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18 August, 2011  ▪  Roman Kabachіy

Under the Griffin’s Wing

Crowds of tourists do not take away from the beauty of the landscapes in ancient Panticapaeum — now know as Kerch. The city treats guests — no matter where they come from — without excessive Crimean arrogance

The Crimea’s third largest city, Kerch, is not too familiar to the general public since that it was off-limits until 1992 and, truth be told, a while later again turned into a border point. The locals say it is on the line separating Europe and Asia.

26 CENTURIES OF HISTORY

In telling the story of Kerch, one should begin with a statement made by its mayor Oleh Osadchy at the First Crimean International Tourism Forum: “We went through a Soviet period and now we have places of interest from both antiquity and modern times, primarily from the period of the Great Patriotic War.” In other words, even if you come to see the ruins of the Greek Panticapaeum, the Turkish fortress Yeni-Kole or Caesar's Hill from the Bospor Kingdom period, you will be haunted also by the spirit of partisans who hid in the local stone quarries and the Eltigen paratroopers. The Glory Obelisk installed on top of famous Mt. Mithridates is a perennial reminder that Kerch has “hero city” status.

It is hardly recommended to enter into historical discussions with the locals – they speak with tears in their eyes of partisans who were left by the Red Army commanders to the mercy of the enemy in the Adzhym-Ushkai catacombs and describe the arrival of tsarist Russian troops and their confrontation with the Turks as “the liberation of the Crimea.”

The embodiment of the somewhat kitschy combination of antiquity and the not-so-distant past is centrally located Lenin Square, restored several years ago. There you will see a Lenin monument, a flagpole with the city’s banner and a column with a griffin perched on top (the symbol of Kerch), as well as the Beheading of John the Baptist Church, Ukraine’s oldest surviving Christian church — built in the 8th century — and a true pearl of Byzantine architecture. Clay cushions, which look like decorations but also work as shock absorbers, are believed to be the secret to its exceptional resistance to earthquakes of which it has had its share.

In general, Kerch is a preserve of the Soviet spirit. However, its atmosphere is not as depressed and menacing as in many coal mining towns, not as indifferent as in numerous Ukrainian villages and not as brazen as the Lenin monument across from Besarabska Square in downtown Kyiv. In Kerch, the “leader of the proletariat” seems to have just come down from Mt. Mithridates to take a stroll to the seaside and gaze at the seagulls. An atheist, he refuses to notice the church.

THE HUMAN FACTOR

People are friendly here. They will gladly respond to “God help you!” (a traditional Ukrainian greeting. – Ed.) They will tell you the way to any church – in addition to Orthodox churches, there is also a mosque, a synagogue and a Roman Catholic cathedral. They will ask you when “Pushkin set his foot on Kerch land” and suggest that you take a photo of their dog. Their love for the city is like that of the Flying Dutchman’s crew which is doomed to crisscross the oceans without ever encountering any other vessel.

Kerchresidents are used to the fact that others have to come to them, not the other way around. Here ancient Greeks brooded over the shortness of the path that leads to death and the length of the one that leads to revival as they built Caesar’s Hill (also known as Melek-Chesmensky Hill). Again here, Mithridates King of Pontus tried to take a dose of poison to kill himself but, failing to do so, asked his faithful guard to kill him with a sword to avoid being handed over to his traitor son. Kerch has the world’s second largest (after Athens) lapidarium – a collection of things made of stone that date back to antiquity and earlier.

The residents of Kerch take pride in movies about their city. The best known one, Ulitsa mladshego syna, is the screen version of a novel of the same title that tells the story of a local teenager, Volodia Dubinin, who joined the partisans in the catacombs. Next come Nad nami Yuzhnyi Krest and S radostyu i otvagoy which shows an unembellished picture of Kerch in the 1970s.

Fish plays a major part in the local life. Ask people to show you the way to the local bazaar. There you will have a chance to understand the thirsty soul of South Crimeans: fresh and dried red-finned mullet and gray mullet, bundles of golden bullheads (not over-dried in freezers to the point of crumbling to dust – the species you will see in Kyiv grocery stores), heaps of shrimp and all kinds of other sea creatures. When you dare bargain, mental immersion in the special atmosphere of the Black Sea coast area is guaranteed.

52 KMALONG THE SEASHORE

While you are in Kerch, you should go up the Great Mithridates Steps most of which were built in 1830 to the design of Italian architect Digbi. They are embellished with two proud-looking griffins – unfortunately, they are non-authentic replicas made after the Soviet-style “struggle against exploiters’ heritage.” The rest of the steps were constructed after the Second World War when the Glory Obelisk was erected. As you look down on the city, you will realize that the tag “geographical limit” is not really a misnomer: not far away is Tuzla Island and Kerch Strait which separates Ukraine from Russia, while at the foothills of the mountain, the city of Kerch sprawls for 52 kilometers along the seashore.

The far east corner of Kerch features Yenikalsky lighthouse, located close to the ferry that connects Kerch with Russia’s Kuban. The locals complain about the way the customs office operates – the tedious procedures scare off tourists. Not far away is a picturesque seashore with beaches. You will admire the rapid water in the strait. The west end of the city, Heroivka (formerly Eltigen) district, also features beaches with several resort complexes. Overlooking all of this is a huge concrete sail installed on top of the mountain to commemorate the heroic paratroopers who were dropped here in spring 1943 for the purpose of “securing a bridgehead” on Kerch Peninsula only to be evacuated on December 11 for lack of reinforcements. Heroivka is still Kerch, but the beaches there are cleaner than in those next to the local fish factories.

The historical city of Panticapaeum is gradually emerging from oblivion as a tourist destination. However, the process is fraught with difficulties as is the case with other cities in the Crimea which were plunged into depression during the crisis in the mid-1990s. But even these vestiges can be made to serve commercial purposes: for example, the ruins of the Voikov Factory that can be seen on the way from the city center to Heroivka were used as the setting for Fedor Bondarchuk’s movie Naselennyi ostrov. Given a pragmatic approach, they can be an excellent destination for extreme industrial tourism.

However, city fathers would do well to seek expert opinion in order to make tourism a stable source of municipal income. These experts express reserved optimism. For example, CEO of Select Black Sea Serhii Priadko says that while there are 79 cruise ships scheduled to travel to Yalta and 54 to Sevastopol, where there is merely one each to Kerch and Feodosiia. There is also a lack of qualified guides who speak foreign languages; Priadko says there are fewer than eight in Kerch. Culinary tourism has great potential because Kerch can offer the taste of many national cuisines, the products of the nations that lived along Bosporus. The city is also conducive to nostalgic tourism. For example, 4,500 Jews (10% of the total population) lived in Kerch before the Second World War.

In 2010, 66,000 people visited the city, but it has the potential to accommodate 200,000 guests at the very least.

WORTH SEEING

The Totleben Fortis a masterpiece of 19th-century fortifications located in the highest point of Kerch Peninsula. However, its stone structures are now buried under a layer of soil.

The Kerch Museum of Antiquitywas opened in 1826 and now presents two millennia of history pertaining to various peoples populating the area along the ancient Bosporus. It features a sculpture portrait of St. Andrew the First-Called (14th–15th century) and a rock with “a footprint of the apostle” found near the Beheading of John the Baptist Church.

Mud volcanoes are located 5 km outside the city. The crater of the biggest one — Andrusov Volcano — is 50 m in diameter. The volcanoes constantly sputter out mud and gases.

Yeni-Kale (Turkish for “new fortress”) is a fortress in the shape of an irregular pentagon. It was built in 1699–1706 by the Italian architect Goloppo who was commissioned by the Turks.

 

HOW TO GET THERE

By train: Kyiv–Kerch, economy class UAH 100, first class UAH 143. But it is nearly a day-long ride, so it is best to reach Simferopol and take a fixed-route taxi from there.

By plane: to Simferopol and from there by bus to Kerch.

 

WHERE TO STAY

Kerch Hotel** – 11 Kirov Str., city center

Classic Hotel*** – 9/2 Kurortna Str., Arshyntsev district

Zaliv Hotel– 6a Kurortna Str., first - to third-class and deluxe suites

Kyiv Sanatorium– Moskovska Str., standard suites, four meals a day. This hotel has its own beach.

Chornomorska Resort(Eltigen) – prices range from UAH 30 (for a place in a wooden house) to UAH 500 for a suite for six, full or half board.

 

SOVIET PRESERVE

Lenin Squareis a kitschy combination of antiquity and the not-so-distant past

PRYMORSKY BOULEVARD

This seafront was completely restored after World War Two

SEAPORT

Not exactly a resort landscape, but the seashore stretches for 52 km

VOLODYMYR KOROLENKO GYMNASIUM

It operates the school television system

MUD VOLCANOES

Several mud volcanoes can be found close to Kerch

THE BEHEADING OF JOHN THE BAPTIST CHURCH

One of Ukraine’s oldest churches, dating back to the 8th century


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