A short drive from Sevastopol lies the town of Balaklava (Балаклава). Like Sevastopol, Balaklava was once a closed city that only Soviet military and other authorized personnel could enter. Under a mountain along the well-protected harbor at Balaklava, the Soviets built a secret base for nuclear submarines.
Construction on the base began in the late 1950s and consisted of a curved tunnel dug through a mountain with two entrances at sea level. Soviet nuclear submarines would have been lined up inside this tunnel, reportedly safe from any attack. It is said that the curved shape of the tunnel was designed to dissipate the force of even a nuclear blast from a missile or bomb exploding near the entrance to the tunnel. Deep within the mountain, the Soviets also dug areas for weapons storage and assembly, administrative areas and a dry dock where submarines could be maintained or repaired. Tracks were set into the floor in certain areas so heavy missiles or torpedoes could be moved from assembly to loading areas.
After Ukraine declared independence in 1991 – and further declared itself to be a country free of nuclear weapons – negotiations began for the closing of the submarine base at Balaklava. Decommissioning began in 1993 and by 1996 the last Soviet submarine left the base. Today, the formerly secret base has been turned into a public museum.
Balaklava, meanwhile, has changed from a closed city to a resort area that welcomes visitors from throughout Ukraine and beyond. The harbor – which is surrounded by mountains and opens through a narrow passage to the Black Sea – now provides excellent shelter for pleasure boats (and a few Ukrainian naval vessels). The surrounding mountains offer beautiful views of the harbor and the rocky Black Sea coastline.
Balaklava has a long history as a seaport. The ancient Greeks set up shop here (calling their town Symbolon) and some say the mythical Greek hero Odysseus stopped here during his travels through the Black Sea. In the middle ages, the Italian city-state of Genoa carried on a lucrative trade of buying slaves in Eastern Europe and shipping them to Egypt via Crimea. To protect their trade route, they built fortresses along the Crimean coast, the remains of one of which can be seen in Balaklava (which the Genoese called Cembalo). (Some historians believe that the Black Plague reached Europe in the 1300s on a Genoese trading vessel that had stopped in Balaklava.) The Genoese dominated the region from 1365 until the Ottoman Empire took Balaklava in 1475.
After the Genoese, the Ottomans controlled the area until the Russo-Turkish War (1768-1774), after which Crimea fell under Russian domination and was eventually annexed in 1783. In the following century, Balaklava was the scene of fighting between British and Russian armies during the Crimean War (1854-1856). In a nearby valley, the British launched the disastrous "Charge of the Light Brigade", later immortalized in all its insane glory in a poem by Alfred Lord Tennyson. "Cannon to right of them, Cannon to left of them, Cannon in front of them ... Into the jaws of Death, Into the mouth of Hell Rode the six hundred."
Like many areas in Crimea, Balaklava offers spectacular natural scenery, but still has a long way to go before its tourist infrastructure will be up to European resort standards. But, of course, once that happens everything will be more crowded and expensive so, for the intrepid, now is the time to visit!