We tend to only hear bad news from Ukraine but the country is now open for tourism with visa-free travel plus direct flights from the UK. Rupert Parker goes to see if it’s good news
Situated at the crossroads of Europe, Ukraine has changed hands many times over the centuries with Poland, Austria, Turkey and, of course, Russia making claims to different parts of the country. As a result there’s an enormous cultural diversity and Cobblestone Freeway Tours, as well as taking you to the sights, also pride themselves on organising private concerts and other cultural events. I hear many fine folk groups, take part in country dancing and even attend a Hutsul wedding.
Ukraine’s capital city has wide leafy boulevards, onion-domed churches and relatively few of those dull Soviet architectural monstrosities. Since Ukraine’s independence many of the building have been restored and repainted as symbols of national pride. Don’t miss the 1980’s reconstruction of the Golden Gates of Kiev or the 11th-century Orthodox cathedral of St. Sophia. My favourite is the 19th century St. Volodymyr’s cathedral which was a museum of atheism during Soviet times.
The big attraction is the Lavra Cave Monastery, a complex of religious buildings with catacombs beneath, containing mummified bodies of former monks. Nearby is the huge Motherland Monument, known locally as “Brezhnev’s Daughter”, 62m high, dominating the skyline. It’s part of the WW2 museum and you can take the lift right up to the mother’s hand.
Although there’s a small museum dedicated to the nuclear disaster in Kiev, a day trip to Chernobyl is the best way to appreciate the scale of the tragedy. It’s perfectly safe, they say, and it’s around a two hour drive from the city. You pass through a 30km checkpoint before entering a 10km exclusion zone where you’re warned not to touch anything. The reactor now has a new shiny metal shell, but the town of Pripyat, once housing 50,000 workers, is slowly being swallowed by the forest. This is a ghoulish tourist attraction but a grim reminder of the dangers of nuclear power.
The Carpathians form an arc running roughly 1000 miles across Central and Eastern Europe, making them the second-longest mountain range in Europe. They occupy the South West of Ukraine, separating the country from Romania, with the highest peak, Mount Hoverla, reaching over 2000m. Life carries on here much as it’s done for centuries and during the Soviet period was left almost untouched. Even guerrillas fighting their Russian oppressors stayed holed up here for years.
It’s a three hour drive across the Ukrainian steppes to Kolomyia, famous for the world’s only Pysanka or Easter Egg Museum. Of course it’s built in the shape of a giant egg and houses an impressive collection of intricately decorated specimens from all over the world. Nearby is another museum dedicated to the Hutsuls, the largest ethnic group in the Carpathians, scattered through both Ukraine and Romania. It’s an excellent introduction to their culture with an exhibition of ethnic costumes, arts and crafts.
I head deeper into the Carpathians and the roads worsen, potholes everywhere and rickety bridges to traverse. The railway arrived in the 1880’s, attracting tourists with fresh mountain air, and Vorokhta is an attractive spa town. Further on, just outside Verkhovyna, is Kryvorivnia, a Hutsul village where the movie “Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors” was shot in 1965. It’s nothing more than a collection of attractive wooden shacks with a restored fortified Hutsul house, known as a Grazhda, filled with traditional artefacts. It’s Sunday and the singing from inside the tiny church drifts across the valley.
Leaving the mountains and journeying East, I come to the city of Chernivtski, capital of the region of Bukovina. When it was part of the Hapsburg Empire, it was known as Little Vienna. It’s only 30 miles from Romania and, between the wars was occupied by that country. The Romanians were responsible for the city’s attractive art deco buildings. Chernivtsi University, a red bricked Moorish fantasy, with a Technicolor tiled roof, was built by a Czech architect in 1882, and is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site
An easy day’s excursion from Chernivtsi, is the fairy-tale fortress of Khotyn, on a cliff overlooking the Dniester River. It was built around 1400 by the Moldavians but fell into Turkish hands in 1713. They kept it for another 100 years, until the Russians became the final owners. These days it’s been much restored but is still impressive, with walls 40m high and 6m thick. It’s been the location for many feature films, including the Ukrainian version of Robin Hood.
Nearby is another stunning fortress protecting the medieval city from the mainland. The 14th century castle sits high above a bend of the Smotrych River, with the waters forming a natural moat. It originally had twelve towers but they’re now much reduced. It’s still relatively well preserved, however, and is one of the few medieval constructions left in Ukraine.
Situated in the far west of the country, just 50 miles from the Polish border, Lviv was also part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. That’s reflected in its quaint cobbled streets and architecture reminiscent of those other Hapsburg cities like Vienna and Budapest. Of course it also has trams, trolley buses and coffee houses. Indeed they say that the first coffee shop in Vienna was opened by a Ukrainian from Lviv in 1686
It’s a pleasant place to wander round, with street musicians on every corner, and the Market Square in the old town is lined with renaissance houses. The elaborate Lviv Opera House still stages productions of opera and ballet and imposing Cathedrals beckon you inside. My visit coincides with National Embroidered Blouse Day so everyone is sporting one, men and women alike.
Outside the old town, the 18th-century Lychakiv Cemetery has ornate tombs, chapels and shrines plus a special section dedicated to those who are still being killed in the armed struggle on Ukraine’s Eastern borders. Most Ukrainians I speak to believe that it’s Russian mischief making and can’t understand why their former ally is making trouble. Happily during my travels in Central and Western Ukraine, I saw no signs of the war, so travellers shouldn’t be alarmed. Rather the country offers surprising value for money, with excellent food and drink, and is surprising in its cultural diversity.
Cobblestone Freeway Tours organises various guided trips to Ukraine.
Ibis Kiev City Center makes a good base in Kiev.
SoloEast can arrange tours of Chernobyl from Kiev.
Ukraine International Airways flies direct daily from London Gatwick to Kiev.
The Gatwick Express is the quickest way to get to the airport.
This article first appeared on The Cultural Voyager on 8th August 2017