World’s most wanted peninsula: glimpses of the Taurican summer
It’s August and it’s hot. Our taxi is making its way through narrow mountain roads, and all I see is blue patches of sky, emerald grape-fields and glittering, silvery sea strips flying by. It seems like a perfect place on Earth – Paradise. The Taurican summer is closing in on us, wrapping us in its steaming afternoon, the Back Sea luring swimmers from the distance, looking so chilly and fresh.
Taurica is the antique name for the Crimea, a small peninsula in the South of modern-day Ukraine. Herodotus, the Ancient Greek historian, said that Heracles plowed Taurica using his ox (Taurus), hence the name.
The Taures who lived here in antiquity were primarily farmers. They cultivated grapes and other fruits. Taurica has always attracted invaders, all throughout its history. Hundreds of bloody battles took place on the slopes of its mountains that are very close to the sea and form a natural shield that embraces the peninsula from the South.
For over 300 years, from 1441 to 1774, Taurica was ruled by the Crimean Tatar whose monarch was the descendant of Chenghis Khan. The Crimean Tatar rule was by far the longest – no other nation or a group of people had ever had control over Taurica for such a long time. The Crimean Tatar gave Taurica its present name – the Crimea, that’s derived from Qırım, the Crimean Tatar for “my hill”.
However, traces of many other nations’ presence can be found all over Taurica. For example, the ancient road that the Romans were trying to build up a mountain, Greek city names, antique legends that are still shared among the local population, etc.
Yalta is the unofficial tourist capital of the Crimea, even though its official administrative center is the city of Simferopol. Yalta occupies a small patch of land, overlooking the sea and surrounded by the mountains from over 180 degrees.
It was to this shore that a small group of Greek sailors arrived some 1000 years ago. The sailors were completely exhausted, because they had been caught up in storm, lost their way and had run out of food and water by that time. And, all of a sudden, one of the sailors saw a beautiful shore gleaming in the distance. “Yalos! Yalos!” (Land! Land!), he cried, and thus, the city got its name – Yalta.
Ironically enough, we also got caught in storm near Yalta. However, the captain was nice and let us stay on the ship (even though we had arrived and had to get off) until the rain stopped 😉
A true Englishman’s House
Prince Mikhail Vorontsov, who lived in the Crimea at the turn of the 19th century, was an extremely remarkable public figure. Richer that the Emperor himself, a fluent speaker of 6 foreign languages and a talented military who chased Napoleon out of Russia, Prince Vorontsov was about the most educated, noble and progressive-thinking man of his time. Brought up in England (where he had lived until he was 19 y.o.), he suggested to the Russian Emperor that the Russian serfs, who were half-slaves and half-working people, should be granted freedom and civil rights – this would benefit the economy. But the Emperor wouldn’t listen.
We visited the Vorontsov Palace near present-day Alupka. As Winston Churchill said, who stayed at the Palace during the famous Yalta Conference in 1945, “this reminds me of a good old English home”. It does look like an English castle, indeed. It has solid stone walls, big brown window-frames, massive fireplaces of diabase (a dark stone that’s more durable than marble) and, most importantly, enough space for everyone – something that you imagine when they say “My home is my castle”.
The bear over the sea
Separating Yalta from Alushta is a big mountain that’s sticking into the sea. This mountain is called Ayu-Dag, which means “Bear Mountain” in Crimean Tatar. The legend has it that, once upon a time, thousands of years ago, the area around Ayu-Dag was uninhabited and only bears lived there. They were not like the brown bears we are used to. Those were huge, strong and furry creatures – the kind we don’t see nowadays.
But, one day, the sea brought a little girl, a human, who had survived a ship-wreck. The bears really liked the girl and had been taking care of her until she grew up. When she was about 17 years old, a young sailor from far away sailed to the shores Ayu-Dag and saw her there. The girl was so beautiful that he fell in love with her immediately.
After spending some time together, the girl and her beloved decided to leave the bears and sail to the faraway land where the young man lived. They decided to do it at dawn, so that the bears couldn’t stop them.
They were already far away, when the biggest bear, who was the leader of the pack, woke up and saw that the girl was gone. She was very dear to him, so, he rushed to the sea and saw that she was sailing away with the youth. The furry bear leaned over the sea and started pulling the water in with his huge mouth. The sea started rocking from side to side, fast rapids flushing into his jaws.
But the girl was already too far away. When the bear realized that the girl was out of reach, he started crying, without getting up. He cried and cried, until he turned into stone, and stayed the way he was, leaning over the sea, forever. He is still there today. 😉