Palace-hopping to Yalta
Trip Start May 12, 2006
20Trip End Jun 03, 2006
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Our first stop is a new German war cemetery. An independent German organization bought the land from Ukraine just a few years ago and is busy exhuming Nazi soldiers from all over the Crimea. Thanks to the typically fastidious Tuetonic obsession with record-keeping, they use archives from the war to determing exact battle positions and the names of the troops involved. They know where to dig and the dog tags tell them all the rest. The bodies are removed to this bucolic patch of ground marked by a large German cross and marble monuments listing the dead in alphabetical order. A wide strip of freshly-turned earth bears witness to the planting of 2500 remains here just last week. Each body is located according to a numbered grid. When descendants visit, the staff locates the coordinates of the deceased and walks the family to their spot of earth. Anxious not to offend Ukraine, the organization donated equal funds to create a similar site for the Red Army dead. The money has since disappeared into the black hole of the Ukrainian economy.
Further along the road we pass the village of Foros. A tall communications tower beside the road was the main artery of communications between Gorbachev and the Kremlin when he vacationed here at his dacha. It's also where he was arrested during the 1991 coup. The dacha itself was destroyed in a landslide several years ago in a nice bit of natural symbolism.
Around another curve, atop a spindly crag stands a 19th century church. Built by a Russian magnate to commemorate the miraculous survival of the Romanov family when their train was derailed on the way to Petersburg (theirs was the only car that remained on the tracks), the maganate may also have had an ulterior motive. He knew that Tsar Nicholas II and his family passed by that spot on the coast aboard the royal yacht on their way from Odessa to Yalta and couldn't miss it. When Nicholas saw the church he who built it and heard the whole story. Touched, he asked the the magnate what he could do to express his thanks. How about making me a noble? Done. At that time, only members of the nobility could conduct international trade and the church-builder instantly became a much richer admirer of the Tsar.
We drive up the winding road to the church. It was completely restored by an Orthodox priest about a decade ago with funds collected from the faithful. When the restoration was complete, the priest was murdered. The killer was never found, but interestingly a second and completely uneccessary restoration began at the same time which then-president Kuchma took credit for. The murdered priest's contribution was excised from the official record during the Kuchma days, but a plaque on the wall now commemorates him.
By the time we reached the main road again, the moutains had competely hidden the sea beneath their skirts as thich fog boiled up from below. It looked like a collossal wave breaking in slow motion over the cliffs and headlands. The rest of the way along the coast, there was simply no sea to see.
Next stop, the Alupinsky Palace, belonging to one Count Mikhail Voronstov, governor of southern Ukraine and Crimea during the first half of the 19th century, whom we last met in Odessa being cuckolded by Pushkin. One of the richest men in Russia at that time, he gained distinction as a general in the war against Napoleon, taking part in the battle of Borodino among others. His main palace in Odessa was destroyed by German bombs in WWII. His cozy little summer place remains, though the Bolsheviks debated blowing it up it after the revolution. Fortunately, cooler heads prevailed. Construction took 20 years to complete, Voronstov working with an English architect who never even visited the site. Voronstov would send him sketches and the architect would mail back plans and eventually through the labor of hundreds of Count V's serfs, he had himself a copy of a medieval English manor. At least on three sides. On the facade facing the sea he went with an Arabian fantasy theme. He was also a bit of an amateur horticulturist, creating both an English and a French garden on either side of his estate and having species of trees shipped from all quarters of the globe, including a California Redwood and a Giant Sequoia. The gardens and palace lie in the shadow of the 1200-meter Mt. Ay-Petri. Voronstov used to have his serfs climb the mountain every day to haul ice from the ice caves down to fill his huge Champagne tub. Churchill stayed here during the Yalta conference, Stalin thinking he might appreciate the Englishness of the place. Voronstov's father had been the Russian Ambassador to England and he was quite an anglophile himself.
The next spectacular conceit on the way to Yalta is The Swallow's Nest. A favorite subject of postcards, The Swallow's Nest was built in 1912 by a German oilman as a present to his mistress. The miniature castle is perched at the top of a rocky spire and partially overhangs it offering a spectacularly sheer drop to the sea below. So spectacular in fact that the oilman and his girlfriend were afraid to live there and never spent a single night in the place. It's now an Italian restaurant. Yvgeny says "a criminal restaurant." I think he was referring to something besides its prices.
Done with palaces? Not likely. It's time to swing by Livadia Palace. Built by Nicholas II as a summer getaway in grand Italian Rennaisance style, it was also the site of Stalin, Roosevelt and Churchill's little chinwag in February of 1945. Inside we see the very table where the Big Three carved the turkey, piling the juicy breast of Eastern Europe onto Uncle Joe's plate and reserving the drumstick of the Mediterranean for the West. The walls are covered with photos of the event as are those in Roosevelt's ground floor bedroom. Yvgeny tells me of all the trouble Stalin went to to bug the walls here and at Churchill's pied a terre (the Alupinsky Palace). In the famous photo of the trio, Churchill holds a cigar, Roosevelt a cigarette and Stalin, an inveterate pipe-smoker, is abstaining. Yvgeny tells me that it is a Russian custom that if two people are smoking it's bad luck if the third doesn't join them. He says this was a deliberate gesture on Stalin's part, similar to crossing his fingers behind his back.
Upstairs, the palace has been preserved as it was during the four summers the Romanovs lived here. Nicholas's study, the girls's bedroom, Nicholas and Alexandra's bedroom (the Tsarevitch Alexi's room was below his father's study) -- all very modestly furnished, considering. On the walls, family photographs of happier times -- aboard the yacht, playing in the gardens, posing together. Nicholas enjoyed photography and took a lot of the pictures himself. Such a beautiful family. Hollywood casting couldn't have done any better. Their last summer vacation here was in 1917. The following year their bodies, burned beyond recognition, would be lying in an unmarked grave in the woods outside of Ykaterinburg.
Yalta stretches out along a crescent-shaped harbor with mountains rising above it on all three sides like a huge amphitheater, a terrain that gives it its almost subtropical microclimate. I check into the Hotel Oradea at the weste end of naborezhna Lenina, the seafront promenade where Chekov's "Lady with the Little Dog" first met her lover.
The hotel was built in 1907 and must have been a beauty in its day, but a series of unfortunate facelifts have left its interiors much more '80s Westin than early 20th c.
But to be fair, let's hear the other side of the story from the info sheet in my room:
"During the following next half a century the hotel betrayed its destination more than once. Those revolutionary days the hotel's walls served as an outpost and defensive fortification for white guards. There was a military hospital and a sanitarium during and after the Great Patriotic War. While changing its status the hotel reconstructed three times: in 50-es, in 80-es and in 2001 year. Remarkable that in spite of numerous reconstructions the unique look of the architect masterpiece of the XX century was kept.
As before Oreanda reminds well-known and beloved and the pilgrimage of successful and respectful guests doesn't stop. Up to date, equipped according to the latest technical achievements, the Crimean hotel with an age history reminds the visit card of Yalta."
A sign on the elevator says:
"Dear Ladies and Gentlemen -
We regret to inform you that the beach is closed due to technical reasons. We apologize for any inconvienence."