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Sitting beside a young woman who in the dawn seemed so lovely, soothed and spellbound in these magical surroundings—the sea, mountains, clouds, the open sky—Gurov thought how in reality everything is beautiful in this world when one reflects.
— Anton Chekhov, “The Lady With the Dog”
The Crimea, a fish-shaped peninsula of fertile valleys and bare-backed mountains, which juts into the azure waters of the Black Sea from the Ukrainian steppes, has long been the Russian-speaking world’s summer playground. Mythologized by Russian writers like Chekhov, who spent the last years of his life in a villa in Yalta, it was also immortalized by Lord Alfred Tennyson’s poem “The Charge of the Light Brigade,” about the Crimean War in the 1850s. The tsars even took a fancy to its majestic seascapes, building the grand Renaissance-influenced Livadia Palace, which became the setting for the famous postwar Yalta Conference of 1945.
Zoom forward a century from the peninsula’s fin-de-siècle glory days, and you discover that the Crimea is now more Coney Island than a Russian version of Walden Pond. The crowded boardwalks of the region’s many resorts blare cheap Russian pop music, and are chock-a-block with dodgy kebab stands, kitschy souvenir stalls, shooting galleries, and babushkas hawking sweet and sticky “Napolean” cakes in the merciless summer sun.
All that being said, there is plenty of charm in the seaside hurly-burly to make a trip there more than worthwhile. The Crimea is little changed from its heyday in the Soviet times, and McDonald’s, Subway, and sushi bars haven’t made the inroads they have in Kiev and other big cities. It’s one of the only places in Ukraine where I’ve seen blinis (local pancakes) made from scratch, with a mouth-watering choice of fillings, including blueberry, honey, caviar, and fresh lamb. The same goes for meat-filled cheburekis, local version of a crêpe. It’s also a joy to spend the evenings drinking tangy Crimean white wine while listening to a live band play classic hits from Soviet films like Brilliantovaya Ruka and Ironie Sudba. The geriatric couples slow-dancing to the period music with a blissful smile on their faces are most likely reliving their champagne honeymoons from a bygone era.
Most touching of all, though, is to watch the proud Crimean Tatars revel in the joy of being back in their homeland. Accused of collaborating with the Nazis and deported en masse to Uzbekistan by Stalin during World War II, the sturdy Tatars—a remnant of Genghis Khan’s Golden Horde—were only allowed to return to their homes in the dying days of the Soviet Union. Most of the half-million strong Crimean Tatar population have since returned, and have wasted no time in claiming the region back for themselves. Many of the family-run hotels in the region are run by the Tatars, and so are the numerous restaurants serving their spicy, Central Asian–influenced cuisine. Lagman, a spicy beef noodle soup, is heavenly, and so is the plov, a rich pilaf infused with juicy lamb chunks that is cooked in giant woks, often right on the beach.
Bakhchisaray, the former capital of the Crimean Tatar Khanate, is still standing, and is a fascinating day trip. It includes the 16th-century Khan’s Palace, with its pencil-thin minarets, arched doorways, and rich mosaics that recall Istanbul’s Topkapi Palace. The restored ruins, which include the Imperial Harem and marble fountains eulogized by Russian poet Alexander Pushkin, are a fascinating testament to the rich Tatar civilization that flourished in the Crimea before the Russian conquest of the late 1700s.
For those who prefer a more active holiday than lying supine on the beach, the Crimea has its own version of the Grand Tour. This includes the Grigory Potemkin–built neoclassical city of Sevastopol, which is home to the Russian Black Sea Fleet, whose massive battleships can be viewed from the shore. On the outskirts of Sevastopol are the ruins of an ancient Greek colony, dating back 2,500 years, which has been nicknamed the Russian Troy. Nearby is the historic town of Balaclava, Florence Nightingale’s Crimean base, and the scene of a decisive battle during the Crimean War. The ski masks, or balaclavas, worn by British troops during the Crimean War to protect themselves from the bitter cold owe their name to this historic town. There’s also a decommissioned nuclear submarine base in Balaclava—built to withstand nuclear attack—that’s well worth exploring.
Among the Crimean beach towns, Yalta, which is ringed by steep stone cliffs and soaked in the history of imperial Russia, is the most picturesque. Apart from walking its famed promenade, visitors can explore the tsarist-era Livadia Palace and Chekhov’s former home, now a museum. The Gothic minifortress Swallow’s Nest, perched on a cliff overlooking the sea, is awe-inspiring, and wouldn’t look out of place in a Lord of the Rings film. The classier resort of Koktebel was a favorite among writers and artists during the Soviet era, and still has a lot more charm than its counterparts. It hosts the Koktebel Jazz Festival in early September and is famous for its five-star cognac, which was the Rémy Martin of the Soviet elite. Sudak, famous for its 14th-century Genoese fortress, is my favorite Crimean resort town. It’s a stronghold of Crimean Tatars, and less Russified and cheesy than the other beaches. It’s ringed by hills, with walkways cut into them that lead up into the mountains and down to pristine beaches, where the water is azure and sparkling in the hot afternoon sun. Its beachside cafés also serve some of the juiciest barbecued lamb chops, or shashliks, this side of Uzbekistan. Sudak also boasts quite a racy nightlife, its discos packed nightly with an unpretentious and über-friendly mix of Ukrainians, Russians, and Belarussians.
For those who come to Crimea to party Russian style, with lots of vodka and Slavic beauties, Kazantip is a must. It’s a monthlong summer rave on the western shores of the Crimea that has mushroomed in popularity over the last decade, bringing in top DJs like Ricardo Villalobos, Richie Hawtin, and Carl Cox. With 14 dance floors, techno music 21 hours a day, topless Russian women going wild, and chilled-out beaches to relax during the day, it’s no surprise the party has gone global, with tens of thousands of Europeans jetting in to dance the summer away.
Chekhov, who loved the quiet charm of Yalta, might be turning in his grave, but the present-day Crimea is still a cherry orchard of sorts, ripe for the picking.