Lost in time

Sometimes, on a still, silent, out-of-season day in Crimea, the past feels close enough to touch, as close as the next range of mountains looks in these astonishingly clear late Autumn afternoons.

I’ve been staying in South-West Crimea, and yesterday I climbed up to Shuldan cave monastery, where brother Anatoly lives in a way that can scarcely differ from that of the monks here a hundred or five hundred years ago.

From the caves I looked out over the hills down towards Sevastopol, and the cliffs by Balaklava, and the sea glittering silver. It’s a view, give or take a few factory chimneys and roads, which I guess a soldier in the Crimean war a hundred and sixty years ago would perfectly recognise, were he lucky enough to get away from fighting and cholera and make it up here, to fresh air and peace and brother Anatoly offering words of wisdom like pearls not to be cast before swine.

Still day-dreaming about Crimean war soldiers escaping from the battlefield, I walked on towards Eski-Kermen cave city (of which mediaeval travellers recorded that no one knew who built it or even what it was called…) I was climbing down into a valley when someone called out to me “Halt! Who goes there?”

Round the next outcrop of rock I came across peaked white tents, stacks of straw bales, and what seemed to be a heap of dismantled cannons.

“Have you been sent from the Spanish camp?” inquired a soldier in white breeches and blue coat, with white cross belts and gold buttons. Behind me, the sound of a musket being fired.

“Um, no…” said I, feebly, thinking that history had taken a step a little too close…

The soldier’s uniform was fifty years out of date for the Crimean war, and the Napoleonic war re-enactors (as they turned out to be) were preparing for a geographically inaccurate battle between French and Spanish. They weren’t particularly pleased to have me, in my hiking boots and rucksack, intrude on their fantasy, although they were impeccably polite. “Where are you from, sudarynya? England? And you’re travelling quite alone? Prikol’no.”

I didn’t say that they were intruding on my fantasy of the Crimean war, and that surely finding a whole camp of people dressed up in Napoleonic uniform in a remote valley usually inhabited only by horses was a good deal more prikol’no (funny). Anyway there was something inexpressibly charming about being addressed as sudarynya, like a lady in a story by Lermontov or Pushkin, in such unlikely surroundings.

I left them to their dreams and walked on busy with my own, hearing the whispers of the soldiers and settlers, the monks and wine-makers; the Tatars, Karaims, Khazars, Goths, Greeks, Genoese, Russians, Ukrainians… all the people who jostle so closely in the history of Crimea.

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