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THE proud owl, its talons curled on the burnished mahogany rail of our cruise ship, fixed me with a haughty amber-eyed stare. We were just 20 miles off the Turkish coast, yet here was this pushy native of Scandinavia calmly taking the early morning air and hitching a free ride to escape the first icy licks of a European winter.

Even more remarkable, the owl had been joined by scores of other birds, including English quail, flopping on the ship's sun loungers and lifeboats for a well-earned break.

Ornithologists (there was one on board) estimate more than 500 million birds, flying at 3,000ft, hightail it on their journey south each year. So it was fitting they should enjoy a peck of rest and relaxation with more than 800 passengers on board the good ship Black Watch, who themselves were heading south to explore the hidden pearls of the Black Sea.

As the birds winged towards Africa, we cleaved onward through calm, pale blue waters heading for the intriguing Crimean coastline with its hazy backdrop of mountains.

If you think cruising is for wise old birds, you're right. But all these mature grey-heads have an irrepressible yearning for learning, hence why we had travelled more than thousands of sea miles on our 28-day cruise to soak up their quest for knowledge.

Within an hour of landing at Yalta in the Ukraine, I am standing in a time warp where modern day history was shaped.

A brown leather armchair stands in a room where another three wise old birds met in 1945 to redraw the map of Europe and set the scene for the formation of the United Nations.

It was here in the Livadia Palace, stately summer home of the last Russian Tsar, that British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, US President Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Russia's Secretary-General Joseph Stalin mauled over the spoils of war.

Stalin chose the venue for what became known as the Yalta Conference, and Tsar Nikolai ll's state study was used by Roosevelt as a bedroom.

Everything in the simply furnished White Hall it just as it was on February 11 1945, the date the declaration was issued. The tiny flags of the three world powers still stand on the table covered in a pristine cloth, and nearby, famous sepia photographs of the Big Three.

It's easy to understand why an earlier Tsar had bought the palace. His wife's health had faced a downturn but miraculously improved during her time in this comforting seaside haven. It was even visited by American writer Mark Twain.

We peeped into the Tsar's private apartments, seeing photographs he had taken and the classroom with sketches by his daughters Tatiana, Olga, Maria and Anastasia.

The increasing visits by the Imperial family was to anchor Yalta as an upmarket, stylish resort filled with magnificent buildings and churches. Today, it almost overflows with understated designer shops and elegant hotels rolling out towards shingled beaches shaded by palm trees.

And, standing high on stilts, the remarkable Golden Fleece restaurant, built in the design of ancient ship, dominates the seascape. To add to the fantasy, you can sail in a real craft to the romantic icon of the Swallows Nest, perched on a rocky outcrop a couple of miles along the coast.

Earlier, we had taken our first steps to paradise in this memorable Black Sea idyll in Odessa. Billed as Ukraine's most charming city, we were drawn to the magnetic 200 steps of Potyomkin's famous stairs which sweep you upwards from scenic boulevards to a city more Mediterranean with heavy French and Italian architectural styles.

The stairs themselves create an optical illusion, with the upper flights 44ft wide and the lower 71ft wide. The name was taken from a battleship Potyomkin, immortalised in the iconic Russian film Potemkin.

One of the city's most majestic sites is its world famous Opera House where Tchaikovsky, Rimsky-Korsakov and Rachmaninoff were among those performing their lrical works.

Later in our journey, we climbed a winding flight of stairs in Sevastopol to gaze on the riveting panoramic battlefield painting created as a tribute to the heroism of those who defended the city under siege.

Here is graphic, captivating detail, drawing you into all the horrific and triumphant elements of the 349-day defence of the city during 1854-1855.

Before departing the Crimea, we stand in a broad green valley in hushed, silent tribute to the brave young men who died in the Charge of the Light Brigade. And overhead, the air is filled with hopeful, uplifting bird song.

pounds 999, NILE TRAVEL INFORMATION . A 28-night Fred Olsen Black Watch, 01473 cruise (fredolsencruises.

742424) in September ex-Southampton from pounds 2,839pp (inside twin cabin) inc and port taxes. It food, entertainment visits Almeria, Cagliari, Valletta, Piraeus, Nessebar, Odessa, Sevastopol, Yalta, Istanbul, Canakkale, Iraklion, Palma de Mallorca and Gibraltar, returning on October 15 XMAS/


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Title Annotation:Features
Publication:Daily Post (Liverpool, England)
Geographic Code:4EXUR
Date:Dec 12, 2009
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