Tanning With Tycoons In A Black Sea Playground

YALTA, Ukraine -- In his story The Lady With the Dog, Anton Chekhov, a resident of Yalta, remarked on two peculiarities of the crowd along the seaside in that great Crimean resort town: “the elderly ladies were dressed like young ones, and there were great numbers of generals.”

Picturesque Yalta

Generals aren't much in evidence in this Black Sea city today, but balmy old Yalta is once again, after the long interruption of the Soviet era, a place where the East European moneyed classes go to unwind.

It is, in fact, an open-air museum of New Russian and Ukrainian folkways. Bull-necked tycoons suck on Cohibas, their sparkly girlfriends teetering on dangerous-looking heels. The occasional Bentley rolls through the pedestrian throng near Primorskiy Park.

Casinos buzz and ping everywhere amid the city's pine-bowered alleyways. Much — if not everything — goes in this seaside boomtown, stuck at what used to be the Russian empire's, and is now Ukraine's, saggy bottom, looking across the Black Sea toward the Orient.

Glitz, however, is only one side of this city of about 80,000 people, and a superficial one — in Crimea, as elsewhere in the former Soviet Union, it wears off fast. Walk back several blocks from the Yalta seaside and the handsome old city is often in decay.

Then too, Crimea is mostly a poor, troubled place even by Ukrainian standards. Beyond its south coast, and even along it, it's an arena in which the ethnic Russians who make up the peninsula's vast majority and the indigenous Muslim Tatars now returning after being deported en masse by Stalin peer at each other warily.

This spring saw Tatar protests against Russian mistreatment, pro-Russian protests against NATO, and mutterings in the Russian Duma that Moscow might even reincorporate the peninsula, essentially taking it from Ukraine. (Crimea became Ukrainian in 1954, when Nikita S. Khrushchev, as a “gift,” transferred administrative control of it to the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic. Russian, not its close cousin Ukrainian, remains Crimea's main language.)

These tensions contribute to the ambience of go-for-broke frontier vitality that reigns here. Enjoy yourself, because at any time, history suggests, the game could be up.

The Western visitors to this gorgeous place — with a climate like the Mediterranean's — need not concern themselves with any of that, of course. But on the other hand, almost everything to be seen once you get away from Yalta's pebbly beaches is so steeped in either Russianness or Tatarness that you can unintentionally acquire a fine education in Crimea's bifurcated, and rich, cultural reality.

A good place to examine Crimea's Tatar roots is Bakchisaray, an ancient town in the sun-drenched mountains northwest of Yalta that makes a good day trip from the resort.

It's from this dusty mountain place that the Tatar khans — under the patronage of their Ottoman overlords in Istanbul — ruled the peninsula for centuries before Catherine the Great conquered Crimea for her empire.

In Bakchisaray, the main attraction is the Khan's Palace, a graceful welter of courtyards, a minaret and a fountain immortalized in Pushkin's poem The Fountain of Bakchisaray. You can get Tatar food in the town's cafes: roasted meats, the meat- or cheese-filled flaky-crust dumplings known as chebureki, and lagman, a noodle-rich mutton stew.

You'll also find Tatar Crimea atop Ai Petri, the baroque-towered peak that looms monstrously just west of Yalta. Step off the cable car that ascends the three kilometres from the hamlet of Alupka to the peak, and you're on a windswept plateau from which views spread along the mountainous coast and across the Black Sea. You're also, unexpectedly, among the Tatars, who have built a tourist-serving encampment on the plateau that's as charming as it is unexpected.

In town for the Yalta Conference in 1945, Churchill pronounced the coastline — then a scorched battleground — the “Riviera of Hades.” There's nothing infernal here, but there remains a certain ghostliness lent by the lingering artifacts of lost Russian empires.

There are the disintegrating hulks of the brutalist sanatoriums the Soviets built, for example, and the Lenin statues that still stand in Yalta and Crimea's other towns.

Then there is the rich residue of the region's czarist past. In Alupka, a pleasant morning's ferry ride from the Yalta docks, you can, before boarding the Ai Petri cable car nearby, visit the spectacular half-Moorish, half-Scottish palace of Crimea's 19th-century governor-general Mikhail S. Vorontsov.

More poignant, however, is the Livadia Palace, an easy walk (or gypsy cab or bus ride) to the west of Yalta. Inside the palace, once you get past the exhibition devoted to the Yalta Conference, which was held in the building, you're in the private quarters of the royal family, which barely managed to complete the palace, in 1911, before they were overthrown.

Yalta's tourist infrastructure has made a lot of progress, but it's still underdeveloped. (Those who like the Wild East raffishness of the place, of course, say “thank God” to that.)

The middle ground in Yalta between apartment rentals (and Soviet sanatoriums that may or may not have running water) and expensive hotels doesn't really exist yet in Ukraine. Foreigners tend to stay at the Oreanda Hotel, the refurbished pre-revolutionary facility that bestrides the seaside like an overpriced colossus, but it's too expensive for what it offers.

An alternative is the Primorskiy Park Hotel, a five-minute walk into the park through groves of acacia and roses. Perched over the water, the place has a deco-ish vibe about it, as though it was airlifted in from Miami Beach. There's on-site bowling, for some reason, and a magnificent bath and spa complex.

Restaurants in Ukraine elicit howls of disgust from Western ex-pats: By North American large-city standards, there exists no first-rate restaurant in this entire France-sized country.

A likeness of one is at the Oreanda, especially if you seat yourself on the terrace overlooking the merry evening promenade. Another option is Nobu, a sushi place across the path from the Oreanda.

Your best bet, however, to follow the local credo: go cheap. Most of the dozens of outdoor and terrace cafes littered everywhere along the waterfront are satisfying places to eat: you get simple Tatar or Russo-Ukrainian dishes and lots of inexpensive local beer.

Look for the umbrella-covered tables, and don't be too choosy. These places are all more or less the same. And located as they are along the teeming docks or amid the mazy streets of the town, they put you close to the rough-edged charms of this resort, at the bottom frontier of a whole other world.

Source: Globe and Mail