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Black Sea Exploration Seminar Explores Regional Culture, History, and Diversity

December 22, 2016

Just before fall quarter began, a group of UW students visited three countries on the Black Sea as part of the “Conflicting Currents in a Turbulent Black Sea” Exploration Seminar.

The group explored regional culture and history on two ends of the sea: Romania and Bulgaria in the west and Georgia in the east. These countries provide a lesson in multiculturalism as the societies that emerged from communism in the 1990s are home to a broad mix of ethnicities and traditions—a legacy of empires and colonialism.

Ileana Marin, Co-Director of Black Sea Study Abroad and Affiliate Faculty at the Jackson School’s Ellison Center, writes:

“Beginning on the western shores of the Black Sea in Romania and Bulgaria, our group enjoyed some of the benefits European Union countries offer: remodeled infrastructure, modern accommodation, and traffic and pollution regulations. The picturesque Danube Delta, the medieval Nessebar, the exotic Balchik, and the ancient city of Tomi made us consider the impact of nature on civilization. In Bucharest, we encountered the effects of unleashed dictatorial force in Ceausescu’s controversial building “The House of the People,” and admired the edifices such as the court of Vlad the Impaler, Hanul lui Manuc, the National Bank of Romania, and the CEC building on Calea Victoriei. On our way to Brasov, through Peles and Bran, we saw yet another Romania: the majestic Carpathians and the mountain resorts.”


During the trip, the group met local scholars and artists and took part in lectures, excursions, and museum visits to learn more about the region’s historical legacy, politics, and contemporary culture.

The group kept a Tumblr blog, where they posted photos from the places they visited and provided a window into the cultures they experienced.

Benton Coblentz writes:

Every once in a while, it feels like tears should be flowing from my eyes.  We are in an amazing place, full of gorgeous landscapes, beautiful architecture, bright culture, and ordinary people. The fact that this world exists at all, thousands of miles away from where we live and work, and that people live and work totally apart from us, is amazing.  I don’t think the diversity and wonders of our planet should ever cease to amaze us.

We experienced a little more of that amazement when we traveled to Bulgaria for two days. We saw another country on the Black Sea, which, despite being only an hour away from the city of Constanta, is populated by a different people, with a different culture and history. Those differences have resulted in two countries quite different from each other, although they share much of the same geography and recent history.


The group also saw their fair share of unique architecture during the trip. From their blog:

Peleș is also notable for being one of the most high-tech castles of its day – finished in 1914, it was the first castle to have electricity, which it got from the nearby Peleș Creek for which it was named. This electricity was used for, among other things, operating a retractable stained-glass roof that covers the grand staircase. Hanging on the wall are some of Gustav Klimt’s earliest commissions and incredibly intricate wooden bas-reliefs that wouldn’t look out of place in a Bavarian ski chalet. It is all the more remarkable that we were able to see this unique combination of art and architecture, knowing that Nicolae Ceaușescu once intended to have the whole building gutted and fashioned into his own personal retreat with his own architectural tasted. It was only the quick thinking of his advisors that saved the palace from this fate, when they told him that bugs in the wood would be a hazard to his health, and the building needed to be worked on indefinitely before he could proceed with his plans. Thankfully, revolution came first.


The trip ended with a visit to Tbilisi, the capital of Georgia in the South Caucasus. The tour provided the students with a window into a city often seen as a bridge between East and West.

Maria  Osborne writes:

On the day we were to return to Tbilisi, we woke to a spectacular view of Mt. Kazbek. Our hike began at Gergeti Trinity Church, which overlooks Stepantsminda. We then hiked up to almost 3000 meters above sea level to get a look at Gergeti glacier (as well as another glimpse at Mt. Kazbek, through the clouds). The church, which we visited afterwards, is both a sightseeing destination for people like us and an active place of worship. So we had another chance to observe the various rituals, routines, and customs that worshipers at Orthodox churches take part in.

The program was meant to give students first-hand insight into how citizens and governments in the region negotiate national identity, post-colonial power structures, and the reinvention and reclaiming of their diverse cultures.