Tuesday, 2 March 2010

Ukraine's Crimea Sparkles With A Variety Of Impressions

SEVASTOPOL, Ukraine -- The hills of this region are a golden yellow hue because of the sunburnt grass. The houses are painted in bright colours to reflect the heat of the sun and beyond the poplar tree avenues cypresses stretch into the sky.
It could almost be Tuscany in Italy were it not for the numerous examples of Lenin statues and red stars. What at first glance appears to be a scene in Tuscany is in fact Ukraine's Crimea. If you want a bit more history than Dolce Vita when on holiday, then the Crimean peninsula is perfect.

Crimea's characteristic limestone landscape is the first thing you see from the plane. There are dozens, if not hundreds, of caves to be found in the porous rock. "Humans lived in these caves over 300,000 years ago," says Dimitri Udonov, a tour guide on the peninsula. "During the war first Russian, and then German soldiers, took refuge here. Each cave was a battlefield."

For three-quarters of a century Ukraine was part of the Soviet Union. It is impossible to avoid that long phase of the country's history. Lenin, for example, is ever present when walking around Sevastopol with its 300,000 residents. Hammer and sickle symbols can still be seen everywhere.

Beyond the symbols of former Soviet might there are plenty of examples of Crimea's cultural side such as the city of Kherson. In the year 988 AD Tsar Vladimir was baptised there, thus opening Russia to the Christian religion.

Beside the ruins of the church where he was baptised a magnificent basilica stands today. Corinthian columns and other architectural remains testify to human habitation over 2,500 years.

This region was the home of the Crimean Tartars for several hundred years. The Tartars were the successors to the tribe of Genghis Khan. Kherson is the location for the ancient residence of the Khan's governing body, the Divan. Today, visitors can view the fountain inside the Harem room, which once inspired the great Russian poet Alexander Pushkin.

In 1855 another great literary figure arrived in the Crimea to observe the conflict then taking place: Leo Tolstoy. Tolstoy witnessed Russia's attack on Turkey and the attempt by Britain and France to defend the country.

Later, their attempt to contain Russian expansion would lead to the Crimean war - the first modern war using machineguns and ironclad warships. Russia eventually failed in its attempt and was forced to sell its possession in Alaska to raise funds to pay its debts. The battlefields of Balklava and Inkerman are today favoured destinations of British tourists.

World War Two also left its mark on the Crimea. Of the 2.2 million German Wehrmacht soldiers that died on the eastern front, 400,000 are buried there. "20,500 are buried in Goncharov but we are constantly adding more to the list," says Maria Ivanova who works for the German War Graves Commission.

"In the past war veterans used to come here. They were old men who would suddenly break out into tears," she recalls. "But today it's their children who are 60-years-old and more who want to know where their fathers spent their final hours."

To this day the Crimea remains a place of dispute. Russia would like to have authority over the region which was given to Ukraine in 1954. Russia's Black Sea fleet is stationed there and the Crimea remains a very popular destination for Russian holidaymakers.

It also appears that Ukraine is divided into eastern and western oriented citizens. But all of them are united when it comes to wine. The local wine is the best in the world, according to Ukrainians, and Crimean sparkling wine rates alongside Champagne

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