The eX-nuclear submarine base in Balaclava in the Crimea was such a secret that the town of Balaclava did not appear on maps and even the families of engineers, scientists & technicians who worked there had no idea that the base existed!
The facility is built into the cliff face and was hidden from the world. Submarines would arrive undetected below the surface, only to rise up once inside.
I visited in 2011 when Crimea was undisputedly part of Ukraine. My friend and I arrived via Budapest, Bucharest, Chisinau & Odessa, having to take an extremely uncomfortable overnight bus from the latter to Sevastopol.
The former secret had now opened up to become a not very well publicised museum. I stumbled across the existence of the place in my pre-trip research and it definitely became one of the highlights of a wonderful tour that also included stays in Lviv & Kiev and at 27 hours, my longest ever train journey.
After recovering from our bus pains and an unpleasant experience at Sevastopol Train Station (click on TICKETS to read about that episode), we set off in a taxi from our hotel to the base.
What a brilliant place to visit. As we entered the rocky facade, it felt like we were going into the evil lair of one of the villains in a James Bond movie, the type of place that gets blown up in the end as Bond miraculously escapes with a beautiful woman.
It was here that Soviet nuclear submarines were maintained and repaired. Narrow channels filled with inky black water was where the submarines would be worked on.
At one point a recording was heard over loud speakers – a siren blaring, water whooshing, men shouting, tools clanging on metal.
It was easy to close your eyes to imagine the scene. The submarine gliding into view, the submariners noisily disembarking through a single hatch and then the workers getting to work as orders were bellowed.
It was a fabulous big boy’s treat, augmented by the museum at the end which you entered through a nuclear resistant metre thick steel door.
There were photos of the action, military uniforms and medals, models of the subs and items such as radios, medical equipment and radar apparatus from inside the vessels.
We happily exited blinking into the sunlight from the darkness of the base. What an experience.
You have probably heard of a balaclava helmet, but do you know why it is so called?
It dates back to the Crimean War when the British suffered terribly in the harsh winters in the hills overlooking Sevastopol.
When their relatives back home heard about the freezing conditions and inadequate uniforms, they set about knitting scarves, gloves and hats that also covered parts of the face and neck.
The main British supply line port was at Balaclava, so when the first shipments of woollen hats arrived, the balaclava helmet was born.