Swallow's Nest in Yalta
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Jutting out into the Black Sea, lined with beaches and at the same latitude as southern France, the Crimean coastline has been dubbed the Ukrainian Riviera. Yalta ranks as the largest and most popular resort town on this stretch of coast. Set in a deep bay and surrounded by green mountains and vineyards, it's certainly easy on the eye as you sail toward the shore.
Yalta has been shaped by many influences over the centuries. According to legend, it was founded in the 1st century by Greek sailors who lost their way in a storm. When they landed in the bay with its warm climate and beautiful surroundings, they decided to stay put and form a settlement. The old part of town contains wooden houses built under Turkish rule in the 18th century; Russia took control in the late 18th century. Yalta quickly became the Black Sea's most fashionable resort and a playground of the czars and aristocracy when Alexander II made nearby Livadia his summer home.
Its balmy climate and seaside location led to Yalta becoming a health resort for Soviet workers in the 20th century, with grand homes turned into sanatoria.
For cruise passengers making their way on land under their own steam, it's easy to see why many don't get any farther than the long stretch of promenade named after Lenin (and where his statue gazes out to sea). Situated next to the cruise terminal, the waterfront is well over a mile long and lined with interesting shops and places to eat and drink. The rest of the town is not as accessible as main districts in other Black Sea ports, such as Odessa. The roads are quite steep and often busy with tour buses and taxis leaving the port. However, Yalta is the gateway to a fascinating region. Beyond the town, winding roads offer spectacular views of the coast and lead to evocative Crimean War sites and palaces that played a pivotal role in modern history.
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Edible souvenirs represent a good buy. The Ukraine is known for its honey, and vodka is cheap, plentiful and comes in all sorts of flavors. These items, along with the national delicacy caviar, can be found in the souvenir shops near the port and at the stalls around the Livadia Palace and the Swallow's Nest lookout point. Hand-painted wooden crafts, paintings of local views and embroidered clothing and linen make more lasting mementos of time in Yalta.
Ukrainian is the official state language. English is widely spoken in shops, restaurants and at tourist attractions.
Currency & Best Way to Get Money
The currency is the Ukrainian hryvnia. For current currency conversion figures, check www.xe.com. Some souvenir vendors in Yalta accept U.S. dollars, but it's best to get some local currency; U.S. dollars and Russian rubles represent the two main currencies accepted at banks and money exchanges. Some exchange services accept euros, and the British pound is hard to exchange. Ensure notes are in good condition or they could be refused. A currency exchange is located in the port's passenger terminal, and you'll find plenty of ATM's nearby. Major credit cards are accepted in restaurants and shops.
Where You're Docked
Cruise ships dock at Yalta Sea Trade Port, which contains a passenger terminal. The port is situated on the main promenade but, unlike other Black Sea destinations, most of the main sights, such as Livadia, Alupka Palace and the Crow's Nest, are not accessible on foot from the port. Visitors need to sign up for shore excursions or travel independently by taxi. In 2012, plans were announced to modernize the port and extend the berthing facilities to accommodate up to four ships simultaneously.
The passenger terminal features a tourist information office and facilities, including toilets and refreshment vendors. There are ATM's on the pedestrian-only waterfront area and plenty of shops, restaurants, open-air cafes, fairground rides, street entertainers and pebble beaches, making it easy to enjoy a day close to the port. Historic sights include the statue of Lenin standing in front of a modern fast food chain. A case of the old East meeting the new West?
On Foot: Away from the bustling Naberezhnaya Lenina, or Lenin Promenade, the main city center is a 15-minute walk away -- where a top attraction is Alexander Nevsky cathedral. Independent travelers armed with a map can enjoy a stroll from the port to soak up some of the sights, but for the main attractions, you need to take a tour bus out of town.
Public Transport: Inexpensive trolley buses travel in town, and a good bus network runs to outlying areas that are home to attractions such as Alupka Palace and the Crow's Nest. Tell the driver where you want to get off because the stops are a short walk away. Bear in mind that language can also be an issue.
By Taxi: Taxis are plentiful, and drivers waiting outside the port terminal invariably speak English, and they know all the top sights and how to dodge the peak-season traffic jams.
By Ferry: During the cruise season, up to 20 ferries a day run from the pier on the promenade to the Swallow's Nest and Livadia Palace. Tickets are cheap, but be prepared for the climb up to the castle and palace from the landing points. Cruise ships typically arrive at breakfast time and sail late afternoon, so there is plenty of time for travelers to go sightseeing on their own.
Watch Out For
Plenty of taxis can be hailed around the port, but make sure you agree on a price before you get in. Don't be afraid to haggle. If you think the price is too high, just walk away and find another taxi down the street and try to negotiate a cheaper rate.
Perched on a cliff top overlooking the Cape of Ai-Todornot outside Yalta, the Swallow's Nest is the region's trademark sight. Originally a wooden building, the present Gothic fairytale castle was built by a German oil magnate in 1912, supposedly to house his mistresses. The best views of the castle are from the dedicated viewing platform. Many shore excursions include a visit to the castle. Otherwise, the only other way to reach it from Yalta is by bus, taxi or boat. Visitors arriving by boat can climb up the hill from the landing beach and walk around the outside of the castle.
Located up steep winding roads three miles from the port, the stunning white Italianate Livadia Palace is famous as being the site where the United States, Great Britain and Soviet Union met in 1945 to redraw Europe's map after World War II. The palace was built in 1911 by Czar Nicholas II as his summer residence, Now, the ground floor is devoted to fascinating documents and photos from the Yalta Conference and includes iconic pictures of the remarkable meeting between Winston Churchill, Joseph Stalin and Franklin Roosevelt (they're shown deep in conversation). In complete contrast, the upper floor gives an insight into the life of the tsar and his family at the opulent palace. (Open 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily, except Wednesday.)
A curious combination of an English castle and Moorish fortress, the Alupka Palace also known as Vorontsov Palace, is considered one of the finest achievements of Russian architecture. Twelve miles from the port and set against a backdrop of mountains and cypress trees, it was built by Prince Vorontsovsky in 1830, with the input of English architect Edward Blore, who designed part of Buckingham Palace. Features include the flight of steps leading down toward the sea where marble lion statues, in particular a sleepy king of the jungle, provide a great photo opportunity. Winston Churchill stayed at Alupka during the Yalta Conference. (Open from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., closed on Monday.)
Alexander Nevsky Cathedral is less than a mile from the port and easy to spot with its gold onion domes. It is one of the few sights that can be reached on foot and not usually featured on cruise excursions. It's named after the Russian patron saint and features a rich interior filled with icons. (Sadovaya Street 2; normally open from 9 a.m.)
Garden enthusiasts won't want to miss Nikitsky Botanical Garden in Nikita, believed to be one of the world's oldest botanical gardens and now an important horticultural research center. Some five miles from the cruise terminal by the shores of the Black Sea, the 500-acre gardens were founded in 1812 and are famous for a rose collection spanning more than 2,000 varieties, trees from around the world and 18,000 species of plants. (Open 9 a.m. to 6 p.m.)
Been There, Done That
The celebrated Russian writer and dramatist Anton Chekhov lived in Yalta for five years and penned works including "The Three Sisters" and "The Cherry Orchard" during his time in the city. "The Lady with the Little Dog" was inspired by a woman he saw walking along the promenade. His former house is now a museum and includes all kinds of artifacts connected to his life and work, from items of clothing to his piano, photos, theater programs, manuscripts and books translated into different languages. (112 Kirov Street; open daily 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. except Monday and Tuesday.)
Military history enthusiasts can visit strategic Crimean War sites on the peninsula 32 miles west of Yalta, including the site of one of the most legendary and ill-fated events in British military history, the Charge of the Light Brigade. In Sevastopol, Russia's main naval base on the Black Sea, the circular Panorama building was constructed to house the epic panoramic painting "The Defense of Sevastopol" in 1855. From here, visitors can travel to Sapoune Heights where Lord Raglan looked down on the "valley of death" where the Battle of Balaclava and the Charge of the Light Brigade took place. These sights can be visited during a one-day port call.
Ten miles outside Yalta, the pretty coastal resort of Gurzuf provides a change of scenery with its narrow cobbled streets and attractions, including the ruins of a 6th-century fortress and distinctive rock islands that rise out of the sea close to the shore.
Drink in the local history at the Massandra Winery, a 10-minute drive from the center of Yalta. Renowned for its fortified and sweet wines, Massandra is the oldest Crimean winery and dates to 1894. Its cellars were created in underground tunnels hewn into the mountains, and during the 1917 Russian Revolution, the stocks were saved by walling up the entrances. The winery offers a variety of tours and tastings from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.
It's worth walking to the far western end of Lenin Promenade to check out Pushkinskaya Street. The main shopping boulevard is lined with fountains, statues and a mix of local shops and galleries for those who seek variety away from the more obvious souvenir shops.
Yalta offers international restaurants and fast food eateries that will appeal to all tastes, along with plenty of local specialities. A typical lunch is pelmeni, steamed dumplings filled with meat, and Crimea is famous for its red onions, which have a sweet taste and are considered something of a delicacy. You'll find plenty of fish dishes on the menus, and don't forget to try some local wine or maybe a shot of ice cold vodka. Many restaurants catering to tourists are clustered around the port area and serve decent, if not gourmet, food.
Opened in 1907, the Oreanda Hotel is a landmark property, and it's worth paying a bit more to dine in the first-floor Oreanda Restaurant for the views over the Black Sea. For a more inexpensive and casual option, the hotel operates the La Siesta cafe on the beachfront. (35 Lenina Street; open from breakfast through to 11 p.m.)
More upmarket meals with a sea view can be found at the Grand Terrace Restaurant at Villa Elena, where the menu includes a Black Sea fish of the day and there is an open-air terrace. (3A Morskaya Street; open for lunch from noon.)
There's a fun, relaxed atmosphere at Khutorok la Mer, with its bright cushions on the outside terrace and ship-like interior in the main restaurant. It serves a combination of Ukrainian and European food, and lamb is a speciality. (Sverdlov Street 9; open from 10 a.m. until late)
Staying in Touch
Yalta has Internet cafes, but one of the easiest ways to get online is at one of the main post offices, which have blue and yellow signs and offer inexpensive Wi-Fi access. Travelers with their own laptops can find free Wi-Fi at restaurants and cafes near the cruise terminal including MacDonald's at Ruzvelt'ta Street 2 and the Mojito cafe in the center of the Lenin Embankment at number 32.
Best for First-Timers: A scenic coach tour provides an excellent overview of Yalta's highlights. On many cruises, the four-hour tour is offered as a morning or afternoon option. Sit back and take in Alexander Nevsky Cathedral, St. Michael the Archangel Church and panoramic coastal views before ending up at the Swallow's Nest. This tour is good for passengers who want to take it easy because only a small amount of walking is involved, and there's time for a coffee break and souvenir shopping.
Best for Culture Vultures: The czars built grand summer palaces on the Crimean coast, and these wonderful retreats can be admired on a combined coach and walking tour (4.5 hours). Alexander III's Massandra Palace, now a museum of fine arts, and Nicholas II's Livadia Palace form the mainstay of this tour, which ends on Livadia's Italian patio with a glass of port, the czar's favorite tipple, and a classical concert performed by members of the local philharmonic orchestra.
Best for a Day Out: Make the most of a day in port with a leisurely extended excursion (seven hours) and head along the coast to take in Alupka Palace, the Swallow's Nest and Livadia Palace. The trip includes lunch at a restaurant in Yalta to savor Ukrainian specialities and watch the colorful folk music and dance group Tauria, who also hop onboard some cruise ships for an early evening performance.
For More Information
On the Web: Travel to Ukraine
Cruise Critic Message Boards: Mediterranean – Eastern and Western
IndependentTraveler.com: Eastern Europe travel guide
--by Jeannine Williamson, Cruise Critic contributor