Adventure Travel in Ukraine

A blog from my Adventure Travel in Ukraine

Rhia Steele has always had an interest in the old Soviet states of Eastern Euriope. Her she writes about her travel in Ukraine with Undiscovered Destinations.

Travel in Ukraine

Day 1 – Arrive Kiev
Travel in Ukraine is increasingly more accessible nowadays – there are direct flights with British Airways from Heathrow as well as several options from regional airports. I flew from Newcastle via Amsterdam with KLM/Ukrainian Airlines and arrived into Boryspil Airport slightly earlier than scheduled.

Immigration queues were not as long as expected, and after several questions about my visit to Ukraine and my passport being scrutinised in what seemed like forever (but probably only 2-3 minutes), I was allowed through and greeted by my driver Serhei.

Driving towards central Kiev you could think you are back in the UK, except for the road signs being in Ukrainian, you are on the wrong (technically the right) side of the road and it is 10-12 degrees warmer!

My hotel for the night is the Rus Hotel, right next to the Olympic Stadium where the UEFA Champions League Final is being held later in May. The hotel is clean, check-in is quick, and they have their own taxi service, currency exchange, a choice of restaurants and bars.

This evening I have typical Ukrainian food – everything from potato pancakes, varenykey (dumplings), chicken kiev and even a shot of homemade horseradish vodka! Welcome to Ukraine!

Day 2 – Kiev – Overnight Train to Lviv
An early start this morning to visit the magnificent Lavra Cave Monastery, popular with both tourists and orthodox pilgrims. The site, split into two sections – Upper Lavra and Lower Lavra – is made up of many golden-domed churches, cathedrals and museums.

To see them all you would need to spend at least 2 days here. Out of those I did visit, I would highly recommend the National Treasures Museum and the Museum of Microminiatures.

The caves, located in the Lower Lavra, are where the bodies of monks who lived and worshipped in the catacombs have been embalmed and preserved. This is a popular pilgrimage site with people flocking to see these mummified monks, believing they truly are holy men. You are given a single candle for light to walk through the small tunnels of the cave.

Women have to wear a skirt to be allowed into the caves – these can be borrowed at the entrance to wrap around over trousers/shorts.

This afternoon was for exploring Kiev. Kiev is a huge city and still has a soviet feel to it. However, the architecture is stunning and the churches and cathedrals are worth a visit.

My short tour of Kiev finished with a stop at the Defence of the Motherland Monument which still bears the Soviet Symbol – this is in theory illegal; however, they haven’t managed to remove or replace it as it is 62m high! The grounds surrounding the monument include intriguing relics of the communist era, including old tanks, helicopters and anti-aircraft guns.

After a whirlwind city tour, I was dropped at the train station for my overnight journey to Lviv. The station itself is old, colonial style with heavy, wooden doors. The trains are old but on time, which is more that can be said about the train system in the UK!

I have a carriage to myself, and pleasantly surprised to find that I am even provided with a towel. The berths themselves are comfortable enough for the journey, which takes approx. 10 hours as trains only go a maximum of 120km / hour!

Day 3 – Arrive Lviv
The train journey was not exactly smooth but I did manage to get some sleep, and I arrive into Lviv as per schedule. I am taken to my hotel which is an old, art-nouveau building with high ceilings where I have time to relax before a walking tour of the city.

Lviv has a more European feel to it rather than Soviet, with cobbled streets and pedestrianised areas lined with restaurants which makes a refreshing change to the large grey buildings of Kiev. My first stop is the High Castle of Lviv, and despite being no castle (or evidence there was a fort here), the climb to the top is worth is for the 360-degree panorama of the city.

After a short rest, I am heading to Lviv Cemetery, where the famous Ukranian poet Ivan Franko is buried.

Also buried here are other notable names of Ukranian, Polish and American descent, and there are sections of the cemetery dedicated to those who lost their lives during the First World War, Second World War and the wars between Poland, Ukraine and the Soviet Union. Today people are still buried at the cemetery despite running out of burial space.

Family members can ‘buy’ plots of land that are already in use – although the plot in question must have been deceased at least 100 years and have no remaining family alive. After the cemetery I visit other sights of the city – the Armenian Church, the Dominican Church and Opera House, the buildings of all are architecturally spectacular, and all beautifully decorated inside.

At night the city seems to come alive with street performers, balloons and lights, and both locals and tourists lining the pubs and restaurants along the cobbled streets.

Day 4 – Olesko and Pidhirti Castles – Chernivtsi
This morning we drive about 1.5 hours out of Lviv to Olesko, a French chateau-style hilltop castle, which dates back to the 18th Century but was built on the site of a medieval fortress which was destroyed in the 15th Century by Tatar attacks.

I then visited Pidhirsti Castle, a residential castle-fortress and Zolochiv Castle, the former residence of the Sobieski noble family, which includes the Chinese Palace which was added to the compound later.

Throughout the 19th Century it’s use was army barracks, a hospital and a prison, and nowadays is under the supervision of the Lviv Art Gallery and under restoration. The Chinese Palace is a museum containing artefacts from all around the world. A long drive (about 5 hours) brings me to Chernivtsi for the night.

Day 5 – Chernivtsi – Carpathian Mountains
This morning I explore Chernivtsi with my local guide Zora. A lot of the locals emigrated to Canada back in the day, and because of this connection, maple trees are planted along the main street of the city.

The most impressive site is the UNESCO State University – a beautiful red-brick building with the most ornate lecture halls and architecture I have ever seen! After the short city tour, I was back in the car heading for the mountains.

We stop at the Pysanka (Easter Egg) Museum, which, in all it’s originality, shaped like an egg. This museum houses the biggest painted egg collection – using eggs from chickens, geese and ostriches. There are over 100 different ways to empty the eggs and paint them and all require A LOT of patience!

The locals start to think of their design at the beginning of the year, for example designs for protection, love, happiness etc., and then paint them, giving them as a gift to the family member of their choice who keep it until the following year. They are so ornate with very fine details, I cannot even imagine how much concentration and time is needed for one egg!

My next stop is the St. Virgin church at Nyzhni Verbizh, which was built with the money collected by a ‘Carpathian Robin Hood’ in the 18th Century. The church was covered with tin in 1990 since the local community did not have enough funds to restore the old, wooden tiles. Inside the church is beautifully decorated, and the priest explains the history of the church.

We contine with my tour in the Ukraine with a drive to the Carpathian village of Verkhovyna, situated on a wide valley floor surrounded by mountains and arrive at our Sadyba (typical Ukrainian home) for the night.

The main house itself is made up of 8 or 9 rooms, with varying accommodation options from sleeping 1 to 3 to even 4 or 5. Bathrooms are shared, and there are 3 in total throughout the house with western-style toilets and a shower. We sit outside among the cows and sheep and are served a delicious Ukrainian meal of green borscht and verenyky.

I was told that Verkhovyna is also known as ‘frog land’ and taking a walk around the lake close to our accommodation I can certainly see (and hear) why!

Day 6 – Ivano-Frankivsk – Odessa by Overnight Train
Breakfast this morning was a Carpathian specialty – porridge made with ground corn served with cheese followed by pancakes. I had fruit-filled pancakes, my guide had cheese, and my driver ended up with fish – I think I got lucky there!

This morning’s first visit was to a private museum of Hutsul folk musical instruments, based at the house of a very talented musician.

Be prepared for a challenging walk – the museum is located at the top of quite a steep hill, however the views of the mountains and over the valley are worth the climb, as is meeting Mikhael and have him demonstrate a wide variety of Hutsul musical instruments.

Next stop is the Forgotten Ancestors Shadow Museum to learn about the Hutsul’s way of life and the process of making cheese only found in the Carpathian Mountains.

Before heading straight to Ivano-Frankivsk, we stop briefly at Zhenetsky Waterfall, which formed due to an earthquake in the 1960s. As I had plenty of time before my train, I also visited Yaremche Waterfall with its large souvenir market, selling everything from keyrings and fridge magnets to cheese, honey and sheepskin slippers.

After an hours’ drive we reached Ivano-Frankivsk, which is a pleasant mix of European and Soviet. However, it is currently undergoing renovations throughout the city, with new roads, pavements and improvements to some of the buildings.

The city won European City of the Year of Ukraine and is making improvements to reflect their achievement. I happened to visit the city on the day of their 365th birthday, so the centre of the city was filled with people and various entertainment.

After a leisurely afternoon exploring, I was dropped at the train station for my second and final overnight train journey to Odessa. If you want to travel in Ukraine, then a train journey is the essence of travel. The train to Odessa is older than the one to Lviv, and has no power sockets within the carriages, but I am still provided with a towel and bedding.

Day 7 – Arrive Odessa
The train was smooth and on time, and we arrive into Odessa as scheduled. This afternoon my guide Olena took me on a tour of the city. Odessa has an interesting history; founded by Catherine the Great in the late 18th Century, it became a duty-free port and many Jews settled here in the 1920s.

During the Second World War, the city itself suffered, and around 100,000 people of the Jewish population were executed by Romanians due to the Nazi ethnic cleansing regime.

I first went to the old district of Moldovanka to hear the stories of smugglers and criminals. There was a ‘school’ where young boys went to learn to pickpocket and steal.

If they didn’t pass their ‘test’, they were not allowed to practice  pickpocketing. I then spent the rest of the afternoon exploring the city, including the Potemkin Steps and the Opera House.

Day 8 – Kiev
Today is a long drive back to Kiev. After about 3 hours driving we stop at the Popuzske Museum, or the museum of Strategic Missile Forces. This museum is located on a former nuclear missile launch site, and you can visit the bunkers where workers slept and the control room where orders were given and missiles launched.

If given a code from the Soviet Union, the workers on shift could fire 10 missiles which could reach America in 25 minutes! As much fascinating as it is scary to think that civilisation could have been destroyed with the push of a button!

After sitting in the controller’s seat and pressing said button, you head back outside to see the launch base of the missiles, and then walk around the open-air display of different missiles, rockets and an old, soviet helicopter.

You can see the type of rockets that were used in shooting down MH17 back in 2014. The rest of the afternoon was spent travelling back to Kiev.

Travel in Ukraine

Day 9 – Chernobyl
My time for travel in Ukraine is nearly over, however I took the opportunity to visit Chernobyl whilst here.

We are shown a documentary about the worst nuclear disaster to ever occur – the explosion was 100 times more powerful than the two bombs on Hiroshima – and learn how both locals and foreign workers came together to make the area safer.

30 years on, the work is still not done, and they are now in the process of removing the nuclear waste properly with the use of robotic arms built inside the current sarcophagus. Certainly, the most sombre moment of the tour was visiting Pripyat Town in the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone, 3km from the epicentre.

When the disaster happened on 26 April 1986, the residents of this town were told they would need to leave for 3 days and then they could return. 30 years on, and no one is there – this ghost town has been left as it was – bare bed frames, crumbling buildings, books scattered over the floor, remains of children’s toys just left, showing the most real example of a nuclear war result.

Radiation is present throughout and you are scanned twice before leaving to make sure you haven’t picked up more than the safe amount.

One thing that really hit me was the fairground – some dodgems, swing and a Ferris wheel – all left abandoned, and the worst thing is that they had never been used, the fairground was due to open 1 May, 5 days after the disaster occurred. The town will be inhabitable for thousands of years to come.

The final stop on the tour is to Duga 2, or Russian Woodpecker, a radar system part of the anti-ballistic missile early warning system. This was a long day, but if you do have some spare time, I would recommend visiting this fascinating site.

Please note we do not include a tour to Chernobyl in our 14-day group tour of travel in Ukraine but we can help arrange this. Please contact us for details.

Ukraine has had a turbulent history and is now breaking through that as an exciting, European destination filled with history and local culture. Explore what Ukraine has to offer on our 14-day group tour Ukraine – A Journey Through Ukraine or delve into Ukraine’s Nuclear Past on our 10-day Ukraine – Echoes of the Cold War tour.

Rhia Steele writes about her travel in Ukraine in May 2018.

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