The first ass-kicking came right away, courtesy of my host town, Novy Svet.
Novy Svet, which translates as “New World” or “New Light,” is a large village/small town (population: 1100) on the south-eastern coast of the Crimean Peninsula. It is situated among juniper and rock pines on the crescent of an incredibly picturesque Green Bay between Mount Falcon (477 m) and Mount Eagle (300+ m) [CLICK THE LINK! That’s how incredible the bay and Mt. Falcon look on a proper sunny day; the photo above is with Mt. Eagle].
The area was hardly accessible by land until the 1870s, when Russian Prince Lev Golitsyn bought the wilderness from a local Georgian landowner. He named the spot Paradiso for its natural beauty, and proceeded to build an estate, a winery, an entire village and an access road from the nearby town of Sudak 7 kilometers away.
Here I should mention that around 150 million years ago this part of Crimea used to be totally submerged under the waters of mega-ocean Tethys, and a lot of the mountains in the area are in fact coral reefs, with Mt. Falcon being the largest coral reef in Europe. Eventually the tectonic plates shifted, continents realigned, Tethys was split into smaller bodies of water and coral reefs rose up to become mountain ranges, forming a beautiful and unique landscape.
By the time Golitsyn had settled in Paradiso, Crimea had already been established as a premiere vacation destination for the Russian elite. In 1912, sailing by on one such vacation, Tsar Nicholas II and his family visited Paradiso and its prince. Rumor has it that after the Tsar took a dip in the crystal clear waters of the Green Bay he said he felt like he was born again into this world/light – and that’s how Novy Svet got its current name.
After his refreshing swim, the Tsar proceeded to sail westward along the coast, and just two small bays down he fell in love with a tiny strip of black sand and jagged rocks at the bottom of a juniper-covered canyon. He liked the spot so much, his entourage made camp there for several days (it’s good to be Tsar). Since then the area has been called Tsar’s Beach. And I had to see it.
Tsar’s Beach is indeed a special place, not just for its unique beauty and nature – that’s what got it converted into a natural reserve – but for relative inaccessibility. Ordinarily it’s an hour and a half hike from Novy Svet, down the Golitsyn Trail. The trail winds along the steep and rocky coastline, dipping into slippery grottos and rising to mountain crests. One wrong step and the clear waters of the Black Sea will welcome you 70 meters below.
But at least there’s an actual trail. The problem is that in order to preserve the unique landscape and ecosystem of Tsar’s Beach and the canyon from the hordes of tourists the trail and the beach were closed several years ago, with a giant gate installed at one of the grottoes through which it passed.
Of course this is Russia (or Ukraine – makes no difference in this context), so just because something is closed, it doesn’t mean you cannot go through. Case in point: having come from Novy Svet two thirds of the way to Tsar’s Beach, I was not about to heed the warnings of other vacationers who told me that really, there’s no way to get from the closed end of the trail to the beach – and indeed, when I arrived at the gate I was greeted by a decent-sized group of hikers who were pulling themselves from the trail into the grotto through a neat little hole dug under the iron obstruction. I pushed and pulled myself through right away. Almost there!
Not quite. You see, a few years ago this part of the Crimean coast suffered a series a pretty major landslides and rockfalls that have essentially blocked the remainder of the trail to all but professional rock climbers. Which is which is when I learned that this is exactly who my fellow hikers were, including the Crimean rock climbing champion! Not that I don’t like a challenge, but I tried rock climbing once in high school and even for my much younger, lither and more agile self with all the proper equipment and safety gear it wasn’t exactly the easiest thing. Also, my dad used to be a pro climber in his youth, but somehow I didn’t think this kind of skill was passed on to me genetically.
I had to “turn around,” now pushing and pulling myself under the grotto’s gate back onto the dead-end of the sunlit trail.
I had three options: accept defeat and walk back to Novy Svet; backtrack an indefinite distance and try to find the trail allegedly used by the locals who forgo the Golitsyn Trail’s scenic route along the sea, instead trekking straight from upper Novy Svet through a pine grove; or I could make my own way in the world, so to speak. Guess which option I chose.
Going back, in any way, is for losers. Winners scale sandy, unstable slopes in flimsy sandals while being thrown off-balance by their big-ass messenger bags stuffed with a beach towel and a bottle of wine, and hope that the roots and branches they grab onto won’t turn into something cold, slithery and with sharp, poisonous teeth.
The first 20 minutes of this leg of my journey seemed like an adventure, which is exactly what I came to Crimea for. After I made it to the steep hill’s crest, I ascertained my position vis a vis the beach, and the best way to get there. Now, any sane person would have walked to the clearly-visible origin point of the canyon and followed its gradually-descending bed all the way to Tsar’s beach. But it definitely wasn’t the shortest way.
Sanity is for losers. Adventure-hungry winners see the elusive, exclusive beach just 80 meters below and take a shortcut.
Half an hour later, having wrapped myself around a rock in an effort to maintain some semblance of a balance on a 10 inch-wide cliff before it dropped straight down to my elusive, exclusive beach, I was calling my best friend in New York City, hoping that she could literally talk me off a ledge.
Let me tell you something: mobile reception in Crimea is GREAT! If you’re in a boat in the Black Sea or stuck on the side of a mountain in the middle of nowhere you can still totally choose the “phone a friend” option!
Back to the ledge. Jumping 50 meters down – oh yeah, I made a ton of progress! – didn’t seem like a “winner” idea. Even getting THISCLOSE to my elusive, exclusive beach had already resulted in a swelling right ankle, my left calve scraped raw and bleeding, not to mention multiple cuts to my legs, arms and hands, and (of this I was certain without a visual confirmation) most of my formerly idle bum turning a vivid shade of eggplant [this was later confirmed].
So I crawled back up. Carefully. Sticking low to the rocks, as I faintly remembered my gym teacher telling me. I still refused to go all the way up to the crest – yup, that’s for adventure-fearing losers – and though I conceded some of the ground, I made it back up just enough where I could actually walk along the side of the canyon, going a little farther inland to attempt another descent.
I did it! Four hours after leaving Novy Svet I was triumphantly ripping off my clothes and jumping into the Black Sea waters washing the dark sand and rocks of Tsar’s Beach. Then I passed out in the sun for two hours and got promptly toasted.
On a nice day local boaters bring in tourists from Novy Svet to see the famed beach from the sea, and make an extra buck taking the tired, tan ones back to town. I’m not sure if hiring one would have been a loser’s way out [yes it would have], but Nature took that option from me that day: the seas got rough and the boats couldn’t get close enough to the shore for a pick-up.
I had no choice but to hike my way up the canyon, in the process discovering the locals’ path (not exactly a cake-walk either), which took me to higher ground and back to town. If this was Novy Svet’s warm welcome, I was a bit afraid to find out what else it had in store!