Sunday 9th of August 2020, 20:14 CET
Chilling in Crimea
September 13, 2002
Kyiv Post

Written by Angela Charlton
Posted by HW on August 8, 2020

For thousands of years, the cliff-side vistas, sun-washed coves and succulent apricots of Crimea were treasured by visitors - so treasured that the visitors often vanquished local rulers and stayed.

Today’s visitors are hard-pressed to find a decent bathroom, much less invest in real estate. Yalta, a beach getaway for Russian leaders from Czar Nicholas II to former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, struggles to attract tourists. Sevastopol, a once-closed port city immortalized by British poets, has few hotel rooms with reliable hot water.

Yet Crimea’s natural and historical wonders remain breathtaking, and its pistachios, cherries and wines are still delectable, making it a visit well worth the pitted asphalt and surly service. And early fall, when the summer crowds dissipate while the warm weather remains, is arguably the best time to visit.

At the crossroads of history

Greek and Roman adventurers, Judaic tribes, Genoese merchants, Muslim Tatars, Turkish emirs and great Russian authors all set down roots in this Black Sea peninsula, leaving marks that can be seen today.

In the Soviet era, communist elites who summered on Crimea’s shores ensured it had the country’s best-paved roads and premier health resorts. Select children from communist-bloc nations around the world attended summer camps here. Many parts of Crimea were off-limits to everyone but party bosses or naval officials.

In the decade since it became part of Ukraine, Crimea has gradually opened up to outsiders - and simultaneously plunged into a morass of high crime, ethnic tensions and economic blight that accompanied the end of generous state subsidies.

The number of annual visitors sunk from 8 million in the late Soviet era to less than 3 million in the 1990s. It was back up to 4.5 million last year, and Andrei Vershidsky of Crimea’s Ministry for Resorts insists it will only keep growing.

“We’re focusing on attracting more Westerners,” he said, in hopes that the peninsula will soon be Europe’s next great vacation oasis.

Valentin Danilchenko, a tireless tour guide from the medieval Muslim town of Bakhchisarai, is skeptical. “We may wait forever for our prospects to be fulfilled,” he says.

Archeological wonderland

Among the few people prospering in today’s Crimea are enterprising grave robbers who scan metal detectors over long-forgotten cemeteries and dig up buttons and belt buckles from the disintegrated uniforms of British, French and Italian soldiers who died on Sevastopol’s hillsides in the Crimean Wars in the 1850s.

The diggers peddle their wares surreptitiously in a Sevastopol park, and some wind up for sale on Internet sites and in British antique shops.

Amateur archaeologists also uncover older treasures, such as the terra cotta pottery found around the ruins of the Greek metropolis Chersonesus on Crimea’s southwest tip.

Built in the 5th century BC, Chersonesus thrived as a key port for hundreds of years, then was forgotten for hundreds more. Today several marble columns have been restored, framing a stunning view of the aqua sea. Low stone walls surround intricate floor mosaics and trace a complex of storerooms and courtyards.

For many Russians, the site’s appeal lies in its claim to have been the place where their ancestors first adopted Orthodox Christianity. A gazebo stands on the spot where Prince Vladimir was reputedly baptized in 988.

A few dozen kilometers to the east, archaeologists have found remnants of an eighth-century Karaite Jewish settlement at Chufut-Kale, with caves carved into limestone cliffs reachable via an hourlong uphill walk.

Tucked in a nearby ravine is a Jewish cemetery with tombstones dating between the 1300s and 2001, which survived even after Muslim khans built a fortress on the promontory extending above the caves.

Mosques and Muslim palaces dot Crimea’s countryside from the days when Tatars ruled in the 13th-18th centuries. The palace at Bakhchisarai is a must on Ukrainian and Russian school trips, with its colorful facades and Sufi-inspired fountains.

Legendary Livadia

Crimea’s role as a Russian holiday getaway developed after Catherine the Great annexed the peninsula in the 18th century. Czar Nicholas II and his queen Alexandra built the Italian Renaissance palace at Livadia, near Yalta, where their children spent much of their time before the entire family was executed by the Bolsheviks.

Livadia rose to fame again in 1945 as the site of a pivotal meeting at which U.S. President Franklin Roosevelt, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill and Soviet dictator Josef Stalin set the stage for the Cold War.

Livadia is now a museum, but the guest houses nearby are open to tourists, their columned terraces overlooking seaside gardens.

Crimea’s botanical and entomological bounties attract specialists year-round, and its maze of mountains draw in die-hard bikers and backpackers.

Don’t expect to find a map of hiking trails. Most maps of Crimea date from the Soviet era, when swaths were left blank to indicate closed-off areas. Satellite images from the Internet or a knowledgeable local guide are far more reliable.

Practical Information on Visiting Crimea

Getting there: The trip to Simferopol by train is hot, uncomfortable and long - up to 20 hours. You’ll save time and not spend a whole lot of extra money if you fly. Krym Avia and AeroSvit (234-8714) airlines both have regular flights to Simferopol for around Hr 250 each way. For more information call 085 or 056. Alternatively, you can drive to Crimea. It’s a 943 kilometer haul to Simferopol from Kyiv. The trip takes 14 to 18 hours over roads that are generally single-lane, slow, dangerous and in a poor state of repair. If you don’t want to drive yourself, Autolux bus line has service to Crimea aboard reasonably comfortable buses. Tickets cost Hr 100, but the Crimea service ends sometime in the fall. Call Autolux for details at 265-0523.

Getting around: Once in Crimea, one can travel by bus or taxi to most key sites within an hour or two. If you don’t have your own car, the most affordable and easiest way to get around is via gypsy or regular cab. Good negotiators can get most drivers down to about $10-$15 per hour of travel.

Lodging: In Yalta, the central, renovated Hotel Oreanda (tel. (0654) 32-82-86) offers double rooms for $55-$600; Doubles at the Soviet-style Hotel Yalta (tel. (0654) 27-01-50; 35-01-50) run $33-$180. In Sevastopol, you can stay in the elegant but rundown Hotel Sevastopol (tel. (0692) 54-36-82) for $40-$80 per night per double room. Many sanatoriums once reserved for Communist elites are now open to visitors. Rooms can cost as little as $20 per night, but you get what you pay for. Ask around at the local tourist offices for more information. Cash-strapped visitors can also rent rooms from local residents for as little as $10 a night. Train and bus stations are the best place to find these. Hot water is sporadic everywhere.
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