Friday, November 16, 2012

Yalta and Sevastopol: Shades of the Cold War Era

Frank in front of Yalta's statue of Lenin
Turkish Airlines flew us from Istanbul to Simferopol, home of the Crimea’s only international airport.  After breezing through Passport Control in this tiny airport, we were surprised to find that our luggage had to be x-rayed a second time before we could enter the country.  Even more intimidating was the sign overhead the exit: “Attention: Once you cross the white line, you are rensible for all the lows of the Ukraine.”  To make sure we were “rensible,” the airport was crawling with stocky, officious, military types strutting around wearing what looked like old Russian Army uniforms or sometimes black leather jackets that appeared to be a throwback to the gestapo era of Nazi Germany.  No way would we even think about breaking any “lows” in this country!

View of the Black Sea from the terrace
 of our apartment

Inside the terminal, the Simferopol International Airport was more like a crappy third world bus station.  And don’t even get us started on the bathrooms – the worst, smelly squatty potties we have seen since we left the primitive outskirts of China!

Frank takes a pic of the pounding surf crashing
against the seawall.
Our latest driver (Lenor) was waiting for us and drove us over the mountains to Yalta, a 100 mile trip give or take.  We were relieved to see that Yalta was a pretty resort town sitting on the Black Sea – a welcome change from Simferopol.  We had rented an apartment overlooking the sea for our 3-night stay.  It was good to have some room to spread out and so peaceful to fall asleep lulled by the waves breaking on the beach below us.

Tourists get doused with the crashing surf
The main action in Yalta is centered on the promenade that runs along the Black Sea.  It was lined with an odd mix of designer boutiques (for the wealthy Russians who vacation here), amusement rides for the kids (tacky stuff like you would see at a low budget carnival), and souvenir stands filled with the lamest trinkets you can imagine (probably all made in China).  What everybody enjoyed the most was watching the waves crash against the sea wall and sometimes throw a massive spray on unsuspecting tourists.  Kids screamed and everybody with a camera, including Frank, tried to capture the powerful blasts of seawater.
Massandra Palace, built by Nicolas II's father
Anne had arranged a one-day tour for us to see the sights outside of Yalta.  Our slender 34-year old guide, Sergei, drove us to several palaces where Russian royals like Nicolas II, the last czar, enjoyed the seaside atmosphere. 

Livadia Palace's two stories: Yalta Conference
and favorite home of the Romanovs

We had hoped to see the inside of Livadia Palace where FDR, Churchill, and Stalin met for the Yalta Conference, but the building was closed for renovations.  We did learn that Livadia Palace was the favorite home of Nicolas II and Alexandria along with their five children.  In fact when he was deposed, Nicolas II asked if they might retire there; however, fate had something else in store, and as you know, the whole family was executed by the Bolsheviks.
Have you ever heard of “Potemkin Village?”  When Catherine the Great first acquired the Crimea, she wanted to show it off to all her royal buddies (even though the area was rural and completely undeveloped).  She gave her underling Potemkin just four years to turn the forests into a colony fit for a queen.  The clever Potemkin built facades with happy peasants waving from these fake villages as the Queen and her entourage passed by.  The phrase “Potemkin Village” is now used to describe an impressive façade designed to hide the true (undesirable) facts.
"Panorama of the Siege of Sevastopol"
A taxi driver took us from Yalta along the stunning coastal route to our next destination, Bakhchisaray, with several stops along the way.  In the town of Sevastopol, we viewed the famous “Panorama,’ a 360 degree painting in a special circular building depicting the siege at Sevastopol during the Crimean War.  It was quite remarkable the way that the artists incorporated actual items (like wooden huts) positioned in the foreground with the painting behind.  It added a 3-dimensional ambiance to the painting.

Greek temple ruins at Khersones
Near Sevastopol, we visited a surprising sight called Khersones -- Greek ruins dating from 420 B.C. beautifully situated along the Black Sea.    Amazingly, nothing is protected or roped off here. We pretty much had the place to ourselves and roamed all around the atmospheric ruins.  Pieces of ancient broken pottery lay strewn about everywhere, open to any tourist to grab a piece, or just step on it breaking it into tinier pieces yet.  The town was sacked by the Khans in the late 1300’s becoming a ghost town that slowly sank beneath the sands of the beach for the next 500 years.  The first excavations only began in 1827, and continue today with a lot of excavation yet to be done.

Entranceway into former Soviet top secret submarine site
at Balaklava, Crimea
The Soviet Naval Museum in Balaklava was a real highlight for us.  This cavernous museum was a cleverly hidden “submarine factory”, situated at the sea’s edge inside of an innocuous-looking mountain.  It was once a top secret Soviet submarine base where subs were built, updated, overhauled, restocked with more torpedoes, and fitted with the latest hardware.  In the 1950’s during the Cold War, the Soviets built this base beneath the mountain to hide it from sight. 

Manmade canal through the mountainside where
Soviet subs came for maintenace
Once again, we were some of only a few visitors and were able to wander about on our own.  Perhaps we were being watched(?), but it was not detectable to us. This is one eerie place with lots of “tough-guy” stuff on display, like torpedoes from the era, handguns and machine guns carried by soviet soldiers, equipment used by dolphins to plant mines in the Balaklava Harbor, other curious ordnance, and submarine support equipment (like electrical control panels) in long vaulted corridors.  Deep inside the complex, we walked alongside the manmade canal that allowed submarines to move from the open Balaklava harbor into the hidden facility, out of sight from prying eyes. 
"Family Bomb Shelter" advertisement as seen
in the Balaklava Naval Museum
The museum was a warren of endless concrete corridors with posters describing all the different classes of submarines and a history of Soviet international relations (including lots of pictures of U.S. presidents with their Soviet counterparts).  Some corridors were blocked off from access; we were told there are still secret documents and equipment down here that will not be reopened for another 50 years.  An amazing photo showed two smiling California models in an ad from the 50’s showing off a “Family Bomb Shelter.”
We emerged from the dark and dank exposé of military times past with a new enlightenment about those cold war days; even tho we each lived thru them back in the 50’s and 60’s, we never actually had the true sense of that cold war that we acquired today thru these visual reinforcements; they really helped us to understand those times better.   
"The Swallow's Nest" castle, symbol of Yalta

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