concerts or shows on at the time of our visit.
Two days later we were in the delta of the River Dnieper where we disembarked into two smaller boats (German and Swiss in one boat, Brazilians and us in another….)
We cruised for about an hour with a lot of photo opportunities of houses along the riverside, each with its own landing stage. We stopped at a local village where the inhabitants were selling embroided tablecloths etc and fresh fruit and home made wine. We were plied with this, and local savoury and sweet nibbles and several servings of neat vodka. A group of women in national costume entertained us on the boat with singing and audience participation with a couple of the male passengers. In the evening we had a “Pirates Evening” on board the Dnieper Princess as we sailed onwards upstream. Take a striped sweater, a black eye patch a stuffed parrot and anything else piratey if you do this cruise.
At Zaporizhia we visited a “Cossack Village” – more an open air museum with houses and churches as they would have been in Cossack days in the 18th century. Then we were treated to a Cossack show; a lot of sword, sabre and pike waving and some energetic young men leaping on and off galloping horses.
Finally we reached Kiev, capital of Ukraine and our final stop. There is so much to see in this beautiful city and our local guide Natalia who spoke good English and told us not only about all the churches, monasteries etc we saw but also about what a very hard life it was under the rule of Stalin and the Soviets. We had a free afternoon during which I found a Hop-on Hop-off bus which took to me different areas of the city we had not seen in the morning. In the evening we attended a concert by the Kiev male voice choir who sang religious and then folk songs and were truly excellent.
We had glorious weather the whole cruise and it only clouded over on the very last day. It was a thoroughly enjoyable journey and I learned a lot about Ukraine, her people, the countryside and the beautiful cities of Odessa and Kiev.