Simferopol, Yalta, Balaklava and Sevastopol: exploring the Crimea
Ukrainian adventure, part 4: Florence Nightingale’s Crimea
Monday, 15th September 2008
Awoke around 7.30 feeling a little better than of late, and to glorious Crimean sunshine. We decided to throw up our window blinds and watch a landscape drift by that would ordinarily go unseen by the likes of us. Not sure how long the sunshine will last, as by 9.50 the distant, whispy clouds seem to be gathering together into something rather thicker and greyer. Jamie has gone in search of the ‘Pectopah’ carriage foraging for breakfast.
He returned some minutes later, having procured ‘safe pickings’ of Snicker bars, bananas and crisps; not ideal breakfast fare, but such as would not give me a metaphoric prod in my fragile stomach.
When we arrived at Simferopol, the sky was clear blue and the sunshine baking. This would do nicely, we thought, as we disembarked the train. There was a distinctly eastern feel to this Crimean capital, and we looked forward in earnest to our few days spent on this beautiful peninsula.
The journey through the Crimean mountains can be a treacherous one, stretching for some hundred or so kilometres first up into the skies and then relentlessly down toward Yalta. It is essentially a three-laned highway, the middle section being a ‘chicken lane’, these having been outlawed in the UK in the 1980s as deathtraps. Crimean drivers, however, do seem to know what they are doing, and ours, the lovely Leonid, was very cautious in his humble Renault Kangoo, quite happy to amble along and take the full hour and a half allowed for the journey.
As we wound our way up into the mountains, stormy clouds gathered at the summits and, despite our best hopes, remained with us to Yalta. Due to a thirty minute traffic jam as we entered the town, we were delivered to the Bristol Hotel at around 2.25pm. We tipped Leonid handsomely for our safe conduct, and settled in to a very superior hotel, the only gripe being that “the lift does not work”; never mind, the exercise would be good for us.
The clouds gathered menacingly over Yalta for the rest of the day, blowing in slightly cooler air off the Black Sea. There was another problem here that we hadn’t really anticipated: almost nobody spoke a word of English, and those that did commanded only a very patchy vocabulary. No signs were in English, no tours in English – hardly even any menus. Having English, German and a degree of French and Spanish between us cut absolutely no ice whatsoever; it was Russian or nothing here.
By the time the full realisation of this had hit us, it was far too late to do anything meaningful about it. After a stroll down the kitsch promenade (believe it or not, Yalta is twinned with Margate) we retired to the restaurant, but not without first speaking to Ihor Brudny, recommended by our trusty Lonely Planet guide, to arrange our trip to Sevastopol and Balaklava, and our ‘Panorama’ tour for Wednesday. It was going to cost a small fortune, but he did take credit cards and it would be a private tour.
A supper of chicken and jacket spuds at the Bristol ‘Pectopah’, washed down with a smooth, dry Crimean Cab Sauv, set us up nicely for sleep, which did not elude us for long.
Tuesday, 16th September 2008
A grim start to the day as far as sunshine, but a temperature approaching 26 degrees announced Tuesday. After a hearty breakfast, we decided to take the ferry trip to Lastochkyno Gnizdo (Swallows’ Nest Castle), one of the iconic landmarks of this part of the Black Sea coast. As we approached Pier 7 we were told, in no uncertain terms, that the boat wasn’t running. Our communication difficulties prevented us from getting any further, although we realised that the reason was obviously the rough seas which had made themselves apparent, despite the absence of even a breath of wind. After several further failed attempts to procure some kind of tour, we had to accept that our language barrier was going to be a real handicap unless we acted fast; Yalta was running out and we would soon be on our way back to Kiev.
A call to Regent put us in direct contact with Dialog Kiev, the company who had originally put our adventure together. The wonderful Viviana there organised an afternoon tour within half an hour, and we scarcely had time for a scandalously priced glass of disconcertingly chilled red at the Bristol before being met outside our hotel by Sasha, a wonderfully camp sixty-something, who would be our guide for the afternoon. And our driver for this excursion? None other than the lovely Leonid himself, making his second appearance on our Crimean stage.
Sasha’s tour of the Livadia Palace (where the Yalta conference between Churchill, Roosevelt and Stalin took place in 1945) and the Swallow’s Nest Castle was exemplary, being both informative and entertaining. He even seemed to manage giving us clear blue skies and warm sunshine, making it a perfect afternoon.
Our evening was spent at Foue, our newly discovered Yalta ‘local’, where beer is half the price of that served at our hotel, and then later we took a superb supper of pork in cheese and mushroom sauce at a gorgeous little restaurant along the promenade. Ukrainian red and vodka also featured, helping to make this just one of those special nights.
Aah, time for bed, and preparation for our ‘Charge of the Light Brigade’ tour tomorrow, although here it’s not really called that. But that’s more or less what it is.
Wednesday, 17th September 2008
It had been raining very heavily through the night, and Wednesday dawned overcast and grey. We breakfasted early, and were collected by our driver for the day, Sergey Zenkin, promptly at 9.30am. On the way back from the Swallow’s Nest yesterday afternoon, Sasha had pointed out a statue at the site of one of the last Soviet Sanatoria, now a hotel, which depicted two soldiers apparently kissing. He gave us a wry smile and told us it was the first Soviet monument to gays. By the time he had finished his little story, we were too far down the road for Leonid to turn back, but Sasha had written a note in Russian, asking Sergey to take us this way for a photo stop this morning, which he was more than happy to do. The real background to this impressive sculpture was that it represents friendship between soldiers of different nations; a place where all can be well. Sasha’s version may have been a touching little ditty, but not entirely accurate, although it does seem to have become a piece of Yaltan folklore these days.
We headed toward Sevastopol with Sergey, in reasonably impressive English, pointing out various local landmarks along the way, including the huge rocky outcrop of Foros, with just 280 kilometres of Black Sea stretching between this most southerly point of the Crimean Peninsula and Turkey.
It took us about an hour and a half to reach the outskirts of Balaklava, where we met up with Anna, who was to be our English speaking guide for the day. After agreeing roughly what our agenda would be, we set off for our first stop at a secret nuclear submarine base. This had been modified into a bunker after the second world war by Stalin, in case of a nuclear attack. It nestles just by the ‘hidden’ Balaklava harbour, and the hermetically sealed doors would swing tight shut in just thirty-two minutes after the signal of an attack. Just who would’ve made it down here is open to some speculation, given the facts that hardly anyone knew of its existence and the remoteness of its location.
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