Crimea Coast

This is a wine memory forged in one country and which, as I write this, lingers – uncomfortably, uncertainly – in another.

That place is Crimea. It was September 2011, and I had a precious three weeks before graduate school was to begin in ever-overcast London. I spent every day of those three weeks soaking up the sun in Ukraine’s (now Russia’s?) Crimean peninsula. My accomplice was my friend Lenka (Czech, polyglot, intrepid explorer and all-around badass), who was working in Simferopol at the time and generously cashed in her entire year’s vacation (plus some, um, ‘sick days’) to join me in an adventurous romp around the peninsula.

Our itinerary could be described as ‘loose,’ at best. Basically, we’d just head west until we hit the sea – Simferopol sits smack in the middle of Crimea – and make our way down the coastline from there, wrapping things up somewhere around Yalta. Capping off our trip would be an obligatory trip to the Swallow’s Nest, practically the postcard for southern Crimea, as well as a stop at a famous winery with an extensive and regal past: Massandra Winery (Ukrainian: Масандра, Russian: Массандра). Both sites sit just outside Yalta, albeit in different directions.

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Swallows Nest
The famous castle Swallow’s Nest near Yalta

Time flew as we racked up adventures (and misadventures) left and right – many beers on many beaches, flying across waterways via speedboat in stunningly, ironically gorgeous Balaklava, a close-call ‘passport issue’ in autonomous Sevastopol, jumping around in the background scenery of a Polish TV travel show being shot in Bakhchisarai. Before we knew it, less than 24 hours remained before Lenka had to return to work. And that’s when we finally rolled into downtown Yalta.

It was nearly noon, and, after days on end basking blithely on the beach and exploring hither and thither in a delightfully timeless haze, we suddenly found ourselves in a hurry. We had a decision to make: head one way to explore the ‘must-see’ Swallow’s Nest. Or, in the other direction, we had just enough time to make it to Massandra Winery.

We chose Massandra.

With no clue as to how to get there, we simply asked the first person we came across and, as instructed, hopped on a trolley bus so old and paint-chipped it looked more like a schlocky Soviet relic than an operating piece of public transport. As the trolley chugged its way up a steep hill in what increasingly seemed like the wrong direction, we further consulted our pensioner-aged fellow passengers about reaching the famous Massandra Winery.

After a heated discussion and a period of who-knows-how-long into the uphill journey, our elderly buddies reached a consensus. With toothless smiles and wishes of good luck, they hustled us off the trolley.

I recall thinking our situation looked a bit too comical to be real as we stood in the middle of the road under the hot sun, watching the trolley chug its way farther uphill and into the distance. We surveyed our surroundings: pine trees, a crumbling concrete structure, more pine trees. Definitely no “extremely famous winery” in sight.

Determined and all-too-aware of the ticking clock, we threw on our backpacks and scrambled up the hill, scanning anxiously for what should have been an obvious site. Over the hill and through yet more pine trees, it was a glorious moment when we finally laid eyes on our destination: Massandra! It was like that moment in Harold and Kumar when they break through the thick forest and suddenly spot a glowing White Castle in the valley below (but, you know, our moment was way more high-brow, because it was fancy wine we were after).

Sweaty yet jubilant, we practically ran into the building and asked for tickets for the tour.

“No tour tickets now. You should have made a reservation.”

No! Not to be turned away at this point, we stepped aside and began scheming. I remember sneaking into the bathroom to wash off a bit and change into something slightly less stinky, thinking that might help our chances.

But ultimately, it was our irresistible charm – or perhaps our emphatic (pathetic?) persistence – that led a kind employee to break down and let us join the tasting session that caps off the Massandra tour.

“Just wait here and try to blend in when the group arrives in 10 minutes,” the sympathetic employee instructed, concealing our dusty backpacks behind some furniture and seating us at a table in the tasting room.

Blend in we could not, but taste, we did.

Wines At Massandra
The wine tasting at Massandra (photo by Lenka Blahová)

The Massandra Winery is best known for its dessert and fortified wines, as well as its history under the royal proprietorship of wine aficionado Prince Lev Golitzin, during the late nineteenth century. Tasting one concoction after another, I tried my best to keep up with the Russian explanations for each of these unique wines. Lenka and I stifled laughs – and the rest of ‘our’ tour group stared at us in confusion – as, whispering, I’d ask Lenka why this or that wine was made from actual bees/like a thunderstorm/akin to a doorframe, only to have her correct my dim-witted Russian with a different description altogether.

In the end, we were ushered into the adjacent shop, where I bought a bottle each of my two favorites from the tasting.

That night we took a bus back to Simferopol, and two days later I was on the plane to London, where the very next day I sat in a large lecture hall with my fellow students for day one of grad school orientation.

Despite my best packing efforts, one of my wine bottles broke en route from Ukraine to London. But the other – a honey-infused fortified wine described as a gentle, traditional route to a good night’s sleep – remained intact, and I treasured the bottle for the first nerve-wracking week of grad school.

I don’t know what’s become of Massandra Winery in the past weeks. Confusion and chaos in Crimea turned into a takeover of the peninsula by Russian troops and, at the moment, annexation to Russia seems on the horizon if not already the case.

The latest entry in the news section of Massandra’s website – still parked at its .ua domain – is from August 2013. Is the winery operating normally? I highly doubt it, and surely there are no group tours going on right now. But to be honest, I worry far more about people in Crimea than I do about Massandra Winery. Resilient, already having weathered multiple regime changes, I’ve no doubt that soon enough Massandra will emerge productive and intact. But under what flag, who knows?

Sarah P. Murphy lives in Prishtinë/Priština, Kosovo, where she does communications and PR work across the vast NGO and development sector. You can follow her on Twitter here: @SmurphsTweets (she will start tweeting more soon – seriously)

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