Sevastopol is a handsome seaside city with the look of a tiered wedding cake: a northern Neoclassicist’s version of a Mediterranean city, with sudden flourishes of Soviet heroism.
Despite its formidable defences, visible in Bossoli’s 1840s view of the port, it was twice flattened by European bombardment – French and British in 1856, German in 1942. After each horrific siege, it rose again, but in the 1950s, as thousands of labourers from all over the Soviet Union finished rebuilding it to Stalin’s taste, it vanished for almost five decades into a Cold War fog, a “closed city” seen only by the Soviet navy (and no doubt spies) until 1997. It is still home to the Black Sea fleets of Ukraine and Russia.
The city was the dreamchild of His Most Serene Highness Prince of the Holy Roman Emperor, Grigory Alexandrovich Potemkin, ‘probably husband of Catherine the Great’ (Simon Sebag Montefiore). In a letter to his empress Potemkin called Akyar, its old Tatar name, ‘the finest harbour in the world’. ‘Let Kherson (the name of the ancient Greek port) of Akhtiar be the southern capital of my Sovereign,’ he wrote.
How very different things looked 50 years later, after the horrendous bombardment of Sevastopol during the Crimean War. Algernon Percy’s A Bearskin’s Crimea includes William Russell’s firsthand account of the Russian hospital after the fall: ‘Of all the pictures of the horrors of war which have ever been presented to the world, the hospital of Sebastopol presents the most horrible, heart-rending, and revolting…’
Potemkin’s gift to Catherine the Great, ‘the greatest harbour in the world’, Sevastopol makes an ideal base from which to explore Crimea’s west coast, and the mountainous southwest corner of the peninsula.
Only recently opened to visitors, the city, with its population of under half a million, remains military in character with many monuments to the city’s two sieges (in the Crimean War and WWII). A large round building, the Panorama Museum houses an astonishing 360-degree panorama of the first of these (and a smaller version on the outskirts depicts the WWII siege). Another excellent museum devoted to Crimean War memorabilia has recently opened in the Mykhailivska Battery.
Simferopol Airport is little more than an hour’s drive. A railway runs south-west from Simferopol to Sevastopol.
Sevastopol is a very good city base from which to explore southwest Crimea. Traffic is never an issue; the roads are excellent. To find your feet in Sevastopol itself, use the online guide Sevastopol In Your Pocket . Nearby is the valley and village of Balaklava that receives a steady stream of visitors. And on the hills and river valleys north and west of the city are the poignant battlefields. But Bahçesaray, Simferopol and even Yalta are all in easy reach for leisurely day-trips.
Boat trips round the complex of docks show the history of the town in its ships. Not far from the centre are the remains of the Greek city of Chersoneos, where later Vladimir the Great of Kievan Rus’ was baptised, leading to the Christianisation of Russia.
Alie, a Tatar restaurant on the coast road between Sevastopol and Yalta, comes highly recommended, and Balaklava, spawning ground of lüfer is the place for fish.
In Sevastopol itself, Cornucopia’s friends recommended fish and European cuisine in Artillery Bay at Barkas (Kapitanskaya 2A, Artbukhta, Sevastopol, tel +380 692 53 50 56 open 12:00 – 24:00, reservations through BRS) or the Piratskaya Kharchevnia (Klokachyova Embankment 21/3, Artbukhta, Sevastopol, tel. +380 50 278 4116/+380 692 93 4441, open 09:00 – 02:00).
For a choice of Mediterranean, Crimean, Ukrainian cooking, try Paradise on the first floor of the Khersones Boutique Hotel, in front of the entrance to the Chersonesus (Drevnyaya 34, Sevastopol, tel. +380 692 40 4009, open 10:00 – 02:00). In the centre of town, the Primorsky Boulevard offers European and Mediterranean cuisine Nakhimova Ave. 2-a, tel. +380 692 54 57 60/ +380 951 45 40 02, open 12:00 – 24:00).
Particularly recommended is a good Greek restaurant, Santorini: ‘in the centre of town, very good, very English-friendly with a decent selection of wines’ – language and alphabet can be a problem in Crimea for non-Ukrainian or Russian speakers (Ushakova Square 1, tel +380 503 60 61 00, firstname.lastname@example.org, open 10:00 – 24:00).
Ukrainskiy Shynok does Ukrainian specialities at two separate branches: at Ayvazovskogo 3, Sevastopol (tel. +380 692 55 45 83, open 10.00–23.00), and on the Klokachyova Embankment, at No 25 (the “Crystal Cape” complex, tel +38 050 9623344, open 12:00 – 24:00).
Last but not least is the Sevastopol in the Hotel Sevastopol, which Cornucopia can vouch for. Far from being bland, both food and wine are excellent, the Kiev chicken particularly good, and the prices reasonable. In fine weather, eat out on the terrace.