Crimea: Touched by the Hands of History

While Crimea is currently out of bounds to travellers, Brian Ogle fondly remembers holidaying the land once called The Playground of the Tsars, visiting places like Sevastopol, Balaclava, Yalta and the site of the Charge of the Light Brigade in the Crimean War

For many travellers and especially those interested in military history, The Crimea has always had a mysterious almost mythical magnetism … a strange faraway place on the borders of Russia but one which has played a pivotal role in major world conflicts in the last couple of centuries.

It was where a passionate young Florence Nightingale was responsible for changing the way Britain treats its war wounded; it was the setting for the greatest glorious failure in British military history – the Charge of the Light Brigade – and it was where the famous, or infamous, (depending on your point of view) Yalta Conference took place between the big three great Allied War leaders which re-drew the map of Europe in the wake of the trauma of the Second World War.

Perhaps not so well known is the fact that the port of Balaklava (Balaclava) close to Sevastapol on the southern tip of Crimea gave its name to the modern-day ballaclava headgear – now so beloved by protestors and paramiltaries the world over! (During the Crimean War lady readers of The Times were so concerned about the number of sailors dying at the British naval base in the harsh conditions in The Crimea that they began knitting woolly headgear and sending them in their thousands to the sailors… hence the name Balaclava).

It is a region where, with respect to Tony Blair’s often-mocked soundbite at the signing of the Belfast Agreement in 1998 you could easily ‘feel the hand of history on your shoulder’. I at least imagined I did, as I looked down from Lord Raglan’s vantage point on the Sepun Heights on Tennyson’s ‘Valley of Death, and a day earlier as I stood behind the oval table used by Stalin, Roosevelt and Churchill to sign the Yalta declaration.

Russian underground submarine base in Balaclava

Now however, The Crimea’s fame is not in its propensity to endure suffering, destruction and warfare, but as a holiday and wellness destination. The Russians may not rule the roost any more (Crimea is now an automous parliamentary region of Ukraine with a substantial degree of self-determination) but the powerful, affluent, ‘noisy neighbours’ as Sir Alex Ferguson would describe them – still take over the region every July and August when Crimea’s population is more than doubled by an invasion of ogilarchs, nouveau riche young entrepreneurs and stern-faced babuskas.

With just one international airport, and all other links to the Ukraine and Russia channelled through the narrow northern peninsula it is not unusual for trains and buses to be booked up weeks in advance in the tourist season such is the volume of traffic on to, and off The Crimea peninsula once known as the ‘Playground of the Tsars.’ It was therefore no coincidence that I selected the beginning of September for my much anticipated trip there.

I chose Yalta as the base for my stay, mainly as it is roughly midpoint between most of Crimea’s main attractions which are principally on the Black Sea coast – but also because to me it is the region’s best known resort city.

However, I did not expect Yalta to have such familiar parallels with a traditional old-style English seaside resort. Perhaps the fact that it is twinned with Margate should have given me a clue, but still it was an eye-opener to ‘people watch’ along the prom’ in the evening… if it wasn’t for the spectacular cliffs framing Yalta Bay and the absence of kiss-me-quick hats it could almost have been Margate – or Blackpool!

Memorial to the Crimean War in the Valley of Death – (Charge of the Light Brigade)

The funny hats might have been more Cossack or Tatar-esque but there were ‘speak your weight machines’ (in Russian of course), coconut shies, fruit machines and most popular of all…. garish photo sets where tourists can transform themselves into a member of the glitzy but tragic Romanov family who loved The Crimea, especially the healthy climate around Yalta. In fact the Romanovs sought sanctuary from persecution from the Bolscheviks in Crimea and some escaped from Yalta to England.

The Russian Royals loved Yalta ever since Tsar Alexander II bought the manor at Livadia on the hilly slopes around Yalta in 1861, and it was my first destination the morning after I checked in the Hotel Bristol on the seafront. My English-speaking guide (who incidentally worked as a guide to supplement her 250 US Dollars a month nurse’s wage), suggested we take the short trip there by marshrutka – the most popular form of transport in Ukraine, a privately owned minibus which literally go anywhere, carrying any number of people, as I soon found out!

Because the weather on the day in question was overcast the world and his aunt wanted to visit Livadia Palace – the setting for the Yalta Conference between Stalin, Churchill and Roosevelt – and not the beach. And what an experience the journey was… the minibus with about 25 seats was carrying at least 50-60 people squeezed in at every conceivable angle. To pay the driver, money was passed person to person from back to the front of the bus, and the reverse with the change. If you wanted to get off – or on – it was, to quote a common Ulsterism, a question of brute force and ignorance. The danger of getting a seat was that you would never be able to get up again! I managed to emerge unscathed minus a couple of shirt buttons but I got off lightly considering the potential for pickpockets and heat exhaustion!

However, we managed to make it to the white Palace which the Romanovs loved because of its beautiful and dramatic setting. With reminders of the Romanovs everywhere it is a place of pilgrimage for Russians and Ukrainians, but of more interest to Western visitors is the fact that Livadia hosted the conference of the three World War II leaders, where the Yalta Agreement was signed.

You could pose at the very table which was used in the signing, and for a small fee you could get a picture taken of yourself superimposed behind the three world leaders, just as if you were one one of their closest advisors.

After Livadia we visited the nearby Vorontsov, also called Alupka Palace, which was built in the 19th century in what has been described as pseudo-gothic style. Opened for visitors in 1921, the Palace/museum has the original interiors, collections of furniture, painting, china, bronzes and cut-glass ware while surrounding the Palace there’s Alupka Park, one of the best known landscaped parks in Ukraine.

Before returning to central Yalta we had time to stop off at playwright Anton Chekhov’s house on the outskirts of the city. The white dacha was Chekhov’s residence when he was ill with tuberculosis after his father’s death, because like the Romanovs, he favoured Yalta for its healing climate. The scene at the back of the dacha apparently inspired the setting of one of his most famous works, The Cherry Orchard, but he also wrote the Three Sisters and The Bishop at his Yalta retreat. Chekhov was a noted host and entertained Tolstoy and Rachmaninoff among others while Russian president Vladimir Putin and his wife have been visitors to the house, now a museum, in recent years.

A pub called Belfast in Yalta – Ulster visitors will now be few in number

By complete contrast to the works of Chekhov are the reminders of the Cold War and Soviet history, starkly evident in some of the grey concrete block-style flats mostly around the outskirts of towns and cities in the Crimea, and in the presence of museums such as the once top-secret submarine base at Balaklava, which is now open to the public. Huge nuclear bomb-proof doors seal the entrance to what were once Soviet submarine pens under the cliff in the stunningly pretty, sheltered little harbour. Visitors can now stroll through the underground submarine and munitions arsenal and get up close and personal with the armaments which the Soviets were preparing for an expected attack on key Soviet cities by the US.

It was a bit disconcerting to learn that the Russians trained dolphins, the most placid, playful, intelligent and friendly of sea creatures, to attack enemy shipping around Sevastapol and Balaklava by sending them out from the submarine base strapped with explosives, and even to attack and spear enemy frogmen with their snouts.

It was at Balaclava in the Crimean War that Florence Nightingale ran a field hospital on one of the plateaus above the town and her team did such sterling work with the injured soldiers; while just a short drive away, the city of Sevastopol could justly claim the title of ‘siege capital of the world’. The Russian defenders of Sevastapol in The Crimean War held out for almost a year against French and British troops despite appalling privations, while both Russian and German armies were beseigers and beseiged in turn as they fought bitter rearguard actions over Sevastapol in the Second World War. Indeed not a building in the city survived the conflict.

Sevastopol was a ‘closed city’ in Russian times, the reason being it was the base for Russia’s Black Sea fleet. Now the fleet is reduced in size and some of it is part of the Ukrainian navy, with the Ukrainians agreeing that Russians could maintain a presence until 2017. However, a couple of years ago the pro-Russian President Viktor Yanukovych – in world news in December because of his about-turn on a Trade agreement with the EU – agreed to an extension of the lease for another 20 years or so. Now however, Sevastopol is open to tourists and visitors of all shapes and sizes – and nationalities – with superb attractions like the Panorama Museum on a hill near the centre of the city which features a 360-degree diamorama of the great siege in the Crimean War. A painting around the inner wall of a circular building brings the bitter 349-day battle to life. Visitors have the view that the defenders would have had at the time, supplemented by 3-D imaging.

The Swallow’s Nest near Yalta

Other major attractions in Sevastapol are the Black Sea Fleet Museum and the ruins of the Greek city of Khersones on the outskirts of the city. It was here that Volodmyr the Great was famously baptised into Christianity in 989 AD, launching what would become the Russian Orthodox Church. Close to both Sevastopol and Balaklava is the site of the Charge of the Light Brigade, immortalised by Alfred Lord Tennyson in his poem which tells of the suicidal charge down the wrong valley led by The Earl of Cardigan. The Light Brigade charged headlong into a cul-de-sac controlled on three sides by Russian artillery. More than a third of the Light Brigade and half of the horses were killed outright in the battle which lasted only a few minutes but is one of the most famous military engagements in British history.

Today you can stand on the Sepun heights between Balaclava and Sevastapol and look down on the Valley of Death as did Lord Raglan when he sent Captain Nolan with the famous order to Cardigan to prevent them (“the Russians”) carrying away the guns. However, like me you will almost certainly be a wee bit disappointed that much of the Valley of Death is now a vineyard and the hills on each side where the Russian guns stood are barely recognisable as hills from Raglan’s position. Incidentally, a few miles away on the same day The Heavy Brigade. which included the Royal Irish Dragoon Guards and Inniskilling Dragoons were in action at Balaclava. Today in contrast on the Sepun Heights where Raglan stood you can see relics of more recent conflicts which include a Mig fighter, katushka rocket launchers, anti-aircraft searchlights, heavy guns and even a Black Sea navy patrol boat. One simple, stark memorial plinth commemorates the Light Brigade action in the valley below.

The road between Sevastopol/Ballaclava and Yalta is visually stunning and one of the attractions of The Crimea. It twists and turns along the coastal escarpment with the Black Sea below giving way to the high Crimean cliffs and mountains, sometimes shrouded in cloud. Attractions along the road include the Church on the Rock, known for its dramatic setting on a precipitous crag overlooking the sea, and the Swallow’s Nest which actually overhangs the cliff face, not to mention a dizzying cable car ride to the top of the most dominant mountain in the region, Mt Petri. Other attractions of the area include the highest waterfall in Crimea, Uchansu, a childrens’ amusement park and the Massandra Palace, which was famous for being Stalin’s summer dacha.

Setting for the famous Charge of the Light Brigade

It is said that Stalin stored a sizeable collection of wines that were confiscated from the Tsars’ palaces in the vineyard’s cellars, many of which are in Massandra’s one million-bottle collection. The temperate climate of Massandra is perfect for the cultivation of grapes and the winery was built in the late 19th century to produce wine for the Tsar’s summer palace, which it did in abundance.

During the summer months marshrutka travel throughout the Crimea providing reliable and cheap transport connections, backed up by taxis and private and public bus options. There is a limited rail network, with the main line running from Simferopol north off the peninsula into the rest of Ukraine and mainland Europe/Asia.

There is a strong Tatar culture in Crimea, particularly around the inland city of Bakhchysaray where the big tourist attraction is the Khan’s Palace. The city is the spiritual home of the Crimean Tatars who were transported en block to Siberia by Stalin because of their collaboration with the Nazis during the Second World War – almost half died on the journey or in the first year of their Siberian incarceration. With the fall of the Soviet Union the survivors are now back in Crimea and involved in increasingly bitter disputes with locals as they try to claim what they say is their land back. Crimea, a melting pot for cultures over the centuries is sure to be more in the world news in the near future.


There was no sign of the seismic events that would envelop Ukraine and particularly Crimea when I visited only a few short months before Russian troops moved in, writes Brian Ogle.

It was the end of the summer holiday season and the holidaying Russians and mainland Ukrainians had gone back home with their kids for the start of the new school term.

The huge spas and wellness complexes dotted along the spectacular Black Sea coast around Yalta were winding down for the quieter shoulder season, reflecting no doubt on the increasing number of western cruise ships that had docked in the bay and the small but increasing number of UK travellers who had been exploring this fascinating part of Eastern Europe.
Now the tourism industry, worth $5 billion to Crimea, is in meltdown. Once a playground for the rich and famous and the Soviet and Ukrainian elite, and a major destination for six million visitors a year – half of them Russians – the only tourists in the coming months are likely to be soldiers and the freelance enforcers who have been helping to tighten the Russian Federation’s grip on the region.

Irrespective of the need for a visa in future, tourists and travellers from any nation, including the UK, which does not recognise the new status of Crimea as part of Russia will not be able to travel there. Their respective governments will advise against visiting Crimea as the region will have no legal status for every country that declared the recent referendum invalid. These states – at the very least – are likely to issue travel warnings to the effect that their citizens visit the region at their own risk – and should they find themselves in difficulty they will not be able to assist them.

Crimea is dependent on mainland Ukraine for its water, electricity and gas supplies so there’s going to have to be a huge cost on infrastructure to be borne by Russia in future. Russia has already said it will construct a permanent land border in the east of the country in the form of a two-mile long bridge to link Kerch in Crimea with mainland Russia. At the moment, air links to Kiev and Western Europe have been cut and there is a clampdown on road and rail traffic along the northern border corridor which connects Crimea to the Ukrainian mainland.

If, years down the line, Crimea is eventually recognised as part of Russia, Western visitors will still need a visa to visit Crimea, but given the sensitivities over the Russian Black Sea fleet base at Sevastopol it is unlikely this historic and beautiful city will be throwing out the welcome mat for anyone bar except local Russians and the military.

Sevastopol has a special place in the hearts of many Russians, particularly the older generation. It’s designated as a “hero city of the Soviet Union” because of its defiance to the Nazis in World War II, when it was completely destroyed. It also held out against British and French forces for almost a year during the Crimean War – a conflict remembered for engagements such as the Charge of the Light Brigade near Balaclava, battles at places like Alma and Inkermann, and for the pioneering nursing care of Florence Nightingale.

When I was in Crimea in mid-September the only sign of friction was in the relationship between the 230,000 or so native Tatars and the local ethnic Russians over land ownership. The entire Tatar population was deported to Siberia by Stalin after the Second World War, and over half of them died either on the way there, or in captivity. They began returning to their homeland in Crimea when Ukraine became an independent state in the nineties but have now been in conflict with locals over land they claim is rightfully theirs. How the Muslim Tatars, fervently anti-Russian, and the ethnic Ukrainians in Crimea, will react to rule from Moscow is anyone’s guess.

Meanwhile, Vladimir Putin is revelling in his popularity at home as the man who recovered Sevastopol and Crimea for mother Russia. In the eyes of his supporters he is seen as the leader who began turning the clock back, recovering territory for the Russian Federation, and boosting the self-esteem of a people who for the past two decades who have seen the Soviet empire’s influence shrinking, and the emergence of once-satellite states as independent countries on its borders.

Putin seized his chance to annex Crimea because of the confused power vacuum in Kiev after the street disturbances and the ousting of pro-Moscow leader Viktor Yanukovich. He quickly and shrewdly exploited the fears of ethnic Russians in Crimea that they were going to be discriminated against by the new leadership; weak, disjointed opposition by Western leaders; and by vastly exaggerated claims that many of the Kiev protestors were Far Right and Fascist – an impression aided by the unity government’s hasty decision to cancel the law that gave equal status to minority languages such as Russian.

With Ukaine turning more and more West-wards, Putin decided he could countenance the possibility of a future NATO member controlling Crimea, and that the Black Sea base for the Russian fleet iin Sevastopol would have to be guaranteed in perpetuity along with the rights of the more than 1.2 million ethnic Russians in the region.

Unwittingly, the sincere anti-corruption, pro-Western protesters in Kiev and the new unity government presented the Russian leader with an opportunity he could not ignore. The world must be hoping that the increasingly belligerent and confident Russian leader will be happy with just Crimea…