“We advanced down a gradual descent of more than three-quarters of a mile, with the batteries vomiting forth upon us shells and shot, round and grape, with one battery on our right flank and another on the left, and all the intermediate ground covered with the Russian riflemen…”
James Brudenell, the 7th Earl of Cardigan describes the Battle of Balaclava on 25 October 1854 in the Crimean War.
My arrival at Balaclava was mildly less dramatic (we stepped off a bus and stumbled through some bushes towards a memorial and quiet valley of vinyards) but the drama described by Cardigan was easy to imagine from the viewpoint across the valley. One thing which struck me was how far Balaclava feels from home. Ukraine is a big place and tucked away in the far South-east Crimea is at the far end of it. Balaclava is a long way from Kyiv (15 hours by train to be exact) let alone from London and this is 2011. Fighting 1850’s style on behalf of another country (in this case the Ottoman empire) after sailing so far from home must have been hell.
Today, there’s not much to see from the viewpoint of the memorial (which is almost exactly the same as the viewpoint from the painting above) except the edges of Balaclava town and that’s where we were heading and so, in true Ukrainian fashion we waved down a car, jumped in and weaved down the valley to the town.
Having given its name to the famous headgear which was still being put to good (bad) use by rioting crowds across the UK last week, the tiny alcove settlement was also a super top-secret USSR submarine depot. As a result, the cost is punctured with a series of concrete cave entrances which disappear into the mountains. They are exactly like the dessert island evil headquarters depicted in James Bond movies and Thunderbirds. If you wanted to destroy the world, those caves are exactly the kind of place you’d take your white cat.
Despite this, Balaclava today is a friendly holiday town with a lively harbor, new shiny hotels and all the same tacky theme restaurants you’d expect to find at a seafront resorts from Brighton to Alicante. However, with the crumbling concrete military complex and the numerous old Ladas zipping around the streets, it’s not hard to imagine yourself back in the USSR and that’s what makes the place so cool. You can wander through 150 years of military history, then jump on a boat, watch black-sea dolphins and dump yourself on a beach for a beer and a dried fish. What more could you ask for? …a bus to Sevastopol? bez problem.