The Complete Guide to the Crimea

Tomorrow is the 150th anniversary of the declaration of the Crimean war. The region is full of beaches, mountains and Soviet-era architecture, and a little digging around Sevastopol can uncover evidence of the fierce battles of 1854, say Patrick Mercer and Simon Calder
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The Independent Travel

WHAT IS THE CRIMEA?

WHAT IS THE CRIMEA?

"One of the the most wonderful places on Earth" according to the Ukrainian Ministry of Health Resorts and Tourism. But then they would say that, wouldn't they? Nevertheless, this fragment of the former USSR is warm, beautiful and full of history.

Everyone has heard of the Crimean War, which was declared on 28 March 1854. The battlegrounds do not occupy some frozen corner of Russia, but the most alluring region of the old Soviet Union. This year, thousands will be visiting the Crimea to mark the anniversary, but even for those with no interest in military history it is an intriguing destination.

The Crimea is the peninsula that dangles from the bulk of Ukraine into the Black Sea. You may not be amazed to learn that it is about the size of Wales. Its southern tip is only 160 miles north of Turkey. The northern part, linked to the mainland by a narrow isthmus and a causeway, is mostly flat and of relatively little interest to visitors - the same goes for the eastern appendage that extends almost to Russia. But southern portion is one of the most attractive regions in Europe. Rolling hills give way to a dramatic mountain ridge that extends around most of the peninsula's southern shore, where the former USSR's most popular beaches are located.

Politically, the Crimea is a semi-detached part of the biggest country wholly in Europe: Ukraine. It is termed an Autonomous Republic, with a prevailing Russian influence that remains strong despite the break-up of the USSR. Indeed, a dacha (holiday home) on the coast was a key location for the collapse of the Soviet Union. In August 1991, while former president Mikhail Gorbachev was on holiday in Foros, a coup d'état was staged by Communist hardliners opposed to his liberal reforms. In the uprisings that followed, Boris Yeltsin emerged as the strong man of Russia, while the other Soviet republics - including Ukraine - took the opportunity to split from the crumbling USSR.

HOW DID IT GET ITS NAME?

From its original inhabitants, the Cimmerians. They lived relatively peaceably until the Scythians arrived to displace them around 750BC. Since then, a series of Crimean wars have been waged by Greeks, Romans, Khazars, Tatars (who settled en masse in the 13th century), Genoese, Venetians, Cossacks and Russians - not to mention the British, French, Turks and Sardinians who took part in the conflict that began 150 years ago, and the Germans who held the Crimea during the Second World War.

The most significant event in the Crimea's history was its annexation by Russia. Its natural harbours and easy access to the Black Sea and the Ottoman Empire made it highly desirable. In 1770, Catherine the Great dispatched her Baltic fleet via the Atlantic and Mediterranean to sieze the region. The Crimea was formally annexed in 1783, after which Catherine was transported with great ceremony from St Petersburg to Sevastopol. The area quickly became "the garden of the empire" - a winter retreat for well-to-do Russians and a crucial southern base for the Imperial Navy. Sevastopol's strategic importance made it the inevitable focus of the war declared on Russia by Britain and France.

Following the Russian Revolution of 1917, the Crimea made a bid for independence but was eventually subsumed into Lenin's Soviet Union. During the Second World War the peninsula was occupied by Nazi Germany. The Red Army recaptured the Crimea in 1944, and the following year the resort of Yalta was the venue for the crucial talks between Stalin, Churchill and Roosevelt that determined how post-war Europe would be carved up. After the war, Stalin forcible relocated many of the Crimean Tatars, descendants of the Mongol Golden Horde. He deported virtually the entire population to Central Asia, especially Uzbekistan. Many died en route. Russians then moved into the area and remain its majority ethnic group. Some Tatars have returned, but most are poor and live a marginal existence.

HOW DO I GET THERE?

Aim for Simferopol, the regional capital, whose name means "city of connections". You can fly from Gatwick to Kiev on Ukraine International (01293 596609; www.ukraine-international.com) for £220 return. From the Ukrainian capital, you can either catch the train, which takes 19 hours, or the two-hour domestic hop on an old Soviet plane belong to the curiously named airline Kiev Aircraft Repair Plant. An easier approach is from Heathrow via Istanbul on Turkish Airlines. This is the preferred route for the specialist operator Regent Holidays (0117 921 1711; www.regent-holidays.co.uk). It offers five-night holidays in Yalta, staying in the fabulous Oreanda, for £795 per person before the end of June, including flights on Turkish Airlines, and breakfast.

An eight-day tour of the Crimean War battlegrounds is being organised by Martin Randall Travel (020-8742 3355; www.martinrandall.com) for 20-27 September. The price of £1,790 includes flights, via Istanbul, ground transport, accommodation and most meals. The tour is to be led by Patrick Mercer.

An advantage of travelling via Istanbul is that it provides the chance to see the rear supply base for the British and French allies. Visit the Florence Nightingale Museum at the Selimiye Barracks in Scutari, on the east side of the Bosphorus, where the hospital reformer was based for most of the conflict. If this is not convenient, try the excellent Florence Nightingale Museum at St Thomas's Hospital in London (020-7620 0374; www.florence-nightingale.co.uk), which opens 10am-5pm daily (until 4.30pm at weekends), admission £5.80.

HOW TANGLED IS THE RED TAPE?

Ukraine, like Russia, is actually tougher to visit now than it was under Communism. Apply at least two weeks in advance to the Ukraine Embassy (020-7243 8923; www.ukremb.org.uk) in west London. For a tourist visa you need two passport photographs and a voucher showing confirmed hotel reservations. Besides the visa application fee of £10 you must pay a "processing fee" of £25. The latest information suggests that the Autonomous Republic is issuing instant visas at Simferopol airport for around US$25 (£16), which saves the bother of getting a Ukrainian visa in advance. But don't bank on it working.

IS IT WORTH THE TROUBLE?

Yes. The region has superb mountains and beaches, often in close proximity - with the chance to hike in the morning and swim in the afternoon. The Crimean Riviera between Yalta and Alushta takes in grand villas, rocky gorges and lush vegetation. In addition the cultural depth of the Crimea means there are some impressive historical sites.

Begin by heading for the sea. The approach from Simferopol to Yalta is dramatic. The highwayclimbs to a windswept mountain pass before swerving down to the sea and along the coast. You can make the 50-mile-journey comfortably by bus in 90 minutes for around 20 hryven (£2.50), or for half the fare and twice the time in a clapped-out old trolleybus.

For a town twinned with Margate, Yalta is surprisingly elegant. It was a quiet fishing port for centuries until rich Russians decided to winter here. After the revolution Lenin decreed that every good Soviet citizen had the right to recuperate by the seaside. The resort is still an odd mix of style and proletarianism, but with many former visitors now flying to Turkey or Cyprus, you can enjoy the sun and sights in peace.

The finest place to stay in town is the superb Oreanda (00 380 654 390 608; www.hotel-oreanda.com), a 19th-century mansion that was celebrated under Communism for being one of the few hotels where every bathroom boasted a bathplug. Today prices have risen to around $300 (£180) double per night including breakfast, but through a tour operator you will probably pay a lot less. Many other options are available; as a rule of thumb, anything that looks like a Soviet-era relic is likely to cost no more than $50 (£30) double, with breakfast.

The outstanding sight in Yalta is the Chekhov Museum at Kirova 112, which opens between 10am and 5pm from Wednesday to Sunday (admission fees, as elsewhere in the Crimea, are negligible). Chekhov came to Yalta as an ailing consumptive at the end of the 19th century. The villa where he lived until his death in 1904 celebrates his life and work; he wrote The Cherry Orchard here, and entertained Gorky and Rachmaninoff.

WHAT CAN I EAT AND DRINK?

Despite salt water almost encircling the Crimea, don't hope to dine out on fresh seafood every night. The Black Sea has fallen victim to eutrophication, whereby pesticides from the rivers that feed the sea have stimulated massive blooms of algae, which then use up so much of the water's oxygen that few fish survive. But the rich agricultural lands of Ukraine mean you can dine well. Yalta has some excellent Russian restaurants, but for the most spectacular plate with a view you should aim for the Swallow's Nest at Gaspra, five miles south of Yalta. Inside this folly, a Germanic castle that perches on a rocky outcrop over the sea, is an Italian restaurant.

WHERE NEXT?

Continue around the coast to Sevastopol, the most historically resonant place in the Crimea. The city grew up close to the ruins of Khersonesus, an ancient Greek settlement. Nearby, the Feolent Cliff is supposed to be the site of the Temple of Artemis, where, according to legend, Iphigenia was brought by the goddess to save her from sacrifice at the hands of her father, Agamemnon.

Sevastopol is where Prince Vladimir was converted to Christianity in 988AD, which led to the spread of the gospels throughout the Slavic lands.

WHY WAS THERE A CRIMEAN WAR?

The precise cause was a pretty obscure row over the guardianship of the Christian shrines - notably the Church Of Nativity - in Palestine. In fact, the whole mess was sparked by Western fears of Russian imperialism as the Ottoman Empire crumbled.

Russia wanted control of parts of Turkey (most notably Moldavia and Walachia), which would have given the country access to the Mediterranean from the Black Sea. France was concerned for its colonial interests in North Africa, while Britain did not want her routes to India imperilled. The two powers therefore joined forces to launch an amphibious attack on the Russian naval base at Sevastopol.

WHERE DID HOSTILITIES BEGIN?

Before the British and French had fired a shot, the Turks were battling with the Russians at sea and along the banks of the Danube in what is now Romania. But when it became clear, in late 1853, that the allies were going to attack, the Russians withdrew from Turkey. Despite this retreat, the allied fleets sailed for Sevastopol the following year.

An army of 60,000 landed north of Sevastopol on 14 September 1854. At the River Alma on 20 September a well-entrenched Russian force tried to delay the allies' march on Sevastopol. With little tactical thought but enormous bravery, the British and French troops threw themselves uphill into the teeth of the Russian guns and drove them off, sustaining huge casualties in the process.

The allies then marched south and encircled Sevastopol, and by the end of September had established their siege lines around the port. The race was then on to capture the city before winter set in and supply routes became impassable. But on 25 October, the Russians attacked the British lines of communication from the port of Balaclava up to the trenches overlooking Sevastopol. They very nearly succeeded in breaking through, and for the rest of the war the British supply routes were threatened.

WHO WERE THE LIGHT BRIGADE AND WHY DID THEY CHARGE?

The British had a ticklish problem: they had to maintain the siege, supply themselves from Balaclava and at the same time protect their vulnerable right flank from the marauding Russian field army.

The port of Sevastopol was well-defended by entrenched guns and Royal Marines, but the intervening six miles of siege lines needed a more mobile protection force. This was formed from the light cavalry, the heavy cavalry and three battalions from the Highland Brigade. On the morning of 25 October a mixed Russian force of cavalry and guns penetrated almost as far as the port. It was blocked by the 93rd Highlanders but eventually defeated by Scarlett's Heavy Cavalry Brigade. Had Cardigan's Light Brigade attacked at this point, the Russians would surely have been routed. Instead, he hesitated and lost the initiative, only charging when forced to do so by Lord Raglan, the British Commander-in-Chief. When the attack came he charged up the wrong valley and found himself faced with guns on three sides as well as Russian riflemen and a powerful force of lancers and Cossacks and was defeated.

WHAT HAPPENED NEXT?

Capitalising on this partial victory, the Russians sent an armed reconnaissance unit up to the British position at Inkerman on 26 October. They were forced back but gained a huge amount of intelligence. The allies failed to notice this and continued preparing to storm Sevastopol. On the foggy morning of 5 November, the Russians launched 40,000 men and 90 guns on the British flank. A tiny band of 8,000 bedraggled, sleepless, wet and hungry British infantrymen met the Russians and fought them hand to hand in the mist.

The fighting was intense. Muzzle-loading weapons were damp and failed to fire, and most combats were decided with bayonets, butts and even fists. Again and again the Russians surged up the narrow ravines, and again and again knots of British flung themselves upon them and beat them back. At the end of the day over 5,000 lay dead and one of the most remarkable passages in British military history had been written.

Today, this battlefield is entirely neglected. A casual scrape with the toe of a boot still reveals bullets, buttons and even bones.

HOW DID THE WAR UNFOLD?

The allies faced the most dreadful winter on the rocky plains around Sevastopol. They did not have enough men, guns or ammunition to carry the place by storm and so the siege descended into a bloody series of skirmishes and firefights while the besiegers became more and more forlorn.

Spring brought both allied reinforcements and extra Russian troops, who threatened the siege from the Crimean interior. There were not enough allies to stop Russian supplies and reinforcements getting into the city. While the besiegers' trenches crept closer and closer to the Russian defences, both sides knew that the assault would be a bloody one. Despite this, the allies decided to attack on 18 June 1855 - the 40th anniversary of Waterloo. With the Russians primed and the allies not really strong enough either in manpower or equipment, the attack was brutally repulsed.

In August the Russians tried to break out again, and at the Tchernaya River they were defeated once more. Another assault was made on 8-9 September and this time the major fortresses surrounding the city fell. With plenty of fight in them, the Russian forces retreated to the north shore of Sevastopol.

A truce ensued and despite considerable British and French reinforcements intended for another season's campaigning, peace was eventually declared in March 1856.

WHO WON?

Technically the allies, as Sevastopol was destroyed and the Russians bloodied, but very soon the port was rebuilt and the threat became just as potent as it was before the war. By this time, though, France was distracted by her own campaigns in North Africa, Britain by the Indian Mutiny and the two partners had fallen out so badly that there was even talk of a French invasion of Great Britain in 1859.

WHAT CAN YOU SEE OF THE BATTLEGROUNDS NOW?

Sevastopol was comprehensively destroyed in the Second World War and then just as comprehensively rebuilt. New buildings have sprung up but evidence of the siege of 1854-55 is everywhere. There are museums and monuments aplenty, and, with a little imagination, the bastions, redans and earthworks can be traced.

The main set-piece is the Sevastopol Panorama, an enormous construction where the body-strewn battle scene from Malakhov Hill is depicted in 360-degree wraparound gore. The original was painted in Munich, but the version you see now was created in the former Soviet Union. The exhibit is open from 10am-5pm daily, except on Mondays.

The main battlefields beyond Sevastopol are largely untouched. The Great Redout at the Alma is still very obvious, and it is easy to see where the Light Cavalry charged at Balaclava. At Inkerman the evidence of that day's slaughter still litters the ground. The British trenches and siege lines can still be found. A bit of rudimentary scuffing around soon reveals shot, shell and shrapnel and, if you persevere, little pots of thick cut marmalade, sturdy bottles of English ale and even jars of bear grease to protect wind-chapped lips. There may be no more tattered figures in scarlet to be seen but the thousands of Englishmen who lived, fought and died on these fields are still very much in evidence.

Patrick Mercer is MP for Newark and Retford, and Shadow Minister for Homeland Security

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