Black Sea 'sampler' connects passenger and his past

Email|Print| Text size + By Si Liberman
Globe Correspondent / January 22, 2006

YALTA, Ukraine -- For years, I have had a strange fascination with Yalta and Odessa on the coast of southern Ukraine.

It was from Odessa that my father emigrated more than 90 years ago. Yalta is where Roosevelt, Churchill, and Stalin met in February 1945 to agree on zones of occupation after the end of World War II, and to lay the groundwork for creation of the United Nations.

A 12-day Black Sea cruise on the Royal Princess, a 1,200-passenger ocean liner christened in 1986 by Lady Diana, princess of Wales, seemed like the ticket.

Yalta is Ukraine's answer to Bermuda. It's a hilly summer seashore resort on the Crimean peninsula with 90,000 residents, lots of greenery, mild winters, immaculate pebbled beaches, hotels and health spas.

The ship had recently undergone a multimillion-dollar refurbishing and offered the usual goodies: fancy dining, nightly shows and dancing, gaming, fitness facilities, swimming, and half- and full-day tours at prices ranging from $40 to $150.

Our twin-bedded cabin had a small TV set, two chairs, a desk, and a sliding window wall leading to a balcony with two chairs and small table. The window wall afforded great views of sea traffic and the landscape as we entered and exited each port.

Yalta is in Crimea, the peninsula between the Black Sea and the Sea of Azov, now an autonomous republic of Ukraine but, in the Soviet Union's heyday, where Communist Party bigwigs vacationed, and before them, the czars. Today the dachas (summer cottages) and health spas, most of which have seen better days, cater to anyone who can afford upward of $100 a day and more for a room with meals. Add a few more dollars for hydromassages and mud baths.

For true luxury, and if ghosts are no problem, you could grab a reservation at the palatial, cliffside hotel in Koreiz, once a Yusupov palace, the summer home of a wealthy czarist family. This is where Stalin stayed during the Yalta Conference. His four-room suite with its 20-foot ceilings, antique furniture, and balconies overlooking the sea can accommodate two couples. Cost: about $400 a night, meals included.

The estate is not far from the dacha in Foros, where Mikhail Gorbachev and his family were vacationing in 1991 when he was placed under house arrest during an unsuccessful coup. Our young female guide carefully avoided pointing out or talking about the site, which was not included in our tour and had been off limits for years.

Statues of Lenin conspicuously recall the era when Ukraine and its 52 million people were an important cog in the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. One has a commanding view of the sea from a hilltop; another appropriately faces left in the heart of the port shopping hub.

''They were not torn down like in Moscow and other places," the guide explained, ''because they are considered a part of our history."

Livadiya Palace, the architecturally-imposing white building where the Allied leaders conferred, was lined with vendors, hawking Yalta Conference pictures, tablecloths, shawls, fur hats, Russian Army caps, jackets and medals, postal cards, and locally-produced wine. Some vendors in colorful traditional costumes posed, sang, and played instruments, seeking US dollars.

Inside the palace, built in 1910-11 for Czar Nicholas II (Livadiya had become a summer residence of the czars in 1861), the guide pointed to the locations and cushioned chairs each leader occupied. A large black and white picture of the three men hangs on a wall just behind the Roosevelt chair.

It was here that Roosevelt and Churchill elicited promises from Stalin that he would go along with postwar free elections in Czechoslovakia, Poland, Hungary, Romania, and Bulgaria. The promise was never kept and communist governments were established in those nations. But the Russian dictator did follow through on his commitment to join the fight against Japan.

As we left the austere white conference room, I couldn't help but be touched by the sight of a short elderly man who drifted away from the line of American tourists, approached the Roosevelt chair, ran his hand over its back, then bent over and kissed it.

Ukrainian customs officers in drab, olive uniforms checked us off and on the Royal Princess in Yalta and Odessa. Alighting from the ship in Odessa, we were greeted by a 25-piece, all-male brass band, its members resplendent in bright red jackets and black slacks, shoes and berets. Painted welcome signs in a half-dozen languages adorned a dockside wall.

You might not guess this was where seeds of the first Russian revolution sprouted in 1905, when sailors aboard the battleship Potemkin mutinied, while in Odessa city workers were on a general strike, and unrest and violence simmered throughout Russia.

Today the steps, named Potemkinskaya in memory of those crew members, are a historic landmark and popular meeting place in this tired, 500-year-old city of 1.2 million residents. Pupils led by their teachers and tourists with their guides milled around the upper level of the steps made famous in a sequence depicting a government massacre in Sergei Eisenstein's 1925 film, ''The Battleship Potemkin," as a bearded entrepreneur in colorful czarist military garb vied for attention and cash from camera-toting visitors.

A 15-minute bus ride away is another landmark recalling some of Odessa's even darker days -- a towering monument to the unknown soldier of World War II in a park-like setting with the Black Sea as a backdrop. Uniformed students, male and female, were the honor guard, marching in unison to and from the monument.

Odessa, whose history stretches to ancient Greece and has been marked by many occupations, fell to German and Romanian troops in 1941. Until its liberation three years later, buildings were destroyed and about 280,000 residents, mostly Jews, were deported to concentration and death camps.

The war's ravages are no longer evident. Buildings have been restored and the city, Ukraine's third largest, rebuilt. You see no skyscrapers -- just low-rise structures reminiscent of another era.

Democracy has taken hold, but our guide, an outspoken woman with dark short hair, said its fruits are yet to be tasted by the masses.

There remains a large Jewish community in Odessa, the guide said, pointing to a Jewish restaurant as we passed, then later a Jewish school.

''Our former mayor was Jewish and was well liked," the guide said. ''He was defeated in the last election."

Inside an old Roman Catholic church, tourists by far outnumbered the few old parishioners, and we managed to wade through clusters of beggars while entering and leaving the building.

The most memorable part of that afternoon was a visit to the Odessa Opera and Ballet Theatre, a striking round 1887 structure where we saw two outstanding ballets, Michel Fokine's ''Les Sylphides" and ''Carmen." Worthy of applause, as well, were the free flutes of champagne served during intermission.

Speaking of which, we bought a bottle of locally-produced bubbly and a bottle of Ukrainian vodka in a small food market. Price for both: slightly less than $5.

The cruise also included visits to Istanbul, where we stayed in a small center-city boutique hotel and toured several mosques; Varna, Bulgaria's third largest city; Kusadasi, a mountainous Turkish resort dating to biblical times; the Greek island of Santorini, which grew out of a historic volcanic eruption almost 3,600 years ago; Katakolon, a port city near ancient Olympia, where the games were born; Athens, and Venice.

But it was our stops in Yalta and Odessa that brought reality to a dream.

Contact Si Liberman, a freelance writer in New Jersay, at

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