Destinations

A ship off the old Bloc

Forward-thinking boutique cruise lines and a clutch of elegant hotels are putting Eastern Europe’s most secretive shores back on the luxury map, says Julian Allason.

March 31 2011
Julian Allason

“This is the Red Zone – the nuclear weapons store.” We are in a sea cavern in Ukraine so secret that until 1995 its very name, Balaclava, was omitted from Soviet maps – to the confusion of generations of schoolchildren searching for the site of the great Crimean War battle. Far above us, the sun plays on vineyards meandering across the “Valley of Death” through which the Light Brigade charged the Russian guns in a display of military gallantry – and boneheadedness – immortalised by the poet Tennyson. A century and a half later, 1,000ft of hard limestone below, Russian sappers excavated a concealed network of bomb-proof tunnels to shelter and service the submarines of the Black Sea Fleet far from Nato’s unblinking eye in the sky.

Today, its 600m of echoing canals are filled only with the sea – and memories of the Cold War recalled by our guide Dimitri, who served as a submarine officer. But the tunnels flanking them retain the paraphernalia of modern warfare, with hoists and trolleys for moving torpedoes and mines from Red Zone to boat. Locked down for nuclear war, the complex could protect nine small submarines and 3,000 troops for a month. Now, its well-concealed entrance is guarded by 150-tonne blast doors – and a ticket collector. For, following the collapse of the Soviet Union, this most clandestine of bases was returned to Ukraine and cheekily opened as a distinctly unusual naval museum.

There is very little that is ordinary about this vast but unfamiliar inland sea – known to most Westerners only by name – which forms the coastline of six countries. Now, the Black Sea is on the cusp of becoming a real centre of interest, and not just to adventurous travellers.

The trigger is the XXII Winter Olympiad, to be held in Russia’s premier resort, Sochi, in 2014. It’s sparking a luxury hotel boom on a coast already starred with glamorous fixtures such as the Grand Hotel Rodina, whose Black Magnolia restaurant fields a clientele as dazzlingly dressed as anywhere this side of Milan in Fashion Week. The pizzazz of the Formula One Grand Prix series is also due to arrive here the same year.

Already, Moscow restaurateurs and international lifestyle brands are scrambling for the best sites in anticipation of a global presence on the luxury travel map. Development is likewise stirring on the coasts of Turkey, Georgia, Ukraine, Romania and even Bulgaria, the other countries washed by the Black Sea’s deep and stratified waters.

In the lead are Western hotel groups such as Accor, whose crisply designed Novotel, set in gardens fronting the beach at Trabzon, northern Turkey, offers a model to hoteliers capitalising on what used to be called the Secret Sea. It is a good point from which to explore the mysterious rock monasteries of Cappadocia, and newly developed action activities such as heli-skiing and white-water rafting across the border in Georgia.

Already, visitor demand exceeds five-star hotel supply in the region, prompting the ultra-luxury cruise lines to schedule itineraries with names such as “In the footsteps of the Tsars”. The American Seabourn and Crystal lines and the Italian Silversea, whose combined insight leaves the rest of the hospitality industry bobbing in their wake, have all scheduled new Black Sea cruises for this year and next. And luxury travel operators such as Elegant Resorts are reporting great interest. These are high-level affairs on elegantly refitted ships with guest lecturers of stellar quality: a recent Silversea itinerary was addressed by Mikhail Gorbachev and Condoleezza Rice.

For now, cruising offers the best means of exploring the 7,000km coastline in style. Our own cruise was taken on MS Europa, the intimate 408-passenger flagship of the German (though bilingual) Hapag-Lloyd fleet, consistently rated best luxury vessel by Berlitz’s authoritative Complete Guide to Cruising.

Europa’s light, hotel-like staterooms and suites, many of which enjoy their own terrace balconies, provide civilised respite from adventures ashore. As befits the vessel’s name, passengers are overwhelmingly European and noticeably younger and fitter than aboard many American cruise vessels, reflected in a more challenging choice of shore expeditions, these being conducted by either German- or English-speaking guides of disarming candour and humour. There is a sophistication, too, about the cuisine, with Dieter Müller’s acclaimed signature dishes in demand at the gourmet restaurant, authentic Italian regional dishes served in an osteria, and the buzzy main dining room the centre of action on glamorous dress occasions. A recent technology upgrade has brought internet access to guest accommodation and several of the public areas. Alas, too much of our own sea time was spent on the widescreen virtual golf course, an unforgivingly realistic mirror of one’s limitations.

With many of the most intriguing cruising grounds at best patchily served by good hotels, for now still the case along the Black Sea coastline, the option of what is essentially a floating luxury resort with a distinctively European ambience is growing in popularity, with many cruises selling out quickly. Europa’s forward itinerary to some distinctly unfamiliar ports of call suggests that owner Hapag-Lloyd is well aware of these points of difference, and of the intrepid character of its following.

The same indigo – rarely black – waters were sailed by Tsar Nicholas II in the Imperial yacht Standart from his summer palace near Yalta. Vladimir Putin too has a dacha near Sochi. It is not far from the austere retreat built by Joseph Stalin in a mountain forest and painted green to camouflage it from the air. Within are preserved his possessions and the study from which the first general secretary ordered the exile of entire ethnic groups by way of holiday relaxation. As an alternative to the fleshpots on the coast below, those with a taste for authenticity can lodge in the guest wing, which has now been converted into a high-end hotel (Stalin’s Villa), assuring a less eventful stay and better food than those experienced by some of the dictator’s guests.

Today, the point of embarkation for a seven- or 10-day cruise around the Black Sea is either Piraeus, port of Athens, or more likely Istanbul, where the new Four Seasons Bosphorus, right on the waterway, offers the perfect base to top and tail a voyage in exotic style. The Bosphorus is, after all, the sole outlet for the Black Sea, which is fed by the mighty rivers Dnepr, Danube and Don. Most cruises navigate anticlockwise, reaching Yalta on the Crimean peninsula after port calls at Trabzon, for the dramatically sited Sümela monastery, and buzzing Sochi, surreally twinned with Cheltenham Spa.

For many, Yalta in Ukraine will be the main attraction. The Mediterranean climate and mountainous landscape clothed in orchards and vineyards commended it to Tsar Alexander II as a summer retreat. Strolling along the promenade below the Orthodox cathedral of Alexander Nevsky, one is enveloped in the decadent atmosphere of the 19th-century Russian Riviera. At the end reclines Oreanda Hotel, a magnificent Tsarist wedding cake edifice patronised by Tolstoy. This venue combines period feel with accomplished cooking; try vareniki dumplings stuffed with cherries.

Elsewhere in town looms the statue of Lenin, depicted in a Socialist Realist hurry but now facing McDonald’s, and Chekhov’s White Dacha, which has somehow survived Yalta’s turbulent history. From the writer’s unaltered study there is the view that inspired The Cherry Orchard. Outside, a vendor is trying to sell the high-rise dress cap of a Soviet general: “Ten euros. Very genuine.”

Time seems to run in parallel here, the lively present overlaid with the Tsarist and Soviet pasts. In front of the Romanov Livadia Palace, another hawker sidles up with an offer of black-market caviar. “The black is dyed,” warns my guide quietly. “Maybe the red is OK...” Ukrainians are ambivalent about red.

The Livadia, first constructed in 1860 by Alexander II, is preserved as rebuilt by the last tsar, Nicholas II, who summered here with his family before war and revolution engulfed his empire. I examine a poignant display of photographs portraying the Imperial Family at leisure from 1911 to 1914. Beside me a babushka stares up at them through a veil of tears, as if mourning all that Russia and Ukraine have suffered since their murder in 1918. Testament to that terrible history is presented in the White Hall, set up as it was when Roosevelt and Churchill joined Stalin for the 1945 Yalta Conference.

In Sevastopol a hint of Turkic influence survives, despite Stalin’s mass deportation of the Crimean Tatars in 1944. Today, this handsome limestone city of 1,800 memorials is home to the Ukrainian and Russian Black Sea Fleets. Until 1997, it was closed to all but the navy, thereby preserving its neoclassical architecture.

Though one of the few places where people still address each other as “Tovarich” (comrade), Sevastopol is emerging from its timewarp with the opening of chic boutiques and restaurants alongside the traditional pavement cafés where sailors hazard their pay at games of Durak. The well-located Sevastopol Hotel is described by the Bradt guide as “the most beautiful thing Stalin ever built” and could pass for a Catherine the Great original.

For all the ferocious reputation of their Cossack forebears, the Ukrainians’ friendliness recommends them to international hoteliers – and to Russian holidaymakers. Twice-daily trains complete the 32-hour journey from St Petersburg to the terminus, over which stands guard a massive piece of second world war railway artillery. It is our starting point for the rolling plateau where “the six hundred” charged the Russian guns, and on to the submarine pens hidden inside the cliffs. The picturesque Balaclava harbour is now filled with cabin cruisers and powerboats – many owned, it is said, by mafiosi.

To the north-west is the elegant port of Odessa, which became Pushkin’s home in exile and so inspired Gogol. Here, sailors from the battleship Potemkin mutinied in support of the workers’ uprising in 1905. From the famous Potemkin Steps, acacia-lined boulevards, laid out at the order of Catherine the Great, radiate from sea to railway station under a clear light reminiscent of St Petersburg. It is all unexpectedly European. A signpost points to “Liverpool, 2,496km”.

Indeed, Odessa is fast-establishing a reputation as the most sophisticated and cosmopolitan of the Black Sea cities; performances at its Italian baroque Opera House are attended by residents whose families originated from across Europe and the Caucasus. There are still quarters occupied by Italians, French, Armenians and Turks, with restaurants offering an intriguing fusion of their national cuisines with Carpathian cooking. And two atmospheric hotels, the Londonskaya (patronised by Chekhov) and the boutiquey Continental, occupy historic buildings.

Prosperity is trickling downward from the newly wealthy, encountered in sumptuous spas and smoky live music clubs. Old palaces are undergoing restoration as private residences. Parked outside one I spot a new Ferrari FXX.

At Shevchenko Park, my survey of the sunlit horizon is interrupted by the sound of marching. A detachment of rifle-bearing school cadets is goose-stepping down the Avenue of Glory towards the Memorial of the Unknown Sailor. As they mount guard at the corners of the obelisk, I notice that each of the girls wears a frilly set of ear-warmers beneath her drill cap. “Are they all set on joining the navy?”, I inquire. “No”, laughs my new friend Valeria. “Just keen to miss their algebra lesson.” Beyond stretch out beaches of golden sand washed by the enigmatic waters of the Secret Sea. I cannot quite escape the feeling that we are still in the Red Zone.

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Europe