Bahçesaray – literally Garden Palace in Turkish – is spelt in various ways including Bağçasaray, or more commonly Bakhchisaray (Ukranian – Бахчисарай). It stands in small valley off the main road from the Crimean capital, Simferopol, to the naval port of Sevastopol.
The town of Bahçesaray was seat of the Tatar Khans, and both the palace and the surrounding countryside – which rises from the steppe in long, sloping escarpments to razor-sharp mountain peaks, reminding one of Alpine Provence – encapsulate the essence of Crimea. Here is the exquisite Khan’s Palace, complete with harem, courtyards, fountains and mosques, a city within a city.
Just an hour’s drive from the airport, Bahçesaray makes is a very good base for a short stay in Crimea, offering delicious Tatar food and a delightful boutique hotel in the Bahitgül Guest House.
Bahçesaray today is a modest place – more village than city. It occupies the valley of the Çuruk Su, which quickly narrows into a cliff-lined ravine. A happy day can be spent pottering about the town, reading up on its fascinating history. Begin at the Khan’s Palace, allowing time to enjoy the courtyards and the pavilions, most of which were reconstructed by the last khans after the town was sacked by the Russians in 1736, and then preserved in aspic by them after the annexation of 1783.
Then head upstream to the district of Salacık, where the small but perfectly formed mid-16th-century Zincirli Medrese stands below the domed, türbe of the early khans – more Seljuk than Ottoman in style – and a thoroughly Russian-looking mekteb (school), built c1900 by the great reformer Ismail Bey Gaspıralı. His grave, which the Soviets felt obliged to erase, has now been reconstructed in a grove behind the school. The medrese serves a small archaeological museum; the mekteb is home to a privately run museum of Crimean history, the Historical Museum La Richesse – a good place to get your bearings as it is full of useful historic maps and engravings. A little further up the valley is a Russian monastery with famously grumpy inmates.
Next, don your walking shoes and explore the old clifftop stronghold of Chufut Kale – the Jewish Fortress. One of a number of such defended settlements atop precarious cliffs in southwest Crimea, it is the perfect place for a long, lazy picnic, well deserved after a steep climb. It is possible to drive, though you need a sturdy vehicle and it is a long way round. To walk takes about an hour.
It is hard to imagine Bahçesaray being anything other than a backwater. But remember that it is slowly waking up from a nightmare: life is only just returning to the long narrow valley of the Çuruk Su after Stalin’s forced exile of the Tatars one night in 1944.
The 19th-century traveller Karl Koch gives a picture of the city in 1844: ‘Baktchi-Serai extends for nearly three miles along a narrow valley,’ he writes. ‘On both sides are usually booths before the houses, in which the tradesmen work and offer their goods for sale.’
A 19th-century visitor, Charles Henry Scott (The Baltic, The Black Sea and The Crimea, London 1854) travelled up to Bahçesaray from Sevastopol full of anticipation. He was not to be disappointed: ‘We had wandered much, and had almost fancied ourselves too ‘blasé’ to be astonished at anything, however deeply we might be interested. But here a spectacle now opened upon us totally different in appearance to all we ever saw before or since. In front of us lay a narrow valley, with mountains rising on each side, of all forms and shapes and gradually closing in until they met to make a narrow gorge of perpendicular precipices.
‘At first this approximation appeared the effect of perspective, and seemed to give increased length to the ravine, out of whose bosom shot slender minarets and tall scattered poplars from the midst of the crouching houses, which far on looked as if shrinking from the hanging rocks advancing their grim and hoary heads so near, as though they intended to embrace. On either hand, cut into the steep mountain slopes, were tiers of those half-buried dwellings the Tatars love to live in, but these gradually diminished in number as the mountains closed and became more perpendicular, until at last one here and there sticking on a little ledge, looking like a great cage hanging to the rocky wall.
‘Domes, too, there were and cupolas, but of sober tints, for the gold and silver of the Russian churches flaunted not in tinselled obstrusiveness.
‘High over all was a great kiosk, through the latticed sides of which the beauties of the harem were wont to peep upon the doings of the outer world, ow watch the wild warriors mounted on their fiery steeds, in mimic battle throwing the light jereed…
‘The large gates creak upon their hinges, and are now flung back; we cross a bridge over the dark waters of the Djourouksou, and find ourselves the sole occupants of the immense quadrangle of the palace of the khans.
‘What sudden change is this from darkness into light? Can it be real? Or has the imagination conjured up these varied forms, fantastic and confused, of radiant Oriental colouring; gaudy if taken in parts, but on the whole dreamy, romantic and picturesque from the very irregularity of the lines?
‘Here are the frailest of the minarets and the tallest of the polplars; here the dome-capped temple of Mahomet, and the solemn sepulchres of the khans; and long rows of buildings, now lower, now higher, with light balconies and verandahs, p[ainted in bright arabesques of red and blue, and shaded by their wine, over-hanging roofs; their line of high decorated chimneys even forming ornaments. Here, too, is the great octagonal kiosk, or tower, with its far-spreading eaves, and here gushing fountains pour forth their limpid streams, while the atmosphere is redolent of flowers. This, then, was the last domicile of those Tatar chiefs whose word, some few centuries ago, was sufficient to make the earth tremble, and this palace was now to be our temporary abode.’
Today the terraces overlooking Lenin Street, the main road to the Khan’s Palace, once more have bustling restaurants serving all manner of Tatar goodies – the Cafe Meyhane is particularly good.The owners of the excellent Bahitgül Guest House are soon to open their own place for food, which is sure to be an absolute delight, and there is a small craft renaissance afoot, led by the great master of filigree, Ayder Asanov.
An hour’s drive from Simferopol Airport, the main point of arrival in Crimea; 40 minutes from Sevastopol.
Everything in Bahçesaray can be done on foot, though Chufut Kale is a sturdy walk, and the stroll to Salacık is probably to be avoided in the heat of the midday sun. The town makes also a useful starting point for exploring the soutwestern Crimean Mountains, especially if you are only staying in Crimea for a few days. A short drive to the west brings you to the foot of another clifftop stronghold even more spectacular than Chufut Kale: Mangup Kale – so remote that even though it is only a few miles from the sea it remained the last place in the world that Gothic was spoken as a living language. Beyond that the south and west coasts make easy day trips.