Crimea Revisited

The beaches and mountains of Crimea were once the epitome of a Soviet Black Sea holiday. Today the peninsula, which is only connected to southern Ukraine by a short, thin neck of land, seems to draw more middle-class tourists along with large numbers of hikers, campers and cyclists. The construction of new hotels and resorts has not been slowed by the fact that the area is also prone to ethnic tensions among Tatars, Russian and Ukrainians.

The Crimean Tatars began returning to their historic homeland more than a decade ago from Uzbekistan, where they were exiled by Stalin en masse in May 1944. By the early 1990s, their ancestral homes have been the homes of Ukrainian and Russian families for a little more than half a century. To resolve the problem, the government began allotting the group plots of land on which families have built small houses. But problems with electricity, water and location remain. Additionally, unemployment remains high and civil rights are routinely violated.

Simferopol, today's capital, is near the historic capital of the Crimean Khanate, Bakhchisaray, a beautiful town full of Turkish and Islamic architecture, including the Khan's palace and its fountain, which inspired a poem by Pushkin.

In Simferopol, blue and yellow trains from Kiev pull into the station after a 17-hour trip full of hikers clad in the idiosyncratic style of the East European outdoor type.

Large groups mosey past with their tall walking sticks cutting the sky. Other groups lounge in the sun, leaning against improbably large backpacks, their camouflage pants rolled up, exposing the pale legs of an office worker on vacation.

The port of Sevastopol, two hours south of Simferopol by minibus, opened to foreigners less than a decade ago and has fewer backpackers than the capital, but hundreds more Russian flags and sailors. Under the terms of a contentious lease, the city is the home of Russia's Black Sea Fleet until 2017.

Gray Russian and Ukrainian frigates and cruisers dot the many natural harbors that have made Sevastopol worth fighting for over the centuries. During the Siege of Sevastopol (1854-1855) British, French and Turkish troops bombed the city to smithereens while the Russian defenders sank ships across the mouth of the port in a last ditch effort at defense. Alfred Lord Tennyson's poem "The Charge of the Light Brigade" was inspired by a battle at nearby Balaklava. One resident claimed that the city has more monuments than any other in the former Soviet Union.

Twenty minutes away from the city center by bus are the ruins of the Greek port of Khersones. Visitors are free to climb all over the exposed walls and foundations of the town. The gold dome of the restored St. Vladimir's Cathedral looms over the site. The church marks the reputed spot where Vladimir the Great was baptized -- bringing Kievan Rus into Christianity and launching the Russian Orthodox Church.

While Simferopol is a base for hikes over the Crimean mountains to the more remote coast on the southeastern shore, Sevastopol provides an interesting jumping-off point for southwest Crimea.

After exploring the pretty architecture, cafes and clean streets of Sevastopol for a couple of days, buses head from the main bus station to Yalta -- a town that was once the apex of Russian imperial holiday luxury and the final home of playwright Anton Chekhov.

Making the trip is worth it if just to experience the drive. Visitors should try to get window seats on the right side of the bus. As the machines chug slowly up the switchbacks, grand views of the deep blue sea open up and amphitheaters of granite cliffs and pine forests rise on all sides. The views are exciting and majestic.

Maria Antonova / MT
The Crimean Peninsula's long and turbulent history has produced some interesting architectural and historical monuments.

What goes up must come down, however, and the buses scream down downhill, passing frighteningly close to cyclists loaded down with heavy bags. At one point in the trip, a police car sat on the road beside a long puddle of blood and a mangled bike.

Regardless of the dangers, the beautiful roads are thronged with cyclists, motorcycles and mopeds on what must be an incredibly exhilarating ride.

Yalta has small stone beaches chopped up by the concrete walls and tanning towers erected by hotels to milk beachgoers of money. If a visitor to Crimea is looking for a tan, a disco and a drink, the shop-lined boardwalk of Yalta is the place to go.

There are more intriguing spots, though. Many of the "towns" along the coast are little more than glorified resort communities. Few -- if any -- actual fishing villages dot the coast anymore.

Gurzuf offers attractive winding streets down to the sea and is a possible day trip from Yalta. Massandra is home to a winery, one of many that dot the peninsula making the traditionally sweet Crimean wine.

Travel between Sevastopol through Yalta to Alushta is easy. Buses leave regularly, taking the route over the mountains to Alushta from Simferopol. Traveling east, however, past Alushta and toward the town, public transportation becomes sporadic at best. But apparently the switchback coastal road between Alushta and Sudak is even more stunning than the one between Sevastopol and Yalta.

Sudak is overlooked by a massive hilltop Genovese fortress built more than five centuries ago. Crusader crosses still top the arrow slits.

Past Sudak, the number of tourists thins out dramatically. The beaches are covered in golf ball-sized gray, green and red stones and are home to three or four campers when there is anyone at all.

The beaches are hidden in small coves accessed by dirt roads that pass through remote vineyards and a starkly beautiful empty grassland of rolling hills and sharp cliffs.

Fox Bay is a naturist community, mentioned briefly in Lonely Planet. People live on the beach here when it's warm enough.

Past Fox Bay, the minarets and domes of an elaborate set, built for a movie meant to take place in Uzbekistan but is still incomplete rise eccentrically beyond a bluff.

A 45-minute hike ends in the town of Kurortnoye, a strange place trying to make it as a disco hotspot, but too far off the beaten path -- like a dance club in a French farming village.

A little walk past the town is the entrance to the Karadagh (Black Mountain) Nature Preserve. The spires, cliffs and rock formations are matched by the amount of wildlife on this tract of land formed by an ancient volcano. The four-hour guided hike has tremendous views.

Eastern Crimea past Alushta still feels like unexplored, wild country and is definitely worth visiting if you can get there and need some time away from the things of man.

Getting There

Sevastopol is a 17-hour train trip from Kiev. There are regular trains.

Simferopol is a 1 1/2-hour direct flight from Moscow.

Where to Stay

There are tons of places to stay in Crimea, from home stays and room rentals, to sanatoriums, hotels and resorts. Two places in Yalta are Hotel Bristol (upscale, catering to foreigners) and Hotel Otdykh. The later has incredible views but some rooms lack bathrooms and all have tacky, Soviet-era decorations.

Things to Do

Karadagh Nature Preserve

Phone: 8 065 626 6287