Black Sea Cruise: Yalta, Ukraine on the Crimean Peninsula
Our next stop in the Ukraine was Yalta. This was interesting for many different reasons. Most people associate the name with the Yalta conference – February 1945 when Franklin D. Roosevelt, Winston Churchill and Joseph Stalin met to ratify the post-war division of Germany into 4 occupation zones. This took place at the Livadia Palace – which interested me primarily as the summer palace of the ill-fated Romanov family (Nicholas, Alexandra, the four daughters (Maria, Tatiana, Olga and Anastasia) and their hemophiliac son, Alexei.
But the other special interest for me was the association of Yalta with Anton Chekhov, physician and author/playwright. Yalta was a fashionable summer resort in the 19th century for Russian aristocracy and gentry. In 1898 Anton Chekhov, suffering from tuberculosis, built his White Dacha in Yalta and lived there on and off until 1902.
Yalta was one of two ports in which there were both morning and afternoon half day excursions scheduled. I find the bus rides tedious and tiring, and traipsing around with a large group of people is not my scene. But I could not decide which of the two excursions to do and ended up doing both anyway.
For the morning excursion, to Vorontsov’s Palace with a photostop to see the Swallows Nest Castle, we had to leave by 9:30 am, a respectable time I admit, compared to the usual times around 8 am. But then for some reason although our bus was in the last group to leave in the morning, we were scheduled to be the first bus to leave for Chekhov’s house and the Livadia Palace excursion in the afternoon. As it turned out the traffic in Yalta was surprisingly horrendous- many narrow one-way streets and steep hills - so we ended up getting back from the morning excursion just in time for a very rushed lunch before setting out again.
On the way to Alupka to visit the famous Vorontsov Palace we stopped briefly to see the Swallows Nest Castle. You can just see it in the distance in the photograph. This is apparently one of the iconic sights of Yalta. Perched on the 130 ft high Aurora Cliff, on the mountainside between Yalta and Alupka, overlooking the Cape of Ai-Todor, it is a neo-Gothic structure designed by Russian architect Leonid Sherwood. Since 1975 an Italian restaurant has been in operation in the castle. Unfortunately we did not drive up there but just stopped for the photo-op. I would have loved to have time to dine at that restaurant and explored the building.
After quite a drive we arrived at Vorontsov Palace or Alupka Palace as it is also called. One of the oldest and largest palaces in Crimea, it was built between 1828 and 1848 by Prince Mikhail Vorontsov (Governor General of Novorossiya) as a summer residence and designed by an English architect Edward Blore. It was nationalized after the October Revolution (Red October), following the February Revolution of 1917 in which Tsar Nicholas II abdicated and the Russian Empire was ended.
The Palace became a museum housing pieces from the nationalized estates of the Romanovs and other imperial families. In 1941 occupying Nazi German forces stole artwork, furniture and historic books, which I don't think have been recovered. I was impressed by the ornate parquet floors with amazing 3D designs. As you can see in the pctures, the 3D effects are so real that it is almost uncomfortable to walk across the floor as it does not seem like a flat surface.
The palace stands in a park of 99 acres, designed by the German landscape gardener Carolus Keebach. Steps leading up to the southern facade of the palace feature 3 sets of Medici lions carved from Carrara marble by Giovanni Bonnani. Churchill is said to have commented that one of the sleeping lions resembled him. Its the one pictured above - and I think he was right. Check him out in the picture below.
On our way back to the ship we saw a large cruise ship, The World, at anchor. Earlier on the tour I had chatted to a couple of people who own one of the residences on this ship. The ship is billed as the world’s largest privately owned yacht. There are collectively owned 165 onboard private residences, and the ship just continuously circumnavigates the globe. It's like an endless world cruise. According to this couple they treat it like a summer cottage. When they feel like being on board they join the ship for whatever length of time, and the rest of the time they may either let their kids use the residence, or it just stands empty. I wondered afterwards if you are allowed to rent out your residence but I did not think to ask them at the time. There are some for whom this is their primary residence and I guess they just stay on board. Interesting life style but not one I think I would like to have for ever. Even the thought of a 100 day World Cruise sounds a bit daunting to me, as I think I would not like to be away from my family and alone for such an extended time period. But who knows? I have never actually experienced a world cruise.
Back to the excursions on this cruise.
In the afternoon our first visit was to the Chekhov Museum and the White Dacha. The Chekhov connection to Yalta lies in his move to the area in 1899. Suffering with advanced tuberculosis, he hoped that the warmer climate of the Crimea would be beneficial. This dacha is where he wrote The Cherry Orchard and Three Sisters as well as his short most famous story, The Lady with the Dog. For pictures of the Chekhov Museum memorabilia and the White Dacha see Black Sea Cruise: Yalta: Anton Chekhov.
From there we drove to Livadia Palace. There are two very different aspects that dominated my thoughts on the visit to Livadia Palace. The first was the idea of "the law of unintended consequences." The second - "being in the wrong place at the wrong time".
Livadia Palace was the site for the Yalta Conference in 1945, at which Churchill, Roosevelt and Stalin ratified the agreement that divided post-war Germany into four occupation zones - English, American, Russian and French. Stalin who led the Soviet Union for 30 years as General Secretary and from 1941 to 1952 as Premier, was responsible between 1936 and 1939 for the deaths of thousands of his fellow countrymen during the Great Purge.
As an aside I wonder, despite the need for political expediency in war time, how do you look a mass murderer in the eye and shake his hand? And moreover actually believe that he will honor any agreements that are made such as allowing free elections in countries like Poland, Romania, Bulgaria, Czechoslovakia or Hungary. Of course as we know he did not and communist regimes were installed in all those countries. So the unintended consequence of this and the related conferences were ultimately developments such as the Cold War which lasted almost 50 years and the increasing disparity between West and East Berlin that led to the erection of the Berlin Wall. One pf the positive unintended consequences for those of us who like spy thrillers was that the Cold War spawned a lot of excellent books in that genre!
We started off viewing the rooms in which Churchill, Roosevelt and Stalin met for the conference and saw many of the historic photographs.
Then we moved upstairs to look at the summer quarters of the Romanov family. The guide told us that they lived a simple and cultured life when they were in residence, reading together as a family in the evenings. We saw the schoolroom where the children were tutored. I found it a poignant experience, thinking about the tragic end of this family.
That's what I mean about wrong place, wrong time.
We were treated to some folk songs by a trio of male singers before returning to the bus for the drive back to the ship. You can hear their harmonious voices if you click on Livadia Palace Singers.
The next day we were to call at our third Ukraine stop, and it was to be another two excursion day. By the time I got to bed after the full day of excursions and an evening of dancing, I was really tired and decided that, barring an amazing infusion of energy while I slept, Sebastopol excursions the next day would be a miss for me. The ship was remaining overnight in Sebastopol so I could do the Chersonnesus tour the day after.