If you have never been to Ukraine, and unless you are a student of the history of the Mongol horde known as the Tatars, you have probably never heard of the town called Bakhchysaray, nor of its amazing palace. Most people who are from outside Eastern Europe, and are about to travel to Kiev, the Ukrainian capital, for the first time, don’t know about this unintentionally well kept secret. It’s just one example of many Ukrainian historic jewels that you don’t learn about until you are actually in your accommodations in Kiev, and start to talk to the locals or other visitors staying in Kiev hotels.
Bakhchysaray is located in the central part of the Crimean Peninsula. It is about 64 kilometers northwest of Yalta. The community’s name means “Garden Palace” and comes from the time of the Crimean Khans. They were the Tatar dynasty who built the magnificent Bakhchysaray Palace in the 16th century. Or rather, they made Russian and Ukrainian slaves build it for them, under the supervision of Italian, Ottoman and Persian architects.
The palace was built in classic 16th century Tatar style, and is one of only three surviving Muslim palaces in Europe. The others are in Turkey and Spain. It has a walled enclosure that contains living quarters, gardens, a mosque, a cemetery, and the women’s area discreetly known as the harem. Any unauthorized man trying to enter that part would have met a burley eunuch wielding a sharp sword. For the benefit of tourists, the living quarters have been made to appear as though the long-gone occupants still live there.
Lovers of Russian literature will want to see the Bakhchysaray Fountain of Tears, which is in a courtyard of the palace. This fountain inspired the Russian writer Alexander Pushkin’s moving poem about the love of a Crimean Khan for his deceased Polish wife. The waters of the fountain are symbolic of the Khan’s tears of sorrow. Pushkin’s beautiful poem is said to have been influential in a decision made by the Russians to spare the palace from destruction.
Visitors in Kiev hotels who plan to see Bakhchysaray and the Khan’s Palace should also set aside time to tour the Uspensky Monastery. This amazing attraction was built right into the side of a cliff. It is noted for its gorgeous frescoes. The monastery is still an operating religious site, so respectful behavior is required. The waters here are said to have healing powers. If you like, you can fill a bottle to take with you.
A must-see is the 6th century cave city of Chufut-Kale. This is a labyrinth of caves and structures that was a place of refuge during troubled times for hundreds of years. This is a fascinating place to explore. On the uphill hike to Chufut-Kale, you’ll see the entrance to the ruins of an old Dervish and Muslim cemetery.
First-time visitors should know that they have an alternative to an expensive Kiev hotel. Comfortable and affordable Kiev apartments are available through agencies.