Walking in the Tsar’s Shadow – Ukraine, Europe
“Don’t expect too much and you won’t be disappointed”. These despondent words from the motley group of teenagers who sat opposite me on the bus heading for Yalta days earlier rang in my ears as I followed the aptly-named Solnechnaya Tropa (Sunlit Path) in the blazing sun towards the dramatic Lastochkino Gnezdo (Swallow’s Nest Castle), the iconic fort that adorns almost every Ukrainian postcard. Finally, approaching the home from my arduous three-hour trek, through the trees, there it stood, Lastochkino Gnezdo – the grandiloquent castle precariously perched atop a cliff overlooking the Black Sea, a fitting climax to an epic walk. Yet, as was to be the case so often on my travels in this part of the world, the foreboding words of my newfound friends would, not for the first time, ring true.
The remarkable Solnechnaya Tropa was built in 1861 for Tsar Alexander Nikolaevich II. It hugs the rugged coastline of Yalta on the Black Sea for 6,711 metres, much of which is around 150 metres above sea level, offering some fantastic views of the surrounding area from the cliffs. Originally called the “Tsar’s Path”, the route’s current moniker stems from the days of the Soviet Union, when the Bolsheviks renamed the walkway shortly after seizing power due to its former title having connotations with Imperial Russia. Today, the sunny pathway links the alluring Lastochkino Gnezdo with the historic white-walled Livadiya Sarayi (Livadia Palace), beginning its trail in the palace’s impressive gardens further down the coast.
For World War II enthusiasts, Livadiya Sarayi is steeped in history, but the ubiquitous inefficiency and surliness of staff that seems to haunt the country, surely a hangover from the U.S.S.R., disappoints anyone gaining a full insight into the palace’s significance in modern world affairs. It was here that the famous Yalta Conference of 1945 took place; where Josef Stalin, Winston Churchill and Franklin Roosevelt met to discuss the post-war settlement of the world, and where the fragile coalition between the Soviet Union and the West began to crack. Much of Livadiya Sarayi has been turned into a museum to commemorate Ukraine’s role in World War II, yet without a good knowledge of Russian or Ukrainian, to the average visitor, a place on one of the compulsorily tours of the palace yields little benefit.
Not possessing a decent grasp of either language, the prospect of being guided around this graceful building wasn’t particularly enthralling, yet it was clear I was left with no option. The misanthropic cashier barking through a crackling microphone in the ticket office was growing evermore impatient at my inability to understand her; she frogmarched me towards an equally disdainfully-looking woman, who would be guiding me and a ramshackle collection of Russian holidaymakers around the palace. The indolent guide droned on in Russian, produced an unbearable ennui as we sauntered through endless rooms of elegant paintings and grandiose tables adorned with insipid photos and mementos of the conference – all with accompanying Russian and Ukrainian captions only, of course.
The disdainful tour guide gave more than a fleeting impression that she hated her job, no doubt bored of ferrying gaggles of semi-interested tourists around the same fusty rooms and giving the same rehearsed, yet hardly polished speech. Yet as our dour visit came to a welcome end, our unenthusiastic escort sprung into life; she brazenly stood in the doorway in expectation of a tip. Who would give her a tip – certainly not the obstreperous schoolchildren and certainly not I, who had no intention of handing away anymore of my money, having been forced into purchasing my ticket at a “tourist rate”, an amount several times the advertised price. A once-common act meted out to foreign visitors to Ukraine, it was outlawed in 2001, although this casual reminder to the cashier fell upon deaf ears as a sanctimonious smile broke out across her face. Feeling slightly disappointed, I could not fully take in the significance of this amazing building, I made my way into the well-maintained gardens to begin the four-mile trek along the jagged coastline of Solnechnaya Tropa.
A small stone in the pristine gardens engraved with the words “Solnechnaya Tropa” and an arrow pointing eastwards denotes the beginning of the 6,711-metre route Alexander II used to walk on his stays at Livadiya Sarayi. It was also the course I would be taking to shed the shackles of the tour group and the contemptuous guide with whom I had spent the last hour and a half. My morning so far had been exasperating. It seemed the ominous warnings I had received on the bus from the pragmatic teenagers were ringing true, but with the prospect of Lastochkino Gnezdo at the end of the hike, my spirits were high. And rightly so. Solnechnaya Tropa proved to be an uplifting experience; the three-hour trek along the coastline more than made up for the dreadful morning spent at Livadiya Sarayi. The crown of trees that lined much of the route provided pleasant shade and a cool environment in which to escape the searing sun that accompanied me throughout the walk. This micro climate created by the forest that surrounded much of Solnechnaya Tropa has led to the path being known colloquially as the “Healing Path”, yet all was not well on this epic journey.
The poor signposting led me to wander aimlessly off on random tangents into the forest. The tsar probably never got lost along this route, yet Solnechnaya Tropa often led me through thick forest, across cragged cliffs and on one occasion, even through a building site, presumably not there during the reign of Alexander II, although witnessing the speed of the workers, it would not surprise me if the project had been started 150 years ago. In spite of the wayward and infrequent signposts, the route offered some spectacular views of the Black Sea and fields resplendent with vibrantly coloured flowers. Every so often a cliff face would throw up a viewing gallery facing the popular resort of Yalta, once the playground of the Soviet Union’s glitterati. Today, it’s a sort of Ukrainian Benidorm, albeit slightly less crass with a scarcity of foreign visitors.
The trek through the forests of the Crimea was a pleasant and welcome break from the hustle and bustle of Yalta. Despite its route along the craggy cliffs, Solnechnaya Tropa was a comfortable, three-hour walk which rarely became difficult. With the prospect of the most iconic image of Ukraine, Lastochkino Gnezdo, as its conclusion, I headed eagerly along the winding path. The poorly-signposted route was perhaps the most challenging aspect of the afternoon. After Solnechnaya Tropa emerged from under the cover of the thick forest I had been trudging through for the past 20 minutes, the path cut across a major road, the more orthodox route to Lastochkino Gnezdo, perhaps. A short soiree through yet more dense forest and the towering trees split; there it was, unassumingly perched on a cliff looking out to sea – Lastochkino Gnezdo.
It was here that the tone of the journey changed. The foreboding prophecy uttered to me days earlier on the bus would come true. As Lastochkino Gnezdo came into view from the forest, a drab car park, replete with minibus probably containing the same tourists I had been shipped around Livadiya Sarayi with was attached to the castle. My heart sank. The walk through the car park saw a cavalcade of buses breeze past me, with a myriad of people sure-footedly making their way towards the stairway up to Lastochkino Gnezdo. Equally disappointing, the Ukrainians had built the facilities to accommodate the masses: bars, restaurants and shops selling the usual tourist tat such as sets of mass-produced matryoshka dolls, wind chimes made of seashells and fake football shirts.(The official tourist board of Ukraine’s website stated subtly that there was “a modern market where one can find handmade pieces of ceramics, juniper, wood, coral, shells, photographs, pictures and many other keepsakes, which will bring pleasant reminders of Lastochkino Gnezdo”). I forcefully made my way past these shops that lined the stairs to Lastochkino Gnezdo, which, on closer inspection, was not as impressive as the postcards and official website would make you believe.
Despite its stunning location and grandiose exterior, all was not as it appeared at Lastochkino Gnezdo. Its iconic image is plastered all over anything promoting tourism in Ukraine, keeping up a façade of an old, colossal castle, settled on the cliffs looking out into the vast Black Sea. Yet it is anything but old and not of any historical significance. It was built in the twentieth century by oil tycoon Baron von Steinheil. Today it is simply an overpriced Italian restaurant, luring unassuming tourists from Yalta. Lastochkino Gnezdo is not gigantic; only 10 metres by 20. However it was swarming with tourists circling its diminutive viewing deck, vigorously competing for precious space with their cameras to take photos of the picture-perfect landscape it faced, after which they were promptly herded back onto the buses to be shipped back to Yalta.
This was the nadir of my trip. It seemed a waste not to at least enter this Disney-esque castle, even if I did have no intention of purchasing any of the overpriced food. I was greeted at the door by the over-zealous and ruddy-faced manager, Vyacheslav, a portly man in his 60s with a shock of silver hair and a permanent smile, so unusual for a Ukrainian; he was a man who evidently loved his job. After running my finger down the menu of pretentious food on offer, my gentile host’s contorted face suggested he was more than a little perturbed at my request for just a beer; a litre of Obolon Svitle, the national beer of Ukraine and the only non-Italian item on the menu. Nevertheless, Vyacheslav sat at my table to ebulliently regale me (in minute detail) on the past 50 years he had spent working at the restaurant, and of the famous diners who had passed through its pompous doors during the days of the Soviet Union, which he spoke of with a hint of grim nostalgia. Vyacheslav was a garrulous man with an awkward smile that revealed an abundance of gold teeth. But even the warmth of my newfound friend could not overcome the lifeless atmosphere in the restaurant, or the ice-cold air conditioning that was sending a shiver down my spine, making me eager to leave this gross tourist trap as soon I could finish my tepid litre of Obolon.
Despite the satisfaction of completing the 6,711 metre hike to the castle from Livadiya Sarayi, I felt deflated at the incongruous ending of Lastochkino Gnezdo. I was keen to head back to Yalta, albeit in one of the rundown minibuses that were cramming in day-trippers to ship back to their accommodations and dachas. In hindsight it may have been better to walk the 6,711 metres back, even if the storm clouds were gathering overhead. I soon found myself squeezed into the corner of the vehicle as it rattled down the motorway until we reached Yalta, where the streets were clogged with honking cars that left me feeling crestfallen, as the words from my last ride in one of these unreliable vehicles spun round in my mind.
Ukraine isn’t yet a country that possesses a great tourist infrastructure. As such, it is easy to become disappointed at the often slow and improbable way things tick along. But heading there with an open mind and no preconceptions of what to expect may well leave the intrepid traveller feeling anything but disappointed in this corner of Eastern Europe.