A Russian Submarine Base, a Genoese Fortress and Black Sea Sailing in Balaklava

My first morning in Sevastopol I decided to spend the day out of town in Balaklava. There were a few other people staying at the hostel, so we decided we’d all head out there together. We took a marshrutka to the 5KM Bus Station – which, you guessed it, is about five kilometres out of town – and tried to figure out where to get the bus to Balaklava from. A young guy saw us standing at the wrong bus stop [where a woman had advised us to wait] and took us over to the actual bus. The 5KM bus station isn’t a bus station so much as an intersection with a dirt section off the side where minibuses congregate.

It was only about ten minutes from there to Balaklava, and the first stop was to find something to eat. We walked along the harbour before deciding on a restaurant we’d passed coming down to the waterfront. The food was average and overpriced, and I discovered that I really didn’t like the older German guy who came along. It had originally been me, a German girl called Nadia and a Slovakian guy called Roman. Joachim had arrived that morning and basically said he was coming with us. He spent most of lunch making a whole bunch of rather insulting and offensive comments about Australian people, had a negative opinion about everything and tried to change our plans to suit himself because he didn’t want to do certain things. I felt like telling him to bugger off, and remind him that we hadn’t actually invited him to come along.

Russian Nuclear Submarine Base

After lunch we walked around the harbour to the Russian nuclear submarine base. This was the main reason I’d come to Balaklava. Sure, I’d heard that the view of the harbour was the most beautiful view in Crimea but that was secondary to actually getting to wander around a Russian submarine base. During the Cold War – actually up until the base was decommissioned in 1993 – Balaklava was one of the most top-secret sites in the Soviet Union and almost everyone in the town worked at the submarine base. While they’ve taken all the fun stuff away – the only submarine there is a metre long model – the base itself sounded interesting enough to visit.

You are supposed to join a guided tour of the base, in Russian only, but we didn’t really want to do that. The good old Lonely Planet, which I’d acquired in a book swap, claimed that there was a way around this by buying a ticket to the Crimean War Exhibition from a souvenir stand – the exhibit is in the back of the base and allows you to enter without joining a tour group. There were no stalls or anything around, just a little ticket booth and we somehow managed to convince the reticent woman behind the window to sell us one of those tickets. They’re also cheaper. Somewhat unwillingly she gave them to us, and showed us a map with the areas we were allowed to visit on that ticket – only part of the base.

A woman who was sitting on a chair with a cat on her lap checked our tickets and we went in. There was a group behind us so we tried not to take too long in the first sections so they wouldn’t get ahead of us. The entrance tunnel led into a room with an exhibit of black and white photos of the harbour and the base during Soviet times, with the occasional explanation in English. We headed down the next tunnel, which had the shell of a torpedo painted red and white. I can’t see how this would be great camouflage but I guess that wasn’t really needed.

A few more tunnels eventually led to a much wider section with a deep canal running through – this was where the submarines would make their way undetected into the black sea. Russia claims that the base could survive an atomic attack, so the submarines were pretty safe here. Once in the water, they could make it through the Black Sea and the Bosphorus Strait into the Sea of Marmara, through the Dardanelles and then out into the Aegean.

We walked up to the Crimean War Exhibition, which is situated right beside the secret submarine exit. The museum wasn’t overly fascinating although I did learn a bit more about the war. It was divided into sections of artefacts based on nationality. After visiting the exhibition we were technically required to retrace our steps and leave the base however of course we didn’t, instead taking the opportunity to explore the rest of the accessible areas without a guide. There’s only certain areas open to tourists so it wasn’t like we could go anywhere out of bounds anyway. Still, it was much nicer to wander around without a huge group – we could hear them up ahead and there was about thirty people.

Along the canal it was incredibly dark with such minimal lighting that it felt a little like I imagine the mechanical underbelly of a spaceship would look. A few rooms had mini museums with Soviet weapons including missiles and cannons, guns and grenades, giant anchors and other things that I don’t know the names of. After spending about an hour and a half in there, we made out way back to daylight.

Sailing on the Black Sea

The harbour at Balaklava is, unsurprisingly, filled with boats and this means that the harbour side is filled with stocky old men with bristly black mustaches calling out to the few tourists around trying to entice them onto their vessel. I hadn’t even thought about going out on a boat until that point, but it seemed like a good idea and a bit of fun. Nadia had studied some Russian in high school, and so we decided to negotiate a short trip out into the Black Sea. It was a deliciously warm sunny day and we thought that an excursion out onto the water would be a lovely way to pass some time. Nadia bargained a half-hour trip down to thirty-five hryvnia and we were quickly led to a shiny white boat. We made ourselves comfortable and set out.

The views from the boat of the harbour and the hills were simply beautiful. We sailed past the entrance to the submarine base, which looked far more interesting from the water, and then past the remains of the Genoese fortress on the hill; the decrepit towers lined up wonderfully above the white hotels on the shore. Our captain pointed out one of the hotels and claimed that it cost twenty euro for a cup of tea. He clarified this was euro, not hryvnia, and while I wasn’t sure I believed him I certainly wasn’t going to risk paying that for a mere cup of tea!

Leaving the shelter of the harbour the winds picked up and we began to be tossed around a bit. Roman and Joachim were bouncing around all over the place, while Nadia and I were comfortably swaying with the motion of the boat. Sprays of salty seawater splashed us from the sides and I dangled my hands over the edge of the boat, running them through the cool water.

It was nearing sunset, and the sun was glaring directly at us as it began to disappear behind the harbour cliff. I took some photos over the side – it’s hard to get anything straight when the boat’s rocking back and forth over the waves. The water was deepening to sapphire as the harbour grew more distant, hiding behind the darkening cliffs.

For about $1 each, it was an absolute bargain.

The Genoese Fortress

Joachim complained that we started hiking up to the fortress too late, and instead of pointing out that he didn’t have to come on the boat or visit the submarine base with us we played the selective deafness card and exclaimed how wonderful the view was and how soft the light.

It wasn’t a difficult hike, and I made it up to the top first. I much prefer the little goat track sections where you’re clambering up rocks and finding your own way to paved paths and endless steps – for some reason they’re just more enjoyable and less tiring for me, and less strain on my little-old-lady knees.

Every time I would turn around and look back to the harbour I was amazed by the view – my only wish was that they would tear down an ugly communist era block building that marred the scenery. But once I was a little higher and could look past the ugly thing, it was much better. It no longer loomed over everything and infected the view.

Passing a few tower ruins on the way up I was pleased to reach the top, from where you could stand on the rock at the tip of the harbour and see both the harbour and the Black Sea. The fortress remains weren’t too impressive, and I found they looked far more interesting from the boat, but you don’t hike up for the fortress as much as the view. While I must concede that Joachim was right – we were a little late for perfect colour and lighting – I didn’t care. The view was still spectacular and I would not have traded our boat trip for a little bit of blue sky.

On the way back to the bus stop, we stopped at a little shop and I bought some pasta and oil and salami, before hitting up a side-of-the-road grocer and getting a big bag of onions, tomatoes, chillies, capsicums and garlic to make myself the world’s most delicious pasta for dinner. A bottle of local red went down beautifully, a wonderful end to a wonderful day.

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