Magic was in the air as the sun’s first rays reached the orthodox cathedral overlooking the tranquil inner harbor below, refining its iconic onion domes into glittering golden orbs as we glided into the storied Crimean Black Sea port of Yalta.
“Eureka, I have found it!” How else could a Californian celebrate his arrival at this Crimean treasure, which I had marveled at for years in books? The Crimea is a peninsula at the top of the Black Sea discovered by Greeks, inhabited by Scandinavian traders, conquered by Mongols, Turks and finally by Catherine the Great of Russia. It served as the breadbasket of Russia and the former Soviet Union until 1992, when it gained independence and became a self-governing state of the Ukraine.
Beginning with the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution, the Crimea was off-limits to Western travelers through most of the 20th century. But now, after sailing 1,000 miles from Istanbul, we had reached our prize: the fabled Black Sea Riviera on the shores of the Crimean Peninsula. Yalta, founded by the Byzantines at a point equidistant between the equator and the North Pole, was the first of three Crimean treasures we would uncover. It was followed by calls at Sebastopol and Odessa.
Considered the most glamorous resort on the Black Sea, Yalta was favored by Russian literary figures Chekhov, Pushkin and Gorky. Along the waterfront promenade, a bronze monument of a lady with a dog in her lap honors Chekhov’s famous 1899 short story “Lady with Lapdog.”
We arrived in Yalta aboard the Seabourn Odyssey, which was also celebrating its inaugural season of sailing in Black Sea waters. Stepping out of the cruise terminal onto Roosevelt Street we certainly felt welcome. Farther on, a stern, finger-pointing World War II–era depiction of Uncle Sam directed us ahead to a popular waterfront cafe.
Half an hour later, my companions and I entered the magnificent seaside Livadia, or “the White Palace,” a health resort of Russia’s czars since 1861. Livadia gained even greater renown in 1945 as the venue of the Yalta Conference, where Allied leaders Roosevelt, Churchill and Stalin met to coordinate the final defeat of Hitler’s Third Reich.
We began our visit in the marble-colonnaded main conference hall of early Italian Renaissance style where the final accords were signed. Then we inspected each of the Allied leaders’ private studies. Finally, we were shown an intimate round table where the three men talked in private. By now I was tempted to plop right down in Stalin’s chair to cool my aching feet. But I didn’t.
Upstairs, we were escorted into the Romanov apartments, where the czars’ families spent their summers. The visit concluded in the study of Nicholas II, the last Russian czar who, with his family, was abducted and assassinated by the Bolsheviks in 1917. A framed photograph, the last of the royal family, graced a wall. That familial image hung heavy over us as long after we left the room behind.
Our palace visit ended at a high tea in its formal inner garden. Enhanced by the lively strings of the balalaika and the voices of Kalinka folk singers, the traditionally costumed performers invited the tea guests—all comrades by now—to dance arm in-arm with them around the courtyard’s gorgeous fountain.
Returning to the ship, we saw bathers lazing on the sands along the waterfront and an amusement park in full swing as loudspeakers blared out Michael Jackson hits. Overseeing it all was an imposing statue of Lenin, now forced to gaze on the triumph of a glitzy capitalism over the austere socialist state he fashioned.
On To Sebastopol
An easy 90-mile night sail got us into port at Sebastopol early in the morning. Formerly home to the Soviet Black Sea Fleet, Sebastopol now harbors both the Ukrainian and Russian navies. It was off-limits to foreign visitors throughout the Soviet era.
The city was destroyed during the Crimean War (1853-56) between Russia and England, but on the bloody battlefields of the tragedy the heroic English nurse Florence Nightingale founded the practice of modern nursing and Tennyson immortalized heroism in his classic poem “The Charge of the Light Brigade.”
Our morning excursion took us into the countryside through the Balaclava Valley of Tennyson renown to the last vestige of the Golden Horde’s Mongolian Empire. Here at their capital, the Crimean khans ruled from the 15th to 18th centuries.
We joined visitors, mostly from Eastern Europe and Russia, to tour the khans’ magnificent palace and its suites, harem and mausoleum. In a covered courtyard we encountered the legendary Fountain of Tears made famous by Alexander Pushkin. His poem “The Fountain of Bakhchysaray” was based on the grieving Khan Krim Girei, who built the fountain as a memorial to his late wife in 1764. Unfortunately, the same khan was aggrieved again when he was deposed by Catherine the Great of Russia 19 years later, thus ending the Mongolian Dynasty in the Crimea.
We enjoyed being khans and harem girls ourselves, donning opulent oriental turbans, veils and robes, provided for a fee for picture taking. An outdoor market filled with Islamic arts and crafts provided more mementos.
In the nearby hills, we climbed innumerable steps up to the eighth-century Uspensky Cave Monastery, to explore its ancient cave church and monks’ cells hewn out of rock. Throughout the 400-year Crimean khanate the cave complex served as the residence of the Metropolitan of the Russian Orthodox Church in Crimea.
On our return to Sebastopol, we witnessed a spirited and exclusive performance of stirring Cossack and ethnic folk songs and patriotic naval songs by the Black Sea Navy Ensemble in the auditorium of the Naval Officers’ Club.
At day’s end, just before sailing, I scampered up to the bluff overlooking the harbor to view the monument to Admiral Nakhimov, the Defender of Sebastopol during the Crimean War. In the front lines with his men he paid the supreme price for his valor.
On another bright morning, we arrived at Odessa, founded by the khan of Crimea in 1240. Its harbor, the largest on the Black Sea, held a fascinating collection of vessels, from a mega-yacht named Alla to a classic three-masted sailing ship, Amerigo Vespucci, that served as a training vessel for Italian naval cadets.
From our berth, directly before us was a broad staircase from the water up to the city. This was the Potemkin Steps, where the seeds of the Communist Revolution were sown in 1905 when mutinous sailors from the Russian battleship Potemkin joined in a workers’ rebellion. The event was immortalized in film by the Russian cinematic genius Sergei Eisenstein in his 1925 classic The Battleship Potemkin.
I climbed all 157 steps to the top and to the feet of the statue of the Duke de Richelieu, the French architect chosen by Catherine the Great to build the city in French Renaissance style.
From there, I strolled along historic Primorsky Boulevard beneath a canopy of century-old lime and chestnut trees. Glancing up, I saw a familiar figure on a balcony of the landmark Londonskaya Hotel. Of course, it was Vladimir Putin, Russia’s prime minister, attired in a smart business suit. On second glance, I realized it was just a mannequin. But it shows exactly how the newly independent Ukraine still regards its bullying “big brother” even today.
Farther on, I encountered the beautiful Viennese baroque-style Opera House and its terraced gardens that dominate Odessa’s cultural center.Just across the street, stretch limousines were disgorging wedding parties in all their newly acquired capitalistic finery, surrounded by video crews and wedding photographers to record the newlyweds’ visit to city hall to register their extravagant marital union.
The day ended with champagne and caviar in the opulent ambience of a 19th-century noble family residence followed by a violin concert in the Golden Hall of their palace. Then, before I knew it, we were at sea again, aboard Seabourn Odyssey, with a storehouse of treasured Crimean memories.