South of Ukraine
I havent seen as much of Ukraine as i've wished, but the part i have seen, was certainly worth paying a visit. it's Crimea, the scenery for Florence Nightinggale and that stupid war, a monument for the men who fell at the infamous "Charge of the light brigade", in the middle of a field of grapes. places that remember the clashes between the communists and fascists in WWII.
Thats what they're good at in Ukraine, no mistake. Sevastopol, the harbor for the Black Fleet, thats still there, is a very impressive town, i thought. A huge, probably the biggest you've seen, statue of Lenin is still in its place. and there are more monuments in the streets, for all kinds of wars and happenings. the portraits of the heroes of the communist party, are still on the party wall.
Sevastopol is a must, absolutely. bring your hikingshoes, as its all on steep hills. but that also helps you, and Lenin, to have a great view over the city, as you reach one of the highest points. Imagine sitting there as a kid 40 years ago, looking over the harbour as the black fleet sails out, with the huge granite Lenin behind you, watching his comrades, off to defend the fatherland......
and dont forget Yalta, and the palace where was decided how to split up mainland Europe after the war. The seats of the three leaders are still in place, and the conference palace looks ever nice, with its beautifull gardens. It used to be a resort for Tsar Nicolas II too, and a sanitory. Great place to visit, and of course stay in the enormous Yalta Hotel, with its slutbar downstairs, where the local girls are looking for some foreign money or husband. and quite persistant too! try it if you're interested in the communistic age, WWII, and the Soviet way of life. I sometimes felt like walking around in "Hunt for Red Octobre" (There is an old Soviet sub-penn in Balaclava, not far from Sevastopol, definately worth the trip.but you'll have to ask around, no tourist information will take you there, as it was off limits to ANYone, just a couple of years ago...) good luck.
So much to learn here!
"Introduction - by my friend Karl Lubomirski"
Ich habe Dein Angesicht gesehn
es war voller Narben
man hat dir sehr weh getan, Ukraine
nur deine Farben lächeln dem Gast, der nicht weiss
dass sie aus dunklerem Grunde wachsen
man kann dich nicht trösten, Ukraine
aber deine Lieder singen
und deine guten Menschen
Karl Lubomirski (1998)
Propyläen der Nacht
Gedichte 1960 - 2000
CONNECT Edizioni srl, Milano ISBN 88-87229-09-0
Edition Atelier, Wien ISBN 3-85308-062-6
"The West. Part A"
August 30, 1996, midnight
The unspectacular ride on the Tisza-Express Budapest-Moscow made it easy to fall asleep. But now the door of my compartment was opened and I heard Russian with the characteristic Hungarian accent, I understood the customs officer that somebody has overstayed in Hungary for months. The one who did that urgently wanted (in perfect Russian) to pay a "shtraff" (fine) for that but apparently the only thing possible in this case was a notice in the passport inhibiting further travels to Hungary for many years. Also intense attempts of the Russian (or Ukrainian) to bribe the Hungarian officer were hopeless, probably because of the already awakened ear-witnesses... It was interesting that I shared my compartment with an Ukrainian student who has received a grant for study in Budapest but was now returning back home after only a few days, no longer interested in studying in Hungary because he fell homesick - and the other overstayed in Hungary... quite un-understandable, these Ukrainians....
In the meanwhile the train reached Chop, the Ukrainian (and former Soviet) entry station. The Ukrainian customs was slow but friendly, after the lengthy procedure of changing the wheels to the wider Russian gauge it continued into the morning to L'viv where I left the train.
I did this trip to Ukraine because there were practically only two countries left in Europe which I have not visited before - Albania and Ukraine. For Albania I did not need a visa and so I first tried to get the Ukrainian visa and succeeded and therefore I find myself now here in L'viv on a wonderful Sunday morning.
Although most of downtown L'viv is dominated of typical Austrian architecture from the second half of 19th century it's atmosphere is in some way very Soviet, quite different as compared to my first impressions in the Baltic states about four years ago. For example Vilnius was at my last visit only two months ago already definitely "Western European" (and both towns were the years between the both World Wars under the same Polish rule). This way considering my first impressions I reach the hotel "L'viv" right behind the wonderful Opera house. I ask the receptionist for a free single room and when showing my passport I get in rather good German the answer "we do not accept foreigners here" (think what a press Austria would get throughout the world if only once one single Austrian receptionist would say something like that!!). My answer is that I did not ask whether foreigners are accepted here, I asked for a free room. Then I am recommended to go to the Grand Hotel instead (130 USD/night) because here the rooms are so bad. I want to be shown a room and after a while I can see two of them, both in a quite worn down state but with normal bed, working shower and bathroom. I take it, enjoy the shower, change some money and go to explore the city.
At the other side of the Opera I sit down on a bench and consult my guidebook (Lonely Planet) what to see here. Now I notice that at the other end of the bench a young lady is eating prunes and looks interested at the cover of my guidebook. My conclusion is that she probably speaks English and because I am not able to identify a certain place I am interested in on my map I ask her. She answers in rather good English and tells me a little more about it. After some small talk she offers to show me a little of her town because today is the last day of her holidays, she is a teacher of history. A really lucky day for me, she is a perfect guide through this attractive and interesting town. After some of the sights we have a coffee somewhere and we continue our tour.
"The West Part B"
Close to lunchtime I ask her (her name is Oksana, later I found out that virtually all female Ukrainians between 20 and 35 have this name, exceptions are those having a sister named Oksana) whether she would know a good place for lunch. My intention is of course to invite her to have lunch together. She answers that not very far from here there is a restaurant where her friend is working as an accountant. That is for me not really a qualification for an eating place but we go to it. In front of this restaurant Oksana asks me to wait outside, she enters and after a while she comes back in intense discussion with an other young woman. I am introduced to her and we are asked to follow her to the rear entrance, we go down into the cellar, pass the potatoes, other foodstuffs, bottles etc. and climb up an other staircase finally reaching the rear part of the restaurant where some tables are empty. We are asked to sit down at the most remote table and I expect to get the menu, happy to have somebody to help me with selecting and ordering our meal. But nothing like that happens, the accountant sits down with us for a short small talk (she speaks only Ukrainian), later she disappears and Oksana and me get a full three course meal of adequate quality together with non-alcoholic drinks without ordering anything. After the meal I ask for the bill but I am told that all is already OK. That was definitely not my intention and I have a rather uncomfortable feeling towards Oksana.
After this lunch we go together to the attractive open air museum of old farmhouses and woodden churches. On our stroll through the area we sit down somewhere for a longer talk. Oksana wants to know a little bit more about me and about Austria and finally what teachers are earning in my country. I tell her the approximate figure and also that salaries are not immediately comparable because we have completely different price structures. Finally I ask her about her salary, she tells me the figure and I am completely shocked. On my way through the town in the morning I saw already some prices and now I can figure out that it is virtually impossible to live on this money. But in the next sentence Oksana tells me that she saw her last salary in April - and now it is the end of August - and Oxana organized all this mysterious thing together with her friend the accountant just to invite me for lunch... I really was unable to sleep that night.
This way I learned my first Ukrainian lesson, about the economic situation and about the marvellous hospitality of the people and about the way they survive under these conditions.
"The West. Part C"
On next day, September 1, schools and universities start the new schoolyear. It is a very special day, really celebrated. All people are dressed up (I wonder how they are able to afford that with their wages). The town is full with blue-yellow flags. I did not sleep but nevertheless I stroll once again to many of the places Oxana has shown me yesterday, I also climb the castle hill with an impressive panorama of the town. It is really one of the great Central European towns, in the inner center typically Polish, in much reminding me of Krakow but one important element is missing - the water. No river, no lake. Almost all other Polish towns have an impressive waterfront. Later I detected that water is not only missing in the picture, also in the pipes it is only available 6 hours a day. And not only in L'viv, as I found out, also in many other Ukrainian cities. Apparently the last work on the water pipes was done here under the Habsburgs. In the Austrian time, almost two centuries, most of the town was built. It is only a few steps from the medieval Polish centre to the impressive Austrian downtown. L'viv/Lemberg/Lwow - the name is derived from Lions Castle, in Hindi or Sanskrit you would call it Singapore - was the third biggest town of the Austro-Hungarian Monarchy after Vienna and Prague. The damages of WW II were minimal and later there were not built any depatment stores and glass/concrete highrises as it happened in the more prosperous West. Of course there are the same awful Soviet suburbs of concrete slums as in Berlin-Marzahn or Tallinn-Lasnamäe or anywhere else between Rostock and Wladiwostok, but the Austrian part of L'viv is big enough to keep them sufficiently far out of the picture.
Later in the afternoon I meet Oksana again. She agrees with my compensation for yesterday's lunch: I inivite her to come to visit me in Tyrol in her winter holidays in January. Oksana is very happy for that. Later I got the real idea how much such an invitation must mean for a normal Ukrainian because almost one out of three Ukrainians I met and had a talk with asked me after a while if I could help them with a formal invitation to get a visa. And there were even some among them who could apparently without problems cover the cost of a touristic visit to Austria. But their dreams destination is often not Austria but Germany.
The next day I leave L'viv for this time, continue to Chernivtsy, which is even more "Austrian" than L'viv, a sorts Vienna in a nutshell, more sleepy than L'viv but also more multicultural still today. From here I do also a very rewarding visit to Kamenets-Podilsky. This fortified town has an extraordinary setting on a huge rock surrounded by an almost complete loop of the Smotrych river. This town often has changed hands from Christians of various confessions to Muslims and back and all have left remarkable traces there, for example a baroque Roman-Catholic cathedral with a Turkish minaret which has at the top a statue of St. Mary replacing the original Turkish pencil-like roof and inside all the baroque you can still imagine where there was for about 40 years the Mihrab. Not far from it the oldest existing Polish town hall, a little further away an Armenian church etc. I really enjoy it to be the only one tourist at this exceptional site.
"KYIV, the Capital"
Next day I leave the western part of Ukraine (which never was under Russian rule before WW 2) and take a loooooong train ride to Kyiv. My temporary travelmates are a couple from Chernivtsy, like me heading for Kyiv. Now I get to know much about the real travelling style on post-soviet railways. Short after leaving Chernivtsy the train passes some few kilometers through Moldova which means twice the border-crossing ceremonies. This reminds me that there is still one more country in Europe waiting for my visit - maybe later... Finally somewhere in the train narcotic drugs are detected - I am unable to find out whether they were smuggled from Ukraine to Moldova or the other way - the whole train is searched again which leads to 4 hours delay. No more drugs were found. But the time does not appear that long, my travelmates start to have dinner and incredible amounts of foodstuffs are emerging from their luggage. Two grilled chicken, lots of drinks, potato sallad, tomatoes, a melon, white brinza cheese etc.. Both encourage me again and again to eat from their food - I am myself also sufficiently prepared to cover my nutritional needs of this train ride but I think that they could almost live a week on their food... The train sometimes stops for about 15 to 20 minutes and outside the whole stations are filled with locals selling all imagineable food and drinks alongside the train. Is that all coming from the national Ukrainian trauma of the big famine in 1931-32?
After the endless ride from Chernivtsy (regular 16 hours, but this train is 4 hours late) we finally arrive in Kyiv. It is definitely different from the Western Ukraine. And it gives a feel of being the capital of a big country. Incredible crowds everywhere, especially on all means of public transport. I succeed to find a hotel for a rather reasonable rate (which is not easy here). All is written in Ukrainian but I hear mainly Russian (which I understand and speak at least for survival, Ukrainian I understand only as far as similarities with Russian exist) - The town is surprisingly nice, the centre is at the right banks of the river, from the river and the other banks mainly seen as green hills with the golden domes of the numerous churches. The ugly suburbs of the left banks are well separated from it because the river is split up into several branches forming green islands in between.
The main boulevard in the centre, the Khreshtshatik, stretches along a valley between the hill where the Saint Sophia Cathedral and the Mikhailovsky monastery (which was totally destroyed in Stalins time and now is rebuilt) are situated and the opposite hill which is dominated by the hotel Moskva in late stalinist style as the whole Khreshtshatik. On weekends the boulevard is closed for cars and lots of entertainment is going on. Around this area and down to the Dnipro and the Kontraktova square in the Podil district most of the urban life is running. The principal sight of Kyiv, the Caves Monastery, is somewhat further south stretching down the green hills almost to the river. I can enjoy that all on the much lower entrance fee for locals simply giving the exact change over the counter avoiding to say a single word which easily had shown that I am not a local...
Comparing to L'viv and the rest of the Western Ukraine the differences are obvious. People look quite differently (in general they are taller here and the girls look even better than the not so bad ones in Western Ukraine).
After two days this time I decide to go to the Crimea and am surprised that I get my train ticket at the station without all the hassles described in the various guidebooks.
"CRIMEA, Part A"
The train from Kyiv to Simferopol has a low number which means that it is clean and relatively fast (it nevertheless takes 18 hours). The neighbouring compartments are full with WW2 veterans, some of them tell me how they built the first ponton bridge in Austria across the Danube just after the end of the war in summer 1945, 51 years ago....
In Simferopol I try to get a ticket for the ride on worlds longest trolleybus line over the Crimean mountains down to Yalta at the Black Sea coast. I wait in a long queue at one of the counters but when it should come to be my turn the counter is closed and a poster is set up that it is now closed for an hour, so I could queue up at the neighbouring one. I have a better idea. I first drink a kvass from one of the numerous tanks on wheels (size about 2000 liters) offering various drinks like beer, wine and kvass, my summer favourite in the Russian world (although being part of Ukraine the Crimea is inhabitated by Russians, the returning Tatars, lots of other nationalities and only a few Ukrainians), the only slightly alcoholic brown thirst quencher made by fermentation of dark bread in water, far more natural and far more tasty than the "global" brown American stuff.... After that the queues did not become shorter, obviously new trains have arrived. I change my plans completely, go back to the railway station, section for local trains, and buy without any waiting and for almost nothing a ticket to Bakhchissaray, the former capital of the Tatar Khanate. This regional train is a great fun. Entertainment of all kind is offered all over the distance. First people try to sell snacks and drinks, then various musicians play something and collect money from the passengers, children are reciting poems and singing (for money, of course) and - without asking for money, a lady "entre les ages" tries to convince the passengers of the benefits of an obscure, obviously American church.
In Bakhchissaray I try to find accommodation, the only thing my guidebook mentions is a "turbasa", a sorts of cottages on a hill above the town, nicely situated but closed for "remont". Back in town I find a hotel but they are first very reluctant to host an obscure non-post-Soviet foreigner. But an other, more "local" traveller finally succeeds to convince the receptionist to accept me and explains her how to handle the case with the local police. I get a very basic room for an adequate rate. It is already late afternoon, I decide to visit the Khan's palace tomorrow. The setting of the town is very picturesque between mountains formed of a sorts sandstone. It contains numerous caves which were used for settlement since prehistoric times. The earlier quite numerous Karaite Jews had a real town in these caves, "Chufut Kaleh" (Jewish Castle), in an other branch of the valley a Russian orthodox monastery is active. I attend a service, it is very impressive with all the songs and smoke in the candle-lit cave church.
The next morning I visit the interesting palace of the Tatar Khans together with groups of tourists coming up by bus from the coast for a daytrip. It was really worth the side trip but more interestiing even were for me the caves and the picturesque landscape.
"Crimea, Part B"
Back to Simferopol I have no problems to get the ticket for the trolleybus. The ride first goes through the flat steppe of the interior of the peninsula but after about half an hour the road starts to climb. The environmentally friendly trolleybus loses the electric contact about five times under the journey of about two and a half hours (90 km). After reaching the highest point the spectacular descent starts. The generous road winds down to the Black Sea (deep blue today), offering a fine varying panorama which sometimes reminds the approach to the Cote d'Azur from the last hills of the Alps. At the terminal in Yalta lots of "kvartira" are offered, I accept one offer and am brought to a rather disappointing although centrally situated place. 10 $ seem too much for that and I decide to have some luxury and head to the hotel "Yalta". The walk of about 20 minutes to that place is very pleasant itself, the hotel is a giant, maybe the biggest hotel I ever was in, 2400 beds. The rate is, after all what I experienced in Ukraine before, very reasonable, only 29 $ for a good room with seaview, breakfast included. But maybe all that due to the rather low season in September. Surprisingly enough the hotel provides warm water day and night in this area which is far less humid than Western Ukraine with only 6 hours water per day in most of its towns. The breakfast is served in a restaurant with a seatng capacity of maybe 1000 or so people and directly from your floor you can take a lift down to the hotel's own beach.
It is well understandable that Yalta is one of the most prominent resorts of the whole former Soviet Union. Climate, landscape and vegetation are just the same as at the French Cote d'Azur. The atmosphere is very relaxed and I feel really fine. The beaches are cobble stone, the water is warm but not especially clean. Nevertheless I swim around quite a lot having in mind that the shower in my hotel has always water.
But the beach is not all. It is very tempting to explore the near and wider surroundings, mainly the fantastic nature, the great landscape with all the palaces scattered over the hills (they are mostly used as recreation centres - called "sanatorium" - and often connected with the former Soviet combinates and associations. But many of the nicest places seem already to be in the hands of the "New Russians" and "New Ukrainians", these wealthy post-Soviet large-scale criminals. No, as a normal tourist nobody has to fear anything from them. It is the whole country which suffers from this large-scale crime, which made most of the fortune of some of the potentially richest coutries of the world to disappear in offshore banks anywhere between Liechtenstein and the Cayman Islands... None of the New Postsovietistanis is visible, of course - maybe because it is not the season. There are only occasionally oversized and overexpensive cars passing by, but far less than for example in Kyiv.
Although it is low season there are still lots of tourists, mainly Russians and Ukrainians but also from other former Soviet countries and quite a few "Westerners" only. The nightlife seems to be less by orders of magnitude as compared to what possibly is running during the season and many services are quite reduced, for example the small boats going along the picturesque rocky coast, but I succeed to find a nice ride lasting about an hour. It is really lots of fine views.
Only a few km behind the coast are the highest mountains between the Carpathians and the Caucasus and it is said that one could even see Turkey from the tops on very clear days. Now the days are not that clear.
The food disappointis, at the sea I expect fish and seafood but the offers are poor . The same with the wine - climate and territory allow excellent wines but I find only quite average ones. People seem to prefer the "Shampanskoye", an often oversweet sparkling thing which in most cases still is called "Sovietskoye".... That means that I drink beer, I get only the Turkish "Efes" and the Austrian "Schwechater".
"Chapter 4. ODESA, Ukraine's multicultural gate to"
After enjoying this nice area I try to leave Yalta for Odesa the logical way - by boat. But I am told that nowadays there is only one boat to Odesa per week and unfortunately I can not wait that time for it. The only chance I have is to go by train from Simferopol and the train has only "platzkart"-type coaches.
Since I could not go by boat from Yalta to Odesa which wóuld be the shortest way - it was my imagination to arrive there and to walk up the famous staircase - the most prominent one in the history of the cinema - and this way to enter the town I have now to sit - and later to sleep - in a train which unfortunately really has only "platzkart" coaches. Around me two friendly ladies from Sevastopol, one with her daughter, all excusing that they normally do not travel this class but "kupeiny" (as I normally do when the journey goes overnight). But we are lucky, we are quite far from the toilet.
The railway station in Odesa is definitely the "wrong end" to arrive here for the first time but its surroundings are nevertheless exciting. Out from the station and to the left you can dive into the "Privoz" market which is indeed one of the constituent elements of this commercial town. It keeps you automatically for hours.
But the way to the "right end" is not too long, maybe one kilometer, but it seems to be much shorter. And then I reach the Deribasivska, the finest street in all Ukraine to stroll around and to watch people. And then after a few blocks the great promenade at the upper end of the Potemkin staircase. It is also nice to walk them down at the first visit. The harbour looks completely different as compared to Eisenstein's movie. It is dominated by a big modern and quite expensive looking passenger terminal with surprisingly few boats (exactly none when I was for the first time there). At the lower end I turn back, climb up again which is definitely more impressive - not only because of the numerous attractive girls in their minis with incredible legs. The stairs look much bigger from below which is achieved by a simple but refined trick: the upper end has only about half the width of the lower and therefore it pretends a strange sorts of perspective and looks very, very far and at the end one is surprised that the ascent was not longer. So I turn down again to climb up for a second time - really excitng (you know, the girls...).
Near the upper end I feel suddenly almost being at home. Already from far away the seaside skyline of the town is dominated by the Opera house (a short bit to the right when you look the Potemkin stairs upwards, but as you know my eyes seldom deviate that far from the staircase...). And standing in front of it I think immediately I could be in Vienna. Exactly the Vienna Burgtheater but only in a slightly different colour and not on the flat Ringstrasse but on a hill. The Viennese architects Fellner and Helmer just used their plans of the Burgtheater a second time to build it here (quite an advantage for artists touring from one stage to the other - they have no problem to find the toilet without asking anybody...).
The people in town are obviously a multiethnic and multicultural mix. Although being quite far in the west of Ukraine the Russian element is very strong. But one detects easily that the town is also almost as Jewish as New York and almost as Levantine as Beyrouth, a mix you find nowhere else in Ukraine. I even doubt that this town ever was really communist although painful traces of the Soviet heritage are found everywhere.
But one thing I really can state: when you are coming to Ukraine to have fun in every sense then Odesa is the right - and maybe only - choice.