Ukraine is a wonderful surprise, full of interesting, unusual and amazing things. I knew next to nothing about it and had a vague (and totally baseless) idea that it might be a kind of emptier, poorer and less ‘modern’ version of Moldova or Bulgaria. I was so wrong. Ukraine is really big! It’s the second largest country on the European continent, after Russia. It’s also really different to anywhere I’ve been before. As we drove around, it gradually unfolded, like a richly textured magic carpet.
Where we crossed over from Moldova, it continued on with more of the same – pretty little villages with water wells and Jesuses on crosses, cottages with elaborate metalwork roofs and gates, rolling green hills, sparkling rivers and lakes, and deep green forests. Ukraine is beautiful. Who knew? It’s also very neat. The houses are painted and maintained and everywhere is mowed and manicured. There’s no scruffiness here. As we drove north, the houses and churches got bigger and shinier, and (apart from the major highways) the roads got worse.
I chose Kam’yanets’-Podil’s’kyi for our first Ukrainian base, simply because it’s not far over the border and the Lonely Planet website described it as ‘dramatic’, ‘stunning’ and ‘breathtaking’. I didn’t know what was there exactly (and couldn’t pronounce it) but it sounded intriguing. Our accomodation was a perfect cottage with vegetable gardens, chickens, cats, and a bad tempered dog – set behind big metal gates, like a little bit of country right in the city centre. ‘Well, this is pretty great’, I thought. The city itself is a pleasant and interesting mix of excellent markets, reasonable restaurants, Shisha ‘hookah’ bars (very popular in Eastern Europe), loads of parks and the widest cobbled streets I’ve ever seen. ‘Actually, this is really great’, I thought.
Then, we discovered the medieval old city and I thought, ‘Wow!’. Like something out of the Lord of The Rings, it’s set on an island sticking up out of the massive Smotrytsky Canyon and linked by a series of bridges. There are brightly painted squares, gothic and baroque churches, cobbled lanes, turrets and spires, stone walls and incredible buildings. It’s pure fantasy. A city fit for elves.
By the time we discovered the fairy princess castle, I’d run out of adjectives. All other castles I’ve seen before have paled into insignificance. Now this, THIS is the medieval castle of my dreams.
I was reluctant to leave the still unpronounceable Kam’yanets’-Podil’s’kyi. After a couple of weeks of exploring there was still so much more to discover. I hope I make it back one day! Still, onward and upward. On the way to our next base, I wanted to take a slight detour to see a fortress I’d read about. Like all of Ukraine, there’s not much information available about any of it, so all I really knew was that it was a fortress worth seeing. Google’s not so reliable in Ukraine and neither is our crazy GPS, so I was navigating by instinct really. I knew the town it was in and I knew it was by the river. We drove around in circles for a while, with JH saying (as usual) ‘there’s no fortress down here’ and me saying (as usual), ‘I’m sure it’s here somewhere’. The dirt road we were on ended and we set off walking down an overgrown bush track towards the river. Just when we were about to give up, it appeared.
The Khotyn Fortress is huge and I imagine very difficult to invade. It’s been the scene of many battles and sieges over the centuries. One legend says that the big dark patch on the wall was caused by the tears of a girl called Oksana who was buried alive in the wall by the Turks.
It seems we’d come in the back way and when we walked around to the other side there were people suspended on ropes doing repairs.
Ukraine is regionally and culturally very diverse. Although over 70% identify as Ukrainian, it’s a patchwork of ethnic groups, including (interestingly) the Zaporizhian Cossacks. Our next base at Sheshory, in the Carpathians, was chosen partly because it’s home to the Hutsul people – a creative ethnic group of western Ukraine and northern Romania. This is an area of colourful craft markets, distinctive houses, and simple rural village life.
The other reason for choosing Sheshory was a craving for nature after being in the city. This region didn’t disappoint, with stunning mountains, rivers, waterfalls, and everything so green. The beauty of having a car meant that we could drive down all the dirt tracks and visit the out-of-the-way villages and markets. JH kept saying ‘I could live here’, ‘this is the most beautiful place I’ve ever been’. This is not the first time he’s said this about a place but I have to agree. It really is idyllic.
Accommodation in Ukraine is top notch (and so cheap) and our base in Sheshory was no different – a gorgeous secluded wooden cabin in amongst the trees. Even though we were way out of town, there was a knock on the door one night and a guy asking if we had any alcohol. We didn’t. It made us laugh though. I hope he found some. My only complaint was that there were so many mice in the house that JH was scooping them up in plastic bottles and putting them outside. When I asked the landlady, she said, ‘treat them like guests’.
We could have happily stayed longer here too (despite the bloody mice) but we set out across the middle of western Ukraine and entered a largely empty, abandoned and post-apocalyptic world. The population of Ukraine is relatively small at only 42 million and declining. Like many parts of Europe, young people are rejecting the rural lifestyle and moving to the cities or other countries where they can earn more money. I’m fascinated by abandoned places and everything looked so interesting. It was hard going though. On the first day, it took us almost all day to travel 90km because the roads were so bad. Autumn arrived and it rained and rained. Everywhere we stayed was freezing because apparently it’s sacrilege to turn on the heating before October 15th, regardless of the temperature.
All over Ukraine there are weird and wonderful things. Driving around, our conversation consisted mainly of ‘Ooo look at that’, ‘Wow!’, ‘What the hell is that?’. One thing I love about Eastern Europe are the old Soviet-era mosaic bus stops. They turn up all over the place. They’re falling to bits now but they must have been beautiful. To think of spending such effort on creating art on a bus stop.
Art is everywhere in Ukraine. The metal and stonework is particularly stunning, and the architecture and sculpture is next level. There’s a tendency to think of Soviet architecture as big and blocky, purely functional, brutalist and kind of ugly. However, Ukraine is full of beautiful buildings from every era, including the Soviet one.
Modern Hasidic Judaism (a mystic Kabbalist branch of Orthodox Judaism) originated in western Ukraine. One of the movement’s most famous and popular rabbis (Rebbe Nachman) spent his last few years in the town of Uman and died there in 1810. Before he died, he told his followers to join him in Uman for Rosh Hoshanna (Jewish New Year). Since then, tens of thousands of Hasidic Jews make a pilgrimage to Uman each year. It was banned during the Soviet era but has since resumed. Uman has a rich Jewish history in general but has also been the site of terrible pogroms and massacres. In 1749 the entire Jewish population was murdered in three days, even the babies.
We almost didn’t go to Uman, even though it was on my wish list, because it’s so far over to the south east. I’m really glad we did though. It’s a lovely town, despite its bloody past, and I really bonded with it. Like everywhere in Ukraine, it has fabulous buildings, beautiful gardens and excellent markets. Everyone is so friendly and we met lots of interesting people and had some very good times. One night, we got drinking with a fascinating character who we thought was a rabbi. I was thinking, ‘Gee, this rabbi can really drink’. Looking back on it now, I suspect he wasn’t really a rabbi at all, and perhaps he never even said he was.
The real reason to come to Uman though was to see Sofiyivka Park. Described as a ‘masterpiece of human landscaping’, this 170 hectare garden was started in 1796 by a rich Polish Count as a birthday present for his Greek wife Sofia. Sofiyivka is quite famous in this part of the world and even has a small planet named after it. It is very beautiful and has that ethereal quality of 19th century gardens, where the walls of time seem thin and you can almost sense the ghosts of a bygone era.
At last we arrived in the capital of Kyiv (Kiev). It dates from around the 5th century and has been destroyed and rebuilt numerous times. It has ‘atmosphere’ in abundance from the huge and magnificent old buildings, squares, statues, bridges and fountains, the picturesque setting on both sides of the Dnieper River, and the many trees, parks and gardens. There are fascinating markets and galleries of every kind and food is excellent and very cheap. Coffee and croissants are hugely popular and there are little kiosks everywhere. You can find cafes and restaurants from many different cultures, but like all over Ukraine, every third restaurant seems to be Georgian. Kyiv is so civilised. Well-behaved dogs can sit up at restaurant tables and if you eat outside, you are provided with a woolly blanket. People zip around everywhere on electric scooters and I didn’t see a single accident.
There are incredible churches all over Ukraine and especially in Kyiv but the St. Sophia Cathedral is the most beautiful church I’ve ever seen. It’s gorgeous on the outside with its thirteen golden cupolas but the interior is something else. Inside are soaring arches and galleries with the kind of symmetry usually seen in Islamic architecture. Its walls and columns are covered in 11th century mosaics and frescoes. It’s a thousand years old and contains the equally old sarcophagus of Yaroslav the Wise.
Kyiv is 24/7 nonstop and must be one of the most ‘happening’ cities in the world. It’s like ‘Melbourne cool’ with a twist, or maybe an edge. You hear music wherever you go and it’s not unusual to see a classical orchestra playing on the street. Apparently, it has a fantastic underground dance scene but with the whole Covid situation it didn’t seem wise to go to crowded sweaty places. There are groovy little bars everywhere ‘above ground’ though and many of them have names that reflect the high radioactivity from nearby Chernobyl, like the Bunker Bar and the Radioactive Bar. Kyivans have a dark sense of humour. I adore Kyiv!
The one place we knew we wanted to go for sure in Ukraine was Chernobyl. For those who remember, in 1986 Chernobyl was the scene of the worst nuclear disaster in the world (so far), when the core melted on Reactor 4 in the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant. Explosions, followed by fire, spread radioactive contamination across Europe and the USSR. 70% of the fallout landed on Belarus next door. Within Ukraine, a 30km exclusion zone was established and over 100,000 people evacuated. The exclusion zone encompasses 2600 square km in Ukraine alone and Reactor 4 is now contained by a rather flimsy looking ‘sarcophagus’.
The 10 square km of pine forest surrounding the power plant is called the Red Forest because the trees turned red overnight from radiation absorption following the explosion. The entire forest was bulldozed and buried in ‘waste graveyards’ but it remains one of the most contaminated places in the world. There are fears that as the trees breakdown they will release the radiation back into the soil. The Geiger counter went crazy here and you can’t go too close. It’s interesting how radiation throughout the zone seems to sit in random pockets. Some patches are not too high and others are through the roof. In some places the Geiger counter went up to 26.0.
I’ve been really keen to visit Chernobyl ever since I saw the first photos coming out of the exclusion zone and since I found out it was possible to go as a tourist. Not because I wanted to get irradiated but because of my fascination with abandoned places. The evacuated city of Pripyat is so eerie because everyone had to leave immediately. It’s like a terrible moment frozen in time. Now nature is reclaiming the space.
The stories say that wild animals, like wolves, are recolonising the exclusion zone. We didn’t see anything like that but we did see lots of dogs. They can never leave the area and continue to breed. They look healthy enough but seem strangely docile and don’t live long. There’s a collection box at the entry gate for dog food.
I was left feeling very sad for the whole Chernobyl disaster, and very moved by those first responders who knowingly sacrificed their own lives to shut down the reactor. They’re remembered here as ‘the men who saved the world’. Mostly though, I feel disgust at the absolute selfish arrogance of people who think they have the right to do something that will have ramifications beyond their own lives and for generations to come. Anyone who thinks nuclear energy is a great idea should visit Chernobyl.
Also inside the Chernobyl exclusion zone is a bizarre gigantic metal structure that was a top secret missile detection system from the US/Soviet Cold War era. Officially called Duga-3, it was apparently known (in spy circles, I suppose) as the Russian Woodpecker. Abandoned in 1989, it is absolutely massive (half a km long) and strangely beautiful.
After the sobering experience of Chernobyl, we travelled three days out of our way to see the Tunnel of Love, which is basically just an overgrown railway track. It was originally a secret Soviet military railway line disguised by forest. It’s now kept trimmed by a daily freight train. The Tunnel of Love became an internet sensation when photos were used as the background for advertising and memes. The photos looked so beautiful that I wanted to see it in real life. I’m pleased to report that it looks exactly like the photos and is indeed a magical place – like a portal to another dimension. The overgrown tunnel extends for about 5km and you walk along the track, hoping the train doesn’t come. At the beginning there are other people but these gradually drop off until there’s no-one else. At this point, a gorgeous white dog joined us and kept us company the whole way there and back. When we arrived back near the beginning, we turned around and the dog was gone. It certainly added to the otherworldly experience.
Our last stop in Ukraine was in Lviv. It’s another incredible city, as beautiful and groovy as Kyiv but in a different way. Situated in the far west, it has a more Western European vibe. The architecture is unsurprisingly stunning. I could have fallen in love with Lviv but I’d already lost my heart to Kyiv.
It was starting to get cold in Lviv and winter was coming. My 90 days exile from Bulgaria was up, so it was time to head south. I think we’ve both fallen a little bit in love with Ukraine and we’ve only seen the western half so far. Unfortunately, the eastern side isn’t safe with the Russian army amassing on the border. It’s looking fairly likely now that Russia is set to invade Ukraine. I’m feeling very concerned for all the beautiful people we met and really hoping it doesn’t happen.
It seemed like we’d been on a long journey to places exotic and far away but really we’d just done a big loop and it was only two days drive from Lviv and we were home in our house in Bulgaria.
More Ukraine photos here.