Full of Eastern Promise
David George, an independent cruise blogger, heads eastwards to the Black Sea on board P&O’s Arcadia and is captivated by the history of the region.
Istanbul is one of my favourite cities. The crossing place between two continents, Asia and Europe, the city straddles the Bosphorus. It exudes excitement and the skyline is one of the most dramatic in the world. Yes it’s noisy and sometimes grimy but it’s also home to stunning palaces and soaring mosques, and I love it. The best vantage point to savour this Turkish delight and to get your bearings before going ashore is undoubtedly from the sea and so it came as no surprise that Arcadia’s sun decks were packed as we made our way through the Marmara Sea to our berth.
Sailing serenely into ports and anticipating the adventures that lie ahead is one of the great pleasures of a cruise holiday. Invariably, people you may have seen dancing the night away on the previous evening or competing in the fiercely competitive late-night syndicate quiz will still manage to be up on deck early enough for the first glimpse of a new port.
We had taken ten days to reach this point in our cruise and already we’d visited Cartagena, Katakolon, Heraklion and Izmir. It was October and as expected the weather was autumnal but nevertheless there had been some glorious sunshine and I wasn’t the only passenger who had already enjoyed a few swims in one of the two pools on Lido deck.
Arcadia was beginning to feel like home from home. By now I knew how to find my way around, finally remembering that the restaurants remain firmly sited at the back whilst the Palladium Theatre is always at the front. Realising that whenever you exit any of the main lifts you will be facing the stern is another useful lesson. Comfortable routines were now securely established. My favourite was having a mid-morning Costa coffee in Spinnakers. Those serving there were always charming and efficient, and within a couple of days they had remembered what I wanted even before I had settled down in an armchair by the window.
By the way, don’t underestimate the local knowledge of these waiters and stewards! People like Tina, Vineeth, Desmond, Judith, Favian, Godfrey and Patrick – and there are many others – were not only cheerful and friendly, they were also happy to share tips about ports of call. It saved me a lot of time, for example, to hear from them about the best places for wifi. This is often within each port area but you need to go online early in the day before the signal weakens when more people log on. They also came to my rescue when I left swimming goggles on my sunlounger. Word was passed around and within a day I had been re-united with them.
Despite Istanbul’s population of more than 13 million, its centre is still relatively easy to explore on foot. We berthed near Galata Bridge, a two-tier bridge carrying traffic and trams with cafes and shops beneath, and it would be quite easy to spend a couple of hours there simply watching the fishermen and gazing at the teeming mass of humanity that crosses it day and night.
But beyond the bridge, no more than a 40-minute walk from the berth, you’ll be within sight of Topkapi, palace of the sultans, and Sultan Ahmed Mosque, known familiarly as the Blue Mosque and instantly recognizable by its six slim minarets. Incidentally, whilst euros are acceptable in many places, Turkish Lira will be required for entry to museums and palaces.
Our overnight stop in Istanbul sped by and we were soon transiting the Bosphorus en route to the Black Sea. On board there was much to keep us busy. Each morning, guest speaker Jeff Chandler presented talks about military battles and heroes like Winston Churchill and Douglas Bader. There were also classes for those who wanted to learn to play bridge, speak another language or paint watercolours.
I opted for painting and discovered one of the best bargains on the ship, namely the beginner’s starter kit. This consisted of a Winsor & Newton paintbox, brushes, palette, pencil, eraser (a must!) and a pad of top quality art paper. The pad alone would cost £12 at home but the entire kit on Arcadia was just £20. I only paint when I’m on a cruise and so the quality of the teaching is of key importance.
One of the very best cruise tutors is Easa Ali, an Iraqi Kurd who for the past 50 years has lived in England. With decades of experience as a professional artist and his dry sense of humour to keep us smiling throughout the daily sessions, he was ideally qualified to lead us in a range of techniques and the exhibition of our landscapes, seascapes, animal pictures and portraits proved just how gifted he was. “I am amazed,” he told me as we looked at the 200 pictures on display. “I have never seen such standards as these!” This was probably something of an overstatement (in my case) but nevertheless it was nice to hear. If you can paint, do attend the art classes. And if you can’t, still give them a try because all the art teachers I have met on board – people like Jack Gray and Mike Purcell, as well as Easa – have gone out of their way to make sure everyone feels welcome.
Central to any cruise is the regularity of eating. I wish I could say I was sensible but it’s not easy when Executive Chef Ian Summers’ team consistently delivered such delicious meals. We tended to use the self-service Belvedere for breakfast but enjoyed the gentler pace of Lower Meridian for lunch and dinner. Service was always friendly and efficient, and the meals were some of the best I’ve had on a cruise ship. I’d like to say that I missed out on the freshly-baked scones with jam and cream at teatime, but I can’t. And the toasted teacakes were just as tasty.
Throughout the cruise, the ship’s officers and crew delivered excellent service and I wasn’t the only one to be made to feel special. Andrew Dunkerley and his wife Sheila, from Oldham, have sailed with other cruise lines but P&O remains their favourite for its British values. Andrew told me about his preference for draft lager rather than wine with dinner and how he had decided to mention this to Blasio, his wine waiter in Meridian. “Leave it to me, sir!” was the immediate response and every night thereafter there was a fresh pint waiting for him. It was only later in the cruise that Andrew discovered that Blasio was taking the trouble to order the drink from another of the ship’s bars. From there it was being relayed back to him for delivery to the table. No wonder that Andrew was impressed: “That’s what I call service and it’s why we keep returning to P&O.”
After Istanbul, our next port was Odessa and we berthed almost in the heart of the city. Ahead of us was a spectacular flight of steps leading up to Prymorsky Bulvar and now known as the Potemkin Steps after the film Battleship Potemkin which told the story of the 1905 uprising and mutiny on board the ship. Visitors need not climb every one of the 192 steps to reach the town but they are worth a look. From either the top or the bottom, it appears that the flight is continuous but in fact there are 20 flights separated by landings at which you can pause for breath. We decided to leave the sophistication of the harbour area behind us and headed across the main boulevard to the city centre. There, a huge outdoor and indoor market provided an insight into the Ukrainian way of life.
The stallholders were friendly, offering sample spoonfuls of honey whilst smiling youths tested out their English: “You from London, yes?” But overall it felt like stepping back in time to the 1950s with slices of lard and mounds of tripe on offer, all very different from the elegance of the streets nearer the ship.
Yalta is smaller, prettier and known as the gateway to the Ukrainian Riviera. For most passengers, however, it is the city’s links with Churchill that were the main focus of interest. In 1945 Stalin met Churchill and Roosevelt here to make decisions on the shape of post-war Europe and there were a number of organized tours to the conference venue in Livadia. For walks around Yalta, Lenin Embankment makes a useful starting point and it’s impossible to miss because the towering statue of Lenin is visible from the ship. This area comprises hotels, bars, cafes and shops but I was more interested in the trees. The cork oaks, silk trees and fan palms are beautifully maintained and, on a hot day like this, they provided much-needed shade. Walking further along, and behind the seafront, you will find Alexander Nevsky Cathedral and it’s well worth finding. The onion domes are typically Russian and once inside the Byzantine style is dazzling.
We returned to the Med through the Dardanelles, visiting Piraeus (for Athens) and Lisbon before finally reaching Southampton. The port of Piraeus is only a few miles from the capital city of Athens and because the day was clear we could see the Acropolis even from the sun deck. There are plenty of optional tours to the capital and there is also the prospect of travelling independently on the local train. With Greece currently in economic difficulties, however, lightning strikes are commonplace and rail services could be disrupted. We decided to stay in Piraeus, walking across to the marina on the other side of the peninsular. Here we found shops, cafes and millionaires’ yachts, an elegant area so different from the dock area where we had berthed.
This had been a cruise of fascinating cultural contrasts on board a ship where good service remains as important as ever. I have no doubt I’ll be raiding my piggy bank to book another cruise before long and the news that Arcadia is to have a £40,000,000 refit before Christmas convinces me that I will need to return to view the results. But just one question: what can P&O possibly do to improve her?
David George retired six years ago. He worked in education as well as in broadcasting as a producer with BBC Radio. He now blogs about his cruise experiences and writes UK and European city guides.
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