Tuesday, August 26, 2008

UA - Livadia, Yalta

At breakfast this morning (omelets again), the girls decided to stick around town and go to the beach. As much as I would love some beach time, however, I was in Crimea to explore; not sit about. This was my first time navigating on my own since my failed attempts back in Illichevsk. However, this time around I knew where our bus stop was located.

Without any problem, I boarded a marshrutka headed for Yalta. My first stop would be Livadia Palace, located before reaching the city. I listened to the driver as he called out each stop, hoping to hear my bus stop the first time around; or otherwise I’d just get on another marshrutka in Yalta and ask the driver to see that I disembark at Livadia.

Just before entering into a daydream, I thought I heard the bus driver call out my stop. I’d already thought I heard it once before, but opted to stay on board; taking mental notes on where exactly I’d thought I’d heard it called out for if I had to come back from Yalta. This time I left the marshrutka and immediately went down a path nearby, as my guidebook said there’d be a downhill path; and frankly I knew that if I went downhill: I was boarded on all sides by places I knew. Yalta to the east and Alupka to the west; the upper road (which I was on) to the north and the lower road to the south.

After descending down a bit I came to a gated apartment block. There was a well-worn path around the turnpike, so after a moment of hesitation I decided to keep on going past the apartment block. Worst thing that happens: I turn around and ascend back to the bus stop. You’re never lost if you can undo everything you’ve done. The street wrapped around the apartments and emerged on the other side at a small grocery store, where the road continued downhill again. Trying to correlate what I was seeing with the instructions in my book, I tried a nearby set of stairs; but climbed back up after it didn’t feel like the right thing to do.

I just stuck to this descending street all the way until I reached the lower road. Here I had to make a decision… give in and board a marshrutka back to Yalta, then turn right back around? I tried asking for guidance, but apparently my Russian wasn’t up to snuff; or the guy just had no interest in helping me. Actually, I think the latter was more applicable. I was feeling pretty confident with saying “gdye Livadia Dverets?”

Just as I was about to take a seat at the bus stop – located at the intersection – and catch a marshrutka back to Yalta, I spotted a mother and daughter whom had been on the marshrutka I took to get here. They got off when I did, and here they were again. They asked somebody something and I saw the other person’s arm go up, pointing down a nearby downhill path. Then it struck me: my book’s directions aren’t for somebody coming from Simeiz & getting off the bus at the upper road; they’re for somebody coming from Yalta and getting off here.

There could only be one place the mother and daughter were headed, so I followed them down the path and, having caught up with them, asked if they were also headed to Livadia. I soon learned that not only were they headed there, but the mother spoke some English. They were visiting from Moldova, and now I had someone who could keep asking for directions to Livadia.

This downhill path had a lot of construction, which is why I suspect my Lonely Planet guide may have been – once again – woefully outdated. It said to take some concrete steps at a pinkish-orange building, but I think that either the building has since been destroyed; or an even better route has since been built. A construction worked directed us down a set of steel steps just around the first bend in the path, except these steps continued only for a couple stairs and ended into a dirt path. It certainly didn’t’ feel like the way to a grand palace.

The steep dirt path soon gave way to what felt like a person’s backyard. Then again, a lot of paths in Ukraine do that. A person there directed us on, and we followed the pavement (if you could call it that) around to a dilapidated alley which was oddly beautiful for its rustic look. At the end of this alley: tour buses, and lots of them! We’d made it.

After parting ways, I grabbed some ice cream from a nearby stall and found my cold treat amour of Ukraine: Maxibon. It’s half cookie filled with ice cream; half nutty chocolate covered ice cream; and the ice cream is straciatella – perhaps the finest of all ice creams apart from Turkey Hill Chocolate Peanut Butter Cup and maybe Cookies and Cream. Dagnab this thing was tasty.

I toured the grounds around Livadia Palace a little bit before soon deciding to head inside. For those unaware, Livadia is where the Soviet Union, Great Britain, and the United States met to divvy up Europe following World War II. This is where the iconic photo of Stalin, Churchill, and Roosevelt was taken. Specifically, Livadia was where the American delegation was accommodated: the other two nations were at other palaces in the area; but this is the location that these historic moments are best associated with.

The interior of the palace is pretty and it retains a good amount of information on its role in the partitioning of Europe, keeping a lot of furniture in place and providing lots of photos; oftentimes with English translations. This was good since I ditched my Russian-speaking tour group within the first 5 minutes. Upstairs, the palace traces its history as the summer palace of the tsars in the few years before the Bolshevik Revolution.

It’s a bit haunting looking at the photos, thinking of the doom that would come to the family only a couple years after the photos were taken. The photos of the children, in particular, make one think about the brutality of the revolt; and how while there are benefits of being a part of the social elite (such as the palace I was standing in), there are the risks (such as being hunted across your homeland, with your children sharing your doomed fate).

After the palace, I left to tour the gardens a bit. I decided to make my way downhill toward the sea, since the shoreline always offers great views. The way down consisted of many sets of stairs as well as some downward-sloping pathways, and I eventually took notice that the stairs would sometimes have numbers on them. They started at just shy of 700, counting downward. I soon figured out that they were counting the number of stairs, so I dearly hoped that the view from the shore would justify the hike back up.

By the time I reached the bottom of the nearly 700 stairs, my legs were beginning to waver just from going downward. Would you know it, however, upon reaching the bottom: a pay beach. I couldn’t even get to the sea without having to pay cash. I’m sure it wasn’t much, but I refuse to pay for beaches like I refuse to pay for toilets. I couldn’t even get a decent photo from the stairs because of the beach’s buildings; though I still made an attempt at a photo, anyway. Better than nothing. If I was going to hike back up, then dagnabit I was going to leave with something.

The return trek back up was… well it wasn’t as bad as one would think, thanks to the frequent provision of benches and nearly constant presence of shade. That still didn’t take away from the fact that it was hot, humid, and there was not much of a breeze at this particular location. Nonetheless, I survived. If I can hike Hoverla, the Swiss Alps, or up the towers of an array of religious constructs: I can certainly manage an upward trek through a palace garden. It really wasn’t so much the number of stairs as it was that I knew the number of stairs. Seven hundred just seems like such a big number.

I dawdled around a little bit more before making my way back up to the lower road bus stop, from where I hopped onto another marshrutka destined for Yalta. I was a bit disoriented when I first arrived in Yalta, as at that moment I didn’t realize that there was a central bus stop as well as the main bus stop. The latter is located on the northeast side of town and is what I was familiar with; the former is located right in the center and is where I’d just arrived at.

Surrounding me was what felt like an endless marketplace. Sure I could’ve just looked at my guidebook’s map, but that’d be too easy. You’re never lost when you’re on holiday: I came to Yalta to see the city, so the best way to see it was to wander aimlessly about. I knew I wanted to see the waterfront, so using my advanced knowledge of Earthen geography I knew that mountains indicate land… so if I could see mountains, there probably isn’t sea there. Secondly, since water flows downhill and water is what carves up mountains, I knew that downhill would not only lead me away from the mountains; it would also lead me to the sea. So, I generally oriented myself to go downhill and away from the mountains.

After meandering about a little bit within the market areas, I was at the sea in just a couple minutes walk. Had I skipped the market area, I’d have arrived in about 2 minutes – the bus stop really is central: it’s right at the meeting point between the paved waterfront & docks to the west; and the beaches to the east.

My first trek was along the beachfront, which seems to consist entirely of pay beaches. This all comes as a surprise since I can’t quite recall ever seeing a pay beach. Now I’ve seen beaches where you can pay for added perks, like getting to reserve a lounge chair instead of having to fight for space on the ground. Indeed, the pebbly beach in Simeiz has that, most beaches in Europe have that, and even a number of beaches in the Americas have that. However, here, you had to pay just to set foot on their shore. The water wasn’t even particularly clean, so nuts to that.

The walk along the beachfront was more than enjoyable, as peering onto the beaches: the crowd generally seemed to consist of families and babushkas. Along the walkway, however, was an endless stream of gorgeous woman after gorgeous woman. When I’d gone far enough east that the crowds and snack stalls seemed to be disappearing, I turned around and made my way westward to the waterfront and docks.

By this time I was starting to get hungry, but from strolling along all of Yalta’s coastline: one would be led to believe that the city survives on nothing but ice cream and soft drinks. There was no food anywhere, apart from the highly sporadic café that charged obscene prices for what one would be hard-pressed to call a menu. You could get 90% of the same food from the ice cream & soft drink stalls.

I eventually happened upon a place offering what appeared to be tasty shawarmas and had a small crowd around it (no crowd means bad food that no one wants; big crowd means trendy, expensive, and probably not all that good… and you’ll have to wait forever; small crowds are perfect). Overall, while I enjoyed my walk along Yalta’s shoreline, it really is a place that can be skipped. It’s the attractions outside of Yalta that make it special; not the city itself.

After a pleasant stroll back to the main bus station on the northeast side of town, I boarded a marshrutka back to Simeiz. About half an hour later, I’d arrived proud that I’d successfully navigated by bus throughout the Crimea. I can’t even figure the buses out in America.

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