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YALTA : Russia's Riveria

August 24, 1986|JEAN GILLETTE | Gillette is a Sunnyvale, Calif., free-lance writer.

YALTA, Soviet Union — This famous city is a real bonanza in October. After the icy north, the breeze from the Black Sea was blissful, warm and pine-scented.

A Californian behind me muttered, "At last maybe I can get warm!"

Dazed by the unaccustomed sun, I gathered up my bags and the bulky balalaikas I'd carried all across Russia (I didn't realize you can't mail packages from the Soviet Union to the States) and entered the huge, 2,400-bed Hotel Yalta.

The lobby looked like the Superdome with a marble floor. The two-story dining rooms dripped with chandeliers and were lavishly decorated with plush draperies and cushioned chairs.

At the Yalta, unlike Intourist hotels in other parts of Russia, Westerners are mixed with citizens of the Eastern Bloc like raisins in a pudding. I saw East and West Germans, Poles, Czechs, Russians, British and Americans, all there to enjoy their holidays.

Unlike hotels in Leningrad and Moscow, no guards patrolled the doorways and I saw no police. Outside, amid bursting rosebuds and hibiscus blooms, sturdy women in cotton dresses wielded picks and shovels. (Few women in Russia wear trousers.)

At the foot of the hotel gardens, elevators transported guests to the beach where, in a dazzling display of skin, people stretched on the white sand, soaking up the sun. (The modest Russians don't take it all off as the French do, but do strip down to bikinis.)

An American woman sat at one of the soft drink stands and called, "Orange juice! Just like home!" I had two glasses because it was the first I'd seen in Russia.

It was an easy 20-minute walk downtown. Along Franklin D. Roosevelt Avenue young men strolled, wearing T-shirts printed with such slogans as "Stanford Indians," "Montana Grizzlies" and "Arizona Wildcats."

In contrast to the lonely cabbages in state stores up north, purple grapes, red tomatoes and ripe peaches spilled from stalls in the Yalta market. In an alcove, bees rummaged about on bars of compressed honey. Tantalizing smells of meat filled the air as men cooked shish kebab on charcoal braziers and kerchief-capped babushkas sold crisp, meat-filled pirogi.

Yalta looks a lot like Santa Barbara. It's cupped in a giant shell between a sheltering range of mountains in the north and the balmy waters of the Black Sea. It has no industry.

First settled by the Greeks, followed by Genoans and Turks, the Crimea area was claimed by the Russians in 1774.

Beginning about 1860 the southern coast was developed as a private preserve of the Russian elite. Palaces, dachas and large estates transformed the area around Yalta into a center of resort life, but the rarefied shores were barred to workers and peasants.

When the revolution heated up in the north in 1917, the rich headed for their villas on the Crimea, Red Army troops hot on their heels. In November, 1920, the Reds drove out the White Guards and Lenin declared that henceforth the Crimea was to be a haven for working people.

The Nazis cut short that revolutionary dream and bloody battles were waged against the fascist invaders. At Kerch, the Red Army withdrew from the city and took cover in stone quarries, where they perished after resisting for nearly six months.

There is much to see in this historic city and Intourist offers a whole smorgasbord of excursions which, though reasonably priced, are payable not in rubles but in foreign currency. The first excursion I signed up for was to the home of Anton Chekhov, author and playwright, and it was then that I met Olga, our local tour guide.

She, like other Intourist guides, spoke perfect English with a clipped British accent acquired at Moscow University. With her white blouse, A-line skirt, neat haircut and wholesome appearance, she would not have been out of place in any American city. Olga had a fondness for the phrases, "in this very city" and "in this very place," sprinkling her set speeches about the sights we saw with those favorite expressions.

Chekhov's house was in this very city of Yalta and in this very place his mother lived downstairs while he escaped to the upper floors. Olga, like other Intourist guides we encountered, told us in a singsong recitation far more than we really wanted to know about the places we visited.

She accompanied us to Livadia Palace, where the last czar brought his little hemophiliac son. Olga told us that it was in this very city in this very place that the "Big 3," Roosevelt, Stalin and Churchill, signed their famous agreement. We saw the not-too-skillful painting of the participants in the foyer, viewed the historic white-and-gold room where the meetings were held and noted that the mantle still bore the czar's crest.

On succeeding days I went with Olga to the Alupka Palace, built by 80,000 serfs of Count Vorontsov, and visited the historic Massandra Winery that housed wine dating from 1774 and offered an excellent wine tasting.

Olga confided on the way home from the wine tasting, "I really like Americans."

"Why?" I asked.

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