Yalta was our last stop in Ukraine, the setting for the second peace conference at the tail end of World War II though it wasn't about peace so much (since Stalin, Churchill and Roosevelt were all on the same side) but about divvying up the land controlled by the Axis powers and determining German reparations. It was remarkably cozy, with each delegation having a separate palace to spread out in; Roosevelt's was the Livadia Palace, a rarely-used summer home of Czar Nikolas II before his family, the Romanov's, were killed during the Russian Revolution. We toured the palace and heard various takes on the differences between the leaders. Churchill, and some of Roosevelt's advisers, didn't trust Stalin not to grab control of Eastern Europe as a "buffer zone" against future German aggression but FDR and Stalin got on well and Roosevelt refused to believe that Stalin would abuse their trust.
Ah, hindsight. The palace itself was quite lovely, of course, as was the "pocket palace" called the Swallow's Nest, which a hundred years old and a hundred thirty feet high, perched on less stone than there is building Swallow's Nest close-up . It is 66 x33 feet, designed to hold three levels of bedrooms up the tower, and a main foyer, but it has been used as a restaurant for many years. It's currently closed for what looks like needed shore-ups. And if they need a new location it would fit on my Cape-sized lot."I just have a hunch that Stalin is not that kind of a man. ... and I think that if I give him everything I possibly can and ask for nothing from him in return, noblesse oblige, he won't try to annex anything and will work with me for a world of democracy and peace." Franklin Roosevelt, 1943
Yalta was also the warm-climate retreat for Anton Chekov once he contracted TB in his thirties, and thus the the setting for Jessica's unauthorized excursions into the closed Chekov house and closed Chekov Theatre. Both ended with stories that she is best able to tell (or show, apparently there is a video on her iPhone). What I can say is that Yalta takes great pride in Chekov being there for his last few years, and writing the story the Lady with the Dog, less stream of consciousness than The Seagull and earlier works but still, to my mind, depressing. I read romance novels, on the ship, while Jess read Chekov on stage and communed with his spirit. If she directs any of his plays they'll be great. If she directs a movie about his life, he'll be Johnny Depp.
Sochi, our one stop in Russia, was comparably less interesting, though still beautiful. The port was perfect, not a freighter in sight, and the town picturesque, though largely unprepared for the Olympics coming their way in a year or two. The Winter Olympics, to be clear--though this is a summer resort, the winter competitions will be held in surrounding mountains, miles outside the town. Still, it may be tricky; Putin came in for a visit while we were there and his helicopter and security snarled traffic all around us. Our tour guide told us he likes to put on plays with his friends during his summer vacation. At the National Theatre, which was closed to the regular ballet company for the week as a result. Such a card, that one. We also saw folk dancing (lots of yipping), a tea plantation, and a lot of their immigration officials; Sochi was the only port we stopped at where you needed a tour guide or a visa to get off the boat. We were inspected both coming off and onto the boat. We were that fascinating.
Batumi was our only stop in Georgia, full of vigor and construction and art and food, and Roman ruins (the ancient walled town of Adjara). Reportedly St. Mattias was buried in the still-being-excavated site, and the day we were there an orchestra was practicing for a fundraiser under a big white tent. We were fed white pizza at one stop, and wine, and the strangest sodas I've ever tasted, tarragon lemonade and pear lemonade. Residents were proud of their Alphabet tower, still unfinished and touting the three different alphabets, influenced by everyone from the Armenians to the Greeks,in the Georgian language. One is more modern and most widely used, which is good because each requires it's own keyboard. We also saw a statue (actually a square) to Medea and the golden fleece, and to lovers (below). From one direction it looks like one person; from another it's two, very beautiful.
But the two stops we did have were both great. Trabzon is a pretty workaday city, surrounded by plain homes built up the sides of hills. The most impressive of these is the Trabzon Monastery at Sumela. The road to get here is a hike so we came here by bus, and then taxi, and then foot up many stairs and some remarkably reckless trails. Many were felled in their attempts, sitting on the edges of the trail or stopped at a turn in the road, stymied. But so worth it: 4000 feet above sea level, built at the site of a Virgin Mary sighting in a cave, if you can't be spiritual here you are a goner.
We saw an ancient church in Trabzon, Hagia Sophia (Saint Sophia), converted like many to mosques for centuries before tracing back the original architecture and frescoes. But this didn't compare to the one we saw in Istanbul, next to the Blue Mosque, both huge tourist attractions and rightfully so; and hard to find peace within. You'd have nearly as good luck at the Grand Bazaar, where there were repeats every few stalls, tee shirts and then leather goods and then jewelry and then tea, people haggling everywhere, goods and money flying. With thousands of shops, one after another, the place is crowded, and fascinating, and as promised by others who had been there who we met on the ship, where nearly anything can be found. Not the fist-sized diamonds and emeralds we saw on display at the Toptaki Palace (along with harem pants like you would not believe), but nice mirrored pens, and teas and tees. Enough, and we were ready to go home.
Once we had our last souveniers from our trip we needed to retreat to the ship to find our peace.
It was right there, waiting.