We anchored here at Yalta, two or three days ago. To me the place was a vision of the Sierras. The tall, gray mountains that back it, their sides bristling with pines--cloven with ravines--here and there a hoary rock towering into view--long, straight streaks sweeping down from the summit to the sea, marking the passage of some avalanche of former times--all these were as like what one sees in the Sierras as if the one were a portrait of the other. The little village of Yalta nestles at the foot of an amphitheatre which slopes backward and upward to the wall of hills, and looks as if it might have sunk quietly down to its present position from a higher elevation. This depression is covered with the great parks and gardens of noblemen, and through the mass of green foliage the bright colors of their palaces bud out here and there like flowers. It is a beautiful spot.
- Mark Twain.
Crimea is an ancient land. The Greeks were the first to civilize the original Tauri people living there, building their Bosporan Kingdom very early in the classical age. This kingdom eventually became a Roman client state, then part of the domain of the Goths, and then the Huns. In the aftermath of the fall of Attila, the Byzantines and Bulgars contested for it for about four centuries. After a period under the Khazar Empire, Grand Prince Svyatoslav established the first Russian control of the Crimean peninsula. This didn’t last long, as Byzantium, then the Kipchak horde, then the Tatars, and then briefly the Genoese, took the land, before Catherine II the Great finally restored Russian control there.
A couple centuries later, when the Soviets divided the Russian Empire into republics, the Crimea started out as part of the Russian republic. However, Nikita Khrushchev, in a move that still angers many Russians today, “gave away” the peninsula to the Ukrainian people in 1954. At the time, the move meant little, as both Russia and Ukraine were firmly tied together in the Soviet Union. Four decades later, with the Soviet Union long gone, the region remains Ukrainian, but Russia maintains de facto control of Sevastopol, its Black Sea Fleet headquarters, and they most clearly regret the loss of this ancient prize.
For visitors, though, such politics do not interfere with the prospects of having a good time. Even in Sevastopol, there are cool things to do. Today, of course, tourism for Western visitors there revolves mostly around historical sites related to the 1853-54 Crimean War, along with the ancient Greco-Roman ruins of Chersonessus (for which the nearby mainland city of Kherson is named). A relatively new attraction is the submarine base at nearby Balaklava, the city that was made famous as the location of the Charge of the Light Brigade, immortalized in poem by Alfred Lord Tennyson, and the site of an ancient Genoese fortress built reportedly on top of an ancient Tauri pirate’s fortress. And further inland are the ancient ruins of Bakhchisaray, the capital of the one-time Crimean Tatar state. What is left of the Khan’s palace, several cliff village ruins, and the still operational Uspensky Caves Monastery await exploration.
As with most places in the Crimea, getting to Sevastopol and Bakhchisaray requires passing through the main city of Simferopol. For the most part, that’s the main attraction of the Crimean capital: it has the best transportation options going to and from the peninsula. There are some caves and an ancient Scythian-Greek Neapolis that was sacked by the Goths after their arrival from present Poland in the third century, but really, there is little else to recommend the city.
Most tourists, after arriving in Simferopol, head to the beach. After all, the sub-tropical climate of the south coast is what most visitors come to the peninsula to see. One beachside city, however, stands out geographically as not being on that coast. Perhaps in part because of this, Yevpatoriya enjoys the distinction of having the first two “Blue Flag” beaches in Ukraine. These beaches meet stringent standards set by the European Union for water quality, environmental management, and safety, and for most older travelers, the beach, the supposedly “curative” properties of the bay mud, and the multi-cultural atmosphere of the city are strong attractions, that is when the Kazantip Festival has not taken over the city. Usually held in the month of August, the festival is the largest electronic music festival in the world, with over 300 DJs catering to a mostly younger audience. For those who can get into the rave-type atmosphere, it’s heaven on earth. For those who can’t, there are other plenty of other beaches further south.
The main group of seaside resorts in the Crimea stretch between Feodosiya and Foros. These destinations are the location of the seaside getaway palaces that once housed the royal family of Imperial Russia. More recently, these resort communities served as getaways for the most important leaders of the Soviet Union. In August 1991, it was in Foros, the farthest west of these seaside towns, that conservatives attempted to arrest Mikhail Gorbachev at his dacha in a coup d’etat that ultimately had the reverse effect of what they were trying to achieve - it’s failure and resulting backlash brought an end to the rule of the Communist Party, and six months later, the fall of the Soviet Union.
Feodosiya, the farthest east beachside city, is a cluster of beautiful rich homes that over the Soviet period fell into decay. Long before the Russians took the city from the Tatars, it had been called Caffa, and served as a Genoese trading port. Its importance was only emphasized when a shipment of goods passing through the city spread the Black Death onto the European continent. But for the most part, trade enriched the merchants that lived there. Indeed, the Dacha Stamboli, owned by a rich tobacco merchant during Tsarist times, remains a well-preserved view into the city’s ancient Golden Age. Its attached restaurant reportedly serves the favorite dishes of the tobacco magnate, including a wide selection of fish and rabbit dishes.
The next town to the west is Koktebel, traditionally a writer’s retreat location. A natural arch dominates the offshore here, while onshore, the carnival atmosphere attracts sunbathers of all types. Beyond this festive village is Sudak, the ancient Genoese fortress mentioned by Marco Polo. Nearby vineyards offer present day visitors many opportunities for wine tasting in a decidedly Mediterranean atmosphere.
The next major town beyond Sudak is Alushta. The first beachside city on the old Yalta trolleybus line (the longest, and some insist slowest, electrified trolleybus line in the world), the coastline has a number of ocean piers that have been converted into sunbathing beaches, and a carnival-like atmosphere where almost anything can happen. The nightlife is well recommended.
Of course the ultimate Crimea destination is Yalta. Surrounding this one-time little village that grew into a present-day extended city are a number of important palaces, from Tsar Nikolay II’s Livadia (the meeting place during World War II between Joseph Stalin, Winston Churchill, and Franklin Roosevelt), to Tsar Alexander III’s Massandra, to Field Marshal Vorontosov’s Palace in near to Alupta (where Churchill stayed). Above the city, one of the longest cable cars in Europe takes passengers to the top of the ridge on which Ai-Petri stands, the 1,234 meter peak that towers above Yalta. And just above the beaches from the Aurora Cliff on the Ai-Todor cape stands the Swallow’s Nest castle. Connected to the Livadia Palace by a walking path said to be used by the last Tsar, this signature stone fairy-tale castle was built in 1911-12 by a mysterious Russianized German oil magnate “Baron von Steingel” for his mistress. The stone work replaced an earlier wooden castle built by a Russian general, also for his mistress, a couple decades earlier, and sits near the ruins of a Roman fort. Steingel sold the castle after only three years (presumably the relationship ended).
Whether for sun, romance, or just a place to get away from it all, Crimea remains as desirable as it had been under the Tsars and Commissars. It’s only a plane (or train) ride away.