Pop quiz: Where in the world is Trabzon? Or how about Batumi? And what's in Neesebur anyways?
All right, I didn't know either, until I sailed into these and other little-known places with strange-sounding names during a cruise in the Black Sea.
The Russian smart set once considered the coasts of Bulgaria, Ukraine and Georgia their Riviera. That is, until the fall of communism, when these beautiful coastal cities fell into more than a decade of slumber.
Cities that were opulent playgrounds for czars and commissars are only now re-emerging as Eastern European playgrounds. Each is like a jewel box of attractions, with warm people who welcome your visit.
But airports, hotels, roads and restaurants remain works in progress. Which means the best way to see this area is by ship. And a number of cruise lines are picking up on the value of touring the region area on a floating hotel.
None, however, has an itinerary that gets you to places as exotic as the ones I got to visit aboard Silversea Cruises' ship Silver Cloud. It's the perfect size to arrive at unspoiled ports without being intrusive.
For instance, in Batumi, Georgia, we pulled right into the centre of town. And in Ukraine, the ship was able to dock at the base of the famed Odessa Steps, where a full orchestra was waiting to serenade us ashore. Another advantage of the Silver Cloud is that nearly all the suites have balconies, so you can enjoy the show from the privacy of your own cabin.
Add to all this the ship's all-inclusive five-star dining - which merits the cruise line's membership in the prestigious Relais and Châteaux hotel association. The ship also offers obsessive service and careful planning that help each day's adventure go off without a hitch.
Some might call all of this indulgent, of course. I call it the wisdom of experience. Here's what my wife and I discovered on our cruise.
With its open-air markets and public archaeological sites, this is a city where daily life is still much as it was in the days of the Hittites and Greeks who originally built it. A temple complex is now a public park where you can wander around the columns, frescoes and mosaic floors. And you can climb the imposing 30-metre-high stone walls that were built in 2000 BC and restored 500 years ago by the Ottomans. We ended the day with a Turkish coffee served at one of the shore-side cafes and watched the small hand-built barques head out to fish.
This is the centre of the Turkish Alps - a branch of the famous ones in Switzerland, but even more craggy and lush because the area gets rain 250 days a year. Here, on a shore excursion, our group was driven inland for an hour to visit the Sumela monastery, built on the edge of a precipitous cliff. For dedicated pilgrims there is a zigzag path paved with loose and wet flat rocks, but you can also get a van ride to the top. Inside, its grottoes are hauntingly beautiful, with colourful frescoes of wide-eyed Christian saints and martyrs. Outside, views of the mountain peaks on all sides took our breath away.
An old-timer minding a display of peaches asked me where I was from. His eyes lit up when I said Canada. "Hockey. Calgary Flames," he said with delight and invited me into his shop for a tour of his freshly picked farm produce.
I expected little in the city, but found a lot. Much of Batumi is as charming as the French Quarter in New Orleans, with its low-rise buildings and ornate iron railings. Elaborate French Second Empire, Gothic and colonial buildings and churches are being renovated everywhere.
Life is a holiday, meanwhile, on the vast beachfront park that puts the Boulevard de la Croissette in Cannes to shame with a mix of kids on amusement rides, old men playing checkers and young things heading to the beach in bikinis, Diet Cokes in hand.
From the moment we stepped off the ship, I could hear the theme music from Fashion TV in my head. Forget the stereotype of Ukrainian babushkas and form-hiding dresses. Bring on the model-slender babes wearing "you're-not-going-out-in-that" miniskirts, high heels and anklet stockings.
The population here is young, after all, helped by a post-communism baby boom. The kids of troops who came home from Afghanistan in the late 1980s are in their teens today. And on the September day I was here, the students had the afternoon off after registration for school and the city became a vast street
The girls teetering down the cobblestone streets on four-inch heels and the boys in tailored suits made the scene more fashionable than anything you see in Paris. And little girls still get the traditional angel treatment, wearing elaborate flowers and ribbons in their hair.
If not for a half-decade of neglect, this city's buildings could also outshine those of Paris, and they are working hard to restore gorgeous 19th and early 20th-century mansions and stately public
buildings with ornate putti trim added to their original grandeur.
A recent addition to the city's attractions is the remarkable Vienna-baroque opera house, which was recently reopened after a 10-year renovation. The Gagarin museum is also worth seeing for its Meissen chandeliers and gilded concert hall, where eager conservatory students play for tours.
Famous in the West mostly for the wartime conference of Allied leaders, who divided up a post-war Europe, Yalta was originally founded as a summer retreat for the czar and his court. Gorgeous dachas and homes with classical French façades line the roads and the harbour is flanked by steep hills covered by mansions. A must-see is the palace of Alexander III, now a museum, and the white-marble Livadia Palace, built just before the First World War and used for only two summers by the royal family before they were deposed.
Our dock was in an ideal location by the steps to the old city, which was reminiscent of a medieval village with winding cobblestone streets lined by faded wooden homes and stucco-clad shops.
But we were also in a place that had clearly been discovered by a new generation of European tourists. The far shore was lined with high-rise resorts more typical of Miami Beach in Florida or Spain's Costa del Sol - with the crowd mostly German, Scandinavian and British visitors on package tours.
On the other hand, there's still a naïve charm about the local shopkeepers and restaurateurs, who don't pressure you to buy and are curious to know where tourists are from. And the shopping is extraordinary, with specialties such as extracts and colognes made from locally-grown roses, hand-made lace and intricately painted ceramics.
The cruise ended back in Turkey with a day and night aboard the ship so we could sample the bustle of Istanbul and savour the feeling that we saw places that are about to change forever.
But from what I saw, that is already happening, bringing the sleeping beauties of the Black Sea back to vibrant life.
Pack your bags
BLACK SEA CRUISES
Silversea Cruises: . Silver Cloud is doing does another seven-day Black Sea cruise starting Sept. 29 from Athens. Fares are from about $4,700.
Holland America: . The Rotterdam in May and the Prinsendam in September are doing 12- and 14-day cruises that visit Black Sea ports, with fares starting at $1,750 a person.
Oceania Cruises: . Nautica is doing 12-day trips in July and August, priced from about $3,600 a person.
MS Deutschland: _overview.htm. The ship is doing a Gems of the Black Sea itinerary in April with fares starting at $6,850 a person.
Costa Cruises: . In April, an 11-day round trip cruise from Savona Italy includes Odessa and Yalta, starting from $1,360, which represents more than 50 per cent off the list price.
PROS AND CONS
Pros: This is definitely a connoisseur's itinerary and as such it attracts a particularly well-travelled crowd. It's a great geography lesson: the Sea of Azov and the Caucasus mountains, along with a wealth of historical anecdotes about the Crimean War, the Romanov dynasty and Russian history. The beaches are also great.
Cons: Difficult languages and street signs, broken pavement and not a lot of quality shopping.
Georgia recently dropped visa restrictions for Canadians visiting for less than 90 days. However, if your cruise begins or ends in Turkey, you will need a visitor visa. Details at: _requ.htm.
Turkey Tourism: .
Georgia Tourism: .
Ukraine Tourism: .
Bulgaria Tourism: .