Visiting A Muslim Palace In Crimea

There are only a handful of Muslim palaces in Europe. Most of them are in Turkey, one in Spain (the Alhambra), and one in Ukraine:

In the middle of the 16th century, Bakhchisaray had become the capital of the Crimean Khan dynasty. The palace itself was built around 1532 and is a fine example of Ottoman architecture.

The word “palace” is a bit misleading. In the enclosure you will indeed find the living quarters of the Khan and his family, but there are also gardens, a cemetery, and 2 mosques.

The Crimean Khans had their own state (in Crimea) until 1783. Once a great empire, these Muslims have now become a minority struggling for their rights. The palace is now a symbol of their former glory.

In 2017, a Russian firm restored the palace… with devastating consequences. The Russians had little experience with historical restoration. Some of the features that you can see in our pictures have now become damaged or have simply disappeared.

The most important feature of the palace is the Bakhchisaray Fountain.

The last Khan had fallen deeply in love with a Polish girl in his harem. Unfortunately, she was murdered by the Khan’s former favorite wife. After her death, the Khan became the victim of deep sorrow and grief and commissioned this fountain.

Russian writer Pushkin was so moved by this fact that he wrote a poem about it. It’s probably because of this poem, that the palace still exists. According to tradition, you will usually find a red and yellow rose on the fountain.

Some practical information

  • There are lots of road signs to the Khan Palace, you cannot miss it.
  • There is ample parking space near the palace; you need to pay a small fee.
  • Summers are very hot in Crimea. Apply ample quantities of sunscreen.
  • For those of you who like a real driving adventure (from Belgium to Ukraine, for example): crossing the border between Poland and Ukraine can take up to 2 hours!
  • We were in Crimea in 2011. At that moment, there were hardly any formalities between the Ukrainian – Crimean borders. That is, we drove all the way from Odessa via Mykolajiv to Sevastopol without having to present a passport or any other papers. Russia occupies Crimea since 2014; check official information before you leave to find out what procedures you need to follow.
  • Driving in Ukraine can be adventurous. The state of the roads goes from very bad to quite good. Very old trucks that seem to have survived at least one world war, pedestrians, cyclists transporting large goods, in other words, everybody uses major roads. We even saw a small car with 2 passengers in front and 2 goats on the backseat. Ukrainians like to speed, but we hardly encountered aggressive drivers. Finally, corrupt policemen will stop any foreign car and come up with false allegations in order to get some money from you. Just stay calm and be firm.
  • Does your GPS cover Ukraine? If not, buy a detailed map of the country!

What about you? Have you ever visited this palace? Would you fancy driving around in Ukraine and Crimea?

We are back later this week with more travel adventures, somewhere in Europe!


How a Classic Movie Led Us to Odessa

Summer 2010. Lars and I made our first big trip together. Starting with Sweden, we later crossed Germany, Hungary, and Croatia. It was a big revelation for me; I had never been so far north nor east in my life.

In October of the same year, we started to plan our summer trip of 2011. I was still feeling excited until Lars remarked that we could go even further east in Europe. There was his favorite country, Romania, and why not go all the way to Ukraine?

My answer? If he was serious about Ukraine, there was one place that I really wanted to visit. Odessa. And all because of a movie.

The Movie

And not just any film! One of my favorite movies ever is Battleship Potemkin (1925), directed by the great Eisenstein. This silent movie consists of 5 chapters and recounts how a mutiny onboard of a battleship leads to a massacre of many civilians, on what is now known as the Potemkin Stairs (or Odessa Steps). And this happens to be – as you can imagine – the most dramatic scene of the movie.

This is without any doubt one of the most famous movie scenes… ever. It’s very intense and many movies have paid homage to it, such as Brazil and The Untouchables.

Historical Facts

Yes, this movie is based on facts. In 1905, there was indeed a battleship called Potemkin, where sailors rebelled against their officers. The arrival of the ship in the harbor of Odessa was the cause of demonstrations throughout the whole city, during which civilians died.

But the Odessa Steps sequence is – unfortunately – fiction. The victims died in other parts of Odessa. Eisenstein – who had started filming in Leningrad and then had moved to Odessa – used this location for its dramatic effect. Most people actually believed it was true and still do so.

The Potemkin Stairs

Let’s start with some facts and numbers:

  • 192 steps in total.
  • Designed and constructed in the first half of the 19th century.
  • Replaced in 1933 because of erosion.
  • Official symbol of Odessa.

Wikipedia has some more interesting information:

The stairs are considered a formal entrance into the city from the direction of the sea and are the best known symbol of Odessa.[1] The stairs were originally known as the Boulevard steps, the Giant Staircase,[3] or the Richelieu steps.[4][5][6][7] The top step is 12.5 meters (41 feet) wide, and the lowest step is 21.7 meters (70.8 feet) wide. The staircase extends for 142 meters, but it gives the illusion of greater length.[8][9][10] Due to the sightline, a person looking down the stairs sees only the treads, and the risers are invisible; whereas a person looking up sees only risers, and the treads are invisible.

Our Visit

It took us about a week to drive from Belgium through Germany and Poland to Ukraine. During our arrival in Odessa, a heavy thunderstorm took place, which lasted for hours. Lars and I postponed our visit to the Potemkin Stairs to the morning afterwards.

I remember this visit very vividly. Maybe it’s because I’m an aspie and my senses tend to work overdrive, for me this was very intense, very emotional.

Don’t be a tourist and start rushing up and down the steps like crazy. Take your time, sit down, take it all in, admire the views. Yes, the scene in the movie is not true and these are not the original steps anymore; it’s still a special place, because of movie history.

Before and After

  • Upon arrival, a vendor sold us postcards and stamps. He also tried to make us buy caviar and a copy of the Iron Cross (Nazi symbol). We were shocked, but the man didn’t understand our reaction.
  • When we were back in the hotel, we heard the news about the 2011 Norway attacks. Quite a shock as well.

What about you? Have you ever been to Ukraine? Odessa? Did you see the steps? Or do you one day want to see them?

Later this week, we are back with some very stunning pictures, made somewhere in Spain! Stay tuned!

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