Day 9: Balaklava/Sevastopol, Ukraine

by - September 03, 2012

Massandra Palace, Yalta
After the fairly grueling process of getting around Yalta yesterday, we were thankful to have Sergey back with us today with his van.  We had met two guys in the hostel overnight, Paul from Canada and Jim from Australia, who we had invited on our tour as we had plenty of room and it lowered our costs.  Our first stops were anywhere in the Yalta area that we had missed.  We started at the Massandra Palace to the east of the city.  This was Stalin’s dacha, but he only stayed there for one night as he felt that a place that was so isolated would be an ideal spot for an assassination.  This did not deter future Soviet leaders and all of them up until Gorbachev would go on to spend their summers there.  The palace had been originally started by a Tsar, who decided he didn’t like it and didn’t finish it - the furnishings were completed by the Soviets in the style of a French chateau (for the good of the people of course).  This was the least dramatic of the three palaces that we visited, but was also the least crowded.

The Swallow’s Nest
From here we went back to the west of Yalta, stopping off quickly at the Livadia Palace again as Jim and Paul hadn’t had the chance to see it.  Just along the coast from Livadia we saw the so called ‘Swallow’s Nest’ palace, built by a German oil baron at the end of the 19th century to help him to convince a girl to marry him.  Unfortunately the girl decided that the palace was too small and said no.  It was knocked off its precarious position on the cliffs by an earthquake but was rebuilt by the Soviets, who dragged the original buildings materials up from the bottom of the sea, as the symbol of the Crimea.  It is probably the most photographed location on the peninsular and is found on the front of lots of Ukrainian guidebooks - though it is a lot smaller in real life than you might think.  Still dramatic though.

Russian memorial at the Valley of Death
This was just about all we had to see in Yalta and we continued along the coastal road to the famous small town of Balaklava, stopping on the way at a Crimean Tatar restaurant (more on the Tatars later).  Just outside Balaklava we stopped at a monument built on a small hill.  The monument is the Russian memorial for the Crimean War, built in the so called “Valley of Death” where the infamous Charge of the Light Brigade took place.  The light brigade, a group of wealthy British aristocrats (named the light brigade because they could afford the fastest horses and the lightest, newest weapons) charged straight into a Russian gun battery, leaving all but 100 of their 700 brigade on the battlefield.  The location is now a vineyard and is called “Golden Valley” in Ukrainian.  We all bought bottles of wine at the small shop beside the vineyard, which jokes that the wine is made with the blood of British aristocrats.  There is very little remaining in the valley to show for the battle, but having Sergey with us was ideal as he pointed out where all of the lines would have been.

Balaklava Nuclear Submarine Base
After one bit of major world history we moved onto another one.  Balaklava was home to one of the largest Soviet submarine bases in the whole Soviet Union.  The base was so important that NATO designated it their third target in the event of the Cold War turning hot.  It is now empty, but the structure of the base (built underneath a mountain) is still there and is a museum.  There are no submarines inside, but it is easy to imagine where they would have been - the whole base looks like the set out of a James Bond film.  From an engineering perspective, the base was quite an achievement as it was able to survive an almost direct hit with a nuclear bomb - protecting up to nine submarines and crews for a month inside.  The museum contained lots of exhibits about life within the base, with English descriptions that were elaborated upon by Sergey.

Sevastopol Panorama Museum
Despite its fame in British culture for the Charge of the Light Brigade (and the headwear that British soldiers in the town had to make themselves to cope with the cold), the submarine base is the main sight within Balaklava.  From here we drove to the town of Sevastopol, which was the main target for the British, French and Turkish coalition during the Crimean War.  The drive was pretty short and we stopped just outside the city centre to see a  'panorama’ museum.  Apparently these were very popular before WW2, but only a handful remain globally now.  The basic concept is that a large, 360 degree diorama is produced, with a platform in the middle for people to stand on and feel immersed in the scene.  The scene at the Sevastopol panorama is a day in the life of the Sevastopol Siege, the key battle of the Crimean War.  It took one painter four years to paint the background wall and models have been placed in the foreground.  I have to say that at times it was difficult to tell between where the model ended and the painting started.

Sevastopol Bay (with Russian naval ships in the distance)
It had been another long day of travelling and we finished up in Sevastopol city centre around the port.  In my head I had expected Sevastopol to be a real dirty, grimy Soviet-esque town, but I couldn’t have been more wrong.  The city, based around a major military port (where Russia has a lease to keep its Black Sea fleet until 2042) is impeccably clean with wide streets and ornate buildings.  The wide promenade was full when we arrived with lots of bands playing music.  The guidebooks say that Sevastopol is the city that Russia most regrets losing after the break up of the Soviet Union and it isn’t hard to see why.  Had we been travelling independently of Sergey, it would probably have been where we based ourselves due to its fairly central location and nice atmosphere.  We weren’t however staying there tonight as we were heading away from the coast for the first time to the Crimean Tatar town of Bakhchysarai, where we were staying with a family in their bed and breakfast.  They cooked us a traditional Tatar dinner (very similar to Turkish food) which we totally devoured.  We are flying home tomorrow, but there is time for a few more sights before we head off.

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