I always thought that I am politically aware and conscious of current events. I personally witnessed and participated in many debates regarding Russian annexation of Crimea. Most of my friends are immigrants from either Russia or Ukraine and this is a sore subject within my community. While I strongly favor diplomacy over sanctions I thought that I am on top of that subject as well. In light of that our Crimean saga seems even funnier because the above facts didn’t really sink in until we got there.
It should have sunk in when neither Hotels.com nor Expedia had any hotels available in Crimea but it didn’t. It should have sunk in when none of the search engines could give me any flights to Crimea but it didn’t. Finally, after arriving to Sevastopol and the third ATM machine declined 3 of our cards (9 denials in total) it finally SUNK IN!! Since foreign companies are not allowed to do business in Crimea due to sanctions, we have no access to money: No ATM no credit cards! Dumbfounded we went to several banks to explore our options. The answer was that basically we are screwed and even though they were extremely nice and sympathetic they pointed out that it’s our government who is imposing the sanctions. Not only we have no access to our money but nobody from abroad can send us any. Not just from the US but not from UK, France, Israel, Germany, Spain, Australia, etc. (This was my attempt to remember anybody who I know in various countries whom I can ask for money). The only possibility is a money transfer from mainland Russia.
Seriously glum we went back to our rented apartment for which by the way we owed 2 days rent ($60). It was time to count the cash. After emptying all the hidden emergency funds and turning out all our pockets we had 220 USD, 150 Euro and some Russian Rubles enough to pay for the 1st night. We went back to the bank to exchange the dollars but they only agreed to exchange 180 claiming the other 2 twenties were too damaged (perfectly good to be used in the US). At this point it was a late afternoon and we were getting hungry. It is funny how the prospect of going hungry for few days made us ravenous. Luckily our apartment was right next to the market and we got some cold cuts, fruits, vegetables and even 2 beers for Roman (another $17 down).
Then we started to weigh our options. We definitely didn’t have enough for plane tickets back to the mainland. Remember no credit cards, cash only. We could get a bus to the Kerch ferry to cross back to Russia. It would be about 8 hour journey. Busses are cheap and we were sure the ferry is as well. But we wouldn’t see Crimea at all. Our original plan was to stay there at least a week out of which to rent a car for few days to drive around. Next option: one of us could fly back to Sochi, we had enough for one ticket, get money from ATM there and fly back the next day – kind of crazy and too expensive.
Then we started thinking if we can ask anybody in Russia for money. I don’t remember ever asking anybody for money since I was a kid asking my parents, but even though it’s extremely awkward it seemed like the only reasonable choice. There were some people we met on this trip- definitely not. I have a very remote cousin who would agree but she is so slow that it would take her at least a week to get to the bank. I also have a friend from 2nd grade and I am sure she would do it but I knew she is out of the country traveling. Finally, I called my mother and asked her to call her relatives in Russia to see if they can send me some money. They agreed immediately and 24 hrs later we had another $850 in our pockets. It’s not that much for a week if we wanted to rent a car but I was embarrassed to ask for more. It’s 50,000 Ruble and sounds like a lot of money. Actually it wasn’t because we did rent a car and had to give them 15,000 rubles in cash as a deposit. Thus the rest of the trip was a serious penny pinching: no restaurants, but shawarma stands, and Russian stolovaya (cheap self- service cafes which turned out to be real good home cooked food). Bought wine in a store and drank in our room; stayed in private apartments under $30 instead of hotels.
We ended up spending a total of one week in Crimea and had a great time. It is a very beautiful peninsula: Gorgeous combination of mountains and the sea. It is green and clean and has a very interesting history.
Let’s start from the beginning. We flew to Simferopol, the largest city in Crimea from Sochi. As I mentioned before I knew that there is an airport there but couldn’t find any flights on the usual sites. So I googled the airport itself and checked there arrivals and departures schedule. This is how I saw that there is a daily Aeroflot flight from Sochi. I booked it for the next day and it was relatively cheap, about $150 each. From the airport in Simferopol we took a bus to Sevastopol, about 2 hour drive for a total of 300 Rubles. As you walk out of the terminal drivers with various options swarm around you like bees. There are lots of more expensive options like private cars and shared rides if you don’t want to wait for the bus. Also remember – buses are not air-conditioned and it sucks because Crimea is hot.
We spend 2 nights in Sevastopol, a town rich in history. The locals revere their heroes fallen in two major wars: the Crimean war in mid- 19th century and WWII. In both cases the city was under siege for over a year before surrendering to the enemy. There are memorials, sculptures and museums commemorating various battles over Crimea everywhere in the city and the entire peninsula. Only after visiting Sevastopol one can fully understand the significance of Crimea to the Russian people and their connection to that place.
We took an hour boat ride around the harbor during which we saw all the major sites from the sea: Count’s quay, sunken ships monument, etc. The second day we went to St. Vladimir Admiral Cathedral, where various admirals are buried. Then, the Panorama – defense of Sevastopol, 1854-1855, an absolute must see place. We also took a ferry across the port to the military cemetery. At night there is a lot of live music and free concerts at the harbor, which was extremely convenient to us since we didn’t have any money to spare for entertainment.
On a third day we rented a car and went to Sapun Gora Memorial, commemorating the WWII siege on Sevastopol followed by a trip to Balaklava Naval Museum which is a former storage of Soviet nuclear submarines. While the underground structure is impressive for its sheer size the hour long tour is somewhat lengthy and boring.
Later we drove thru an unimpressive Alupka and ended up in Yalta. Yalta is a happening place for the Russian lower middle class. Its beautiful new marble promenade and some expensive hotels were obviously built for a much wealthier population but my impression was that the intended crowd didn’t come. We arrived at about 6 pm and as we stepped into the promenade we immediately liked it. Lots of people were strolling about listening to several quartets playing pop and easy classical pieces. Clowns and street performance were in abundance and the whole scene was colorful and festive. Obviously we decided to stay. After checking out some hotels that were a little too expensive (again, we were short on cash) we ended up renting an apartment located 30 seconds from the promenade from a very nice woman for 1,900 Rubles/night.
We immediately went on exploring the town. The eastern part of town is the cheaper one and this is where we got an excellent shawarma from the local Tatar family. It was actually so good that we came back the next day at which point we were treated like friends.
The next day we took a nice half hour boat ride to the main attraction, the Swallow’s Nest castle. The day after that we spend on the beach resting. The water was still cold and the beach is all pebbles but we didn’t care. The evenings we spent in various bars and lounges along the promenade drinking their cheapest wine.
After leaving Yalta we drove to the Royal Palace that was used for the Yalta Conference during WWII. We took a guided tour that was really good.
Then we stopped in Alushta for a cheap lunch in a local stolovaya. Alushta didn’t impress us and we continued to Yevpatoria on the other end of the peninsula. Yevpatoria can be completed omitted from any itinerary but I wanted to see it since I was told that I spent a summer there when I was three years old. This of course made it significant enough for me to visit.
The only interesting thing about that town is that it’s the center of the Crimean Karaim. Karaims are people who practice a form of Judaism but who are not ethnically Jewish. We took a tour of their museum and it was interesting and informative.
We didn’t have any hotels booked and while walking on the promenade saw many signs advertising apartments for rent. After calling the first one we got an apartment for the night for 1,500 Rubles.
In the evening we walked all over that town. It is quiet poor, bare and depressing. We ate some fresh grilled fish with local wine which we bought by weight, something very common in Crimea. Besides that meal there was nothing more or interesting to do.
The next morning we got up very early and drove to Sevastopol to return the car. Then we took two very long and hot bus rides to Feodosiya thru Simferopol.
Feodosiya is a much more low-key then Yalta but still quiet pleasant. It seemed more cultural then Yalta. It had many museums and shows and we enjoyed strolling thru its beach front.
Our historical hotel Astoria had an impressive façade and our room was huge but had a tiny bathroom. The whole building felt very dilapidated even though it obviously went thru some remodeling.
The next day we pretty much spend on the road. First we took a bus to Kerch; then said goodbye to Crimea and boarded a ferry to the Russian mainland. Upon disembarking the ferry we were surprised that there were no buses or any transportation information and had no choice but to take a taxi to Anapa.
Anapa is on the Russian side of the coast and is a major holiday destination. We got a room in a nice little hotel right on the main street and the first thing after that was to go to ATM and to get as much money as it let us and treated us to a very nice meal, no expense spared. I know it sounds grand but it’s really pretty cheap there so the grand meal was around $30. After the meal we explored the very active nightlife and even danced at some private party.
The next day we took a bus to Tuapce, a completely uninteresting town, and then a train to the Sochi airport and left Russia.