Bakhchysarai: What to do in the city that inspired tsars and poets

TASS/Veronika Yakushkina
RBTH editors note: More than a year has passed since a referendum was held on Crimea, which led to a treaty being signed between the peninsula and Russia. This has been the source of enormous controversy between Russia, Ukraine and the West and many foreign embassies warn against travel here. As a result of economic sanctions that were passed in response to this event, traveling is not easy in Crimea: Practically no international airlines land here and visitors must bring fistfuls of cash with them. Bankcards and credit cards are not accepted anywhere, although it is possible to change foreign currency in banks.

Present day Bakhchysarai (30 kilometers southwest from the Crimean capital of Simferopol) has little in common with the great city of the past, which was the capital of the Crimean Khanate, one of world's most powerful states from the 15th to the 18th centuries. Nevertheless there’s still much to see and do here. What should a traveler do in the Crimean city from “1001 Nights?” Here are some ideas.
 

1. Buy a bucket of lavender at the walls of the ancient fortress Chufut-Kale from elderly local women who gather this herb from Crimean meadows.
 

2. Taste local Eastern sweets such as baklava, lucum (similar to Turkish delight) or “khvorost” (pastry straws) while sitting on a bench by the walls of the Bakhchysarai Palace, a unique example of Crimean Tatar imperial architecture.


Photo credit: Lori/Legion-Media
 

3. Go to an art show at the Bakhchysarai Palace and get inspired to reach new creative heights, as many great poets, writers, musicians and monarchs once did. The Khan’s Palace in Bakhchysarai enthralled Catherine the Great and most other Russian tsars that visited it. Foreign guests were not immune to its charms: Austrian Emperor Joseph II was also captivated.


Photo credit: RIA Novosti/Konstantin Chalabov
 

4. Enjoy the view of fine wooden balconies in the house facing the entrance to Chufut-Kale. These balconies were built in the Middle Ages for Muslim beauties who went there to breathe fresh air and watch the life of the city go by and yet remain invisible to passersby.


Photo credit: Lori/Legion-Media
 

5. Get to know the ancient Muslim traditions of Crimean Tatars during an English-language tour around the Bakhchysarai Palace. Polygamy was common in the Crimean Khanate and the khan's wives were kept for life inside a harem within the palace. Their primary activity consisted of secret visits to the dark Sokolinaya Tower in the Persian Garden. The rest of the time they spent reading the Koran, embroidering or chatting with each other over a cup of coffee.


Photo credit: Lori/Legion-Media
 

6. Follow in the footsteps of Russia’s most famous author, Alexander Pushkin, who came here nearly 200 years ago. Pushkin was greatly inspired by his walk around the Khan's Palace in Bakhchysarai during the time of his southern exile in 1820. He wrote the sad, yet glorious poem “The Fountain of Bakhchysarai” afterwards. P

ushkin's contemporaries described the poet standing by the “fountain of tears,” a selsebil fountain that was located near the mausoleum of Dilyara, the Khan's favorite wife. He then went out to the garden, picked two roses and put them by the fountain. Supposedly this is how Pushkin started a tradition that continues to the present day: Many people place roses at the “source of inspiration,” the Bakhchysarai fountain. Bring flowers with you.


Photo credit: Lori/Legion-Media
 

7. Rest for a minute in the rose garden of the palace, sit on a bench and read Pushkin's poem "The Fountain of Bakhchysarai." In a letter to his brother Lev, Pushkin wrote that he didn’t want this poem to be published because “many parts of it are related to a woman who I was in love with for a long time and quite stupidly.” The personality of this lady, the so-called secret love of Pushkin, has been one of the main unresolved questions of studies of Pushkin’s life and works.


Photo credit: Lori/Legion-Media
 

8. Check to see if the Bakhchysarai Palace is really a “city within the city.” Have a look at each room, mosque, bathhouse, mausoleum, all richly decorated and painted and finished off with great care and artistry. The main idea in the design of the palace was to epitomize Islamic representations of the Earthly Paradise and each ruler added something of their own to what his predecessors had done.


Photo credit: Lori/Legion-Media
 

9. Take a walk to the ancient settlement of Eski-Yurt, the ancient mosques of Orta Juma Jami and Takhtaly-Jami and down to Zyndzherly Medrese, the only surviving Muslim school in Crimea. Under the Golden Horde’s rule in the 13th-14th centuries these places were part of a caravan trade center where you could find everything from silk and spices to weapons and gems. Nowadays souvenir swords and souvenirs are all that are for sale, but you can still detect the pungent smells of eastern spices.


Photo credit: Lori/Legion-Media
 

10. Climb up to the upper part of town and roam around the cells inside the cliffs of the Svyato-Uspensky Cave Monastery. The latter is similar to other hand-dug caves such as the Selime Monastery in the ancient region of Cappadocia in Turkey, the Rose Castle in Georgia and the Mount Monastery (Ein-Kerem) in Jerusalem, while simultaneously maintaining its unique character.


Photo credit: TASS/Alexey Pavlishak

The easiest way to reach the peninsula is by plane. Russian airlines Aeroflot, S7, Donavia and Utair, and the charter airline Vimavia fly there from all three Moscow airports. The planes are often full, therefore it’s best to book your flight in advance, especially if you want a window seat or to sit together with your companion. The flight takes 2.5 hours. Roundtrip fares from Moscow start at 5,500 rubles (about $110). The cheapest plane tickets to Crimea can be found on jetradar.com

The only tour company for foreign visitors operating in the south of Russia, including Crimea, at the moment is Southern Comfort - Tours to South of Russia. The company employs tour guides that speak English, French, German, Italian, Spanish, Chinese, Japanese and other languages, trustworthy drivers and managers that can organize any tours based on a client’s wishes.

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