3-4 May 2014: Constanţa, Romania and Istanbul, Turkey

By Corey Sandler, Destination Consultant Silversea Cruises

Our politically adjusted tour of the Black Sea has come to an end. Because of bad weather in Nesebar, Bulgaria we are headed now for Istanbul.

I want to wish all of our guests—old friends and new—safe travels. I will be going home for a brief vacation, returning in June on our sister ship Silver Whisper in the Baltic.

We enjoyed a spring-like day in Constanţa, Romania. I went with a group of guests to an unusual part of Europe: the Danube River Delta, a thicket of willow trees and other flora. We were escorted by a flotilla of frogs alongside and flocks of birds (eagles, herons, hawks, and more) above.[whohit]-Constanta and Istanbul 3-4May-[/whohit]

B-Constanta Danube 3May2014_DSC1763 B-Constanta Danube 3May2014_DSC1770

In the Danube River Delta of Romania. Photos by Corey Sandler

The delta reminded me a bit of river deltas in Costa Rica. Without the crocodiles and caimans.

Romania—like Bulgaria and Turkey— straddles the crossroads of history. Its past, and to a great extent its future, hinges on the land and sea bridge between Europe and Asia.

Romania is roughly the size of the United Kingdom but with only about one-third the  population, just 20 million people.

Hungary and Serbia are to the west, Ukraine and Moldova to the northeast and east, and Bulgaria to the south.

B-Constanta Danube 3May2014_DSC1787 B-Constanta Danube 3May2014_DSC1767

Riverboats and a floating hotel in the Danube Delta near Tulcea. Photos by Corey Sandler

Its eastern portion, which includes the capital city of Bucharest is relatively flat and easy to traverse.

But running through the mid-section in a rambling “S” are the Carpathian Mountains heading down from western Ukraine and southernmost Poland…and heading west toward Serbia…the Transylvanian Alps.

In August 1914, with the outbreak of World War I, Romania declared neutrality. Two years later in 1916, under pressure from the Allies eespecially France, which was desperate to open a new front), Romania joined with Russia and the Allies, declaring war against the armies of the Central Powers which included Germany, Austria-Hungary, and the Ottomans.

B-Constanta Danube 3May2014_DSC1784 B-Constanta Danube 3May2014_DSC1753

Tulcea, and a field of rapeseed. The crop is used to produce canola oil for cooking as well as biodiesel fuel, a renewable crop for a renewing nation. Photos by Corey Sandler

As the price for their entry the Romanians demanded recognition of their claim to Transylvania, which had been controlled by Austria-Hungary since the 17th century and under Hungarian rule since the 11th century.

The fighting did not go well, and the Allied front collapsed when the Bolsheviks took Russia out of the war.

Romania, left surrounded by the Central Powers, signed an armistice.

In just a bit more than a year, about 748,000 Romanian civilians and military died in the war.

At the end of World War I in 1918, Romania was larger than it had ever been or would ever be again.

During the Second World War, Romania again tried to remain neutral, but on June 28, 1940, it received an ultimatum from the Soviet Union.

The Soviets were carving out spheres of influence, part of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact signed with Germany in 1939.

Under Nazi and Soviet pressure, the Romanians were forced to retreat from Bessarabia and northern Bukovina.

And then Romania went one step further, joining the Axis powers.

And Romania shrunk further. Southern Dobruja was ceded to Bulgaria, while Hungary received Northern Transylvania as a payback from the Axis.

Then as is now, oil was a major factor in war. Romania was the most important source of oil for Nazi Germany, which brought bombing raids by Allied forces.

In August 1944, with Soviet Russia moving to retake Romania, Romania changed sides and joined the Allies.

King Michael was a great-great-grandson of Queen Victoria by both of his parents, and a third cousin of Queen Elizabeth II.

Still alive at age 92, he is one of the last surviving heads of state from World War II, along with the former King Simeon II of Bulgaria.

But Romania’s role in the defeat of Nazi Germany was not recognized at the Paris Peace Conference of 1947; even though the Romanian Army had suffered 170,000 casualties after switching sides.

And now Romania was held by the Soviets.

In 1947, King Michael I was forced to abdicate and leave the country, and Romania was proclaimed a people’s republic.

Romania remained under military occupation and economic control of the USSR until the late 1950s.

During this period, Romania’s vast natural resources were drained by the Soviet Union. Private firms were nationalized, and agriculture collectivized.

The Communist government established a reign of terror, carried out mainly through the Securitate secret police.

Many “enemies of the state” were killed, deported, or sent to forced labor camps and prisons.

Records show hundreds of thousands of instances of torture or murder by the state.

In 1965 Nicolae Ceaușescu came to power and started to pursue a path somewhat independent of the Soviets.

Ceauşescu’s small separation from the Soviet Union drew the interest of Western powers. They saw him as an anti-Soviet maverick, or at least a pawn that could be played to widen a schism in the Warsaw Pact.

Romania received massive loans from the West—more than $13 billion—to finance economic development.

Ceauşescu ordered the export of much of Romania’s agriculture and industrial production to repay its debts. Food rationing was introduced and gas and electricity black-outs were common.

Ceauşescu shut down all radio stations outside of the capital, and limited television to one channel broadcasting two hours a day.

He enveloped himself in a cult of personality: Ceausescu was Romania, and the other way around.

By some accounts, in his final years Romania was the most Stalinist regime in the Soviet bloc.

In late 1989, demonstrations broke out.

Ceauşescu went on a state visit to Iran—another paradigm of democracy at the time—and left the job of crushing the revolt to his wife and cronies.

When he returned, he blamed the problem on foreign interference.

Ceauşescu and his wife Elena fled the capital by helicopter, but were eventually arrested by the army. On Christmas Day 1989, they were put on trial on charges ranging from illegal gathering of wealth to genocide.

The trial lasted all of two hours. They were found guilty and immediately sentenced to death, taken outside the building and put up against a wall.

With the fall of the Iron Curtain and the 1989 Revolution, Romania began its transition towards democracy and a capitalist market economy, a process that has been somewhat successful.

Romania joined NATO in 2004, and the European Union in 2007.

And today, though Romania is better off than when Ceauşescu was in power, it still remains desperately poor in many regions.

We wish Romania (and its neighbor Ukraine) well. And to our guests: arrivederci. Till we meet again.

All photos copyright 2014 by Corey Sandler. All rights reserved. If you would like to purchase a copy, please contact me.

– – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –

Now available, the revised Second Edition of “Henry Hudson Dreams and Obsession” by Corey Sandler, for the Amazon Kindle. You can read the book on a Kindle device, or in a Kindle App on your computer, laptop, tablet, or smartphone.

Here’s where to order a copy for immediate delivery:

http://www.amazon.com/dp/B00IA9QTBM

Henry Hudson Dreams cover

Henry Hudson Dreams and Obsession: The Tragic Legacy of the New World’s Least Understood Explorer  (Kindle Edition)

 

2 May 2014: Odessa, Ukraine

By Corey Sandler, Destination Consultant Silversea Cruises

We slipped into Odessa under cover of darkness and woke to a glorious day in one of the most handsome cities of Europe.

And at the close of the day, we sailed out of port with all guests and crew accounted for.[whohit]-Odessa 2May-[/whohit]

In between: some of us witnessed what may be the beginning of the end of peace–and independence–in this huge tinderbox nation. Riots broke out between pro-Russia and pro-Ukraine factions: from rocks to firebombs to assaults on a government building and deaths.

We had previously canceled our scheduled port calls to Yalta and Sevastopol in Crimea; there was not much debate about the need to do that once the southernmost portion of Ukraine came fully under control of Russia. But Odessa seemed secure, a place with a significant history of many cultures living together and creating art and music and society.

But Vladimir Putin’s Russia has found ways to stoke the nasty fires of separatism, especially in places where Ukraine has been heavily Russified over the past century: the eastern portion of the country is predominately populated by ethnic Russians who were brought there by the Czars and then the Soviet Union.

On the day we arrived in Odessa, a football match was scheduled between a local team and one from the eastern part of Ukraine near Russia. The morning started with parades of football supporters. Somewhere in that mix, it appears, were some bent on provocation and violence and by the end of the day Odessa was fully in the mix.

Competing marches of pro-Ukrainian and pro-Russian football supporters became marches of pro-Ukraine and pro-Russia activists and eventually violence and death.

We wish beautiful Odessa and the people of Ukraine the best. We hope to return to a free, safe, and happy country again.

B-Odessa Ukraine 2May2014_DSC1659 B-Odessa Ukraine 2May2014_DSC1667

A pro-Ukrainian demonstration in the morning, and a bandura performer in the park. Photos by Corey Sandler

B-Odessa Ukraine 2May2014_DSC1682 B-Odessa Ukraine 2May2014_DSC1686 B-Odessa Ukraine 2May2014_DSC1702

Inside some of the mansions of the beautiful city of Odessa. Photos by Corey Sandler

B-Odessa Ukraine 2May2014_DSC1736 B-Odessa Ukraine 2May2014_DSC1726 B-Odessa Ukraine 2May2014_DSC1724 B-Odessa Ukraine 2May2014_DSC1720

Church of the Assumption in Odessa, a place of solitude and grace in a time of near-war. Photos by Corey Sandler

30 April 2014: Sochi, Russia

By Corey Sandler, Destination Consultant Silversea Cruises

Remember The Olympic Games?

Sochi was a place little known outside of Russia until just months ago.

Vladimir Putin, the Russian government, and some of the companies and institutions under his thumb spent something on the order of $60 billion to create a show demonstrating the emergence of a “new Russia.”[whohit]-Sochi 30Apr-[/whohit]

And then just days after the Olympics came to a successful conclusion, Putin demonstrated a return to what many consider the “old Russia.”

And so today, while the world’s attention is riveted on the events in Crimea and The Ukraine, in Sochi the people are left to wonder, “what’s next?”

B-Sochi Russia 30Apr2014_DSC1646 B-Sochi Russia 30Apr2014_DSC1644

The Maritime Terminal of Sochi and the historic Cathedral of Saint Michael, the first a vestige of Soviet times and the second one of the few remnants of the Czars. Saint Michaels was completed in 1890, left neglected during the Soviet Era and restored in 1993. Photos by Corey Sandler

When Sochi took the world spotlight in February, it put on display a place very much symbolic of the enigma that was Russia, then the Soviet Union, and now the Russian Federation.

Putin spent a huge amount of money on a project that may never turn a profit, but that word—even in modern Russia—does not always enter discussions.

But before Putin, another Russian ruler made his mark on Sochi.

The Winter Games might not have come to Sochi were it not for Joseph Stalin. From 1937 until his death 16 years later, Stalin came down from Moscow to the Black Sea for rest and recuperation and the other things he did as ruler.

And with Stalin came others in the Communist political elite.

Vladimir Putin has his own presidential residence not far from where Stalin stayed.

Putin came for the waters, and what was at first a rather primitive ski resort.

B-Sochi Russia 30Apr2014_DSC1632

The stadium built for the opening and closing ceremonies of the Sochi Olympics. It was located in Adler, about 20 miles south of Sochi. Today, like much of the sites, it stands empty, in search of a new use. Photo by Corey Sandler

Sochi, is the unofficial “Summer Capital” of Russia.

Home to about 415,000 people, it is one of the southernmost parts of the country, about 1,600 kilometers or 1,000 miles south of Moscow.

Russia is a wintry country. It’s hard to find a place where there isn’t snow and winter sports in January and February.

But Vladimir Putin, who does often play by his own rules, chose Sochi.

B-Sochi Russia 30Apr2014_DSC1633 B-Sochi Russia 30Apr2014_DSC1610

Up in the mountains about 40 minutes above Sochi is Krasnaya Polyana and the Rosa Khutor ski areas. It is a spectacular site, and the snow cover in late April was still there although that is not a certainty every year. Photos by Corey Sandler

As Czarist and then Soviet Russia began to use Sochi as a summer resort, the city built attractions like the Arboretum and Riviera Park. Intensive resort construction began in the 1920s. During World War II, most of the city was given over to rehabilitation hospitals for wounded soldiers.

While coastal Sochi was developed, up in the Caucasus Mountains, Krasnaya Polyana was mostly left alone. But after the fall of the Soviet Union, some locals developed a small and very rough ski area. Pure capitalism and sweat equity.

Things began to change in 2000, when new president Vladimir Putin tried it out. He returned many times.

In July 2007, Putin went to Guatemala City to speak—in English, something he does not do often in public—to the International Olympic Committee.

In 2008, the Gazprom oil company bought the ski area. According to some, this was not a friendly takeover.

B-Sochi Russia 30Apr2014_DSC1618 B-Sochi Russia 30Apr2014_DSC1576

The ski jump hill at the mountain cluster and the Rosa Khutor Olympic Village. Photos by Corey Sandler

B-Sochi Russia 30Apr2014_DSC1580

A branch of the American embassy at the Olympic site. Want to supersize those fries? Photos by Corey Sandler

Depending on how you choose to look at it, the 2014 Winter Olympic were one or more of the following: Vladimir Putin’s extravagant personal party and financial bonanza for his closest buddies, a sincere effort to regenerate the economy of the Russian Black Sea Coast, a signal that Czar Putin is on the throne, restoring Russia to its former greatness. At least until the bills come due.

B-Sochi Russia 30Apr2014_DSC1593 B-Sochi Russia 30Apr2014_DSC1598

Gazprom, the Russian Oil monopoly about 50 percent owned by the state, developed much of the mountain cluster for the Sochi Olympics. They also built the huge Gazprom Galaktika Center as a reception area for VIPs and guests. Two months after the Olympics it stands mostly empty; we toured theaters and halls and displays about the Russian Space program completely unmolested by other visitors. Photos by Corey Sandler

But in the end, as Putin has demonstrated in Crimea, he does not really care much about what the outside world thinks of him: only those within the (expanded) Russian borders.

All photos copyright 2014 by Corey Sandler. All rights reserved. If you would like to purchase a copy, please contact me.

– – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –

Now available, the revised Second Edition of “Henry Hudson Dreams and Obsession” by Corey Sandler, for the Amazon Kindle. You can read the book on a Kindle device, or in a Kindle App on your computer, laptop, tablet, or smartphone.

Here’s where to order a copy for immediate delivery:

http://www.amazon.com/dp/B00IA9QTBM

Henry Hudson Dreams cover

Henry Hudson Dreams and Obsession: The Tragic Legacy of the New World’s Least Understood Explorer  (Kindle Edition)