Continuing our wonderful trip to Ukraine from over ten-years ago. Picking up where we left off, we had at last found a hotel in Sevastopol after a horrid overnight bus journey from Odesa, followed by a frustrating time at the train station trying to procure train tickets to Lviv.
The Balaclava Hemet
A sixty-minute kip and a hot shower later and all was well with the world again. So much so that we were raring to go once more and we soon found ourselves in a taxi headed for Balaklava.
I was by now deep into my wonderful book about the Crimean War. I had learned how it had started (pretty much squabbling between the Orthodox and Catholic Church that escalated), I now knew that the Charge of the Light Brigade was a huge and deadly cock up caused by an incompetent Lord Raglan and that Florence Nightingale was as much opportunist as heroine.
A fascinating fact about the war was how it was reported back in the UK. Telegraphs meant that news from the battleground appeared in the newspapers a day or so after any event for the first time.
News about the appalling conditions the British troops faced was relayed back home leading to public outcry and calls to bring the boys back home. The forces faced a particularly bleak winter up in the hills around Sevastopol.
Hearing the news of the hardship faced during the winter, the ladies of Britain did their best to help by knitting warm clothing to send out to their boys.
The British supply line was brought in through the small harbour at Balaklava, as Sevastopol port was a Russian stronghold. The most common form of knitwear supplied by the women was headgear that also covered the face and neck. This soon became known as the balaclava helmet.
We had a single reason to go to Balaklava. They had recently opened a former Soviet naval nuclear submarine base as a museum. The site had been top secret during the Cold War and had seen the name Balaklava wiped from all official maps.
The museum was a boy’s own dream. The entrance encompassed the area where the submarines would rise up majestically out of the sea to glide serenely up through a tunnel carved out of the mountain and inside the rock to the waiting workers.
This was something straight out of Thunderbirds or James Bond. As we entered we half expected to see a Blofeld lookalike sat at a table stroking his fluffy white cat.
Generally we don’t do museums as you may know, but this one was unique. There were miles of tunnels with seawater flowing through the middle, so they could house the docked submarines. The canal area barely looked wide enough for a submarine to fit, but clearly it was designed to perfection.
The whole place was an engineering masterpiece that had lain hidden from all but those in the know. As we stood in wonderment looking at the black water, some speakers suddenly burst into life to play the sounds of the day. Sirens blaring, the noise of heavy tools on metal, the shouts of the workers, the hum of a powerful generator.
It was easy to imagine the scene of organised bedlam as a sub arrived. Action stations, each man with a specific job to do. The mind wandered to 007 again, with images conjured of bomb blasts, gunfire and casualties flying through the air.
We lingered to drink in the scene to make sure it stuck. Three tour groups went through and well into the distance before we reluctantly left what was the core of the museum. Awesome!
Onto the exhibitions – grainy black and white films showing a sub arriving, the story told in Russian about the excitement raised when work arrived, photographs displayed showing how the place was built, written accounts of what it was like working there. Objects exhibited included torpedoes, a two-man mini observation sub, an array of shiny medals and a display of military uniforms through the ages.
The final event was to walk through the four feet thick steel doors that when shut, sealed the place from the outside world.
The equally thick steel doors alongside indicated that nuclear activity took place behind them. Best kept shut tight I thought in case any residue lingered.
By the time we exited we had hardly spoken a word to each other, so spellbound were we. It was no contest, the best museum we had ever visited. We agreed that only having an actual submarine in situ could have topped what we had just seen. Two very satisfied customers indeed!
Our Crimea stay had been curtailed by a day due to train availability. We would have to bump Yalta, the place where Stalin, Churchill and Roosevelt agreed the post WWII territorial carve up, from our intended itinerary.
Next day would be a full on one visiting Bakhchiseray, where a trio of treats awaited us, so an early night was the only thing on the agenda.