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A Great Crimean Walk

I find the Crimea, its southern coast in particular, to be one of the planet’s most scenic and sun-cheered places. On one of the trips to the picturesque peninsula, I joined three of my friends and what follows are some of my impressions of that memorable journey.

“I hate backpackers and stuntmen”

Travellers with bulging backpacks do not have bulging wallets. They don’t order Lipton tea bags, but neither do they steal new mattresses in trains. This empirical experience of the conductors of the south-bound express trains is difficult to negate, almost impossible in fact. We did not even try to do it. After a dozen or so times the stern conductress addressed the phrase featuring in the subheading above, to us, we asked the severe woman to take a good look into our intellectual-type spectacles. It did not help. And what? Our further travels proved the perspicaciousness of the female representative of the movement for the preservation of mattresses. Only true backpackers and stuntmen can climb hundreds of feet up mountain slope wearing beach flip-flops and skirting the abysses. Or, which is even more daring, to indifferently step over the charming nudists on a wild beach, staring dreamily into the distance. We knew great deeds were awaiting us.

“Boys, are you doing it voluntarily?”

Symferopol, the railroad station. A freshly polished red star on a spire above us. Probably, it is preserved there to remind us what kind of place we have come to. The star was a reminder of the times past, but these days instead of “developed socialism”, “wild capitalism” is surging around the railroad station central building.

Before we continue on our journey, it is worthwhile to cast a glance at our destination (that is the southern coast of the Crimea) to get a general idea. We climb out of the car at the Angarsky Pass, 752 meters above the sea level, and it is from there that the southern coast of the Crimea begins. The friendly meteorologists of the local meteorological station not only forecast weather in all of good and bad varieties — they keep goats, tend a vegetable garden — in other words they live their full-blooded meteorological life. We listened with an avid interest to a story about the monks from a nearby monastery who got a television set from someone as a present. The monks, without much delay, went on a religious procession to the nearest precipice and — no, they did not jump into it, they hurled the present given them down into the chasm. Well, it was rather a traditional way of dealing with the worldly temptations. The author of this article, in contrast to the meteorologists who did not have a TV set at their station, approved of the monks’ decision. But without expressing the approval aloud.

From the Angarsky Pass we could not see the sea and that is why it was decided to climb Mount Chatyr-Dag which rises to the altitude of 1527 meters above the sea level. It is the second highest mountain in the Crimea, with the first highest, Roman-Kosh, being only eighteen metres higher. This mountain was designed by the creator to be of three levels. The first level is accessible practically to everyone — you can come to the foot of the mountain by a regular bus for the price of a ticket which will cost one-fifty hryvnyas. The second level is a plateau which has The Marble Caves, a tourist attraction accessible for 25–30 hryvnyas, and you are taken up to the caves in a comfortable coach. The third level is another plateau with two mountain peaks — Angar-Burun and Eklizi-Burun, and you can get there only by a helicopter — you’ll be charged for the trip much-much more than for the bus delivery to the lower plateau. Or you can climb to the upper plateau on your own. But that’s for the strong in body and spirit only. Or for those who are not quite right in their heads. All depends on how you look at it. I still remember the tremulous voice of a kind-hearted woman who watching us prepare for the climb, exclaimed, “Boys, are you doing it voluntarily?” What could we have answered? The banal of the No-we-have-been-sentenced-to-do-eight-years-of-tourist-trips-by-court kind? How can you explain to the uninspired what it is to climb up to the Alpine meadows surrounded by the rocky amphitheatres of Chatyr-Dag? And those breath-taking views from Eklizi-Burun! From that height you can see half of the peninsula! In other words — Hail Chatyr-Dag! Climbing it is worth the effort.

Cornucopia round the corner

The view from the mountain was really gorgeous. The scenery at the foot of the mountain was no less impressive. The grove of sequoia trees looked as wild and as magnificent as in California. Plus all those aromatic grasses in profusion all around. The smells were heavenly!

We went on along the meandering road that took us to the village of Izobilnoye (“Abundance”). The Soviet general who was in charge of removing and exiling the Tartars from the area back in 1944, must have had a poetic mind when he went around renaming the Tartar villages — Trudovoye (“Working Hard”); Ryezyervnoye (“In Reserve”); Tankovoye (Tank-place”); Schastlivoye (“Happy Place”). Sounds nice, doesn’t it? I don’t know whether there are any tanks in Tankovoye, but in Izobilnoye we discovered that mulberry and sour yellow plums — locally called “alycha” — were indeed in abundance.

From there a road begins that can take you to the Kozmo-Damianivsky Monastery (of St Cosma and St Damian) which was recently turned back into a monastery after being closed for so many years during the Soviet era. However, it is very difficult to get to the monastery since it is situated within the territory of the Crimean Natural Preserve and if you are not someone special you are advised in no uncertain terms to “keep out.” But why should we try to get to the monastery if we could buy the health-restoring water from the source Savlukh-Su which is to be found in the monastery compound, bottled and sold in two-litre plastic containers almost in any kiosk?

Panoptic view

In the town of Alushta everything is uncomplicated as at a market place. No other town on the Crimean southern coast is as noisy and messy as Alushta is. Music is playing deafeningly loud and nonstop twenty-four hours a day from untold numbers of loud speakers at the seaside promenade, packed with crowds as dense as the Macedonian phalanx used to be. The crowds slowly move along the unending row of kiosks and stalls that have turned the promenade into a downgrade shopping moll. High above all this pandemonium you can see a slogan, preserved from the Soviet times: “Citizens of the USSR have the right to rest.” Very moving. The beaches are so crowded that you cannot see either the pebbles covered with innumerous bodies or the water filled with similar bodies. The first to arrive on the beaches in the predawn semi-darkness are the vagrants and the beachcombers and the beach cleaners (among the latter not only humans). Next to arrive are sprightly retirees, closely followed by ululating hordes of children with their parents in tow, drained by the joys of family vacations. When the hottest days come, the local young people considerably swell the beach crowds. When the evening comes, the crowds begin to thin, and the night descends on the beaches, they become lovers’ preserve or “an erogenous zone” — the way you describe it depends on how poetic or down-to-earth you are. That’s sort of a panoptic view of Alushta for you.

Iphigenia among the Tauri

Soon after we started moving in the direction of Yalta, we entered “the zone of tents of wild holiday-makers” (if to render this literal translation from the Ukrainian into plain English, it will mean the following: people who, ignoring hotels and rest homes come in droves, usually driving their cars, pitch tents right at the water front and enjoy “a rest in the wilderness” — tr.). The absence of eateries and creature comforts these latter-day followers of Diogenes, compensate by sea food and total relaxation. Local seashells, if fried or grilled properly, make an excellent meal. We reckoned that all the women we saw in those camps when they are not idling their days away at the seaside, must work as striptease artists — how else could you explain the fact that they seemed obsessed with getting every square inch of their bodies evenly suntanned?

We survived — all’s well that end well. We arrived at a place bearing signs of civilization. It was a rest home, called Utyos (“Sea Cliff”), sitting on Promontory Plaka. It was a civilized place (the promontory rather than the rest home) centuries before Christ. A temple dedicated to Artemis was known to have once stood there. Iphigenia, the eldest daughter of Agamemnon and Clytemnestra, was transported by Artemis to the land of the Taurians to become her priestess there, thus saving the girl from being sacrificed. In one of his plays, Iphigenia among the Tauri, the famous ancient Greek playwright Euripides seems to have envisioned Promontory Plaka for the action of his drama, but several other places in the Crimea contend the honour of having been chosen by the dramatist as the site where Iphigenia was taken to by Artemis. In much later times, a gorgeous park was laid out at the place where the temple and its grove used to stand; still later, about a hundred years ago, a Grand Duchess had a mansion built in the park, instructing the architect to make it look like a fairy-tale castle. An Orthodox Christian chapel was built too; it has been recently restored.

Opponent of iconoclasm and mosquitoes

Passing by Utyos, we entered the subtropical exotic land, with wonderful parks stretching all the way to a place called Partenit — it used to be called Frunzenskoye (named so after a Bolshevik revolutionary by the name of Frunze) but recently it was given back its original name. It is one of the rare occasions when a Soviet-era name was changed for something much less revolutionary. Let the local Trotskyites call it “Opportunit,” they are powerless to have it changed back. Parthenos in Greek means “virgin.” Probably, the place was called thus in honour of the virgin Artemis. But the Christian tradition links it to The Virgin Mary.

Partenit sits close to the side of the Bear Mountain, or Ayu-Dag, to use the old Tartar name. On the other side of the mountain thrusting into the sea, Artek, the famous children rest camp, is situated. There are many other rest homes in the vicinity.

It was in Partenit that St Iohann the Goth was born. He lived there and died there. He was known as a militant opponent of the iconoclastic movement of the eight-ninth centuries. He also headed a rebellion against the Khazars under whose domination the Crimea stayed for a stretch of time. It was only recently that his grave was discovered in the territory of what used to be the monastery of St Paul and St Peter. It was a chance discovery by the workers doing repairs in the Sanatorium Krym that belongs to the Ministry of Defence of Ukraine. Now at the place of the grave stands a marble cross which attracts students of archaeology who continue digging around in search of more finds. But our way was not into the ground but up the mountain.

At the foot of the mountain which does resemble a bear drinking water, somewhere near the tail of Ayu-Dag, we were attacked by mosquitoes and we retreated on the double towards the camp Artek where kids from Ukraine and other countries spend happy international weeks. We did see some of this international lot and the kids looked nice and friendly. The policeman on guard of the camp’s law and order, spotted our bearded faces but did not tell us we did not look like happy children — he just politely turned his attention to something else. And we thankfully and politely proceeded on our way to the town of Gurzuf.

Pushkin and spiders on a visit to Gurzuf

Gurzuf was regularly visited by quite a number of different luminaries of the performing and visual arts and poets and by lesser mortals, Shalyapin, the famous basso, Korovin, the Russian Impressionist, and Pushkin, the great Russian poet. Gurzuf used to be a Tartar village but now it’s a town boasting many rest homes and health-and-rest centres. One of such centres is named after Pushkin, and his life-size bust graces one of the centre’s alleys. Gurzuf itself retained in its central part the look of old times — narrow streets and houses out of history books. There are two rocks sticking out of the sea seven hundred metres offshore. They look like sailing boats on the never ending voyage in search of happiness. The rocks are called Adolari which local wits renamed “Ah, dollars.” But the place is scenic indeed and scenery is something that no amount of dollars can buy.

In one of the Gurzuf seafront parks we lived through a little adventure. When we stretched out on the benches, vagrant-style, a tropical downpour drenched us and brought out of their homes several hundred huge spiders, straight from a Hollywood horror movie. The spiders must have been energized by the atmospheric electricity which made them much too curious about us. When we realized that the nasty creatures were not going to leave us alone, we decided we did not want to take part in the festival of eight-legged creatures and moved on.

Nikita is the name

Those who have not yet seen the Nikitsky Botanical Garden, still have a chance to see it. In two hundred years of its existence, the garden has turned into a thriving world of flora represented in a stunning variety. When the wise comrade and dictator Stalin ordered to have all the cypresses in the Crimea to be cut down (for some reason the Father of all the Happy Socialist Nations did not like cypresses — he probably found them to be too “decadent”), it was only in Nikita — as the botanical garden is lovingly referred to — that several trees were preserved. New generations like these elegant and handsome trees which returned to grace the Crimean landscapes. You have a chance now not only to enjoy looking at them — you can buy pieces of cypress wood of various sizes, polished and variously shaped. It is said that the fragrance they emit kill no only flies and cockroaches but other domestic animals as well, mothers-in-law included. These pieces go like hot cakes and are sold out in great quantities. If the demand will continue to remain so high, in a matter of years, the parks and gardens of the Crimea will be denuded and the cypresses will again disappear. I wish the visitors to the Crimea would live and let the roaches live.

Stone and human chimeras

After Nikita we walked into Massandra, a place which is mentioned in printed matter devoted to the Crimea probably more often than any other place in the peninsula. It’s all right that most of such mentionings we find on the labels of wine bottles. There are quite a few of people in Ukraine whose reading is confined strictly to the “label” literary genre. I have to admit we joined the label reading cohorts and found it rather edifying. Though Massandra is primarily known as a wine-making centre, we found a wonderful palace in the Massandra park — the summer residence of Tsar Alexander III. The palace has been preserved in a good condition thanks to the fact that up to 1991 it was “a government summer house” where the leaders of the communist-block countries used to spend their summer vacations. Internationalism, Soviet style, as you see, could help preserve things, not only destroy them, like, for example in Afghanistan. These days, the local guides tell the tourists, their voices still atremble with the emotion of loyalty to the defunct regime, about those yesteryear kingpins and top dogs who “selflessly devoted their life to work for the good of the people.” These people today, without even removing the wool that is pulled over their eyes, take pictures of themselves with the palace and the stone chimerical sculptures in front of it in the background; they also try to get into their pictures the two highest sequoias in the Crimea which rise into the skies close to the palace. But putting all this jibing aside, I can tell you that the park and the palace and the rest of it in Massandra are really beautiful.

Historical allusions

and present-day temptations The waterfront promenade in Yalta, which can be regarded as a sort of a capital of the southern Crimean coast, is always abustle with crowds. Extravagant see-through dresses are being paraded against the background of the sea on the one side and of the houses that line up the promenade on the other. The architectural styles of the buildings range from empire, neo-Classicist to art nouveau, and their appearance stirs historical reflections. It seems Baron Wrangel, the commander of the White Guard army that defended the Crimea against the Bolshevik forces in the Civil War would drive by an Alfa Romeo wearing Nike shorts any moment, or the Bolshevik general Kotovsky would appear surrounded by a bevy of top models, with his bold head tattooed in the latest style. The Yalta seaside promenade is a never-ending twenty-four hour a day movement of crowds past art galleries, cozy restaurants and all kinds of tourist attractions. You are offered “for a reasonable price” to take a ride in speedboats and yachts aboard of which you get glimpses of mermaids with luring and seductive eyes. But ours was a walking and chaste tour and we proceeded on our way, avoiding Yalta’s temptations.

No noise is permitted at the restoration site

In what seemed no time we found ourselves in Livadia, the place where Stalin, Roosevelt and Churchill got together to discuss things and came to an agreement how to divide Europe after the war came to an end. It is from the Livadia palace that “the tsar trail” runs for several miles across the slopes. Tsar Nickolas II was said to take walks along this trail (which in the Soviet times was renamed “The Sunny Path”), and even prancingly ride a horse. It’s about all I wanted to say about Livadia. The only other thing I’d like to mention here is a church, recently and wonderfully restored, that stands next door to the tsar’s palace. The Church of St Nicholas and St Alexandra has a beautiful mosaic above the entrance, with Archangel Michael in it. Inside the church, we discovered a handsome iconostasis with wooden carved icons, excellently executed. Unfortunately, there are too many kiosks around selling souvenirs and alcoholic beverages. But as they say, “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to proles the things that are proles’.” As we walked along The Sunny Path towards Gaspra, we realized that the darkness would come much sooner than we would find a decent place to spend a night in. It was too damp and wet to spend the night on the ground in the forest. When we reached a rotunda that stood at the edge of the cliff high above the Nyzhnya Oreanda resort centre, we decided to pitch camp there. To ensure an undisturbed rest, we cordoned off our “camp’ with a cord to which we attached a piece of paper that said that no noise was permitted at the restoration site (in fact, the rotunda is in an urgent need of restoration). It did help — even the mosquitoes, these beastly tiny creatures, were flying around and biting us absolutely noiselessly.

Mermaid, mountain peak, free wine and photographic altruism

On our way to Miskhor and further on to the cableway that takes people to the top of Mount Ay-Petri, we passed by a gallery of chic resort centres, some of which were old parks studded with palaces and villas. The quality of services has gone up in recent years, as well as the prices which are ahead of quality.

In Miskhor we saw a mermaid sticking out of water some distance away from the beach. When we got close enough to make her acquaintance, we discovered the mermaid was made of bronze and at close quarters looked like a rather corpulent woman provided by the sculptor prone to excessive naturalism with certain anatomical details that did not seem quite right on a mermaid so close to the shore.

We did go up by cableway to the top of Ay-Petri and the rather scary trip took about twenty minutes. Riding it was sort of like playing Russian roulette, the main difference being that it is not you who turn the drum. The ropes did not break as we thought they might and the swinging cabin rode in safely delivering us to our destination. The view from the top beats any views that can be found in Capri or Crete. In addition to the tremendously amazing view of the sea and the coast, we discovered a sort of an oriental-style colourful bazaar with food and wine being the principle commodities. Dozens of barkers called out to us in stentorian voices “to roll on up and try this wine” or ‘this pilaff” or whatever else there was to try. Mostly the wine is dry red, but you can easily get loaded by just “tasting” here and there. I found rose muscatel to be of a very decent quality. A gloomy donkey wearing a huge red-black cap (incidentally the colours of the Ukrainian resistance movement of the 1930s and 1940s headed by Bandera) patiently allowed himself to be photographed with women possessing voluptuous bosoms but with no caps on their heads. And the donkey did not ask to be remunerated for his patience. A nice example of high-altitude altruism.

Starry sky and moral law

We did not linger and went on our journey. We saw mushroom-like roofs in the hazy distance and when we inquired what those things might be, we were told it was “a satellite tracking station.” We did not come to have a closer look, we did not need any telescopes and any other equipment to look at the Milky Way when we were lying on the grass in the Crimean mountains at night, and together with the good old Immanuel Kant, marvelling at the starry sky above us and at the moral law inside us which makes it possible for us to seek and love the beauty of this God-created world of ours.

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