ORGANIZATION of this BLOG

August 18, 2010

Itinerary of The Viking Lomonosov (2010 sailings)


Soviet Sub base. PHOTOS under DESIGN on right >>>


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BLACK SEA PORTS

Istanbul / Odessa / Sevastopol / Yalta
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UKRAINIAN RIVER PORTS / Dnieper River
Kiev / Kremenchuk / Dnepropetrovsk / Zaporozhye / Kherson (SCROLL down)
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PROs and CONs / Should You do this trip?

August 18, 2010

Posted on the RIGHT >>>>>>>>>>>>
… or click HERE

Kyiv (Kiev)

August 13, 2010

A Gallery of Kiev photos is at the RIGHT >>>>

The Bell Tower, St. Sophia Cathedral, Kiev, Ukraine

Kiev is a big city, but here, as it is in the rest of the country, the question is: do the Ukrainians have a common culture they all wish to share?

As we prepared to leave Ukraine, our travels ended far up the Dnieper (“Knee-per”) River in Kiev (Kyiv). The Dnieper, one of the longest in Europe, neatly divides the Ukraine in half – and does so in significant ways. East of the Dnieper Russian influence, including the Russian language is strong. West of the river and Ukrainian is the most popular language and culture. The people, all Ukrainian citizens since 1991, identify differently culturally.

Kiev is the capital of the Ukraine. Government buildings abound, mostly from the Soviet era when this was a Soviet Republic. But we had no time to explore the insides of these buildings nor do little more than drive by and snap bad out of focus pictures of the.

The important question here, we thought, is how do you create a country when the people do not wish to assimilate and create a common country? And what does that auger for the future? When we were visiting a refrain we heard was about the rampant corruption inside the government. A formerhead of the government had built himself a house (so the story goes) in San Francisco using government funds and then had fed the country. In other words, instead oa attempting to build a nation, and being committed to it, government officials (at least some of them) seem more interested in building their wealth and then after looting what they could, fleeing to Amerca. This is a paradigm that we also observed in Russian, particularly in Moscow.

Kiev has a great public transportation system above, and below ground

Kiev is a city of two-tio-three million, easily the largest in the Ukraine. ]The ship arrived its final stop in Kiev after noon, giving passengers a half day, hardly enough for a decent look at Ukraine’s largest city … with only drive through Kiev and short stops at the St. Sophia Cathedral and the Monastery of the Caves, there was little time to explore the largest city in Ukraine, a city of three million which is less than 50 miles from Chernobyl, site of the worse nuclear power plant accident in history.

We walked through the catacombs in sweltering heat (after paying a coupe of Grivnas, the Ukrainian currency, for candles. And we drifted some sidewalks markets. In the evening we set out on our own. Hiking Kiev is harrowing because drivers pay little attention to stoplights, especially those giving pedestrians the right to walk. Nonetheless, we took the funicular to the top of the hill from the docks (walking past the ubiquitous packed McDonald’s) and the checked out several hotels on the square adjacent to St. Sophia. Hyatt has built a monstrosity on the square drawing disdain from the tour guides who say that to build this architectural horror Hyatt destroyed centuries old buildings and then, as a sop to local outrage, left a single small portion of the façade of one building facing the square.

Inside the Hyatt we thought the design was gorgeous and that, had it been built in Los Angeles, instead on top of the bones of ancient buildings, it would be great. We walked across the square and visited the Intercontinental, a far more architecturally homogenous building to its surroundings. We had expected, on a Saturday night, to find the St Sophia area alive, but it was not. The youth were on the docks in a stretch of bars and clubs along the river each side of where we had docked. Otherwise, the area we visited was dead, empty and lifeless. Only during the day when tourists and tourist buses swarm the area, we suppose, does it come alive. Or maybe we were just there on the wrong night. We retreated soon enough to the ship.

St Sophia is patterned on St Sophia in Istanbul, or so it is said, although it is smaller. It is a spectacular building and it dates to the 11th century, but they do not allow pictures. It is common here to charge a small amount of take pictures, an amount so small that it hardly matters (25-cents or so), but it seemed to be an irritant. To get a permit one had to stand in line wasting valuable time. We didn’t get it – why does not the tour company pay the tiny fee, or negotiate non-payment in return from bringing tourists who will spend money at the adjacent sidewalk shops and at the church gift stores?

But then we have a question — do the Ukrainians want tourism?

Why is there so little in English in the museums? If they want English-speaking tourists to return, from a practical standpoint they will need to make some effort to help them understand what they are seeing. Commonly a “tour guide” from the museum would shadow our tour guide, saying nothing, but receiving some stipend. Lighting was commonly poor (burned out lights, ill-conceived and ill-placed lights) and air conditioning non-existent (by the way, what will that do to the valuable museum artifacts over time? The bottom line is they are poorly prepared for tourist and appear to be making little effort to accommodate and welcome tourists. Fair enough if they are not interested, but this is not a particularly prosperous area, and tourism is found money: tourists do not send children to your schools, drives lots of cars and wear out your roads, and they are gone by midnight.

In any case, in its current 2011 offerings, subject to change, Viking is dropping one port in Ukraine next year (Kremenchuk), and initially had planned to drop the entire country and not return in 2011 at all — probably because of acidic comment cards from their guests.

Moreover, we bet Viking is concerned about lots of things regarding these Black Sea cruises. The on board Viking officers and crew are a world apart from the passengers, and their rest of the crew, including entertainment. The entertainment director said they only spoke Russian (note: Russian, not Ukrainian). The food, while marginally more edible that it was on the St Petersburg-Moscow run, invited contemplation before consumption. I did survive this trip without becoming sick (others were not so lucky), unlike when we took their St Petersburg-Moscow trip in 2009.

Additional signs of trouble in paradise: A Viking official from California reportedly was traveling quietly with us. And last year Viking threw off all of its Russian wait staff off the St Petersburg-Moscow run and replaced them with Philipinos.

Bottom line: If you are curious about this part of the world and want to come, expect a different experience (which, by the way, we thought was well worth it). The majority of the rooms are small (90 square feet) and dreary. The bathrooms have a vaguely bad order. The stairs are steep (watch out) with a pitch unknown in the west. And on the Lomonosov there are no elevators but there are four decks. Consider the trip aerobic exercise.

Who was on board?
A large church group was here who are doing work with orphanages in the Ukraine. The more we chatted with our fellow passengers, the more we learned that many – first reluctant to discuss it – had ancestral ties here, often Jewish but not always. The pogroms against the Jews were horrendous and the stories which some fellow passengers shared about their families were heartbreaking. The final tour on the trip was an optional tour in Kiev to a site where thousands of Jews were murdered during World War II, not the only such tour on this trip.

The other passengers were probably just curious about this area like we were. I especially wanted to see the Black Sea and to visit this area before the 2014 Sochi Olympics (we did the same in visiting Beijing in 2004 before the 2008 Olympics fundamentally reshaped Beijing). I also wanted to see Yalta where the February 1945 Big Three conference took place between Churchill, Roosevelt and Stalin that shaped the world.

Endings.

Having promised each time we go overseas to fly business class, we again wound up in the lap of poverty in the back of the plane. And it got worse – this was an American carrier, not some real airline line Finnair or Iceland Airlines. But then a surprise – this was not a bad flight into Istanbul from New York. The flight crew was civil; the food, although not good, was at least not noodles with hot waster poured over it in a paper cup (United Airlines on a return trip from Hong Kong). The return to New York was even better. This time we managed to get exit row seat and while they were located in a high traffic area of the restrooms, they were roomy and the nearby flight attendant downright likeable. The food was earnest.

Monastery of the Caves, Kiev

Tourists at St Sophia


Kiev (Kyiv) is a city of many bridge where fast small boats run the Dnieper River

Kremenchuk

August 12, 2010

Additional GALLERY of Kremenchuk Photos on RIGHT >>>>

War memorial in Kremenchuk, Ukraine

This is it for Kremenchuk and Viking. Next year Viking will sail right on by – no more packed buses driving past that Hydroelectric plant or tourists wheezing as they climb flight after flight of steps in the sweltering, poorly lit Museum of Local History while squinting to see the exhibits and wondering what the explanations written in Russian might mean.

Kremenchuk was founded in the 16 century on land that once was Polish and later was grabbed by the Russian Czars. A fortress was built here in 1590 in an attempt to keep the Tartars out whom, obviously, were also prowling the area. In other words, this area has been defined and re-defined by the strength of adjacent powers in the area that have licked their chops for centuries. The word “kremen” means stone bank, which is what the city is built on. Strategically, it matters.

Today the city is an industrial center with oil refineries, although we saw little of either.

There is a little traffic on the river, and with narrow locks that can accommodate only small ships; the opportunities for great development in the area appear limited. During the entire trip up the Dnieper we saw only two ships being loaded – and in one case the loading was being done by ropes, not cranes. The Dnieper does benefit from dams at strategic points that impound water creating large lakes that are pleasant to cruise. The dams also allowed the hydroelectric power plants to be built in the area so the potential appears to be there. Without more industrial development, and without more commerce, the area and its people aren’t likely to prosper.

Kremenchuk did have the requisite Lenin Memorial that by this time drew hoots from our fellow travelers.

With little else to see, and with little time (four hours), we roamed the downtown area and found a department store straight out of the 1940s. Interesting, crowed and busy, it was a period piece. Even the escalator with wooden floor slats was early 20th century.

We noted that as the days have worn on, manners among some passengers have frayed and grousing about the lack of much to see has escalated.

Dnepropetrovsk, Ukraine

August 12, 2010

Additional GALLERY of Dnepropetrovsk photographs on RIGHT >>>

Abandoned hotel on Dnieper River in Dnepropetrovsk

Industrial, military but lots of parks, trees and grass

Arriving early and leaving late in order to navigate through the city’s draw bridges, the Lomonosov docked in a dreary, but industrially intriguing area not far from downtown. It wasn’t quite walkable and even on the bus there was not much to see, except for the obligatory statute of Lenin, but what little Dnepropetovsk had to offer made a pleasant and surprisingly full day.

The first stop after driving past the statute if Lenin (to hoots and hisses from my fellow passengers) was a stop at the Transformation Cathedral that was designed to honor (who else) Catherine the Great. Begun in 1787, it was finished fully 98 years later. After Catherine died in 1796, work on the cathedral immediately halted (her sons hated her and weren’t about the finish another tribute to her memory). Eventually the size of the cathedral was reduced to one-sixth the original planned size and completed in 1885. It’s worth a look.

During the Soviet era it was renamed “The Museum of Atheism” but the Soviets are gone (sort of) and it’s a church again. Stay tuned. Many, including us, after a week or two drifting this area, are convinced that the peace here now is transitory. No one seems to like anyone all that much unless you belong to their tribe. Fully 12,000 Jews were rounded up and slaughtered in a single morning not far from downtown and that was only 70 years ago.

From the cathedral we then went to the Cossack museum which is well done, but with little air conditioning the question is how well, over time, the remarkable artifacts in this museum will fare. In the adjacent courtyard stone statutes carved 5,000 years ago are grouped together. These statues delight and show the whimsy of a people long gone and whose name, at least according to our tour guide, have been lost to history.

What happens next in this part of the world?

In Moscow, which we visited last year, Lenin may soon be thrown out of his tomb and hauled off. If we saw statutes to him or to Marx or to others – and they may well be there – we missed them.

But here Lenin seems alive. Daily we see at least a statute or two of him. Our tour guide says she speaks Ukrainian, but refuses to do so unless she is forced (she prefers to speak Russian). And she is only a resident of the Ukraine, she explained to us, because that is where she happened to be living when the Cold War ended and the Russian Republics splintered off into separate countries. In other words, there is not a strong national identity and twenty years down the road there doesn’t seem to be a softening and coming together here. In an area where war, not peace, has been more the norm over the centuries, is this just an interim between when old tribal rivalries will reassert themselves? This place feels more Russian than Russia.

We’ll see what Kiev is like – or will we? We’ll spend less than a day there.

(more to come)

Photograph: Port area with unfinished hotel on left.

Zaporozhye

August 11, 2010

Cossacks Show

Zaporoshye is an industrial town with high cancers rates, a monumental hydroelectric plant and dam, and such a reverence for Lenin that to this day it has a seven mile main street named for him and an enormous statute.

The Cossacks were here until Catherine the Great murdered them in the late 18th century and the city was ground zero during World War II because of its industrial importance. Joseph Stalin, the gangster Soviet leader from Georgia, decided he didn’t want the German Nazis who captured the city during World War II to use his hydro plant, so he had a hole blown in the dam resulting in a flood and killing thousands of his Soviet workers and fellow citizens.

Photo: Cossacks riders perform in traditional dress outside Zaporozhye.

Kachok Lock

August 11, 2010

The first lock on the Dnieper River after leaving the Black Sea heading toward Kiev is the Kachok Lock, the second largest in the Dnieper. We passed through this lock shortly after midnight on August 10, 2010.

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Kherson

August 9, 2010

Let’s face it. Kherson has almost nothing to offer and our cruise line, Viking, knew it. An intriguing sounding trip to outlying villages in the Dniepr delta was scrubbed because previous tours so badly panned it, Viking decided to find something worse.

They succeeded.

Arriving at 2 paddling through breathtakingly beautiful delta, the ship eventually came to the container ports (nothing moving) and docked. We didn’t tarry: the ship was gone …before five. In the scant three hours ashore, packed onto buses that have little air conditioning which are shadowing us all the way from Odessa to Kiev, we sweltered through walks around a war memorial, statutes of Lenin (Lenin?), a church built by Catherine the Great to honor one of her dead lovers and 45 minutes in a shopworn shopping area.

We had been warned that although the Dniepr is navigable, there is little traffic here and less commerce. A ship or two trailed and led us at distances as we left the Black Sea, but this was no Shanghai where ships entering the port have to line up at midnight and convoy in.

Nonetheless, the lower Dnieper after we left the Black Sea was gorgeous. The land is marshland and unspoiled. During the day he shores were low and green; the skies were filled with birds. At night the sky was black. There is little development along the river and few lights. The stars shown brightly. Occasionally we passed fishermen and others along the shore with small lamps lighting their boats.

Photographs: St Catherine Church; lover’s bench with locks signifying devotion

Header photograph today was:
Crowded early morning beach at Yalta on Monday, August 9, 2010.

Yalta

August 8, 2010

Where the world was carved up at the end of World War II

We sailed overnight a short distance from one of the coldest of the Cold War sights, Sevastopol, to where the Cold War arguably began.

Yalta is a stunning seaside resort of the Black Sea, sweltering hot and enormously popular in the summer, including the days we visited. Surrounded by mountains and cliffs and gorgeous beaches, Yalta attracted the attention of the Czars and their families in the 19th century. Eventually, as the Czar’s regime was crumbling, Nicholas II, perhaps the most hapless ruler of all time, decided a new palace on the Crimean peninsula would be just the thing and in 1911 commissioned Livadia Palace, a masterpiece. The Czar and his family would be out of power in six years and dead soon after. They would visit here only four times, but had they come and stayed, likely they would have survived. The British hauled lots of noblemen out of here as the Bolsheviks took power, and the Romanovs were, after all, relatives of the British monarchs. It’s unlikely they would have been left stranded.

By the end of World War I Livadia was a sanatorium for peasants, but in the fall of 1944 as the western powers, Britain’s Winston Churchill, the U.S. President Franklin Roosevelt and the Soviet Union’s Joseph Stalin were looking for a place to make decisions regarding the post-war world, they decided to meet in Yalta at Livadia Palace. When the three powers met again a few months later (July) in Potsdam in the outskirts of Berlin the war against Germany had been won (in May); Roosevelt was dead, and Churchill had been voted out of office.

Today Yalta is not an easy place to get to, but that deters no one. Buses from Sevastopol run frequently and there are good roads. Yalta has no railroad connections or airport.

The guide program included a ride to Sparrows Nest, a touristy narrow spot on a highway above the ocean with a view of a castle that a German built in the 1910s. Much of the castle, after an earthquake, rumbled down into the ocean only to be rebuilt later as a restaurant. The author Anton Chekhov’s house is nearby and an easy reach on your own.

Photo: An entrance door, Livadia Palace. Photos will be regularly added to each post as time permits. Design element photos of many sites such as carpet, wallpaper, doors et cetera will also be processed and added sometime in late August and September.

Sevastopol

August 7, 2010


The Secret City

Sevastopol is all about navy, war and military strategy.

Located on the Crimean peninsula, Sevastopol has from its 18th century beginnings been a crucial naval port. During the Crimean War (1853-1856) touched off by the Russian desire to expand their presence in the Black Sea and eventually, hopefully, to gain control of Istanbul (then known as Constantinople), the city was destroyed. The Russians, who at first found success against the flagging Ottoman Empire in the early part of the war eventually lost as the British, French and Italians piled on depriving them of islands in the Dnieper River and reducing – not expanding – the Russian Black Sea presence.

Some here refer to the Crimean War as World War 0; they can make a pretty good case for calling it that.

In any case, it wasn’t long before the Russians were back — within two decades. Their navy remains here today having survived even the breakup of the Soviet Union. But they may not be here much longer: the Ukrainians have told them to clear out in 2017 but, as one of the locals told us, “we’ll see how that goes”.

Sevastopol is a city of harbours and hills. Less than a dozen buildings in the city survived the Nazi onslaught in the early part of World War II (1939-1945) so everything dates from 1945 although it doesn’t look quite that new. The Nazis held the city from 1942 to 1944, when the allies finally retook it.

Sevastopol is the site of the most famous battle of the Crimean War, the charge of the light brigade, immortalized in the poem (“theirs not to reason why; theirs but to do and die …”) Visitors can stand on a hill in the same sport the British commander stood on to watch his troops be slaughtered in the decisive “fourth assault”. There’s also a museum and a diorama, books and maps. It’s a regular cottage industry.

The nearby opulent Khan’s Palace that Catherine the Great grabbed once she conquered in the area in the late 1700s is well worth a visit. Most of the palace buildings are gone, but enough remains to be worth a visit of a few hours. Among the must-sees that remain are the harem and the pleasantly cultured gardens.

We spent a night in port in Sevastopol next to the “White People” barge which is a party boat and where, at 3 am, the party was still going strong. Being a navy port, there are sailors and their families everywhere. When we visited, two of the three Russian submarines that are based here were in port. It is a young, happy city.

Until 1996 the city was closed. A top-secret submarine basin was carved out of rock underground from 1953 to 1961 to service the Soviet submarines during the Cold War, including arming the nuclear weapons the sub carried. The base is located a short drive from Sevastopol in Balaklava. The old base is adjacent to an affluent yacht basin.

The sub base is a place not to be missed. At the end of the Cold War in 1991, Russia just walked away and for 15 years the once top secret facility stood open and was heavily looted. Now it is a stunning museum with artifacts from the Cold War being rapidly reassembled.

Photographs: St Vladimir Church; the once super secret Soviet submarine base; Khan’s Palace