“I must go down to the seas again, to the lonely sea and the sky,
And all I ask is a tall ship and a star to steer her by;”
Sea Fever by John Masefield
Ships can take you places, especially six-star luxury cruise ships like Crystal Cruises’ Serenity, which makes a point of going where few others can or want to – destinations that are a little more off the beaten track and thus of interest to their more discerning guests. That’s how I found myself several years ago in the Black Sea, together with two local journalists, and on the ship which skirted the coast of Ukraine and the Crimea. This was before the 2014 annexation of the Crimea by Russia. Crystal Serenity docked for a day in Sevastopol harbour, which is decorated with more memorials than is healthy to remember – such have been the many conquestorial attempts throughout history over this highly contested area.
At the time an uneasy peace existed between Ukraine and Russia and thus the port served as a naval base for the latter’s Black Sea fleet. The pristine whiteness of the cruise ship stood out from the brooding battle grey of the war ships. I selected the excursion to Balaclava valley – scene of dramatic battles during the Crimean War (1854-56) and the fateful Charge of the Light Brigade, a skirmish which was immortalised by Alfred Tennyson in his poem.
The Crimean War was one of the first to be documented in black and white by the efforts of photographer Roger Fenton. He, together with The London Times’ war correspondent William Howard Russell brought the horrors of the battle, and the horrific effects on the troops of the cold winters, home to the British people.
Our visit took in the Sapoune Heights, where Lord Raglan (he of the knitted sleeve due to the loss of an arm at the Battle of Waterloo in 1815) watched the disaster unfold from from his vantage point overlooking the valley below on the day of the fateful ride. Today, in the June sunshine, the valley is a picture of peace, and renowned for its olive groves and vineyards.
Yet, I felt nod should be made to the talents of Fenton, who so aptly captured the topography of the area over 150 years ago, that the road from Sevastopol to Balaclava appeared familiar to me. While I listened to our guide providing details as to how the battle unfolded on the day, I was as captivated by the overseer of the loo, a wizened women, who was husbanding a plant in a saucepan on a dining room chair that had seen better days, and the vendors selling various war memorabilia. (I have since come to recognise the power of the women loo overseers in Europe – woe to you if you don’t have the requisite change and have to pee!)
From the heights we traveled to the Balaclava Harbour, dating back through the millenia. Mentioned in ancient Greek and Byzantine texts, the harbour played a major role during the Crimean War, serving as a base for the British army and its naval fleet. More recently it served as the underground submarine repair plant for the Soviet navy. Situated deep inside the harbour hillside, access was gained through a channel system running from the sea and opening to the harbour on the other side. Today, the harbour languishes a little, luxury yachts replacing the masts of the tall ships in Fenton’s photographs. As I walked up the hill towards the ancient Genoese tower, I was taken in by both by the view and the inevitable cats that languished in the doorways, which are surrounded by spaghetti cabling – again a mark of the Ukraine.
I was fascinated by the place, the blend of so much history and the recognition that the hospital visited briefly by Florence Nightingale, and which in part fueled her renowned reforms in nursing, was situated just across the valley. Teleported between the here and now and the past, I could see the marks of modern history stamped throughout the valley. The struggle to shake off the legacy of communism and assert Ukrainian independence, the bleak hostels which housed naval staff, now crumbling and disused, the affluence and excess of the too privileged few in the luxury yachts, and the enduring landscape which defies the test of time, no matter what humans and fate throw at it.