"" Writer's Wanderings: Balaklava, Ukraine - The Submarine Pens

Friday, November 02, 2012

Balaklava, Ukraine - The Submarine Pens

From Alupka where the palace is that was the place where Winston Churchill stayed during the Yalta Conference in 1945, we drove back toward Sevastopol and along the route where our guide had pointed out the valley where the famous charge of the Light Brigade took place. We pulled over and stopped at a monument that was on a rise looking over the large valley where it all happened.

On the day of the battle, October 25, 1854, Russian forces had installed themselves on hills surrounding the valley. Guns pointed into the valley from several directions. The Light Brigade, a British Calvary unit led by Lord Cardigan received orders from Lord Raglan, overall commander of the troops, to pursue and harry a retreating Russian unit. Somehow the orders were miscommunicated and the Light Brigade had the understanding that they were to forge ahead with a full frontal attack. They did so suffering extreme casualties but not without doing a bit of damage of their own to the Russians. The charge is immortalized in the Tennyson Poem. Here's the second verse:

Forward, the Light Brigade!"
Was there a man dismay'd?
Not tho' the soldier knew
Some one had blunder'd.
Theirs not to make reply,
Theirs not to reason why,
Theirs but to do and die.
Into the valley of Death Rode the six hundred.

It is often called The Valley of Death but it looks very peaceful now. There are several grape vineyards and farms and what appears to be a little town. As we looked over the valley after our guide's very thorough recounting of the battle during the Crimean War, Bob and I decided we must have been out of history class when it was all discussed. We had no idea of what the Crimean War was all about but we were learning.

A little while later, we arrived in Balaklava just southeast of Sevastopol where we had begun so early in the morning. We were beginning to wear down a bit but our next place to explore was just too good to be missed--a secret Russian submarine base. Well, at least it was secret during the cold war.

Balaklava is a resort town nestled in a thin channel off the Black Sea. Tunnels were built into the mountain between 1957 - 1961 where Russian submarines could be stored and/or repaired. It was built to withstand nuclear attack and even built with saving the people of the town in mind. There was room for them to gather there should the need arise. Walls almost 10 feet thick would protect them from a 100 kiliton bomb. Doors weighed almost 10 tons and were designed to close out the effects of a nuclear blast. (As one in our group noted, all this while we were learning in school to crawl under our desks and hide our eyes from a nuclear blast.)

The base was active until 1993 when the decommissioning process began and warheads were removed. In 1996 the last Russian submarine left and in 2003 it became a museum.

It was an eerie walk through the tunnels having grown up with all of the Cold War fears and anxiety it created. Amazing to think of the operation that went on there as they repaired subs, replenished weapons and stocked more warheads.

Our guide was delighted to see that we had time to see one last thing on her list. "If you don't see the Panorama, you haven't seen Sevastopol," was her comment. I couldn't imagine what she meant. I was soon to find out although we came close to missing it.

When we arrived at the museum, a large white round building, and waited for the guide to get tickets, I noticed several men posted in a few spots who looked like stereotypical secret service men. Then suddenly from around the corner, several police in flap-jackets arrived with a huge German Shepard in tow who was already straining at his leash and sniffing everything in sight. Were we in the middle of a bomb scare?

The dog unit went inside and the guy in the dark suit spoke into his lapel. Now this was getting really crazy. As I turned to tell Bob something, I noticed over his shoulder at the edge of the woods another guy in a dark suit talking into his lapel. We had just finished hearing about the James Bond movie that was filmed in the submarine tunnels was I overreacting?

Our guide rattled some things off in her native tongue to the ticket takers at the gate and waved us through. She said we must hurry in because we would be the last visitors before the Prime Minister was to arrive with his guests. I breathed easier. The building was probably very secure by now.

The Panorama turned out to be a giant piece of artwork. It was like being in a Cinerama where the movie takes place all around you only this was a painting. But what a painting! It depicted one of the days of battle in Sevastopol during the Crimean War. The date was June 18, 1855. It was painted in such a way that it looked 3-D--without the glasses!

To view it, you walked up a flight of steps which put you into the painting as if you were on the hill where it was taking place. All around you was the battle painted on canvas walls but with a foreground of real props. The thing was, you couldn't tell where the prop ended and the painting began. It was that good. One wooden beam stretched from in front of us and into the painting and only with extremely careful observation could you tell where it ended and the painting began.

It truly was an experience. I would love to post pictures but there was quite a fee to be allowed to take any and I passed. Besides, a picture would never have done it justice. Our guide was right. It was the not-to-be-missed sight in Sevastopol.

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