Yalta

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Yalta
Population: 78,040
Main industries: tourism, wine production, agriculture, construction
Head of Yalta City Council: Sergei Feodorovich Ilash
Founded in 1154
Interesting fact №1: Yalta's "first tourists" were from the U.S. — a group of American pilgrims to the Holy Land and Europe, among which was a prominent American writer Mark Twain. The tourists were warmly received by Alexander II in the Livadia Palace. Mark Twain included a humorous account of the reception in his book "Innocents Abroad."
Interesting fact №2: At the beginning of the 20th century, Yalta was a hub of Esperanto culture. There are memorial plaques to Dr. M. Ostrovsky, an editor of the first Russian-Esperanto newspaper, and librarian I. Brovko, an author of novels in Esperanto.
Sister cities: Baden-Baden, Germany; Fujisawa, Japan; Nice, France; Pozzuoli, Italy; Rhodes, Greece.
Helpful contacts: Kolomyitsev, Andrei Yuriyevich, head of the tourism department of the City Council (+380-654-32-8948)

YALTA — In the heyday of the Soviet Union, Nikita Khrushchev liked to float in a rubber swim ring, escorted by three divers, in the Black Sea waters off the "Russian Riviera," lined with tsarist palaces, politburo dachas and crumbling avant-garde Soviet sanitariums.

The southern coastline of the Crimean peninsula is a craggy and forested mountain ridge that collapses into the sea. Above subtropical Yalta, the ridge bends into a steep amphitheater covered in juniper and pine. Its mountain air, mixed with the aroma of magnolias and cypresses and driven by a fresh sea breeze, make it an ideal health resort for respiratory ailments.

For this reason, it has long been the premier location for the country's elite. Now the cracked concrete of its experimental modernist architecture goes unnoticed by Russians flying over on their way to Turkey and Egypt.

Yalta is a self-conscious place. In typical Russian fashion, its builders went for the monumental, but lacked the resources to follow through. The showpiece palaces of the old elite ape foreign styles and mix their references. Soviet ideals dictated that Yalta become a flagship resort for the everyman, filled with the architecture of the future. But its modernist style ended up hopelessly stuck in time, and the concrete is now stained and chipped.

Yet thanks to its spectacular setting, history and air, Yalta retains charm. Even in winter, the melancholy of its deserted boardwalk lined with snow-covered palm trees — featured in the cult counterculture perestroika film "ASSA" — has a certain appeal.

Legend has it that the town was founded in antiquity by Greek voyagers lost in a sea storm, who, seeing the saving shore, called it simply Yalta — Greek for "the shore." Yalta became an important port settlement, full of Venetian and Genoese merchants, on the trade route connecting Asia with the Mediterranean world.

Major Businesses

Massandra National Agro-Production Association (9 Ulitsa Vinodela Yegorova; +380-654-35-3001; massandra.net.ua) This vintner's brand is well-known, exported abroad and features mainly sweet wines. The company has numerous vineyards and nine wineries, a few of which are in the greater Yalta area.
Luch Fishery Enterprise (3 Ulitsa Sverdlova; +380-654-32-8710). The firm processes fresh fish and seafood and produces fish preserves.

Because of its strategic geographic situation, Yalta's history is a long list of military attacks and occupations. The Russians themselves are occupiers — the Crimean Tatars, forcefully deported in the 1940s, have only recently begun to return and try to reconstruct their culture. While absorbing these shocks posed a serious challenge for the development of the resort, they have shaped the eclectic culture of which Yaltintsy, as the locals are called, are proud.

In the waning years of the Russian Empire, Yalta became a southern capital of art and culture. Here Anton Chekhov wrote his plays "The Cherry Orchard," "Three Sisters" and the romantic story "Lady with a Dog," in which Yalta is portrayed as a meeting place that forever changes the fate of its visitors. Opera singer Feodor Shaliapin and composer Sergei Rachmaninoff gave their final concerts here on the Crimean stage before emigrating to the West.

After the revolution of 1917, Yalta was the last island of the vanishing Russian Empire, harboring the remnants of Vrangel's defeated white army. With them were dispossessed aristocrats and businessmen. Famous opera singers and ballerinas performed at local restaurants. In this atmosphere of doom some frantically sewed their jewelry into their undergarments, hoping to sell it abroad. Others squandered their valuables in local bars. As the red army surrounded the city, Yalta's port filled with overcrowded life boats and desperate emigrants.

A few months after the exodus, those who left would not have recognized the town. The tsarist past was slated for eradication. In the name of social justice, opulent estates were converted into sanatoriums. Grand halls were partitioned into wards overcrowded with consumptive patients. Marble spa salons where Chekhovian sybaritic aristocrats had taken relaxing baths were turned into public banyas for peasants and workers.

World War II brought German occupation, massive destruction and heavy population looses, but as the conflict ebbed, Yalta hosted the conference at which Stalin, Churchill and Roosevelt decided the future of post-war Europe. The Livadia Palace, a former royal residence turned hospital that was chosen as the sight of the meeting, was restored practically overnight. The only addition: a four-meter high fence around the palace grounds.

In an interview to Argumenty i Fakty, Yevgenia Shulgina, a former hospital nurse drafted to serve dinner during the conference, said attendants were instructed to wear felt moccasins and lay blankets under tablecloths to absorb any extraneous sounds.

For MT
Sergei Feodorovich Ilash,
Head of Yalta City Council
Q: What is particularly attractive about Yalta for foreign investors?
A: Yalta's natural eco-oasis makes it attractive to absolutely everyone, including investors. Besides being an alluring tourist destination, Yalta is also a health resort specializing in treatment and prevention of pulmonary and cardiovascular ailments. It would be great to use all of the town's medical potential by widening the scope of targeted ailments to oncology and immunodeficiency. If we simultaneously invest in conventional and medical tourism our city will thrive the whole year round.

Q: What steps are the city authorities taking to attract foreign investment?
A: We have a very rich historic past, many famous architectural monuments. Every year we invent new tourist routes and projects. We aim to reach a European level of service. The problem is that access to the sea is essential to chain hotels, and there is practically no free space left in the city adjoining the sea. The greater Yalta area, which stretches 80 kilometers, offers better prospects. However, the public transportation system may not bear the extra burden of servicing chain hotels in the area. Yalta used to be a small town and it is practically impossible to widen our narrow roads. It would be easier to negotiate the transfer of state-owned sanatoriums and resort hotels into private hands.

Q: Which are the most developed sectors of Yalta's economy?
A: Tourism and medicine. Of course, our tourism service is not as advanced as that of Western European countries, but it is characterized by comfort and, I would say, even certain lyricism. Famous people chose Yalta as their place of residence, and our tour guides are the best in the entire post-Soviet space. They have given tours to so many prominent people that they now themselves belong to the city's historic legacy. We have excellent museums, and any visitor will find a leisure activity to suit them, from mountain climbing to evenings of poetry recitals.

Q: How do you see the Yalta of the future?
A: Like Karlovy Vary or Monaco.

— Helena Danilova

"The menu … was specially designed in Moscow, but out of all the dishes [the participants] preferred simple Russian cabbage soup and borscht," Yevgenia remembered. "During meals, Stalin always sat at the end of the table because of his damaged left hand. There were two guests next to him, stout and thin. Only later we found out that these were Churchill and Roosevelt."

In 1991, Mikhail Gorbachev was detained in his Foros residence outside Yalta when reactionary communists in the Kremlin attempted a coup to turn back perestroika reforms. Shut up in his dacha, Gorbachev, together with millions of other Soviet citizens, watched Tchaikovsky's "Swan Lake," broadcast on all TV channels in place of news from Moscow.

Modern Yalta is a reflection of its sketchy past: a mix of promise and failure, royal luxury and Soviet underachievement, marble and concrete, class and kitsch, exclusive five-star hotels and collapsed infrastructure. Cruise ships rarely dock at its port. Its service industry is populated by Russian speakers who have no clue about European standards.  

In competition with Egypt, Turkey and Tunisia, which often provide better quality service for less, Yalta muddles through thanks mainly to loyal visitors, nostalgic for the past.

What to see if you have two hours

Start from the bus station — Yalta has no trains. Take trolleybus 1 or a fixed route shuttle bus taxi to the center of Yalta to the Spartak Cinema stop, then follow the pedestrian walkway down to the wide stone-paved seaside promenade — the Naberezhnaya Imeni Lenina. The Nabka, in local slang, is a crazy mixture of different epochs, architectural styles, and cultural landmarks — from renovated historic hotels with grand facades to cheap cafes with sizzling shashlik kebabs and sweet wine. Despite round the clock swarms of idle tourists, kitsch souvenir sellers, amateur portrait artists and meddling photographers with exotic fauna, the promenade's cleanliness is a surprise.

Jutting out into the sea from the Nabka and elevated on stilts above it is a giant mock-up of an ancient Greek ship, garish and visible from any point on the long seafront.

On the promenade's opposite side is a huge 500-year-old sycamore. The local legend says that American ballerina Isadora Duncan and Russian poet Sergei Esenin used to meet in the shade of this tree. A 15-minute walk east across the seafront will take you to Lenin's monument. Surrounded with palm trees, the founder of the U.S.S.R. looks across to a nearby McDonalds.

Always busy, McDonalds is where it belongs — on the only street in post-Soviet space named after an American President, Ulitsa Roosevelta — Roosevelt street.

For a panoramic view of town, take the 12-minute cable car ride (kanatka) 120 meters up to the top of mount Darsan, starting from the station by the Tavrida Hotel on Naberezhnaya (Open daily from 10 to 6 p.m.; a two-way trip costs about $7; +380-065-432-3593). Keep in mind that it is a little bit of adventure because you'll have to jump into a moving two-passenger capsule.

Boat tours along the shore, which is particularly scenic when illuminated at night, run regularly from multiple points along the seafront. Short boat trips run west to the Swallow's Nest Castle, perched precariously on the edge of a sheer cliff. Longer rides reach the Vorontsovsky Palace, where you can get off and visit the former residence of Mikhail Vorontsov, a fervent Anglophone govenror of the Novorossiisky region (Open daily from 8 a.m. to 7:30 p.m.; entrance costs $9; +380-065-472-2281; worontsovpalace.com.ua). Designed by an English architect who had never been to Yalta, the building is a mishmash of Victorian oak paneling, gray English castle facades, Italianate lion statues and a huge Oriental archway with Islamic mosaics.

What to do if you have two days

Explore the quiet serpentine streets of the old Massandrovskaya Slobodka part of town in northeast Yalta. Start at the Kholm Slavy memorial complex — the hill of glory — dedicated to war heroes, and work your way down the steep Voikova Street to the seafront through a neighborhood full of 19th-century dachas.

For an adrenaline boost, race through the narrow passages of the old town on a public bus.

For MT
Vera Nikolayevna Baydan,
Managing Director of Oreanda Premier Hotel
Q: What is the key to success in Yalta's hotel business?
A: Yalta's unique combination of natural resources, subtropical climate — we have more than 250 sunny days a year! — warm sea and picturesque nature are a pull for all tourists. Add to this ambient atmosphere and high-standard service. Guests always like coming back here, where they are provided with comfort and care.

Q: Which difficulties have you encountered in your sphere of business?
A: Our main problem is seasonality: Yalta's peak season lasts from May to September. Though the Crimea is splendid any time of the year — whether blooming in spring and abundant in the fall, the air is equally fresh, the scenery equally picturesque and the famous attractions, it seems, are waiting just for you. It is no coincidence that from the 18th century the Crimea was a favorite vacation spot for Moscow and St. Petersburg high society, including the royal family.

Q: How is Yalta evolving as a resort town?
A: The annual influx of thousands of tourists is compelling local authorities to broaden infrastructure, improve services and organize various entertainment activities to put Yalta on par with other world resorts like Nice, Cannes, Saint Tropez and Marbella.

— Helena Danilova

It is worth risking both a wait in line and vertigo to take the cable car to the top of mount Ai-Petri (Miskhor-Ai-Petri kanatka, Koreiz, 52 Alupkinskoye Shosse; open daily from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m; a one-way ticket costs $8; +380-654-72-3242; kanatka.com.ua). In less than 15 minutes the gondola climbs to the 1,152 meter summit, which offers an exquisite view over the whole Yaltan shore.

Wine connoisseurs will appreciate a visit to the Massandra Palace and historic winery — a network of cellars in underground tunnels, founded in the 19th century by count Lev Golitsyn (9 Ulitsa Vinodela Yegorova; +380-654-23-2662, +380-654-35-2795; massandra.net.ua). For $20 you can take a tour of the royal cellars, wine-production site as well as enjoy a tasting session. Tours run every two hours from 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. daily.

Massandra's collection of fortified wines from local Muscat, Tokay and Pinot Gris grapes is unique, with some bottles dating back to the winery's founding and bearing seals of the Russian Tsars. If historic wines are out of your budget, enjoy the young Red Stone White Muscat: Its amber color, Muscat aroma and delightfully sweet taste are said to have impressed Winston Churchill.

Ten kilometers east of Yalta is the Nikitsky Botanical Garden (Posyolok Nikita; open daily from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m.; entrance costs $4; +380-654-33-5528 for guided tours; nbgnsc.com).

To get to the garden from Yalta, take trolleybus 2 from the central Veshchevoy Rynok stop. Among its unique species are a 1,000-year-old pistachio tree called an "iceberg-tree" because of its extensive root system, sky-scraping sequoias and air-purifying cedars.

Keep in mind that Yalta's beaches are made of pebbles that heat up quickly in the sun. This means you'll need proper footwear while you hunt for prettily shaped marbles instead of building sand castles.

What to do with the kids

Every Soviet child dreamed of visiting Yalta's Polyana Skazok, an open-air museum of Russian fairy tales (154 Ulitsa Kirova; open daily from 9 a.m. to 7 p.m.; entrance costs $4; +380-654-39-5303; polyana-skazok.org.ua). Up in the mountain pine forests, this so-called meadow has more than 200 wood sculptures of fairy-tale heroes and offers live performances by clowns, pirates and mermaids.

Kids will also love Yalta's private zoo and sea aquarium (Posyolok Vinogradnoye, Ulitsa Kirova; open in summer from 9 a.m. to 8 p.m. daily; entrance fee is $12 for adults and $6 for kids; +380-654-31-0030; yaltazoo.org;).

Animals, including the cutest newborn rare white tiger cubs, can be fed and petted.

Nightlife

After sunset, Massandra beach turns into a night club with live performers and big crowds.

Yalta's nightlife also pulsates in the neon-lit clubs, restaurants, karaoke bars and casinos of the seashore promenade.

Locals particularly recommend Ikon Concert Hall, which hosts foreign DJs playing contemporary dance music (35/2 Naberezhnaya Imeni Lenina, Oreanda, 4th floor; open Thursday through Saturday from 10 p.m. to 5 a.m.; +38-097-478-8822).

For drama lovers, Yalta's internationally acclaimed Chekov Theater is a treat (13 Yekaterininskaya Ulitsa; +380-654-27-2564, +380-654-23-4247; theatreyalta.com). Anton Chekhov once sat here in the first row, scrutinizing performances of his plays.

Where to eat

To sample the original recipes of the Russian royal court, head to the Livadia Palace (44th Ulitsa Baturina, Livadiya; serves lunch and dinner from 12 p.m. to midnight daily; +380-654-31-8721). The menu matches the luxurious location — try "Imperial-style" meat marinated in madeira, "ruby crown" game with cherries and quail soup. A dinner for two costs about $70.

For a budget meal, at about $25 a head for three courses, go to Apelsin, located inside the ancient Greek ship off the seaside promenade, which offers European and Japanese cuisine (8 Ulitsa Naberezhnaya Imeni Lenina; +380-954-96-9911; apelsincafe.com).

A little further down the seafront, not far from McDonalds and Lenin's statue is an American-inspired fast-food joint, Uncle Sam's Pizzeria, on the ground floor of Bristol Hotel (10 Ulitsa Roosvelta; +380-654-27-1676)

Where to stay

Hotel Villa Sofia, opened by the Moldavian singer Sofia Rotaru in 2009, occupies a 19th-century mansion in the heart of Yalta (31 Naberezhnaya Imeni Lenina; +380-684-80-9847; villa-sofia.com.ua). The interior of each of its twelve rooms is designed individually, with customized furniture and accessories. Rooms range from $550 to $2,000.

A standard two-bed room at the three-star Motel Darsan, situated a little outside of the city center, costs about $55 (49В Ulitsa Khalturina; +380-654-27-3478; motel-darsan.com.ua).

Another cheaper option is to rent a flat. You can either consult a real estate agency before your trip (yalta-resort.com/arenda/) or bargain for good deals with one of the pack of local women on round-the-clock duty at the main bus station.

Conversation Starters

Conquering the labyrinth of narrow streets and hilly landscape makes Yalta's drivers virtuosos. Complementing Yaltintsy on their driving or commenting on the tortuous roads of their town may be a good way to start a conversation.

Inhabitants of Yalta are understandably proud of their town's rich historic legacy and will respond enthusiastically to any enquiries from curious newcomers.

How to get there

To get to the Crimea fast, take a direct 2-hour flight from Moscow's Domodedovo or Sheremetyevo airports to Simferopol, the capital of the Crimea.  Ukrainian International Airlines and Aeroflot offer round trip tickets on over five daily flights for about $400.

Alternatively, you can take a 24-hour train ride from Moscow's Kursky Station to Simferopol, which costs anywhere from $100 to $300 one way, depending on the level of comfort.

From Simferopol, Yalta is only 82 kilometers away. If you are arriving by air, take a bus for $1 or a taxi for about $40 to the railway station. From the bus station across from the train station entrance, next door to a McDonalds, get on another bus or fixed schedule shuttle bus to Yalta. These leave every 20 minutes from the early hours to the late evening and cost $3. The trip will take you about 90 minutes.

For half the price, again from the railway station, you can take a more exotic trolleybus ride — on "horned" transport, as locals call it.

Contact the author at bizwriter@imedia.ru