Even before Russia invaded Ukraine, passenger ferry services between the five Black Sea countries were few and far between. A possible new service from Constanța to Istanbul could be about to change that.
The Greek port of Piraeus is a bewildering place for the uninitiated. At any time of the day or night, hundreds of ferryboats are moored and ready to ship passengers and cargo to all points on the Adriatic and beyond. Shipping agents rush to wrap up last-minute deals as backpackers search for the cheapest way to reach the Greek island of their choice. Fast food joints trade roaring despite their dubious fare while seedy bars cater to distressed sailors and never sink the world.
It is often surprising to many people that once you have crossed the Bosphire into the vast Black Sea, there is nowhere else quite like Piraeus. While none of the major Black Sea ports want dodgy fast food or seedy bars, they lack ferries. Where a vast network of ships criss-crosses the Adriatic, only a handful of ferries serve the Black Sea.
Nor is this sad situation a consequence of Russia’s war on Ukraine: even before Moscow launched its brutal invasion, Black Sea ferries were scarce on the ground. Ships sail from Varna in Bulgaria to Batumi and Poti in Georgia three or four times a month (the voyage takes three days), while (before the war) others linked the Odessa port of Chornomorsk with Karasu in Turkey, as well as in Varna and Batumi.
To the east, the passenger-only Batumi Express (no cars or trucks) connects Sochi in Russia to the Georgian resort town in about five hours, but when it comes to crossing the Black Sea, it does, even in the best of times.
Indeed, Romania, the fifth of the Black Sea states, is currently not served by any regular ferry, although the head of the country’s customs authority, Bogdan Mihei, claims this week that Turkey planned to introduce a pilot service to Constanța in January next year. Again, the target market is freight trucks.
With the exception of the Batumi Express, the only Black Sea service marketed solely to passengers, getting a place on one of the ferries that exist usually requires a great deal of patience. Departures are erratic, rarely leaving on time (they usually leave early and late), and priority is given to trucks carrying freight. If there are no more places, it’s hard – and that’s if you can find out where and how to buy tickets, information that some shipping companies seem to treat as strictly secret.
It’s almost like they don’t want passengers.
“With the help of a Bulgarian marine engineer my father worked with, we found the ferry company’s offices in Varna and waited for an employee to show up,” says Răzvan Imre, a Romanian who took a ferry from Varna to Batumi in the summer of 2021. “It was the only way to buy a ticket.”
“On the day of departure we were then told to arrive early in the morning to secure a sport on board, but we did not sail until late evening. On the way back, we drove back through Turkey.
If, like Imre, you do come on board, conditions will generally be spartan, although the price of a ticket includes three meals a day, served with minimal fuss in a kitchen. There is usually no café, bar or restaurant. Don’t expect any entertainment beyond a TV. “Don’t even think about Wi-Fi,” says Imre. “Bring books.”
Where the transport links look west
While the three-day trip to Batumi will probably never be one of the most beaten paths in the world, the lack of ferries elsewhere on the Black Sea is not due to a lack of demand. It is a region where the car is king, where everyone wants to take their car with them, even on vacation. The ferries of the Adriatic are full of Bulgarians, Rumanians, Turks; cars in tow. If there were more ferries between their own countries, they might well use them.
Michael Bird, a Bucharest-based English journalist who has written extensively about the countries and peoples of the Black Sea, believes the lack of ferries is a continuation of a larger problem.
“All transport links since 1990 have turned west,” he says.
And he’s right. Across emerging Europe – and not just in the Black Sea region – road, rail and maritime infrastructure is considerably less well developed than most analysts expected at this stage of the region’s transition. And where there have been improvements is in the form of west-facing infrastructure, ignoring north-south (or east) connections.
This is a problem that the Three Seas Initiative – a rapidly developing economic project in Central and Eastern Europe currently involving 12 countries – wants to help solve, even if ferries on the Black Sea are not (yet) part of its priorities.
If ever the proposed Turkish service to Constanța leaves port – “a ship is not a bad idea”, says Bird, who suggests that a Constanța – Varna route could also work – it will be interesting to see if it becomes something something more than a transport service dotted with casual curious by car or on foot – the fate of most other Black Sea ferries.
However, there is every chance that it will be popular with travelers. Driving from Constanța to Istanbul currently takes about nine hours. A ferry would take about the same time, but – assuming Romania and Bulgaria aren’t part of the Schengen area anytime soon – would eliminate two often time-consuming customs and passport checks.
A fixed sailing schedule and a lack of secrecy about where and how to buy tickets would certainly give her a head start.
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