Looking for a country to visit where there is much to see and do, where the dollar is strong and food is tasty? Ukraine fits the bill.
On a memorable two-week trip with Cobblestone Freeway Tours,, we began in the picturesque Lviv, known as the Paris of Ukraine. The city was under Austro-Hungarian, Polish, Nazi, Soviet and now Ukrainian rule and each group left its mark. There is Gothic, Baroque, Renaissance and neoclassic architecture. Walk on the cobblestoned streets and visit some of the Catholic or Orthodox cathedrals, take in the panoramic view at the High Castle and take a break in one of the many coffeehouses.
The history of coffee in Europe dates back to 1683, when a native of Lviv, Franz-Yuriy Kulchytsky (a hero in the war against the Ottoman Empire), founded the first coffee house in Vienna.
Now, Lviv (where locals can regale you with tales of Kulchytsky’s exploits) is considered the coffee capital of the Ukraine.
Before World War I, one-third of the population of Lviv was Jewish. They were wiped out by the Nazis and there are memorials to the Holocaust victims. The city center is a UNESCO World Heritage site.
The immense Lychakiv Cemetery (where over 400,000 are buried) is of historical interest with its grave markers in Ukrainian, Russian, German, Polish, Armenian and Latin, proof of the city’s turbulent past. There are the burial sections for those who died in past wars as well as the current battle against the Russian-sponsored fighters in eastern Ukraine. The western part of the country, which includes all the areas I visited as well as Odessa, appeared to be completely safe.
Lviv is awash in culture, with an opera house, museums (including one on the history of beer), street musicians and world-class jazz and klezmer festivals. The city is also the birthplace of Leopold von Sacher-Masoch (author of “Venus in Furs” and the inspiration for the term s&m).
Our next stop was the town of Kolomyia, which has the unique Pysanka Easter Egg Museum. The central part of the building is a giant Easter egg.
The Hutsul Museum contains arts and crafts of the main ethnographic group that inhabits the Carpathian Mountains.
Bukovel (in the Carpathians) is the largest ski resort in Eastern Europe and is enjoyable even in the warmer weather. Thrill seekers can find excitement in the summer or fall by taking the Roller Coaster Zipline, which speeds through the forest. For a more leisurely activity, you can go mushroom picking. There are over 200 varieties. Much building is going on in the area since vacationers from Ukraine no longer go to Crimea, which is now under Russian control.
Kryvorivnia is a Hutsul village where the movie “Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors” was filmed in 1965. The Hutsul people have their own culture, dialect, architecture and songs. We visited a house where a family once lived in close quarters with the barn in another part of the same building. The artifacts had a similar appearance to those in the American west during the 19th century. The sounds of choral singing emanated from a nearby church and we participated in a mock wedding where the bride and groom were dressed in traditional attire.
Chernivtski is the capital of the region of Bukovina and was known as “Little Vienna” because of its architecture. The city was part of Romania and features art deco buildings. Chernivtsi University was founded in 1875 and is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
The picturesque fortress of Khotyn, on a cliff overlooking the Dniester River, is listed as one of the great castles of Europe. The original fort was built in the 10th century and later was made into a fortress.
Of special interest to me (since I am Jewish and my father’s family came from Ukraine) was the Chernivtsi Museum of Bukovinian Jewish History and Culture. Although Jews first came to the area in the 15th century, the collection focuses on Jewish life in the area in the last quarter of the 18th to the first half of the 20th century. Periods of tolerance were interrupted by pogroms. While in 1919, half of the population was Jewish, by 1930 they were less than 40%. The Soviets discriminated against Jews and then the Nazis invaded the area and created a ghetto, as a departure point for deportations. There are also heroes, such as Chernivtsi’s Mayor Trayan Popovic (later known as “the Righteous Gentile”), who is credited with saving the lives of 20,000 Jews.
Our tour guide also arranged for us to meet with a local expert in Kosiv, Roman Pechyzhak, who sent me a wealth of material on the history of the Jews in the area.
We caught an overnight train to Kiev, Ukraine’s capital city. The Ukrainians are doing their best to wipe out the dull vestiges of the Soviet era. Among the sights are the Golden Gates of Kiev, the Orthodox cathedral of St. Sophia, the 19th century St. Volodymyr’s Cathedral and the Lavra Cave Monastery (which has catacombs below with the mummified bodies of former monks).
Kiev’s central square, Maidan Nezalezhnosti (Independence Square), is the site of pro-democracy demonstrations, where “the Heavenly Hundred” were murdered in 2013-2014. The former pro-Russian President Viktor Yanukovych, who had ties to Paul Manafort (President Trump’s former campaign manager), fled the country. Needless to say, Ukrainians are wary of Pres. Trump’s pro-Putin stance.
While some in my travel party went on a tour of Chernobyl (a nuclear disaster zone and now a travel destination, albeit one where you can’t wear open-toe shoes or touch anything), I went to the Kiev Ballet. The company, in the beautiful opera house, was performing “La Dame aux Camélias” (“The Lady of the Camellias”), an original ballet set to the music of Beethoven and other classical composers.
The audience obviously enjoyed the performance with enthusiastic applause at the end of each scene and a standing ovation at the end.
The food in the Ukraine was tasty. Among the treats we had were borscht (a beet soup that was much better than I imagined), which I had at Panska Huralna restaurant in Chernivtsi. There were also succulent grilled meats (mostly pork), perogies, stuffed cabbage rolls, potato dumplings and chicken Kiev. We had ice cream sundaes in Lviv (which is renowned for its chocolates).
The dollar is strong. For example, a 30-minute taxi ride in Lviv was only $5. Ukraine International Airlines (https://www.flyuia.com/) has direct flights from New York to Kiev at prices that are usually less than the better known airlines.
Ukraine is fascinating for its rich cultures, turbulent history and hearty cuisine. However, English is not generally spoken and the Cyrillic script is more difficult to figure out than Romance languages.
Cobblestone Freeway (cobblestonefreeway.ca; 1-855-787-7482; 780-436-7482) is run by Vincent Rees, a Canadian ethnologist (a specialist in folk dancing, which he demonstrated on several occasions) of Ukrainian descent, married to a Ukrainian woman and living in the country. He arranges outstanding cultural tours (which he can tailor to your interests) and is a delight, as are the two of his staff on my tour, Danya Pidlisetska (who accompanied me to the ballet) and Bogdan Glushko. They will make your trip memorable.