When I drink my weekend coffee, I always select a different mug from my collection, from the various places I’ve been to on my travels. Yesterday, I picked one from the spectacular castle in Yalta, Crimea, the Swallow’s Nest, perched on a rock above the sea. “Yalta, Crimea, Ukraine” is written around the top of the mug, and I’m left wondering whether that will become a collector’s item.
At the time of writing, the situation in Crimea is increasingly tense, with the UK’s Foreign Office advising all British nationals to leave. I consider myself lucky to have managed to see this beautiful part of the world in August 2013. Crimea has a striking combination of sea and mountains. It has many beach resorts, normally filled with Russian and Ukrainian tourists in the summer. It was favoured by the Romanovs- Tsar Nicholas II and his family would stay at the Livadia Palace in Yalta, later used for the February 1945 wartime conference. The cable car ride up Mount Ai Petri, near Alupka, must be one of the most impressive in Europe, and the peninsula also has Europe’s highest waterfall.
Let us hope that a peaceful solution will be found to the current conflict, and the region will once again become accessible to travellers. Meanwhile, I will share some of its beauty in my next few blog postings. I will describe my journey last year, which took in Simferopol, Yalta, the mountains around Yalta, the Alupka and Livadia Palaces, the stunning church on the rock at Foros, west of Yalta (the resort where Gorbachev was holed up during the 1991 Soviet coup), the infamous “valley of death” where Britain’s Light Brigade launched its suicidal charge during the Crimean War, and finally the naval town of Sevastopol, home of the Russian Black Sea fleet, and some impressive Greek remains.
Crimea feels very much like a different world to the European visitor. Very few independent Western travellers have reached it. The only non-Russians or Ukrainians I encountered were a few Americans, probably cruise passengers, visiting the Livadia Palace in Yalta, where the wartime conference took place. I don’t speak Russian or Ukrainian, and although I’ve been to many places where I don’t speak the language, I’ve never been quite as linguistically challenged as in Crimea, where almost nobody speaks English, at least outside Yalta. I was very pleased to have my trusty Russian phrase book. I’m old fashioned- no smartphone with google translate!
I travelled overland from Bucharest, where I live, via Chisinau in Moldova and Odessa, one of Europe’s great cities, which I will write about in a future posting. After having dinner at a restaurant near the top of the Potemkin Steps and watching Odessa’s nouveaux riches on show, I headed back to Odessa’s huge and beautiful station for the night train to Simferopol. I had a bed in a 2 bed compartment, which I ended up having to myself, and slept well.
The train reached Simferopol on time, just before midday, and I headed out into the bustle of the large square in front of the main station. The August heat hit me straight away- the difference compared with Odessa was noticeable. The square was crowded with people with cases, and minibus drivers touting for business to take tourists to resorts all around the peninsula. The place had a slightly exotic, oriental feel.
I passed on the minibuses, and instead headed for one of Crimea’s unique attractions, the world’s longest trolleybus route, which covers the 86km from Simferopol to Yalta in around two and a half hours. The buses have been modernised since Soviet times, and even have reserved seating (your ticket has a seat number) but you can still see some of the old ones parked at various points en route. The trolleys manage to get up to quite a good speed on the out of town stretches, possibly 40 or 50 miles per hour, As well as being the longest, it must also be the most scenic trolleybus ride in the world. You have views of the sea on your left and mountains to the right.
Eventually, the bus trundled into Yalta bus station, a typical Soviet era structure about a mile from the seafront. I was heading straight on to Alupka, some 15 miles west of Yalta, so I was met by a taxi driver. Alupka was where I had found reasonably priced accommodation in a small guesthouse, not far from the Alupka Palace, where Churchill and the British delegation had stayed during the Yalta conference.
There are no detailed maps of the Crimean resorts, and those I had ordered from Stanford’s in London were quite sketchy. I had tried to be up to date and look at google maps, but this was not much help. The resort of Alupka stretches out along a few km of coast, so when I arrived at the guesthouse, I really had little idea where I was, or how to get to the palace or the various places I wanted to see. My difficulties were compounded by the linguistic challenge. Although the owner of the guesthouse spoke English, it was just her mother who was actually present, who spoke only Russian. I had visions of being stuck there for 3 days, unable to make myself understood, and unable to see anything. But I was determined, and eventually established that minibus 115 ran to Yalta from the end of the street. So at least I would get into Yalta that evening.
But before that, I walked a little the other way, into a sort of central square area in Alupka. It was here that I could see clearly that the Soviet Union is alive and well in Crimea. There in the central square was a gigantic gold statue of Lenin. This was just the start- when I eventually made it into Yalta after a one hour journey by creaking minibus, there was Lenin again, along with a street named after him and a Karl Marx street too. Throughout Crimea, the Lenin statues and communist street names have stayed in place. My guesthouse in Alupka was on Rosa Luxemburg street.
Minibus, or marshrutka, is the main means of urban transport in Crimea and for short journeys of up to about 50 km. There is no map or timetable available, so you have to find the right one by word of mouth. The minibuses are invariably overcrowded, but you do feel part of the local culture when you use them.
The minibus from Alupka wound its way around the narrow streets of the coastal towns, eventually hitting the main Sevastopol-Yalta road, which runs high up above the resorts, with a good view of the sea. I passed the Livadia Palace and eventually reached Yalta bus station again. From here, I made my way to the sea front by a Soviet era trolleybus. The name Yalta had appeared romantic and exotic when I had planned the trip, but the reality was that Yalta sea front was typical of a rather brash resort, with loud music blaring out from the funfair and from bars. The beach isn’t particularly good here either- it’s pebbles, not sand, and there’s not that much of it. The resorts to the east and north offer a better seaside experience. But there’s a little Orthodox church right on the seafront, which is open most of the time, and makes a nice contrast to all the noisy bars. I paddled in the sea, in spite of the rather painful pebbles- after all, Yalta is an exotic place to be able to say you’ve paddled! After a walk along most of the Yalta seafront, I found a reasonably priced restaurant a little inland, with English menu and an English speaking waitress, who helpfully arranged a reasonably priced taxi for the trip back to Alupka. A long day, with several challenges, but at least I had managed to get out of the Alupka guesthouse and find my way into Yalta.
In my next posting, I will describe my visit to the Alupka Palace, with its Churchill Room, the trip up the Ai Petri mountain by cable car, as well as my visit to the Swallow’s Nest castle above the sea, and trip back to Yalta by boat. There will be lots more pictures too.