Sean the Alaskan Husky Trainer and I took along our bathing suits--we really did--but we both decided as usual not to go swimming. I'm not even sure Sean the Alaskan Husky Trainer can swim. I can swim; I'd just rather not. Have you ever swum in the pool on a cruise ship? You can't really swim in this tiny puddle--two strokes and you're to the other end--but at least you can always brag to your friends that you swam 400 laps every morning.
We've just returned from a 14-day AIDA cruise to the Black Sea from Antalya, Turkey. Over the next couple of weeks, I'm going to give you the highlights and the lowlights of the trip, share with you a few things I've learned and introduce you to some possibly new places--starting with the Black Sea. Why do we call the Black Sea black? Beats me.
But OK, I'm Googling it, I'm Googling it. Sheesh. I've never claimed to be informative, you know.
So here's the skinny on the name of the Black Sea or Pontos Axeinos (Inhospitable Sea) as it was known, circa 475 BC, before Greek colonization. This name could derive from the Scythian word axšaina which means 'unlit' or 'dark' and therefore 'inhospitable'. Before this it was simply called 'The Sea', which I think--and I'm sure you will agree--is much easier to remember.
I didn't find the Black Sea paricularly black or unlit or inhospitable. The Greeks actually changed the name to The Hospitable Sea once they colonized its shores, so this might account for its increased hospitality.
One of the first stops once entering the Black Sea from the Sea of Marmara through the Bosphorus Strait, which forms part of the boundary between Asia and Europe, was the Russian vacation town and future Winter Olympic Games venue Sochi. And now here's some classified information for the NSA people who regularly tap my blog: Americans can enter Russia without a visa as part of an organized tour. I think Eddy Snowden could probably use this information to his advantange. Probably not. I'm just mentioning SNOWDEN, ESPIONAGE, TERRORISM, NSA, and maybe SHAKIRA to get more hits.
Sochi was very popular before the fall of the Iron Curtain (according to our tour guide whose Russian-accented German was only about 30% understandable). Before the break-up of the USSR, Sochi enjoyed the attention of visitors from all over the world; after 1989, however, the visitors stopped coming and Sochi fell into disrepair. Needless to say, it's a boring-ass place.
Our excruciatingly boring tour of 'The Gardens' of Sochi begins just above the port, which is being renovated for the 2014 Winter Olympic Games. We trudge along behind our tour guide until we are all standing around a cannon and an anchor, which is a memorial to some war won, probably against the Turks, and definitely a pigeon toilet.
We follow our guide through the park, although it's useless listening to his description of the trees and the buildings. It's the old problem of indecipherable accent, too much information--tree species names, dates of military conquests, names of famous people I care nothing about--and not a toilet in sight--except the cannon and it's strictly pigeons only. The highlight of the tour is when our guide gets sentimental about 'best hotel in city' where he celebrated his wedding 40 years ago. This is a personal touch that everyone appreciates. Five minutes down the path: 'and now biggest hotel in city'. He points across the park with exaggerated nostalgia--'best hotel'--and then points back--'biggest hotel'. Sadly, 'best hotel' 'biggest hotel' is just about all Sochi has to offer. Even the The Winter Theater looks as if it has been plopped down in the middle of a Walmart parking lot.
Sochi's Winter Theater and its parking lot of a square that surrounds it.
The Botanic Garden, the next stop, is not unpretty, but it is, as almost everything is in Sochi, under construction. Suddenly, now that Russia is hosting the Olympics and the Russian Formula 1 in 2014, Sochi is getting a Potemkin facelift. There are some magnificent trees here, but the fountains are in dire need of Potemkin's magic.
We get back on the bus and head for the next stop on the tour, and I immediately fall asleep. When I wake up, Sean the Alaskan Husky Trainer is staring at me with a sour look on his face.
'Did you poot?' he asks. There is an overwhelmingly icky smell of rotten eggs in the air.
'No. Did you open your mouth?' I ask, which is my go-to response.
We have just entered the area of Matsesta, a sulphur spring spa that, according to our tour guide, is 'good for health'. He keeps saying it over and over again and it's still not convincing. This place is supposed to be a world-renowned spa, but it looks like its better days were tens of decades ago. When I say I need a toilet, the guide leads me through some junky souvenir stands to a makeshift john that is nothing more than a hole in the ground. Here are a few impressions of Matsesta:
I'm sure this place will look much better in 2014, for the Winter Games.
The spring and its corny fountain.
The surrounding natural area is beautiful.
While I feel fortunate to have been able to enter Russia so easily, I regret having done so. Sochi is nothing special. I should have stood my ground when Sean the Alaskan Husky Trainer nagged me into going on land. I was planning to boycott Russia but in the end decided not to be so political. After a day in Sochi, even Sean the Alaskan Husky Trainer says I should have stuck to my guns.
WHY WE SHOULD BE BOYCOTTING SOCHI.
Next time, though, I'm going to take you to a place I really enjoyed.
I must be off,
Christopher Allen is the author of Conversations with S. Teri O'Type (a Satire), an episodic adult cartoon about a man struggling with expectations. Allen's fiction and non-fiction have appeared or are forthcoming in Indiana Review, Quiddity, [PANK], SmokeLong Quarterly's Best of the First Ten Years anthology, Prime Number Magazine and BootsAll Travel.