Thanks to the Soviet Union break-up, Black Sea resorts that were once the exclusive preserve of the Party are now playing host to curious cruise passengers
It was a quiet morning in Odessa as we walked towards the modest entrance of the historic Central synagogue. Suddenly there was a stand-off. Two unsmiling guards appeared from nowhere to block our path - but they had reckoned without the indomitable Olga, our Ukrainian guide. There was a lot of shouting and gesturing but there was only ever going to be one winner, and the bruisers disappeared as quickly as they had materialised as Olga led us inside.
She had survived some turbulent times - although not as tough as those her parents' generation had lived through, she pointed out - and nothing was going to deflect her from her latest task of showing us "Jewish Odessa", as Princess Cruises titled our shore excursion. So, accompanied by a commentary from Olga, colourfully illuminating the trials and tribulations of the city's Jewish, Italian, Cossack and other communities, we walked through the old Jewish quarter of Moldavanka to the Vorontsov Palace, birthplace of Brodsky.
The last time I had been in Odessa, it was part of the Soviet Union and shore excursions were more regimented than Warsaw Pact war manouevres, so the contrast as we wandered at will through bustling street markets could not have been more marked. This sea-change in shoreside ambience is just one good reason for picking a Mediterranean cruise that also visits the Black Sea.
This particular voyage had the added bonus of being on Pacific Princess, one of the eight 700-passenger ships originally designed (by Britain's leading cruise ship architect John McNeece) for Renaissance Cruises, which have been fought over by other cruise lines ever since that company's demise. In these days of mega-ships carrying thousands of passengers, these ships offer a throwback to the time when you could make friends on board in the certain knowledge that you would surely bump into them again during the cruise.
With its Italian maitre d's in place, Pacific Princess also offered relaxed but super-efficient dining every night, with food quality just as high as the service levels, too. I was also particularly impressed with "Hutch", who advised passengers what to do ashore if they were not on tour. He spelled out everything from where the nearest internet cafe was, the local exchange rate and the price and quality of the English of the local taxi-drivers to where to find the best beach.
This meant that, even though Olga's was my only official tour, I was also able to get the best out of the ship's calls at Istanbul, Yalta (Ukraine), Varna (Bulgaria), Volos and Santorini (Greece) and Sorrento in Italy. Highlights included buying a suitcase to pick up later in Istanbul's Grand Bazaar and then getting hopelessly lost in its maze of alleys trying to find the shop again; taking the £1 trolley-bus ride for 40 miles and two hours around Yalta; sampling "Gossip" and "Atmosphere" beaches in Varna; relaxing over a seafood lunch on the front at Volos; and discovering a backstreet momma and poppa Italian restaurant in Sorrento, serving Sicily's finest wine - Lacryma Christi - for £4 a bottle.
With apologies to Olga, going ashore can be a lot more fun when you choose to find your own way around.