Friday, September 25, 2009

The Crimean Coast of Ukraine

Map picture

  Yalta and Odessa

Located on the northern shores of the Black Sea, the Crimean peninsula offers a usually mild, sunny climate which is ideal for a resort environment.

Yalta is at the southern tip of the Crimean peninsula, and is most famous as the site of the Yalta Conference in 1945, at which Stalin, Roosevelt and Churchill decided the course of Europe following the end of the war with Germany.

Our excursion was to visit two of Yalta’s imperial palaces. The first stop was at Massandra Palace,IMG_3386 which was the summer residence of Tsar Alexander III. As you would imagine it was very beautiful, but as with virtually all the imperial palaces, it was ransacked after the fall of the Tsar and its furniture and belongings carted away. It was then turned into a commune, and finally the Germans left the palace in ruins. So it is amazing to see the restoration and just how well they have been able to rebuild the property.

Our next stop was the home of the famous Yalta Conference, Livadia Palace. IMG_3420This Palace was built in 1911, by the last Tsar, Nicholas II. This building is sometimes referred to as “the White Palace” because it is white all over. During our tour we learned a great deal about the Yalta Conference, and finally about the last days of the royal family.

My pictures can tell you a great deal about what we saw, so perhaps what I can add in writing is what we felt and experienced in Yalta.

It was exactly what I expected to see in a former Soviet Republic in many ways. The infrastructure of the city was clearly in bad repair. Their transportation system was a mess. If you can believe this, they are still using electric powered street cars from the early 1950’s! Old buildings were in very poor shape with some having been simply abandoned. Yet, at the same time the city had a very nice resort feel to it. It was colorful in many ways, and it was full of new cars and new construction of “condos.” Our tour guide repeatedly made reference to the good old days of the Soviets. According to her they now have no money for transportation, schools have gone downhill, and the quality of medical care has declined. People do not know how to deal with this thing called “capitalism,” and so many have lost their life savings. She clearly longed for the good old days.

As for me, I liked Yalta and wished I could have had some more time to explore the city. Our tour simply drove between the two palaces and then back to the ship. On the way between the two palaces our bus was stuck in traffic for over two hours, which our guide said is quite normal! So by the time we got back to our ship it, was quite late and we did not have time to explore on our own.

There is one observation I would like to share, and I think it is very telling. Usually when we travel, local people generally smile and occasionally wave a greeting as we go by. I will take India as an example. The people in India went out of their way to say hello, wave or smile and could not wait to have us take their picture; you felt genuine warmth. Both Lisa and I sensed something different in Sochi, but could not quite put it into words until today in Yalta. As our ship was slowly backing out of the very small harbor, the surrounding shoreline was filled with people. As happens on every cruise, passengers started waving goodbye. All over our ship, people were waving and shouting goodbye – then it hit me – not a single person on shore ever waved back – not one. Lisa and I started to discuss our last two days and we realized what we had not grasped until now – almost no one every smiled or waved at us. Instead we were greeted by stares that I would describe as “wary.” No one was hostile or mean or rude – they just stood and starred at us with a look that was not one of just curiosity but was leery at best.

Overnight the ship moved on to Odessa, again in the Ukraine and again on the Crimean peninsula. Odessa is the third-largest city of the independent Ukrainian Republic. The city has a population of around 4 million people. It has a much different feel to it from Yalta. Yalta was a relatively small seaside resort city that relied almost exclusively on tourism. Odessa, on the other hand, is a very large cosmopolitan city that is not only a tourist attraction but which has a strong manufacturing economic basis. I would have to say that I was very impressed by Odessa. It was alive, vibrant and really quite cosmopolitan. At the same time it was plagued by a very old outdated public transportation system, decaying old buildings – in other words the same malaise that we saw in Yalta, but here one could feel a city on the mend.

Our tour took us to an old section of the city which dated from the early 1900’s, where we left our bus for about an hour long walk. IMG_3489

It was still very early in the morning and the city was just coming awake. It was a cool pleasant stroll under clear skies. Again, I think the pictures will be the best way to share this experience. Our walking tour ended at the steps of the magnificentIMG_3538 Opera House that was completed in 1887. We drove around the city some, stopped briefly at the newly re-constructed Cathedral and made a visit to the Obelisk of the Unknown Soldier. While there, school children marched to the monument to pay tribute, and our guide said this is a tradition that continues daily.IMG_3562

Finally we stopped at the Ukraine Museum of Fine Arts. This was a bittersweet visit. On the one hand the Museum, housed in a former palace, was beautiful and it held an important collection of Ukrainian and Russian paintings dating back to the 16th century. Sadly the condition of the building was appalling. Plaster was falling; walls were cracked and streaked with mildew. IMG_3584 The building had no humidity control and no air conditioning. This means that the windows were open so that the paintings were exposed not only to pollution and humidity, but more importantly to sunlight. It was obvious that several of the works had already deteriorated. Many of the paintings had cloths draped over them, so that in order to see the art, you had to lift the cloth aside. This is an example of what I mean about the infrastructure being in bad shape. They simply do not have the money to even maintain their museums.

We are now safely back on the ship where I will try to get some pictures uploaded before dinner. Overnight we will travel to Varna, Bulgaria and have an all day tour – so hang on, there will be more to come.


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