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Knights of the Vine RUSSIA


Text and photos by Ian Mitchell

If you need heat to chill, then I recommend the Crimea. I visited in early May and it was already warm, with the greenery sprouting vigorously. By the time this article is published the temperatures will be as high as on the Mediterranean coast, and probably going higher in late July and early August. The Crimea is the Russian-Ukrainian Côte d’Azur, at least as far as natural beauty goes. Add to that the historical interest, low prices, and general absence of intensive tourist development, and you have an ideal holiday destination that is just 22 hours on the train from the Kursk Station in Moscow.

Most travellers, whether by train or air, arrive at Simferopol, in the middle of the Crimea, just where the steppe that stretches all the way from western Siberia gives way to the mountains which dominate the whole southern part of the peninsula and provide the exotic natural beauty that attracts the tourists. From there, for less than $5, you can take the longest trolley-bus ride in the world—about 80 kms—to Yalta, which is the main resort town on the coast. Progress is slow, but it is comfortable and thoroughly ecological.

In Yalta, my wife, Tanya, had already found (on the internet) accommodation at the Pensionat Avgust, which turned out to be ideal. It is a hundred metres from a small beach, and three miles out of the town. For $40 a night we had a bedroom, sitting room, shower room, use of a huge and well-equipped communal kitchen, plus a balcony to eat our dinner on, amidst the oleanders, orchids and effusively aromatic rosemary bushes. Not only that, the chatelaine—Olga Nikolaevna from Novosibirsk—baked fresh bread every day for the guests. She could hardly have been nicer and more helpful. There is regular and cheap public transport into Yalta and, for less than $5, you can easily get a taxi back home after that shashlik and all those excellent Ukrainian beers (I highly recommend the Lviv brewery’s Avtorskoe).

For me, the biggest attraction in Yalta was the Livadia Palace, which was built as the Tsar’s summer residence in 1911, and was where the Yalta Conference was held in February 1945, between Churchill, Stalin and Roosevelt. The ground floor is a well-laid-out museum devoted to the Conference, while the first floor is the restored living quarters of the Romanovs. You can also visit the Vorontsov Palace not far up the coast, where Churchill stayed—Roosevelt was so ill he stayed in Livadia, and Stalin’s place is not open to the general public.

For Tanya, the priority attraction was the Nikitsky Botanical Gardens situated ten kilometres up the coast, which she thought beautiful. Not being especially interested in plants I can’t smoke, I took a marshrutka that day to Sevastopol to look at the Russian naval base and see what I could see of the Crimean war. The base is pretty dead-looking. But there is a wonderful museum of the Crimean War, with a panorama of the battle for the Malakoff Redoubt that is on a par with the Borodino one in Moscow. Sevastopol was a surprisingly attractive and well-kept town, and I would happily have spent more time there. The harbour is huge, and there were yachts tacking back and forth between the nineteenth century battery towers in the brilliant sunshine. The whole scene looked both stately and modern at the same time. The city’s grim reputation is wholly undeserved.

Tanya and I both went on another marshrutka—both journeys are about 80 kms and take 2 hours—to spend the day at Bakhchisaray, the capital of the Crimea Khanate from the time that it split from the Golden Horde in the fifteenth century until Prince Potemkin took over the peninsular for Russia in 1783. Of all the sights I have seen east of the Curzon line, this is one of the most exotic.

There are three places to visit. The first is the headquarters of the Khanate when it was independent, and a fearsome military threat to Russia. The Khan could muster over 100,000 horsemen to thunder up the empty steppe to the Russian borderlands and capture anything up to 10,000 people to sell into slavery, through Greek merchants who disposed of them in the markets of the Levant. Many etymologists think that the reason the Russian people are known in the West as Slavs is because they were first encountered in large numbers as slaves pulling the oars of Ottoman galleys.

The fort is at the top of an incredible cliff, but it is known now as the Chufut-Kale, which means “Jewish Fortress”. That is what it became when the Khans handed it over to tradesmen after they moved down to more lavish and comfortable quarters in the town of Bakhchisaray. But the Jews deserted it in the nineteenth century and now the winds off the steppe whistle through the open windows of the cave fortresses, the old courtyards and synagogue (see top picture), and around the enormous tomb of the daughter of Tokhtamysh, the Khan who defeated the Russians two years after their victory at Kulikovo Polye in 1380.

In the seventeenth century, the Khans moved a thousand feet down into the valley of the Churuk-Suv, where they built a walled compound which is one of the most atmospheric assemblages of buildings I have seen, reminiscent of the Alhambra in Spain (though much smaller). It contains a mosque, a harem, a library, living quarters, a cemetery and beautiful, quiet gardens. Indoors, the sense of placid calm is enhanced by the mottled light coming through the multi-coloured windows which take the glare off the fierce heat outside. In the middle of it all, of course, is the Bakhchisaraisky Fontan, immortalised by Pushkin.

Between the fortress and the palace, half-way up the cliffs, lies perhaps the most bizarre structure of them all, namely the Monastery of the Caves. Here, dug into the soft rock are innumerable Orthodox monastic cells and, in the middle of them, the Uspensky Monastery of the Caves—a whole church carved into the hillside, and devoted to a different God than that for whom the synagogue above in the Chufut-Kale or the mosque below in the Khan’s Palace were built.

Space prevents further description of the attractions of the Crimea, but they are many, including, for example, Chekhov’s house in the suburbs of Yalta, and the Massandra Palace and winzavod which are not far from the Pensionat Avgust. The best time to visit is late May to early June, or September and October, unless of course you need extreme heat in order to chill properly

How to get there:

You can fly to Simferopol, but it is not cheap, unless you change planes in Kiev, as Tanya did, and suffer long delays, poor service etc. And that flight costs the same as the train (8,500 roubles) where you get a comfortable coupe berth with, in my case, pleasant travelling companions, not to mention the ability to bring back to Moscow several large flagons of Crimean wine ( I particularly recommend the Chorny Polkovnik, which I would describe as port without the ponce or the price). The Pensionat Avgust can be seen at (050-915-34-85). We were in room 9. Tell Olga Nikolaevna that I sent you!

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