Advantages Palms, Palaces, Pines, Peaks, Parks, Past history
Disadvantages Soviet-style shabbiness, scant shopping (if this is a disadvantage)
“Where would you say we are?” My wife asked.Fortunately, I knew the question was not intended literally, so I did not reply: “In the gardens of the Vorontsov Palace, near Yalta on the Black Sea coast of the Crimean peninsula.”
Instead, gazing down over the slopes of cypress, pine and cedar towards the glimmering sea, I said: “Somewhere Mediterranean, obviously.” The fragrance of the gardens and the temperature confirmed the impression. In early October it was pleasantly into the lower 20˚Cs for what is known in these parts as the velvet season – a term used much like our “Indian summer”.I looked back up the terraces flanked with palms and sleeping marble lions. “A villa on the Cap d’Antibes?” But the Vorontsov Palace itself is unlike anything on the Côte d’Azur, or anywhere else for that matter: a bizarre cross between Arabesque and Scottish Baronial. And the limestone cliffs behind are sheerer, sharper and barer than any of the Alpes Maritimes so close to the sea.
Further suggested comparisons included: the Amalfi Coast, the Dalmatian Coast around Split and various places in Greece and Spain, but none of them quite fitted the bill. The difference lies in human dimension. For all the Mediterranean feel of its climate and vegetation, the Crimean coast has a way of constantly reminding the visitor that its historic and cultural connections lie to the north, with the isthmus that joins the peninsula to the mainland being like an umbilical cord to Tsarist Mother Russia and the old Soviet Union.* * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
At Simferopol Airport stone-faced officials scrutinise every detail of your visa and entry forms until, despairing of detecting any discrepancy, they angrily bludgeon the forms with the stamps that will permit you to pass on. Considering that you have paid handsomely for your visa and you are here to spend much-needed hard currency, you feel that a warmer welcome might be in order, but at least it is only your passport that has felt their ire.
This thought may seem out of place given that the Crimea is now part of the independent state of the Ukraine, with no formal links to Russia at all. So may my use of the expression “Russian Riviera” in the title to this piece. But ethnically and linguistically the Crimea is Russian rather than Ukrainian. The people are still somewhat mystified by the reasoning behind Khruschev’s diktat that assigned them to the Ukraine in 1954, and the Ukrainian phrasebook I had brought with me turned out to be completely useless. Apart from which there is a shabby similarity to all parts of the former Soviet Union that is essentially Russian in its character.
On the road from the airport, driving past the bleak concrete apartment blocks on the outskirts of Simferopol, the coach overtakes battered Ladas, rusty trucks and ancient trolley-busses that would be brightly-coloured were it not for their coating of grime. Just occasionally a sleek black Mercedes carrying a senior official or “businessman” glides by.The trolley-busses are a local curiosity, the line from Simferopol Airport to Yalta stretching nearby 100km, apparently the longest in the world, and ascending to 750m above sea-level to cross the coastal range. They are slow and their interiors spartan, but I rather regret not having taken one and experienced local transport as the locals do.
Once over the coastal range and protected against the cold winds from the north, the wooded slopes seem greener and you pass through vineyards as you descend towards Yalta itself. Amid the lush greenery and the occasional Tsarist estate, there are grey apartment blocks here too, and sanatoria that range from the sumptuous (for high officials) to the barrack-like (for favoured workers). Here in Soviet times these select few would enjoy the privilege of holidays for “rest and medical treatment”. There are also cranes hovering above concrete honeycombs as new hotels rise from the ground, and other concrete shells without cranes, for which the finance has run out before completion.Nevertheless, the streets of central Yalta are attractively tree-lined, and the hotels, restaurants, cafés and casinos that face the kilometre-long promenade are mostly as well-built, well-furnished and well-kept as one would find in any Western holiday resort. Although traffic-free, the promenade is always bustling with people taking the air, eating ice-creams or carrying, as is the Russian habit, bottles of beer to swig as the swagger along. On the outskirts, along the shingle beaches that stretch away to either side of the town, one encounters a shoddier and more desolate environment, with rusting iron fences, stained concrete and ramshackle buildings, but downtown Yalta is prosperous, comfortable with the knowledge that it has been Russia’s (and the Ukraine’s) favourite resort for about a hundred and fifty years and seems set to remain so.
This does not mean it has to be one of ours, and for Britons simply seeking a beach holiday I would hesitate to recommend it. But for those seeking cultural and historic interest as well, the Crimea has much to offer, and Yalta is a pleasant base from which to explore it.* * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Scattered about the Crimea are the relics of periods under Greek, Ottoman, Tartar, Russian, Soviet and finally Ukrainian rule. Nearly all of the most interesting are in the South-Western corner of the peninsula, within a couple of hours drive of Yalta.
The Crimea is yet another of those places that, in Saki’s famous words about Cyprus, has “produced more history than it can consume locally”, though perhaps in this case it would be more accurate to say that the surfeit of history has been imported, not always willingly, rather than produced.
* At Chersonesus, near Sebastopol, one can wander round around the amphitheatres and colonnades of an originally Greek and later Byzantine settlement that survived nearly two thousand years – from the fifth century BC to the fourteenth century AD - piling newer ruins over older in an archeological jumble that is still being excavated.* At Bakhchysaray is a well-preserved palace in Turkish style, with shady courtyards and tinkling fountains, the centre of a capital from which the Tartar khans ruled the Crimea from the 16th to 18th centuries. The adjacent Mosque still ululates as the faithful are called to prayer. The original Tartars were a Mongol, Muslim people, and their descendants were rudely deported by Stalin to Central Asia, although a few have trickled back since the collapse of communism.
* At Sebastopol, Balaclava, Inkerman and the Alma one can visit the battlefields of the Crimean War of 1854-6, when Britain and France intervened to support Turkey in trying to deny Russia southward expansion. The war is notorious for the grotesque incompetence displayed by the British generals, exemplified above all by the suicidal Charge of the Light Brigade. In practice, viewing “the Valley of Death” is something of a disappointment. It is difficult to conjure up the scene of the serried ranks of horsemen galloping into the mouths of the Russian artillery with their sabres glittering in the sun when the site is now planted out with vineyards and dotted with modern farm buildings. Better to read “The Reason Why” or Tolstoy’s “Sebastopol Sketches”.Balaclava, used as the British base during the Crimean War, is a small harbour with few surviving historical buildings. The main interest here is more recent – an unassuming hole in the hill opposite the port betrays the location of a vast subterranean Soviet base for nuclear-armed submarines. So secret was it that the local electricity supply was switched off on nights when the submarines were entering or exiting, and none of the inhabitants were allowed to leave the town. Only within the past two years has it become possible for foreigners to visit Balaclava.
The most telling monument to the Crimean War is, curiously, not on any of the battlefields. The Panorama Museum in Sebastopol takes the form of a Rotunda, about 60 metres in diameter. The visitor stands in the middle surrounded by a 360˚ tableau representing the French assault on the Malakoff, one of the main Russian forts protecting the city. The back-drop of the surrounding landscape and troop movements is painted on canvas and merges visually with the foreground on which life-size models depict the action – cannons roaring, shells exploding, soldiers firing, wounded dying and so on. It is extraordinarily well-executed, lifelike and vividly conveys the chaotic carnage of war.Sebastopol saw another siege in WW2, this time holding out for 250 days against von Manstein’s Panzer Divisions. Considering that these same divisions had rolled up the defences of France and surrounded the British army at Dunkirk in a matter of a few weeks, this was no mean feat. It did, however, leave the city “ruined to the ground”, as our tour guide put it, with fewer than a dozen of its original buildings standing. Architecturally, Sebastopol is rather uninspiring in consequence, but a visit is repaid by its historical interest and the natural beauty of its long harbour with its variety of inlets.
* Around Yalta one can visit some of the palaces and dachas with which the Tsarist aristocracy ornamented this coastline, and which were later commandeered by their Soviet counterparts. The stylistically eccentric Vorontsov palace, built by Count Vorontsov, one of the richest of the courtiers of the time with some 80,000 serfs at his command, has already been mentioned. The miniature Swallow’s Nest Palace perches, more like a sea-eagle’s eyrie than a swallow’s nest, on a pinnacle of rock above the shore, a dramatic focal point in a dramatic local landscape. The Livadia Palace, built for the last Tsar, Nicholas II, is also notable, not least for being the venue for the Yalta Conference in February 1945, at which Stalin, Roosevelt and Churchill met to negotiate the fate of post-war Europe. The Massandra Palace, which looks more than anything like an elegant Loire Valley chateau, was built for Tsar Alexander III, but never even visited by him. It did not really find an appreciative owner until Stalin used it as his Crimean dacha.One cannot visit the dachas of more recent rulers – Breshnev and Gorbachov for example, the latter always referred to by guides with a contemptuously sarcastic tone as “the first and last President of the Soviet Union”. From the glimpses afforded by the curves of the coast-road they appear as palatial as those of the Tsars, though rather less tasteful.
Not quite qualifying as palaces, but well worth a visit are also the Chekhov Museum, based on the house and gardens where the playwright spent his final years and wrote some of his best-known plays, and the Nikita Botanical Gardens. Here, roses and canna lilies in particular were blooming late into the autumn. Apart from all the usual subtropical species found in such climates, the Crimea has over 1000 indigenous varieties unknown elsewhere. Most notable is the Crimean Pine, which locals insist exudes healing odours. Its reputation, together with the balmy climate, is one of the reasons that the Crimea has long been a favoured resort for rest-cures and recuperation for invalids.Golden cupolas mark the sites of several attractive Russian and Armenian Orthodox churches. In central Yalta the main one is the Alexander Nevsky “Cathedral”, minute by Cathedral standards but exquisitely decorated within. Further along the coast, Foros Church sits on a rocky perch high up in the mountains.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Yalta has a reputation for being expensive by local standards. We ate in a variety of restaurants and cafés, and found prices were about half of what one would expect to pay in the western Europe. Outside Yalta, this might fall to nearer a third or even a quarter. In bars, vodka, beer, local wine and tea are cheap.The food tends to combine Russian and Eastern Mediterranean-style cuisine, with borscht or blinis as starters, shashlik or grilled fish as main courses, and sticky sweet concoctions involving honey and nuts for pud. The area is famous for its fruit and nuts, and the peaches, almonds and grapes are full of flavour. Stalls in street markets offer freshly-squeezed pomegranate juice as refreshment. Another Yaltan speciality - sweet red salad onions - hang in strings.
Crimean wines always vied with Georgian for recognition as the best in the old Soviet Union, but tastes in this part of the world tend towards the sweet and heavy. The prestigious Massandra winery makes a dry red table wine from Cabernet grapes, but it is harsh and lacking in bouquet by French standards. My wife and I and the friends with whom we were travelling fell into a routine whereby the men would drink beer throughout, while the women would split a bottle of fizzy white wine (KrymSekt Brut) as aperitif and make it last into the meal. This fizz is not quite champagne, but it is crisp, dry and inexpensive. I think the most we paid in the fanciest restaurant was about 50 hryvnyas (about £6) a bottle, and generally it well below this level.The local beer (Obolon, Krym or Chernovsky) is lager-style, light and refreshing. If it lacks any depth of flavour, it is unobjectionable, and at anything from 2 to 10 hryvnyas the half-litre (equating to 25p to £1.25 a pint) it is very good value. Local mineral water is also cheap, which is as well, since the tap water here is not recommended for drinking.
Food and drink apart, for which the lively and colourful markets are best, shopping opportunities are limited. Jewellery and ornaments in semi-precious stones (onyx, turquoise, malachite and amber) are much less expensive than in the west, but most souvenirs are of the trite Russian-doll variety.On the plus side, personal security is generally good, and crime rates low. There is apparently a minor pickpocket problem, predominantly from street kids, but if you take normal precautions you should be safe enough.
The Ukrainian hryvnya (pronounced Grieve-nier) is a bit of a nuisance as a currency. You cannot buy hryvnyas in advance of arrival and you are not allowed to take more than a token amount out of the country (but then, why would you want to?), which makes it tricky to judge how much to change in the first place. However, US dollars, euros and roubles are exchangeable in banks, currency booths and hotels everywhere in Yalta. Pounds can often be negotiated, but it is more reliable to take dollars or euros.* * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
I understand that Jules Verne found the programme a considerable success and will be continuing it from next year. For 2004 prices for the holiday including charter flights from Gatwick, transfer and seven nights’ bed-and-breakfast started from £345. This is great value, and we met one traveller with regular business in the Crimea using it as a cheaper alternative to their usual arrangements. Indeed, travel to, and around, the Crimea by other means is complicated and challenging. To fly you normally have to change in Frankfurt or Kiev. Local buses and taxis are cheap though.
We went to the Crimea with Voyages Jules Verne, who organised a special programme for the 150th anniversary of the Crimean War. It was this aspect that attracted my attention originally, though I have to say that in the event the war-sites were remarkably lacking in evocative atmosphere. Nevertheless, other features of interest, both more ancient and more modern, compensated for any disappointment on that score.
With Jules Verne, the base price of £345 was for the cheapest period and is just for starters. To it you have to add £60 for your visa (this is via the Jules Verne service; I believe it is slightly cheaper if you arrange it direct). You also have to add a premium of up to £150 if you want to avoid staying at the 1147-room Hotel Yalta. Those who have experienced such monolithic Soviet hotels (who have stayed, for example, at the Pribaltiskaya in St Petersburg, or the Russiya in Moscow) will know that this is a premium well worth paying. We went the whole £150 hog and stayed at the Oreanda on the Promenade - a comfortable, well-appointed hotel with excellent indoor and outdoor pools, although its private stretch of stony beach is uninviting. A compromise between the two is the town-centre Bristol, at just £50 more than the Hotel Yalta, but near a noisy fun-fair and offering no garden and no pool.With visa, hotel upgrade and outings to the sights mentioned above, our cost for the holiday worked out at under £750 each – not cheap, but not bad value either for a pleasant holiday in a fascinating place not easily accessible in other ways. If you spoke Russian and were bold enough to make your own arrangements you could probably save relative to this cost once there, but scheduled air fares might well negate the advantage. Before taking on the challenge, it’s worth looking at the site www.blacksea-crimea.com first.
If you want to go, avoid high summer (the peak time for Russian and Ukrainian visitors, and thus crowded, as well as hot with temperatures of around 40˚C). As with most places, the best times are Spring and Autumn. During the latter you might if you are lucky encounter as we did the velvet season, summer’s gentle afterglow.
Voyages Jules Verne Limited, 0207 616100 or www.vjv.co.uk.
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