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Crimea's castles in the air face collapse
By Marcus Warren in Yalta


Saturday 28 October 2000

 

 

A JEWEL of the Crimea, a palace in a foreign land that will forever be a part of England, is slowly slipping into the Black Sea, a victim of landslides and mismanagement of the peninsula's spectacular coastline.

Alupka, the plaything of an Anglophile Russian count that was designed by the architect who completed Buckingham Palace, won high praise from Winston Churchill as his base during the 1945 Yalta conference. Its battlements, turrets, stone lions and flourishes in Tudor and British Raj-style give the palace the feel of an eccentric English stately home.

But, despite the house's monumental facade, a whole wing is in danger of collapsing. Cracks already disfigure the library, which means that a heavy storm, burst pipes or earth tremors could send it tumbling into the waves below. Konstantin Kasperovich, the palace's director, said: "If the library goes, it will ruin the whole architectural ensemble. It would be a catastrophe."

Alupka's 19th-century creator, Edward Blore, and his assistant, William Hunt, built Count Mikhail Vorontsov an English country house. They also included a state-of-the art drainage system. It served the palace well for 100 years but an earthquake; decades of neglect and the clumsy construction of a sewage pipe across the estate in Soviet times have channeled a potential landslide right through the library.

Igor Smirnov, a geologist who monitors shifts in the Alupka landscape, said: "The way they laid that pipe in 1974 was a disaster. They even used explosives to remove large boulders." Home to 10,000 books and manuscripts from the 18th century, the library occasionally lets out agonized creaks as it sways with the earth's movement.

Gaping cracks zigzag up and down its walls. Funds to make good damage to the palace's structure dried up after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Now, more than 1 million is needed to finance repairs, plus an unknown amount to build new sea defenses.

Another potential landslide runs down Alupka's west side, from its medieval-style gatehouse though its park of cypress trees and laurel hedges towards the Black Sea. Mr. Kasperovich said: "You can see how from this platform the fault line goes up this staircase, to the fountain and then to the palace itself. The sea is below, water flows from above and the whole weight of the hillside is bearing down on us."

Landslides threaten the whole Crimean littoral but only Livadia, the last Tsar's summer palace, has so far received state money to guard against the danger. Livadia's special status as Ukraine's favorite venue for political summits entitled it to preferential treatment, argued its director, Lyudmila Kovaleva. She said: "This is just history. The Ukrainian government was absolutely right to act the way it did.

"You cannot give money to everyone all at once. You start with the places that most enhance the state's prestige." Further down the coast, the management at the Swallow's Nest restaurant, a mock-castle perched on a cliff top, has launched an appeal to raise money to save it from disaster.

A huge crack skirts its base and, after recent earthquakes in Greece and Turkey, the staff fear the structure will not survive tremors rocking the Crimea in the future. Within the former Soviet Union, which once sent millions of tourists to the peninsula every year, Swallow's Nest is the Crimea's most famous landmark. But Alupka will always hold a special place in English hearts.

Blore designed it as a fantasy on the history of British architecture, from medieval castles and Tudor country houses to the craze for the East manifested in the Brighton Pavilion. And yet he never visited Alupka himself. Stalin's decision to base the British participants in the Yalta conference at the palace was designed to flatter Churchill. The Vorontsovs were even related to the Spencers by marriage.

Count Vorontsov's memoirs record the British party's astonishment when a casual complaint at the absence of lemon slices in their cocktails was followed by the appearance in the hall the next day of a tree weighed down with the fruit.

Descendants of the Vorontsovs from around the world regularly visit the palace but its parlous physical state has helped deter any claims to the house. Mr. Kasperovich said: "We would be glad to apply the British practice of letting family members stay in part of the house, although the state would continue to be the property's owner."