West UkraineThe center of the country may be in Kiev, but the driving force of Ukrainian independence from just about everything has almost always been centered in the country’s west. In ancient times, this was the area known as “Krasny Rus” or Red Russia - the symbolism of the color among the Slavic cultures is reflective of the beauty of the region (the words “krasny” and “krasivy,” or “red” and “beautiful,” are traditionally associated).
There are many places to see in what is arguably one of the more beautiful regions of Ukraine, if not all of the former Soviet countries. The Ukrainian Carpathians offer a number of resort getaways for those who are looking for all manner of mountain escapes. Among the most famous is Truskavets, the mineral springs resort renowned for health treatments that help people recover from kidney stone removal, nervous system issues, cardiovascular problems, diabetes, and obesity; similar resorts exist at Skhidnytsia and Morshyn. Winters draw in snow skiers to the slopes of Bukovel (Ukraine’s largest ski resort), Drahobrat (the resort with the highest slope), and Slavsko (the most easiest to reach). Summers bring out the hikers and mountain climbers to such peaks as those in the Chornohora range, and rafters down rivers that feed into the Dniester, the great river of the region.
For those more used to more urban adventure, Chernivtsi, the capital of the Bukovina region near the Ukrainian border with Romania. A city that since the Mongol invasion of the 13th century has always had a strong international flavor, the city features museums commemorating the connection that the Ukrainian diaspora have always held for their homeland, as well as even a museum focusing on Bukovinian Jewish history and culture. There is also a German House, the center for descendants of those Austrian Germans who moved into the region during its years under Austrian rule; the one-time Austrian governor’s palace is today a part of the Chernivtsi University. Not far from the city are the cultural centers of Kolomiya, a Hutsul folk art center that features a pysanka craft museum shaped like an easter egg, and Kamianets Podilskyi, an ancient fortress that dates back to 1060.
Another special region is the Trans-Carpathian Oblast, that part of Ukraine that was annexed from Interwar Czechoslovakia by the Soviet Union. As such, Uzhhorod, the region’s main city, has a strongly Central European feel to it. Among the most important sights in the city is the 14th century castle, built by Italian supporters of Hungarian King Karoly I, the Drugeth family. As such, it has a strongly southern Italian feel to it.
North of the Carpathians, between the cities of Ivano-Frankivsk and Lviv, tourists are taking a new interest in the ancient town of Rohatyn. With Turkey’s discovery of historical soap operas, such as “The Magnificent Century,” a new interest is being displayed in the town’s most well-known daughters, Alexandra or Anastasia Lisowska, the Russian slave girl who became the crowned Sultana of the Ottoman Empire. Captured at age 15 in a raid by Crimean Tatars, she was taken to Constantinople to serve in the Sultan’s harem. Because of her cheerful demeanor, she eventually became Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent’s wife, Haseki Hurrem Sultana. A simple monument was erected in her honor in a spot within the town once occupied by its statue of Lenin. Said to be the daughter of an orthodox priest, Lisowska’s father’s church apparently no longer exists, but several wooden churches still stand in the area, the oldest being the Church of St. Mykolai on the town’s market square. In nearby Chesnyky, a preserved fortified church remains that would have been much like the one that townsfolk would have fled to during a Tatar raid (during her reign as Sultana, the Tatars were said to raid much less frequently as a result of her influence).
Another renowned former refuge against Tatar attack is the Maniava Cell near Ivano-Frankivsk. After the arrival of Iov Knyahynetski, a monk from the Greek Orthodox monastery of Athos, the cell was called the “Rus Athos.” It houses a stone said to have held the image of the Virgin Mary, a monument that is said to have become something of a pilgrimage site. Indeed, at one point, the Soviet Union, in an apparent reversal of its stance against religion, considered at one time using the location as a relaxation and recreation center for its cosmonauts, such was its reputation for rejuvenating visitors.
Of course, the city at the center of it all in this part of Ukraine is Lviv. Founded just before the Mongol invasion around 1240 by the Grand Duke of Volhynia-Halych, Danylo Halytski, who named the city for his son Lev, the city was spared the effects of invasion as a result of Lev’s initial collaboration with the Golden Horde. It was taken by King Casimir of Poland hardly a century later, when that Grand Duchy was split by Poland and Lithuania. In 1362, the Lviv High Castle, built on the site of several earlier defensive fortifications, was constructed for use by the Polish nobility assigned to the city. The castle is an important icon of Lviv, alongside the Market Square Tower, the city’s many museums (including its renowned art gallery, history museum, and national museum, as well as the newer Arsenal Museum and Beer Brewer’s Museum), and art nouveau-style train station, built in the days of the Austro-Hungarian Empire in 1904 (back when the city was called Lemburg). When the Central European air seems to become a bit stale, Shevchenkivski Hai beckons from just west of the city center and high castle. This outdoor museum showcases over 120 examples of western Ukrainian early architecture, and provides a perspective on the region’s cultural history.
This is but a sample of the many experiences that await visitors to western Ukraine, the country’s cultural heartland. For more, come see it for yourself.
Eastern UkraineFrom the black soil of eastern Ukraine grew the breadbasket of the Soviet Union. Today, this part of the country makes up about a half of that part of Ukraine known as “The Regions,” an unofficial conglomeration of Russian-speaking areas of Ukraine represented by the Moscow-leaning political party that is in power in Kiev today. Known more for its products than for places to see (and if the political opposition is to be believed, also for an increasingly large number of property-owning felines), it nonetheless has a handful of interesting places worth visiting.
One of the leading cities of eastern Ukraine is Donetsk. Built up from a small village by Welsh steel magnate John Hughes, its industrial history began with a concession to supply plate iron for the construction of Kronstadt fortress on Kotlin Island off St. Petersburg. His name was originally applied to the town as Yuzovka (later renamed by the Soviets “Stalino” for the steel mills there in the 1920s, then finally Donetsk as a result of Khrushchev’s “de-Stalinization” program in 1961), and still survives in various businesses, such as the John James Hughes Brewery, and statues around town. Despite its industrial nature, the city maintains a large number of park walks. From the Cathedral of the Holy Transfiguration, a popular walk along Shevchenko Boulevard takes locals and visitors alive to Scherbakov Park, a part of the city featured in the recent World Cup Games as the city’s “Fan Zone,” where outdoor cafes and attractions such as Nemo, the city aquarium, kept football (soccer) fans amused. A number of museums lend a cultural air to the city, including the “open air blacksmith art exhibits” of the so-called “Park of Forged Figures.”
Further away from Kiev than Donetsk is the farthest east Ukrainian city, Lugansk. What Charles Gascoigne, the Scottish engineer who founded the city, once described as the center of the coal mining “region of Slavyano-Serbia” (so-named for all the Serbs that had settled in this outback at the edge of Novorossiya), is today really just a shadow of its industrial past. Unlike Donetsk, the city hasn’t yet figured out how to embrace and entertain visitors, but it does serve as a starting point for travelers coming into Ukraine, or going out to one of the adjacent areas of Russia. More glamorous destinations in this corner of the country include the Khomutovskaya Steppe, an untouched stretch of land far to the south in Donetska Oblast, and the Azov Sea port city of Mariupol, the recognized center of Greek culture in Ukraine.
To the north is Sumy, essentially a collection of impressive churches near the Belarusian border. This stretch of country played center stage in a number of conflicts, including Tsar Peter the Great’s war against King Charles of Sweden (the Poltava battle field is a favorite site for war buffs, further south near Dniepropetrovsk). Closer in to Sumy, though, are the fortified monasteries of Putivl. Set in a provincial eastern Ukrainian town, these religious structures give witness to a glorious Cossack past that all of Ukraine can (and does) embrace.
Chernihiv, a little closer to Kiev, retains much of its ancient grandeur, some of it from as far back as the days of Kiev Rus. As Velikhy Novgorod to the north, it has a Detinets, or miniature Kremlin fortress, as well as cathedrals and cultural centers. Along the rampart (simply called the “Val” or Wall), there is the alley of the twelve canons, a row of 18th century guns arranged for presentation during a visit by Tsar Peter the Great (traditionally, unwanted suitors were told by local girls to meet them at the non-existent “13th canon”). Also open for public viewing are the Antony Caves, the local answer to the tombs of Kiev’s Pechersky Lavra, or Caves Monastery.
But the most important city in the region, without argument, is Kharkov. Said to have been founded by a group of refugees under an unknown leader named “Kharko” (diminutive of the Ukrainian name “Khariton”) who fled eastward from the Cossack uprising led by Bogdan Khmelnytsky, the settlement was founded and fortified by 1656 as a Russian outpost. However, throughout its history, it has served as a center for Ukrainian culture, first as part of the Russian Empire, then after the revolutionary transition period, as part of the Soviet Union. Of course, it is today a part of independent Ukraine. Along with many museums and galleries and shopping, all centered on the city’s Constitution Square, Ukraine’s second city also features a zoo, the Small Southern children’s railroad (a Komsomol hand-me-down, where local children interested in trains are given the opportunity to perform as conductors and other railroad personnel on board reduced-scale rolling stock), and a Dolphinarium that reportedly offers guests the opportunity to swim with actual dolphins.
The beautiful part about a Ukrainian trip is that you can run into just about anything. But for that anything to happen, you, of course, have to be there.
10 MUST-DO THINGS IN UKRAINE
1. To take a pleasant stroll along Andreevsky Uzviz, the only street in Kiev, old, famous and unique enough to
have a museum dedicated to it.
2. To visit the symbol of Yalta – Swallow’s Nest castle, hanging 40 meters over the sea.
3. To take pleasure walking along Khreschatyk - the main street in Kiev.
4. To indite verses in Koktebel, the most romantic place in the Crimea, highly famed by writers, poets, musicians
and their muses.
5. To climb 300 rusty old steps on a winding metal staircase to reach the very top of High Castle and be amazed
by breathtaking view of old Lvov.
6. To go sea fishing to Balaklava, a small town on the Black Sea, most famous for its fairy beautiful mountain and
7. To get “viZa” to the world craziest and liveliest dance music festival – KaZantip.
8. To have fun, taking a 2-minute ride on the funicular, the most quaint public-transport in town.
9. To be amazed by a shod flea, a chess set on a pinhead, a caravan of camels in the needle eye and many
other microminiatures in Kiev Pechersk Lavra, and get to know why this unique monastery complex is inscribed
as one of the Seven Wonders of Ukraine.
10.To have an unforgettable journey… underground – inside the Marble Cave of Crimea, considered among the
top five most beautiful caves of the Planet.