MSC Opera – Day 8, Sochi, Russia
Today we visited Sochi, home of the 2014 Winter Olympics in Russia, which was an unexpected addition to a predominantly Greek Islands cruise itinerary. Unless you have a Russian visa or Russian passport you can’t disembark unless you take an official MSC excursion where you’re covered by the ship’s group visa. I did briefly look into the visa option but it involved sending passports off and cost nearly the same price as the numerous trips on offer.
We definitely wanted to set foot on Russian soil so we booked the 3 hour cultural tour of Sochi which was 89 for adults and 62 for children. Other options included a 4 hour Sochi highlights tour and a visit to Stalin’s Dacha at 79 or a visit to the Olympic Park with chair lift ride and lunch which was 8 hours and 139. None of the tours were particularly child friendly but you can leave your children in kids club if you wish although we always take Finn with us when we go ashore. He was actually feeling a little under the weather so I was glad I’d only booked a three hour tour, the majority of which would be on an air conditioned coach.
Our excursion meeting point was in the theatre at 9am although some of the trips were departing as early as 7.45am. We headed down to the theatre, were given stickers with our coach number and disembarked for the short walk along the Olympic branded quayside to the terminal building and passport control. Our passports were stamped and we signed visa forms before making our way to the coaches outside the terminal. Ours was a mix of Italian and English speaking passengers so announcements were made in both languages with a fluent English commentary delivered by local tour guide Maria and a member of the MSC staff translating this into Italian. The coach left soon after and the first stop was a bank a few minutes away where we could exchange Euros into Roubles as other currencies are not accepted although credit cards can apparently be used. We didn’t know what we might need so changed 50 (just under £40) and got around 3800 Roubles. It’s worth noting there’s an option to revisit the bank on the way back to port to change any unused notes back into Euros but we found the best souvenir shopping was at the cruise terminal so do hang on to some if you’re looking for mementoes.
Sochi is a beautiful coastal resort city with modern 5 star hotels and apartment blocks, shopping malls, parks and tree lined squares fringed by spectacular mountains where you can find the winter ski resorts. Pebble beaches line the shore with bars and clubs filled with holidaying Russians and judging by the expensive and recognisable cars we saw it’s a fairly wealthy city and clientele.
Our second stop was at the beautiful Orthodox Church of Archangel Michael which is set in a small square decorated with statues of angels. After 15 minutes we boarded the coach again and went to the neoclassical Winter Theatre where we enjoyed a glass of ‘Russian champagne’ which tasted more like a pear cider but was very drinkable and then took front row seats for a performance by a folk group featuring traditional musicians and dancers. It was a high energy show with much whooping, shouting and clapping and even some audience participation. They tried to drag my husband up to dance but he has a morbid fear of anything like that and sank into his seat so I was chosen as a much more willing victim. I had a polka with a nice young Russian man and received a rapturous round of applause Finn just looked a little mortified but captured the whole thing on video as his Dad took the photographic evidence! The performance was great, very entertaining but just a few songs too long for our liking at well over half an hour.
After the show we left the theatre and followed our tour guide on foot down to the shore for some shopping opportunities. We were expecting a stylish shopping street filled with pavement cafés but in reality it was a row of small beach units selling absolute tat like fridge magnets, shells and tasteless T shirts. We couldn’t find anything tasteful to buy despite the roubles burning a whole in my pocket and also struggled to find a decent looking bar too. When we eventually did, the language barrier defeated us as we didn’t know the Russian for red wine!
We returned to the coach walking past the Summer Theatre, a smaller version of the earlier Winter Theatre both of which were commissioned by Stalin who had a holiday home in the city’s hills and regularly visited to enjoy the sub tropical climate. We were driven back to the port through the city as our guide reeled off facts and figures and pointed out landmarks like the botanical gardens and an impressively grand train station. We felt the trip was worthwhile and reasonable value for money despite our usual preference to do our own thing but that just wasn’t an option here. Having experienced Sochi I think it would be extremely hard to DIY without some knowledge of Russian as there seemed to be little or no English spoken anywhere.
The tour was actually over four hours long by the time we arrived back at the terminal where there was a woman selling Russian Dolls outside and a small souvenir shop inside the building. Do look at both before deciding what to buy as the dolls we bought outside seemed slightly cheaper inside although at 1500 roubles (about £15) each for two large and beautifully painted examples we were happy to offload most of our currency and be able to take home something to remind us of the trip.
We were back on board just in time for the al a carte lunch where I had what was described as a sausage roll but was in fact a beautifully flavoured Italian sausage served in a Cumberland style coil on a bed of sweet peppers. Andy enjoyed cabbage parcels stuffed with ham and bacon and Finn despite still feeling a bit poorly braved some pasta then we took him for a siesta. He was soon tucked up and snoozing while we enjoyed the last of the Sochi sunshine and a glass of red on the balcony.
The sun began to set and dark clouds appeared in the distance as we watched a spectacular storm far out at sea. Finn awoke feeling a lot better and we got ready for dinner. The daily program informed us that tonight’s dress code was white night so we put him in a white T shirt but didn’t adhere ourselves. No one seems to mind if you don’t quite follow the code but we always enjoy smartening up for dinner in some shape or form.
It was yet another incredible meal with an amazing risotto and suckling piglet as the highlights. Andy discovered that the dessert wine featured on the menu is actually included in our drinks package so ordered a glass of thick, sweet wine to accompany his cheeses. There’s also a wide selection of liqueurs and apperetifs including Baileys, Drambuie and Limoncello at no additional charge if you have the package or around 4 and 5 Euros if not. We can’t believe it took us a week to discover them!
MSC Opera – Day 9 – At Sea
Our final sea day was spent sailing south on the Black Sea towards our next stop Istanbul and a port intensive end to the cruise visiting 5 destinations in 5 days. It was cloudy with strong winds when we awoke and this more northerly sea has certainly felt a bit rougher than the Mediterranean. We decided to spend the morning indoors with a leisurely al a carte breakfast then sat in the Aroma coffee bar to write and post yesterday’s blog on Sochi . At 11am it was time for Doremi chef, a kids cookery class with MSC’s blue and white costume character. Finn and I watched a cake decorating demonstration by the pastry chef narrated by the kids club team and then the children got to have a go at their own creations. I think Mary Berry or Paul Hollywood have little to fear!
Interestingly there doesn’t seem to be that many kids on board especially as MSC is perfect for families as kids sail practically for free. You simply pay the taxes which I think was around £300 for Finn for a two week cruise which is a brilliant deal particularly during summer holidays when many other cruise lines actually increase their prices. If you are travelling with under 3’s MSC also have a partnership with an Italian baby care brand called Chicco and you can borrow bottle warmers, strollers, bouncers and backpack carriers for free on board. I can still remember travelling with a toddler and the huge amount of stuff you need to pack so this is a real bonus.
We spent a leisurely few hours lunching like the Italians do with antipasto and pasta followed by beef with mushrooms and potatoes for Andy and a pork dish for me. I also sampled a gorgeous white chocolate eclair from the fabulously tempting dessert section.
After lunch and a good few hours further south, the wind had dropped and the sun had come out. The pool deck was packed with very few spare beds but there were plenty available in the Top Deck Solarium area which overlooks the pools and is free to enter if you’re on the Aurea package. Last year we were lucky enough to sail on MSC Divina for two weeks around the Caribbean in a Yacht Club suite. This is MSC’s ship within a ship concept that is a little like staying in a boutique hotel with just 50 or so cabins in a a private area with its own bar, restaurant and swimming pool. It’s an all inclusive concept but only in the Yacht Club area so if you go to any other bars you have to pay and you can’t dine in the main restaurants. There is no Yacht Club on the Lirica class ships but we’ve really enjoyed the Aurea option as you get to use all the main facilities and bars but with numerous extra perks.
MSC Opera has no aft facing balcony cabins and instead there are a few small deck areas with sun beds overlooking the ship’s wake which are lovely and peaceful and worth considering if you want to escape the busy main pool area.
We spent the afternoon sunbathing, swimming and watching the pool games organised daily by the entertainment team. I spotted that one of the daybeds had become free so we soaked up some late afternoon sun lying on our backs with a glass of red and a few slices of the best pizza you’ll sample at sea.
Tonight’s suggested dress code for dinner was confusingly described as ‘costume’ which we worked out was Italian for fancy dress but not one guest was dressed up! Dinner wasn’t quite as sensational as previous evenings and we both ordered smoked duck breast as a main which didn’t really wow us but I did enjoy my chocolate Swiss roll and accompanying dessert wine.
After dinner we went to the spa to try and book our complimentary treatments but they’d closed at 9pm so we had a drink under the stars on the pool deck where we were entertained by a great guitarist / singer who was a bit like a South African version of Donny Osmond belting out pop hits and charming the crowd. At 9.45pm it was time for tonight’s show, Icons, which was definitely the best we’ve seen so far and a tribute style show of camp disco hits featuring everything from Queen to the Pet Shop Boys. It was like Top of the Pops meets Eurovision and even had an amusing version of YMCA with girl performers in skimpy outfits that I’m sure kept the Dads very happy!