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]

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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.

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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.

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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.

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

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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.

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

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

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