As Evgenii and I wandered around the vast London Natural History Museum on the day of our first meeting, he spoke wildly of how I ought to experience the beauty and diversity of the Crimean landscape. Naturally, I was sceptical. For the past four years, in Western politics at least, the peninsula south of Ukraine has become a symbol of Russian aggression abroad. Yet as our relationship progressed, it became inevitable that I would eventually travel to his home regardless.
“Are you even allowed to go there?” my manager asked when I told him my intentions. The answer is arguably no. The British Foreign and Commonwealth Office advises against all travel to the region, continuing to define Crimea as the territory of Ukraine, and identifying the March 2014 referendum in which the Crimean people voted to join Russia, as an illegal annexation by the Russian state. It is important to note that your normal travel insurance is unlikely to cover you during your stay. On the other hand, getting to Crimea is remarkably easy, even for a British passport holder. All you require is a simple Russian tourist visa, ideally having included a Crimean city when applying online for an invitation letter, and a domestic flight from Moscow to Simferopol. It is also possible to reach Crimea by ferry from Port Kavkaz, a three hour car drive from the city of Krasnodar; however, this approach is considerably trickier than flying, particularly if you are travelling alone and are not fluent in Russian.
If Crimea is the pearl of Russia, then Yalta is the pearl of Crimea. Set amongst the Crimean mountains, the lively seaside resort attracts swathes of Russian tourists during the summer, drawn by its palaces, beaches and other attractions. As a consequence, finding a reasonably priced apartment can be challenging, especially as prices are hiked during peak season. After much deliberation we eventually settled on an elegant apartment at the Tavrida Hotel which is conveniently located on the coastal promenade.
Given that this was Imogen’s first visit to Crimea, we visited the main sights of Yalta including the neo-gothic Swallow’s Nest castle, the Massandra Palace, Livadia Palace and Ai-Petri mountain. Livadia Palace was the site of the 1945 Yalta Conference in which the leaders of the Soviet Union, United States and Great Britain met to shape the future of post-World War Two Europe. To visit the palace you must pay to join one of the Russian language tours. Whilst there are written English translations on some of the exhibits, these are at best half-hearted. The waxworks however, need no explanation.
On our way out of the city we travelled to Ai-Petri mountain, braving a long queue to take the cable car from the village of Mishkor up to the top. After convincing the local Tatars that we sincerely did not want to ride a horse, we trekked up further to the real reason I had wanted visit: the perilous rope bridge.
Our seven hour mountain drive to Kerch was in my mind far more dangerous than any bridge walk. A frightening experience since mariners’ legs are more familiar at sea, and the career draws the reckless adventurers of the world. As we progressed along the winding highway we passed countless posters of Putin, quoting phrases such as “Crimea is not only a tourist resort, but has good industrial and farming potential, and we are going to develop it”. Evgenii joked with the BBC-esque phrase: “here, it is clear who is in charge”.
Russian investment in the region is evident, particularly in Kerch where Kerch bridge is under construction. Due to open fully in 2019, bridge will create a well-needed road and rail connection with mainland Russia, allowing goods and people to pass more freely than at present. Nevertheless, the impact of Western sanctions is much more visible in Kerch than in Yalta. As a tourist you may notice that many of the banks are closed, and even those that are open won’t allow you to withdraw cash with an international credit or debit card. Yet daily life in Crimea continues as normal: babushkas pick apricots from the gardens of their dachas, and children spend their summers playing in the sea.