Crimea's Unbeatable Historical & Natural Wonders

APTourists walking near the Tatar palace in the Crimean town of Bakhchisarai. The Tatars ruled the area until the 18th century.
SEVASTOPOL, Ukraine -- For thousands of years, the cliffside vistas, sun-washed coves and succulent apricots of Crimea were treasured by visitors -- so treasured that the visitors often vanquished local rulers and stayed.

Today's visitors are hard-pressed to find a decent bathroom, much less invest in real estate. Yalta, a beach getaway for leaders from Tsar Nicholas II to former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, struggles to attract tourists. Sevastopol, a once-closed port city immortalized by British poets, has few hotel rooms with reliable hot water.

Nevertheless, Crimea's natural and historical wonders remain breathtaking, and its pistachios, cherries and wines are still delectable, making it a European destination well worth the pitted asphalt and surly service.

Greek and Roman adventurers, Judaic tribes, Genoese merchants, Muslim Tatars, Turkish emirs and great authors all set down roots in this Black Sea peninsula, leaving marks that can be seen today.

In the Soviet era, communist elites who summered on Crimea's shores ensured it had the country's best-paved roads and premier health resorts. Select children from communist-bloc nations around the world attended summer camps here. Many parts of Crimea were off-limits to everyone but party bosses or naval officials.

In the decade since it became part of independent Ukraine with the Soviet collapse, Crimea has gradually opened up to outsiders -- and simultaneously plunged into a morass of high crime, ethnic tensions and economic blight that accompanied the end of generous state subsidies.

The number of annual visitors sunk from 8 million in the late Soviet era to less than 3 million in the 1990s. It was back up to 4.5 million last year, and Andrei Vershidsky of Crimea's Ministry for Resorts insists it will only keep growing.

"We're focusing on attracting more Westerners," he said, in hopes that the peninsula will be Europe's next great vacation oasis.

Valentin Danilchenko, a tireless tour guide from the medieval Muslim town of Bakhchisarai, is skeptical. "We may wait forever for our prospects to be fulfilled," he said.

Among the few people prospering in today's Crimea are enterprising grave robbers who scan metal detectors over long-forgotten cemeteries and dig up buttons and belt buckles from the disintegrated uniforms of British, French and Italian soldiers who died on Sevastopol's hillsides in the Crimean Wars in the 1850s.

The diggers peddle their wares surreptitiously in a Sevastopol park, and some wind up for sale on Internet sites and in British antique shops. Amateur archeologists also uncover older treasures, such as the terra cotta pottery found around the ruins of the Greek metropolis Chersonesus on Crimea's southwest tip.


The caves at the Karaite Jewish settlement in Chufut-Kale date to the eighth century.

Built in the fifth century BC, Chersonesus thrived as a key port for hundreds of years, then was forgotten for hundreds more. Today several marble columns have been restored, framing a stunning view of the aqua sea. Low stone walls surround intricate floor mosaics and trace a complex of storerooms and courtyards.

For many Russians, the site's appeal lies in its claim to have been the place where their ancestors first adopted Orthodox Christianity. A gazebo stands on the spot where Prince Vladimir was reputedly baptized in 988.

A few dozen kilometers to the east, archeologists have found remnants of an eighth-century Karaite Jewish settlement at Chufut-Kale, with caves carved into limestone cliffs reachable via an hour-long uphill walk.

Tucked in a nearby ravine is a Jewish cemetery with tombstones dating between the 1300s and 2001, which survived even after Muslim khans built a fortress on the promontory extending above the caves.

Mosques and Muslim palaces dot Crimea's countryside from the days when Tatars ruled in the 13th to the 18th century. The palace at Bakhchisarai is a must for children on school trips, with its colorful facades and Sufi-inspired fountains.

Crimea's role as a holiday getaway developed after Catherine the Great annexed the peninsula in the 18th century. Tsar Nicholas II and his queen Alexandra built the Italian Renaissance palace at Livadia, near Yalta, where their children spent much of their time before the entire family was executed by the Bolsheviks.

Livadia rose to fame again in 1945 as the site of a pivotal meeting at which U.S. President Franklin Roosevelt, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill and Soviet dictator Josef Stalin set the stage for the Cold War.

Livadia is now a museum, but the guest houses nearby are open to tourists, their columned terraces overlooking seaside gardens.

Crimea's botanical and entomological bounties attract specialists year-round, and its maze of mountains draw in die-hard bikers and backpackers -- at least until late September, when the weather begins to turn rainy and colder. But don't expect to find a map of hiking trails. Most maps of Crimea date from the Soviet era, when swaths were left blank to indicate closed-off areas. Satellite images from the Internet or a knowledgeable local guide are far more reliable.

where to stay

In Sevastopol, rooms at the Hotel Sevastopol (8 Prospekt Nakhimova. Tel. 38-0692-543-671), an elegant but rundown seaside hotel, cost $40 to $80 per night.

Also, many sanatoriums once reserved for the communist elite are now open to tourists. Or rent a room from a local resident for as little as $10 per night. These are usually offered at the Simferopol train station and airport.

In Yalta, the central, renovated Hotel Oreanda (35/2 Ulitsa Lenina. Tel. 38-0654-390-608) offers rooms for $55 to $600, while those at the large, Soviet-style Hotel Yalta (60 Ulitsa Drazhinskogo. Tel. 38-0654-325-594/350-150/ 350-218) run from $33 to $180.

where to eat

In Sevastopol, try the Danaya Bar (9 Naberezhnaya Kornilova. Tel. 54-31-52) or Traktir 1854 (8 Bolshaya Morskaya Ulitsa. Tel. 54-47-60). Both serve tasty Ukrainian basics in a cozy setting.

In Yalta, both hotels listed above have restaurants.

how to get there

Aeroflot operates daily flights from Moscow to Crimea's regional capital, Simferopol. Round-trip tickets start at 4,700 rubles ($150). For more information, call Aeroflot at 753-5555.

Citizens of most Western countries need a visa in order to enter Ukraine. These are available at the Ukrainian Embassy, located at 18 Leontyevsky Pereulok. Metro Pushkinskaya. Tel. 229-1079.