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Crimea, part one

May 2, 2012

Last summer, I had the chance to spend a few weeks in Sudak, on Crimea. Unfortunately, because it was a work-related thing, I was in Sudak for the entire time, and did not get to see any other parts of Crimea, which I really wanted to do. As my time in Ukraine has quickly been running out, I suggested to a friend that she take a trip to Crimea with me.

“I can’t,” she said, “I just got back from Crimea, from visiting a friend. How about Poltava?”

Poltava? Well, I was less than enthused about that idea. I’ve not been there, but my heart was set on Crimea, as I have heard so much about its beauty. Luckily for me, she changed her mind when she found out that she had a long weekend coming up because of the Ukrainian May 1 holiday. So it was that I got our train tickets, and we made arrangements to spend two nights with a PCV who lives in Sevastopol, one night in Simferopol, and the final night on the train back to my site.

Planning for a trip here is a bit of a crapshoot, weather wise. It could be fabulous weather, or it could rain the entire time. Luckily for us, it turned out to be the former. We arrived in Simferopol and hopped on a bus to Sevastopol (after fending off numerous marshrutka drivers who were trying to gouge us – I offered 30 uah in response to their quotes of anywhere from 150-300. Hey, I know how much the bus costs!).

At Khersones

We arrived in Sevastopol and A came to meet us, then showed us to Khersones, the ruins of an ancient Greek city in Sevastopol. For those who are interested in Ukrainian history, Khersones is where Volodymyr the Great was famously baptised into Christianity in 989 AD, launching what would become the Russian Orthodox Church. Tatars destroyed the city in the 14th century, but excavations have revealed a row of marble columns a few metres from the shore.

What that means for me is photo opportunities, of course. They tried to get me to pay a 15 uah photo fee, so I put my camera back in my bag, and promptly removed it when we were out of their eyeshot. It was really pleasant to walk around the area, spend some time with A, and learn a bit about the history.

Day two – we got up early and headed for Yalta. My goal of the day was to see the Swallow’s Nest Castle, which I mistakenly thought was close to the center of the city. We found out differently when we got on a bus that took us on a winding road past a bunch of sanitoria. At one point, I figured we were close, and then saw a few souvenir stands. That was where the driver told us to get off. We were a bit confused, as the castle was nowhere to be found, but as soon as we walked over to the railing, we saw our destination. After following a man and his daughter down the stairs for a while, I was sidetracked by photo opportunities, and we bid them goodbye.

I was then sidetracked by the little man sitting in the only shade on the platform where we were standing. He was selling homemade baklava.

Mmmmm...homemade baklava

Now, I had been talking about getting some of the Tatarsky baklava for two days – I had some last year when I was in Sudak, and it was wonderful. However, try though we might, we were unable to find any in Sevastopol, and I was having doubts about Yalta. So I was very pleasantly surprised when we saw this man selling the baklava there on the platform with the excellent view of the castle. So we indulged.

Onward we continued toward the castle, stopping to have our lunch. It got windier and windier as we went, and at one point Helen said “I am sure that once we are up by the castle, it won’t be as windy”. Famous last words. It was even windier! As I was trying to go around the outside of the castle, the wind was so strong that it pushed me backward. This is not exactly a safe feeling at 40 meters above the water.

Swallow's Nest Castle in Yalta

The castle itself is tiny – only 10 m by 20 m. We did not bother to go inside to see the “museum” (few people there did). It is not famous for its size, however – it is famous for its location. It overlooks the Cape of Ai-Todor on the Black Sea – it is one of the most popular visitor attractions in Crimea and has become the symbol of Crimea’s southern coastline.

Thus the reason I wanted to see it – more photo opps. My trips seem to be filled with photo opps, and I took many photos of the Swallow’s Nest.

We also experienced one of those moments that will soon come to a halt for me – the American celebrity moment. We had been waiting on the overlook to take photos, and this group of Ukrainian teens were taking photos, and taking photos, and taking photos. Then they had the nerve to ask US to move so they could take MORE photos! I will admit, I was not very nice about it, even after they asked me to join them in the photos. After I took a few, they started talking to us, asking us where we were from, and asking to have their photos taken with us. Though they are from Krivy Rih in Ukraine (two hours from Kirovograd, my site), and we have a number of volunteers in that city, they had never met an American before that day. So we had a pleasant chat, and they went on their way, and we were able to get in a few photos before some families came up to the platform.

On the ferry back to Yalta. Behind us you can see the Swallow's Nest Castle

It was a moment which has not been uncommon here in Ukraine – as an American, you are different, and you are treated as special. People want to have their photos taken with you, to talk to you. It will be strange to be back in the US, where I am not viewed as special at all.

After our visit, we waited for the ferry back to Yalta – it was much faster and provided more photo opportunities – of the castle from the sea angle. Back in Yalta, we tried in vain to find a place where we could have wine on tap (again, I saw them everywhere in Sudak last summer), and finally settled on a bottle of Ukrainian “champagne”, then a stroll to a restaurant that is on/in a barge that is out over the water for a drink. Strangely enough, of all of the places in Yalta, two other PCVs who were in the city chose the visit the same restaurant and happened upon us while we were there.  Unfortunately, our visit was short-lived, as we had to catch a bus back to Sevastopol.


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