- The Washington Times - Thursday, November 27, 2003

YALTA, Ukraine — Even if visitors don’t drink a drop at the celebrated wineries, they sound intoxicated when they tell what they saw in Yalta: an Arabian-Scottish castle, a river that ran full of wine, a soaring sequoia tree.

The Crimean peninsula, where Yalta is a principal resort, is a fantasia where the works of humans are striking and the works of nature are almost preposterously dramatic. The region conciliates boundless steppes with forbidding peaks. The gold of sandy beaches slices between emerald vegetation on shore and the azure waters of the Black Sea.

The ruins of ancient cave towns, temples and fortresses testify to a history as varied and passionate as the landscape. Greeks, Romans, barbarian Huns and wild nomads all left their marks, as did Tatar, Turkish, Genoese and Venetian adventurers.

Russian Czar Nicholas II built a palace outside Yalta that later became the site of one of the critical meetings of the last century — the 1945 gathering of Franklin Roosevelt, Winston Churchill and Josef Stalin that partitioned Europe and ushered in the Cold War.

It is a heady history, and many visitors like to contemplate it over a glass or two of Crimea’s equally heady, but delicate, sweet wines at the renowned Magarach wine institute, a scenic ride by excursion boat from downtown Yalta.

About 20,000 wines are available at Magarach, concocted from its 3,200 vine species. The ports, sherries and muscats are especially well-received, but Magarach also makes fine dry wines.

The institute is surrounded by the Arcadian splendor of the Nikita Botanical Gardens, where about 30,000 species of plants from across the globe flourish. A soaring sequoia is among visitors’ favorites.

Although the winery is cherished by locals, it has endured abuses from outsiders.

When Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev launched an anti-alcohol campaign in 1986, thousands of acres of its vines were torn up. Magarach’s director at the time, Pavlo Holodryha, hanged himself in despair at the destruction.

During World War II, vast amounts of the treasured wines were poured into a river after the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union for fear the wine would fall into marauders’ hands.

“The river was bloody with wine,” remembered Serhiy Leonidovych, an elderly Yalta resident. “I remember local sots drawing wine right from the river and gulping it greedily.”

Hard times still trouble the Crimea even as visitors revel in its rich sights. Many houses get water for just a few hours a day, although hotels manage to keep the supply on for the region’s tourists. Although visitors are key to the region’s well-being and most Ukrainians have an innate sense of hospitality, Soviet-era ways still afflict Yalta with lazy waiters and dour saleswomen who seem to apply maximum effort not to see customers.

That may cast a brief pall over a visit, or it may add to a tourist’s appreciation of Yalta’s joys.

One of the most entertaining is the bizarrely gorgeous Vorontsov Palace, where incongruous architectural styles meet: English romantic, Scottish, Arabian. Somehow, these styles get along, and the palace echoes the capricious shapes of its mountain backdrop.

Another favorite is the ornate building known as the Swallow’s Nest, stacked on a steep cliff overlooking the sea.

Now a restaurant whose prices soar far higher than the food quality, it is best admired from outside.

• • •

The nearest rail and air access to Yalta is the city of Simferopol, about two hours by plane or 16 hours by train from the Ukrainian capital, Kiev.

From Simferopol, the world’s longest trolley line makes a two-hour trip across the mountains to Yalta. For visitors with little patience and lots of luggage, a taxi is quicker and more comfortable; drivers will try for a fare of about $50 but usually will settle for $30.

Accommodations: Yalta has rooms for all budgets and expectations. The luxurious Oreanda hotel has apartments for $1,100 a day and singles for $160. At the other end of the scale, many locals rent private rooms for as little as $2.50; the hospitality is plentiful, but the facilities, including running water, can be minimal. Between these two extremes is the 2,500-room Intourist.

Documents: Visas are required for all Western visitors, but citizens of the United States, European Union countries and some others no longer need letters of invitation to receive a visa. Once in the country, visitors can travel freely. The Ukrainian Embassy in Washington can be reached at 202/333-7507.

Internet: The Web sites www.blacksea-crimea.com and www.brama.com/travel provide a wide array of information on Crimean tourism and links to general information about Ukraine.


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