Letter From Crimea: Yalta to Simferopol

This is the twenty-first installment in a series about a journey, by train and bicycle, across Russia to Crimea shortly before the war began.

Simferopol, which is the capital (so to speak) of Crimea, and its elegant railroad station. Trains now connect Moscow to Crimea over the new Kerch Bridge, which opened just before the war. Photo: Matthew Stevenson.

By the time I had biked around Livadia Palace and Yalta, it had become a hot afternoon, and I had lost interest in riding further down the coastline to see the palaces of Vorontsov and Koreiz, where, respectively, the British and Russian delegates stayed during the Yalta Conference. The coast road did not have much of a shoulder for bicycles, and Russian cars drive the way Stalin negotiated—with abandon. Instead, I made up my mind to leave Yalta that afternoon, and to head toward Simferopol, where I had a ticket on the night train to Krasnodar.

When I was planning my travels and imagining my time in Yalta, beyond Livadia and the Yalta conference I wanted to see Chekhov’s house and some of the other palaces around town, and I wanted to take the waters of the Black Sea, as if some guest at a Soviet sanitarium. But as I made my way back to Yalta and my hotel, the city streets were filled with rivulets of mud that had washed down from the hills and army trucks dispensing water to residents who appeared with armloads of plastic jugs. What if the rains returned and I found myself trapped in Yalta? I would miss my outbound Crimean train and then my flight home.

The World’s Longest Trolley Line

I was happy to leave my hotel (and its grouchy owner) and glide down the long hill into Yalta, where I turned left along a rushing river and rode north until I came to a bus station.

There, after hunting around, I found what is billed as the world’s longest trolley bus, which runs from Yalta to Simferopol, about a three-hour ride with fifty-seven stops, although the two cities are only about fifty miles apart.

I was looking forward to the ride, as I would roll along the coast, see Massandra and its celebrated vineyards, and cross over the mountains between the coast and the Crimean capital. I might be early in Simferopol for my night train to Krasnodar, but I could find a restaurant in Simferopol, bike around the downtown, and read my book at the station. There were worse ways to spend a late June afternoon than waiting on a train.

There were only four passengers on the trolley as it departed Yalta. I paid about $1.50 for my fare and chose a seat next to an open window at the back. I was on the left side so that I might see the chateau of Massandra, famous for its tsarist sweet wines (not unlike Sauternes) that often take sixty years to mature (which in Crimea means the equivalent of about five national changes).

A train friend of mine, back in the early days of Ukraine’s independence, bought up a large holding of Massandra wines, and then, as best as I know, sold them off bottle-by-bottle for an excellent gain.

The only other Massandra story that came to mind was from Silvio Berlusconi’s post-presidential 2015 visit to Crimea in the company of Vladimir Putin. The trip was condemned in the West for endorsing the Russian occupation of Crimea, but what infuriated critics more was that Putin had the winery’s general manager uncork a 1775 bottle of Jeres de la Frontera, then thought to be worth about $100,000, which he shared with his guest.

Smarting over the 2014 loss of the winery and its many assets in the cellars beneath the chateau, the Ukrainian government filed criminal charges against the manager for theft of its property. Presumably, in any peace settlement after the war, the value of the lost wine property will need to be adjudicated.

Massandra and its Vineyards

Whether I actually saw the former tsar’s summer palace, which is at the heart of the vineyard operations, is for me an open question. I knew where to look, but between the trolley line and the chateau, in addition to vineyards, some pine trees obscured my view.

I suppose I could have gotten off the trolley and biked to the chateau, but by that point my mind was fixed on Simferopol, and I was happy to ride the trolley through the vineyards that stretch down the long hillside between the chateaux and the sea.

It struck me that the coastline between Yalta and Alushta, where the trolly headed inland, was softer and more alluring than the harsh shoreline that runs from Sevastopol to Yalta.

On the slopes of many vineyards, I could see construction cranes and newly built high-rise apartment blocks, which apparently are among the spoils of annexation, at least for cronies of Vladimir Putin.

Besides the MacMansions sprouting on the Black Sea coast, and some new buildings in Sevastopol, the rest of Crimea might well be a forgotten land, with many farms abandoned and villages lost in time. It made me wonder whether Russia had any interest at all in Crimea, aside from inside trading along the Black Sean coast and a few military bases. Much of the rest looked like a wasteland.

The Crimean Capital of Simferopol

The trolley line follows the route that Winston Churchill and Franklin Roosevelt, and their staffs, took from the Saky airfield to Yalta in February 1945. Then the roads were potholed, casualties of the war, and the drives took hours in the cold and dark. At one point Roosevelt’s car stopped for a picnic. And it’s about this time that Churchill quipped about Crimea as the locale for a conference: “If we had spent ten years on research, we could not have found a worse place.”

To my delight, the trolley dropped me in Simferopol in a large square across from the railroad station. I was hours early for my train, but I didn’t mind in the least, as I was out of Yalta and its mudslides, and within striking distance, so I felt, of getting home. I checked to see that the night train to Krasnodar was on time—it was—and then went in search of downtown Simferopol and dinner, neither of which were in much evidence on a Sunday evening.

I followed the tram tracks to get to downtown Simferopol, and from there, even though I knew it would closed, the Crimean history museum. I would also have liked to see the local art museum, as I had seen some of its pictures online when researching my travels. It has paintings of Tatar villages, the Crimean Black Sea coast, and the gorges of the high mountains, over which the trolley had rumbled on the run up from Alushta. In many ways, Russian landscape paintings are more pleasurable than Russian travels.

Family Ties to Crimea

It was only after I had left Simferopol that I recalled that the Russian family of my friend Mark Medish had a house in the city, and that on one of his trips with his father he had gone in search of the family home and found it. I never met his father, but sense he was remarkable, in that his life’s voyage included growing up in Russia, fighting for the Russian army at Stalingrad, and then managing to avoid forcible repatriation after Yalta and settle in the United States.

Over the years, I had heard from Mark snippets in emails about his father’s life, and even in short form they read like passages out of Jules Verne’s Michael Strogoff: The Courier of the Czar or maybe an adventure novel of G.A. Henty, whose wrote: Through Russian Snows A Story of Napoleon’s Retreat from Moscow.

About Stalingrad, Mark wrote to me:

My father’s Red Army anti-tank unit (under Major General G.P. Kotov, I believe) mostly battled Rumanians in the Army of Lt. General [Constantin] Constantinescu-Claps. The unit had been mobilized toward Stalingrad in late July 1942 but soon retreated southward and surrendered on the banks of the Manych River to German units under [General Wilhelm] List in Sept 1942.

When I asked Mark if his father had ever gone back to Stalingrad, he answered that he once went back with Mark’s mother on a Volga River cruise, which I am sure must have been bittersweet. I then asked Mark where his father’s family had had houses, and he answered by sending me pictures and this remark: “We visited Crimea together around 2006. Great trip. Our family houses in Simferopol, Yalta and Alushta remained in some form.”

The houses in Mark’s photographs, especially that in Simferopol, looked like dozens that I saw on my bicycle ride to the history museum, which was a few kilometers through an old neighborhood from the railway station.

Then it occurred to me that Mark’s father would have been among those captured Soviet soldiers in the West who Stalin was so determined to repatriate and then execute (or dispatch to the Gulag). Somehow he managed to avoid this fate, and when I asked Mark how he had survived, he wrote back:

My father basically became a Pole. He was polyglot born in Minsk and easily changed his papers to Pinsk, which was in pre-war Poland. As a DP [Displaced Person], he did face a three-person repatriation tribunal hearing under “Operation Keelhaul” in Munich in 1946-47. They accepted his status as a Pole.

What saved him was his ability to speak fluent, unaccented Polish, even though he was Russian. Not many were so lucky or talented.

The Night Train to Krasnodar

I had thought I might find a restaurant with an open-air terrace, where I could park my bicycle and watch my bags without having to take everything apart and lock up the frame.

For whatever reasons, Simferopol in summer had a forlorn feel, least in the downtown. For Russia, Crimea has the feel of a zone of occupation—even though many residents did vote to reunification with Russia.

I rode on a bike loop near the botanical gardens, and hunted along the main street for patio restaurants, but in the end I was reduced to collecting sandwiches and drinks from several kiosks along the main street, and taking my picnic supper back to the railway station.

At least the Simferopol station, which was destroyed in World War II, is worthy of the tsars (who would use it on their way to vacations in Yalta), and I set up my dinner on a platform bench near a bed of well-tended flowers.

The night train to Krasnodar left at dusk, and on this train I was back in first class. Unfortunately, my compartment mate—I know, it doesn’t sound like first class—was a militant anti-masker, despite all the posted signs on the platform and in the train. When I complained to the porter, she shrugged and said: “It may be the law, but that doesn’t mean we have to follow it.”

With my bicycle and bags under my berth, which otherwise was comfortable and had broad views of the Russian landscape as the sun set, I settled in with my maps and book, figuring that if my fellow traveller annoyed me by not masking, I would annoy him with my reading light. Eventually, as if it was another round of negotiations at Yalta, he took out his mask, and I turned off my light.

Next: Krasnodar and the flight home. Earlier installments can be found here.

Matthew Stevenson is the author of many books, including Reading the Rails, Appalachia Spring, and The Revolution as a Dinner Party, about China throughout its turbulent twentieth century. His most recent book, about traveling in France and the Franco-Prussian wars, is entitled Biking with Bismarck.