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Margate meets the Black Sea

Richard McClure joins the annual parade of beach babushkas at the Crimean resort of Yalta - which has an unlikely British twin
The Crimea is proud of its Chekhov connection. Dying of tuberculosis in the 1890s, the playwright came to live in Yalta at his doctor's insistence. Each of the dachas where he spent his final years has been preserved as a museum and, in spring, the resort holds a week-long festival of parades and plays - choosing to ignore the fact that Chekhov hated the place.

"A hot Siberia ... there is nothing here to interest me," the exile complained in letters to Moscow, while, in Ivanov, he berated Russian doctors for sending their patients south: "As soon as any housewife clears her throat, it's out with the scientific prescription - off to the Crimea."

Travelling overland to Yalta a century later, it's easy to imagine far worse remedies. As soon as the train starts rattling slowly across the sliver of land that attaches the peninsula to southern Ukraine, you can sense the Crimea's therapeutic powers. Drab grasslands give way to fruit trees and fields of tangled vines, then pine-forested mountains that lurch towards the Black Sea, protecting the coastal towns from north winds and delivering a climate closer to that of Cannes than of Kiev.

If Chekhov found the place culturally deficient, then other visitors are happy to settle for these natural attractions. Long before the Communists declared the Crimea a workers' paradise, Pushkin and Tolstoy convalesced along its shores and the tsars built opulent summer homes high on the wooded hillsides. There are enough literary dachas and imperial palaces remaining near Yalta to while away many an hour, but the more proletarian pleasures of the town's Lenin Embankment can prove equally distracting.

Part dockyard, part gaudy seafront and part elegant boulevard, the broad promenade is the town's bustling hub, an unlikely meeting of St Petersburg and Margate (with which Yalta is twinned). By mid-afternoon, a conveyor belt of post-Communist life courses along its length. Holidaying children clamber off dodgems to pose for photographs with manacled monkeys; leather- jacketed mafiosi lounge in restaurants ordering bottles of unbearably sweet Crimean sparkling wine; while stout army officers loiter in Lenin Square with its vast statue of Vladimir Ilyich looking out to the Black Sea where Bolsheviks once drowned the Yalta bourgeoisie.

In early summer, the sea was out of reach. Motorboats perched on the quayside held the promise of idle cruising but all inquiries were met with shakes of the head.

"The economy is down," shrugged Arnold, a silver-haired bather I met in the drowsy village of Gurzuf, a few miles along the coast. "Things are very bad right now. No gasoline, so no boats." An ill-judged business deal had brought Arnold, a Muscovite, to Gurzuf but the climate had persuaded him to stay on and he passed his time keeping trim and playing chess ("There are two grandmasters in Gurzuf alone - just think of the challenge!").

After completing his quota of press-ups on the beach, he led the way to Chekhov's dacha, which I had been struggling to find. The simple, whitewashed building stood on the water's edge, shaded by a single palm, its garden as languid as the dramatist's prose. One of its rooms had been turned into a makeshift gallery where a young painter, Sergei, was hanging apocalyptic pictures. His anguished manner suggested he, too, had come to convalesce, and he pointed out his living quarters, the Artists' Home, an imposing sanatorium tucked beneath a rockface.

The hills surrounding Yalta abound with these sanatoria, half-hidden by rows of cypress trees. As you ride the bus along the coastal road, every bend gives glimpses of tennis courts or trim lawns belonging to some of the 160 "therapeutic resort establishments" listed in the Intourist guidebook (which also suggests visits to such uninviting landmarks as the Sechenov Research Institute for Climatotherapy and the Semashko Resort Out-Patient Clinic).

I opted instead for a morning's uphill hike through Yalta's maze of mustard-coloured houses to Livadia Palace. A courtly building of Inkerman stone and secluded terraces, Livadia was built by Nicholas II as his favoured retreat from impending revolution. In 1945, Churchill, Stalin and Roosevelt were installed here, carving up Europe in its marble halls, and the palace is now a museum devoted to these twin roles. Its quiet rooms are filled with conference memorabilia and Romanov trinkets, closely guarded by Livadia's present-day occupants - a small army of headscarved wardens sporting pink lipstick and gold teeth.

It was Stalin who shaped the Crimea of today. Until 1944, Tartars had lived here in their hundreds of thousands, ancestors of the Golden Horde. Overnight, they were deported to central Asia and replaced with Russians and Ukrainians, continuing a tradition of ethnic cleansing which has seen Greeks, Goths and Italians inhabit the peninsula.

With independence, Tartars are slowly returning, but I saw none in Yalta and the locals showed no interest in their non-Slavic heritage. "You shouldn't go there," one advised me when I asked about the ruined Genoese and Venetian trading forts east of Yalta. "There is nothing to see."

Make the trip to Sudak regardless and you'll be rewarded with spectacular battlements straddling a colossal headland. Closer inspection reveals the 14th-century ramparts to be held together with generous amounts of concrete, but the view from the clifftop makes up for any disappointment. The sight of dolphins far below brings true appreciation of the Crimea's restorative beauty - until you remember that it wasn't just silks and caviar that were shipped from Sudak. The Black Death began here too, wiping out three-quarters of the peninsula's Europeans before slipping aboard merchant vessels and laying waste to a continent.

Perhaps because of this considerable blot on their region's copybook, the Crimeans' devotion to health and fitness is robust, a fact reinforced the next morning when I was awakened by blaring loudspeakers and the rumble of coaches. It turned out to be the arrival en masse of the region's "daily bathers", a mature but lively contingent who had travelled from as far as Sevastopol for their annual congress and fancy dress parade.

Soon a bemused crowd had gathered on Lenin Embankment to watch their Olympic-style medal ceremonies and spirited displays of aerobics. One over-excited grandma skipped with glee, pausing only to execute impeccable headstands; another took the microphone to warble a stirring anthem. Eventually, track suits were removed and modesty put aside. Accompanied by an accordionist and led by a tubby Neptune, a procession of flame-haired babushkas in leopardskin bikinis and Viking horns snaked along the pebble beach, and cheers rang out as they waded into the still-cold water.

Yalta is a tricky place to reach. You have to make first for Simferopol, served by air from Istanbul or Kiev, or by train from Kiev. From Simferopol there is a tram - taking two hours to cover 55 miles - or a bus. Good luck.

All foreigners travelling to Ukraine require a visa. You can obtain this in advance direct from the Ukrainian Embassy at 78 Kensington Park Road, London W11 2PL (tel 0171-727 6312; fax 0171-792 1708; recorded visa information 0891 515919)