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Welcome aboard and cruise with us along the Crimean coast!
Larysa SYVAK’s poignantly nostalgic reminiscences of the summer days
When in summer a sizzling spell of weather comes, and the asphalt on the sidewalk starts feeling soft underfoot, and the smog threatens suffocation, I begin dreaming of getting away from it all and going somewhere — to the mountains or to the sea, or best of all to a place that would combine both, What a bliss it would be — to get away from it all! The great Greek philosopher Aristotle must have felt the same when he pronounced his dictum: “Living is moving.” I close my eyes and visualize myself stretched on a beach, sunbathing, with lazy waves gently lapping against the pebbles at my feet, and a balmy wind bringing its cool, refreshing touch; if I open my eyes and turn my head, I can see the slopes of a majestic mountain, cypresses and fruit trees at its foot…
Last summer a little miracle happened — a day after one of my especially vivid daydreaming sessions a friend of mine called and said, “Are you easy to get up and go? I am planning to go on a yacht cruise along the Crimean shores. Would you care to join us? You have to decide quick.” I was quick to reply, probably a bit too quick. “Yes, I am going!”
It was only a little later that some apprehensions began creeping in even though miracles continued. I was to be in Sevastopol next day but to procure a ticket for a train or plane to the Crimea in the middle of summer is extremely difficult — but I was provided with a train ticket and full instructions where to go once I was in Sevastopol, and how to find the yacht. My boss at work showed a lot of understanding too and let me go on such a short notice. But on the train, I fell to thinking about sea sickness; then about how it would feel to spend a week with people I hardly knew at sea in a yacht? Will I want to see them ever again? Who will be doing all the cooking? Washing up? Will there be subjects of common interest to talk about? How would it feel to be living in the cramped quarters for so long?
But in the morning, when I arrived in Sevastopol, and saw the sea in the distance I felt reassured. There will be seven people on board — the crew of three and four passengers. I had medicines with me against sea sickness and sun and tan lotions against sunburns. I had a water-resistant windbreaker, in case it stormed, and a bathing suit for the sunshine. With the shades on my face and a cap on my head I felt fully protected and ready for adventure.
It was so nice to be breathing the sea air after the journey in a stuffy compartment of the carriage! Ignoring the offers of “comfortable accommodation in Sevastopol” coming from all sides at the crowded Sevastopol railroad terminal, I proudly progressed to the taxi stop and hired a cab to go to Balaklava, the place where I was to get on board of the yacht and from which the yacht was to sail. The ride took only twenty minutes and ten minutes later I walked across the gangplank and stepped on to the yacht.
“Welcome aboard!” There were smiles, greetings and introductions. A half hour later all my apprehensions were dissipated. Then I was taken on a tour around the yacht, fifteen meters long, four meters wide. I was given instructions what I was supposed to do and not supposed to do when at sea, explanations and advice (including tips to how to use the toilet). The cabins seemed to be so small at first sight, but only a little time passed before I got fully accommodated. I was impressed by how well everything was organized — every little thing that provided safety was in place. The gas stove, the doors, the tables with raised edges to prevent things from sliding off, the grabs to hold on to during the rolling and pitching — everything was “stormfreindly” as it were. Incidentally, even the size of the cabins was such that it would prevent you from being tossed about too much in storm; even if you are hurled out of bed, you will not fall too far. A bruise is the maximum damage you can get in a cabin this size.
I was shown my sleeping quarters and after I got settled down I climbed back on deck with a glass of Crimean wine in hand. It felt so great, better than in my dreams! A gentle breeze, cries of the seagulls, slight stirring of the yacht under me in response to the little waves lapping against it. I imagined myself standing on the prow of a great ship like in that film, Titanic, peering into the darkens and braving the elements — but it won’t end like the maiden voyage of The Titanic… But what’s that music playing? Sounds like Celin Dion’s “My Heart Will Go On”? No, it was not the tune from the film Titanic playing — it was my mobile. My mother called to ask how I was doing. Telling her I was fine, I turned the mobile off. I did not want any more calls from the world I had left.
On the pier, close to the yacht there were several anglers sitting, holding their rods and “shooting the breeze.” Spotting me on the yacht’s deck, one of them struck up a conversation with me. A couple of others joined in. When they learned that I was in Balaklava for the first time in my life, they began pouring facts on me. There was too much information to absorb and what I remembered boils down to this. During the soviet times, Balaklava was a place where soviet submarines were stationed. There was an immense cave cut in the rock in the Balaklava Bay where submarines were serviced and repaired; no tourists were allowed in to the area then. The word Balaklava was of a Turkish origin and meant “a fish nest.” In fact, there was a lot of fish, the water almost swarming with them. The baked fish I had for dinner was the best I had ever tried! In contrast to the soviet times, there were quite a lot of people too, sunbathing on the beaches of the bay. I was also told that at the time of the Crimean war the Balaklava Bay was a major base of the British Navy. In 1853, a convoy of British ships got caught in a bad storm as they were approaching the bay and several transport ships carrying food supplies, clothes and ammunition were sunk. Among them was a frigate, The Black Prince, which had a lot of gold on board — the money to be paid to the troops. Though there were many attempts to find it on the bottom of the sea, the frigate had never been discovered. So, all the gold is still there. For some reason, I was not tempted to try my luck and look for the lost treasure — probably, because I had never done any scuba diving, or, for that matter, any diving at all.
At last, we set sailed. And my first trial at sea began. A fresh wind picked up. As it increased to what seemed to me to a gal force, the waves grew in size and in ferocity. Some of the passengers retired to their cabins to take those seasickness pills ( I was not the only one who had brought them along) which also have the soporific effect, but I stayed on deck as I had promised myself I would, “braving the elements.” There were no icebergs in sight, so my Titanic fears were groundless. In the end, in spite of the tossing and rolling and pitching we got to Sevastopol and I even managed to get some sleep.
The morning after
It was a ray of the sun that penetrated into my cabin through the porthole and woke me up. After a light breakfast we set sail for Yalta. I stayed on deck most of the time looking into the sea which in spite of its name — Black — was dark blue. And very clean too. I could see many meters into its depth glimpsing occasional fish but not the bottom, of course. We never wandered too far off the shore though. Isn’t it strange that you can look into the sea for hours on end without getting tried? There’s something intriguing, enigmatically magnetic in it. Paradoxically the endless repetition of waves does not look repetitive. But at one point, I felt I had had enough of staring into the sea and turned and began looking in the opposite direction at no less gorgeous a sight of the Crimean mountains gently sloping into the sea. I had never seen the Crimean coast from such a distance and though some of the places we passed were familiar to me by name from my previous visits to the Crimea, they looked unrecognizable from so far out into the sea. Most of the mountains were soothingly green, covered with brush and trees, and some of the peaks were crowned with cheerful clouds.
The sun, the sea and the mountains were so absorbing that I did not feel like talking and it seemed the rest of our company seemed to feel the same. There was only one thing that began to bother me — the heat. The proximity of the water and the wind did not make me feel any cooler. I longed to take a swim. Apparently, I was not the only one who wanted it. After a short discussion, a unanimous decision was reached to move to the shore, find a secluded place and do some swimming and bathing. No sooner said than done. It took some time to find a nice place with no people around and the water clean, but eventually we did find a little cove that answered to such a description.
But there was no beach and everybody, except me, just jumped into water off the bow of the yacht. The distance you had to fly before you hit the water was only two meters — six feet — but I had never done that kind of jumping before. I was taunted and coaxed — and did I jump, all atremble with fear — what if I lose my way and don’t come back to the surface? I did. And the moment my head broke through the surface and I took a gulp of air, I felt so excited and happy. And it was really so exhilarating! I wanted to do again — and again. I felt I was a hero! Bravely jumping from such a dizzying height (not even thinking of jellyfish) and not timidly walking into the shallow water from the beach like I had always done before! I grew so bold as to try to ride on the windsurfing board. I can’t tell, of course, how many times I slipped and fell, how many times the sail knocked me down but it was a great fun. And what’s most surprising — I finally did it! That is, I could ride some distance keeping my balance, without falling!
We sailed past the Lastivchyne Hnizdo — The Swallows’ Nest — a castle-like building sitting at the tip of a naked rock rising from the sea to the height of 90 meters at Cape Ai-Todor. The “castle” was built in 1912, partly ruined in the 1927 earthquake and rebuilt in later times. Now it is an expensive restaurant and a great tourist attraction. As we approached and saw thick swarms of tourists storming the long and winding staircase leading to it, we, by a general consensus, decided against mooring there and taking a closer look. Mount Ai-Petri, elegantly blue and twin-peaked, stands in all of its glory several miles away, oblivious of the flow of time. Looking at it, I thought I wanted to climb it someday — all the more so that it is accessible by the road and by the cable car.
So we sailed on. In less than an hour we arrived at another busy place, with lots of people on the quay and on the waterfront promenade, and lots of small and big ships in the harbour. The forested mountains surrounded the place like an enormous amphitheatre or like a gigantic green hand, palm upwards, with the town sitting in the hollow of this gigantic palm. The water along the beaches was studded with thousands of dark dots — human heads; all sorts of vessels were prowling around. We were offshore of Yalta, the central resort town on the southern coast of the Crimean peninsula. After a quiet day in the sea with gulls and fish for company, the place seemed to be teeming with boisterous life.
We moored by the time the twilight began turning into night. Millions of lights sprang up with the seafront promenade becoming one continuous strip of merry-making. I took a walk and was deafened by the music pouring from the cafes, restaurants and discotheques. Here and there sat and stood groups of young people, playing guitars, singing, listening and guzzling beer. Screaming that came in bursts from the roller costar pierced the musical din. Playboys and skirt-chasers were prowling around, gawking at long legs, swinging bottoms in short skirts, and ample, almost completely bosoms. Probably I could have been mistaken but some girls looked and behaved in a way that suggested they were not exactly taking a stroll for a stroll’s sake.
The next day we decided to devote to sightseeing. The yacht crew stayed on board and the rest of us went sightseeing. The first stop was at the Nikitsky Botanical Garden, probably the oldest in Ukraine — it was founded 190 years ago. Though there are many exotic and curious plants there the section that impressed me most was that of the roses. There were dozens and dozens of species of them, emitting such a powerful scent that I was nearly overwhelmed. The greenhouse with cacti was also irresistible — only you had to be very careful walking around — one incautious move and you got a dozen treacherous needles sticking out of that part of your anatomy that had a misfortune of coming too close to them. Strolling along all those alleys with palms, bamboos, eucalyptus, laurels and other such trees and bushes, I got lost in dreams, I felt transported into a different world, I lost track of time… When I glanced at my watch I saw it was already well past the time we had agreed to meet at the entrance to proceed to Mount Ai-Petri. By the time we got all of us together again it was late afternoon and when we got to the terminal of the cableway by which one could get to the top of Mount Ai-Petri, it was already closed, the cableway that is. But the desire to get to the top was so strong that we decided to take a taxi. While the car was climbing up the road winding up the slope, I remembered that I had read Lesya Ukrayinka’s letter, published in a collection of her works, about her trip to Ai-Petri. It was written when this prominent Ukrainian writer of the end of the ninetieth and early twentieth century lived in Yalta. It was in 1897. When I returned home from the trip, I found the volume that contained the letter and reread it.
“The road we took to get to the top of Ai-Petri was well-trodden but steep. We passed by orchards and vineyards, greenery copious and looking like curly hair that covers the foot of the mountain. I glimpsed laurel trees, much liked by poets, but no magnolias could be seen; neither could my gaze find slender cypresses, with ivy garlanding them, or plane trees with their boughs stretching out wide. But what I did see were white birch trees, so familiar from my native land, and maples, and dark oaks, some uprooted by hurricanes or age. As we continued on the way up, they gave way to thistles and heather and wormwood that could be seen on both sides of the road. Still further up even these disappeared…”
With all due respect to the classic my impressions were somewhat different. The scenery must have changed a lot since the end of the nineteenth century but I did see everything she described. The road we took wound through continuous woods almost all the way to the top, and only on the plateau up there the open space dominated the scenery with trees pushed back to the sides of it. What from the sea looks like the pinnacle of the mountain is in fact a massive outcropping of rock.
The view that opened from the top was truly breath-taking — it was surely worth taking that long ride. The lights that dotted the dark sides of the mountains, the enormity of the placid sea stretching into infinity, the red disk of the sun sinking into the water — everything was so beautiful that it was hard to believe that all I saw was actually there, and not just figments of my imagination. After the sun completely disappeared beyond the horizon, it began to grow cool fast, and within minutes it was really cold. I was instantly glad I was prudent enough to have taken a light jersey with me. I pulled it on but it did not help much. Luckily, there were many Tartar eateries there offering traditional Tartar food, pilaf and shish kebab included. We had a scrumptious meal of mutton with vegetables and lavash, Tartar bread, and red wine. I stopped shivering.
The next morning, at dawn, we were already on our way back to Balaklava. The sea was flat as glass, in which our sail was mirrored. There was not a single cloud in the sky, not a breath of wind. The engine was turned on and the yacht sailed on autopilot. Some of us were resting in the cabins, some scanning the shore with binoculars, others just sunbathing. The mood was subdued. It was difficult not to be thinking about having to return to the routine of work and ordinary daily life.
I heard some squeaking sounds and splashes coming from somewhere near. A second later I spotted a school of playful dolphins that were following the yacht. They gracefully jumped out of the water, showing their shiny, oily backs with dorsal fins like hands raised in greeting, or stuck their neat noses out of the water as though asking for something or telling me something. I rushed to my cabin, grabbed the camera and got back on deck but try as I might I failed to capture them on the film the way I wanted. All I got was either a splash or a tail or just water. Having accompanied us for some time, they must have grown bored with the game and swam away. The cries of seagulls seemed to sound like farewells and it made me even sadder than I was.
After that wonderful week at sea, I, probably for the first time in my life, felt so acutely the great contrast between the majesty, grandeur and beauty of nature and the pettiness of our everyday existence. But it was good and comforting to know that I had discovered some of nature’s great enticements — and that I would surely come back.