Exploring the Churches of Nesebur

If you’ve ever considering exploring the Black Sea, I highly recommend it.  (Secondarily, I high recommend cruising also which is how I ended up there in fall of 2015).   Truly, it wasn’t really a place that had occurred to me to visit — and other than great shots of Baku in James Bond films, the Black Sea was a far away to me as the Caspian.  Enter the intersection of my desire to try an ultra-lux cruise and my love of a bargain.

It’s September of 2015 and I’m taking my very first cruise about Seabourn Odyssey in and out of Istanbul. The itinerary included stops in Bulgaria and Romania, then transiting back through the Bosphorus to Ephesus, something that had always been on my list to see. At the time, none of us knew that it would be Seabourn’s last cruise  on the Black Sea. (In the past, this particular route had stopped at Odessa and Sebastepol as well as Turkish points east. As access to those ports was blocked, demand also dropped.)  We also had no idea of knowing that the following summer, Seabourn could cancel Istanbul and Turkey altogether due to the coup attempt.)  So, in retrospect, I consider my self fortunate to have seen this part of the world, made even better by an ultra-lux ship, endless Champagne and caviar, shipboard lectures by historians, and, aside from some rough seas, incredible weather. I’m posting photos on my Instagram feed and wanted to jot a few notes on Nesebur so folks could follow along — and if they’re more interested, research more on their own.

It was not my first time to Istanbul and Turkey, but it was my first time on the Black Sea. We departed in a rain storm which put a damper on a sail-away celebration, but made for a nice afternoon of enjoying Champagne perched on my suite’s veranda photographing beautiful historic wooden homes along the Bosporus. We also saw first hand the construction of the new bridge.

The rainy afternoon turned to a rough night which I rather enjoyed, (Who knew a cruise ship could provide that much motion?) but it kept the butlers pretty busy with passengers in the night.  I considered it a welcome introduction to the Black Sea, this deep, dense body of water that frightened even ancient Greek seafarers due to its unpredictable weather.

First port for us was Burgas, Bulgaria, an industrial port that allowed us to dock to the shore. Rough seas prevented us from anchoring out and using tenders for going ashore.  Still Burgas gave us easy access to Nesebur, a UNESCO World Heritage Site for it’s ancient Greek, medieval Byzantine, and Ottoman churches. It’s considered the most dense city in the world for churches — and the ancient city, a rocky pennisula that extends from the shore, has at least 10 Byzantine churches in varying states of repair — from ruins to fully restored frescoed interiors.  It’s easy to walk the old part of the city in an afternoon (or morning) and private guides are available to answer questions about the churches, the ruins, architecture, history, and people of the area. Of course, it’s nice to finish with lunch (or dinner) at one of the many seaside restaurants catering to tourists and beach goers and featuring traditional Bulgarian dishes. (Much more seafood and like Greek or Croatian food than you’d expect. Certainly less like the Slavic dishes you’d imagine.)

The ancient Greeks from Thrace first settled this part of the Black Sea — in what is now Bulgaria and Romania, followed by the Romans, then by a succession of Slavs, Bulgars, Russians, and Turks.

I spent a great deal of time photographing the architecture of these ancient churches most of which dated from 7th-13th centuries. This time in Byzantine architecture gave us churches with the traditional nave/cross structure, the raised towers, and the elaborate brick and stone work creating a decorative exterior.  Most unique, the churches in Nessebur provide us with some of the best examples in the world of the use of ceramics for decoration.  You’ll see the green and black glazed circles, tiles, and “flowers” placed in the mortar to provide layers of color between the stone and red brick. Weather and time have destroyed many of these unique features, but an amazing number remain.

Of note in Nessebur, of course is the restored interior of St. Stefan’s with it’s elaborate traditional frescoes.  These sorts of murals were common throughout the Mediterranean whether in paint, gilt, or mosaic.  These have been restored — and take you a place where you can imagine worshiping 1000 years ago — the interior hot, dense with people standing, and smokey with incense, braziers glowing, and the black robed clergy rising above the crowd to chant.

History is about transporting you to another place and time. It’s a way to connect with people who went before, who experienced a different way of life. Even better, no matter where you are in the world, you can nearly always find somewhere to experience the past, often a place you didn’t even know existed.

Where:  Nessebur, Bulgaria on the Black Sea

How to get there:  by land from Sofia or Bucharest, Romania, or Varna, Bulgaria on the coast; Nessebur is directly on the Black Sea coast

Useful info:  No visa needed for Americans. Bulgaria is a member state/applicant to be a Schengen country, so bring your passport and you’ll likely get an EU stamp with a “BG” for Bulgaria; Bulgaria has it’s own currency — and makes some nice wines in the area.

3 thoughts on “Exploring the Churches of Nesebur

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  1. I haven’t been to Nessebur recently, but it’s a great place. Do artists still set up their stands next to the pale gray stone and red brick remains of the 5th century Church of Saint Sofia? When I first visited in 1993, small children kicked balls where once there was a multi-doored iconostasis, ran around where there was once the pew-less nave common to the Eastern Church, and called to each other within the surviving walls and on the plaza in front.

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    1. It still feels very much like a place where people live and work every day! These churches — some just ruins now — are wedged in these winding streets with 19th century Turkish houses built in between complete with the elaborate wood work on the eaves and balconies. We saw people of all sorts — and had a little time to browse through several local shops carrying local art. I’m always amazed about how other cultures live with their history so much differently than we Americans do — they absorb ruins, re-use them, play in and around them, build over them, and move forward.

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      1. Yes, I enjoy that too. I remember visiting the Temple of the Great Gods at Samothraki when our daughter was five years old. She ran around the ruins trying to catch crickets and I thought, well, children were doing the very same thousands of years before.

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