Ukraine: An overlooked gem in Eastern Europe

Photo by Dmitry Medved / Pixabay
Photo by Dmitry Medved / Pixabay

As world travel continues to be limited by the pandemic, TheHomeGround Asia wants to help you plan for that overseas holiday you have been yearning to take. In this series called Through the Eyes…, we explore new destinations by asking expatriates living and working in Singapore to share what they love most about their home countries. Your first virtual stop (for now), Ukraine.

Despite being the second largest country in Europe after Russia, Ukraine tends to be underrated as a holiday destination, especially with the current political turmoil. Bordering Moldova, Romania, Hungary, Slovakia, Poland, Belarus, and of course Russia, most outside of the region may not know that Ukraine is one of the most culturally diverse countries in Eastern Europe.

Ukranian national Veronika Sakhno moved to Singapore in 2013 on a whim, and has been teaching the violin in local music schools ever since. While she loves her life here, she speaks fondly of the beauty of her country. 

“Of course, the East where I grew up may not be a nice place to visit now but there are still many parts of Ukraine that are still very interesting and beautiful,” she says. 

The country is mostly landlocked except for the South, where it sits on the shores of the Sea of Azov and the Black Sea. Ukraine’s nature is glorious and mostly untouched.

The Carpathian Mountains form a 1,500-km-long range in Central and Eastern Europe. They stretch west to east in an arc from the Czech Republic to Romania. A section of the Eastern Carpathians lie within the borders of modern Ukraine. (Photo by Max Vertsanov / Unsplash)

Lofty Carpathians

To Ms Sakhno, the highlight of Ukraine’s allure lies in the Western region. Spanning the southwest, the Carpathian Mountains cut through the oblasts of Zakarpattia, southwestern Lviv, southern Ivano-Frankivsk and western Chernivtsi Oblast.

She jokes, “The Carpathian Mountains are where the fabled Count Dracula lives but of course, he is in the Romanian part of the mountains, in Transylvania.”

In Ukraine, Ms Sakhno says that the Carpathians boast natural mineral spas, alpine springs, and the Maniava Waterfall, which at 20m, is one of the highest waterfalls in the mountain range. There are also health sanctuaries if one is looking for a healing retreat. 

“Every season, from winter to summer, is beautiful. There is always something to do,” she says, while suggesting that visitors avoid late autumn when it tends to be grey, wet and gloomy.

In summer, she recommends trekking and camping, while during winter, the Bukovel Ski Resort is popular with locals for its diverse tracks and picturesque views. 

The Carpathians feed into the Dniester Canyon, which at 250km long runs through three regions in Western Ukraine; its river is one of the longest in Europe. Rocky cliffs topped with virgin forest are home to many species of flora and fauna, and are dotted with caves, waterfalls, ancient rock deposits and fossils, dating back to hundreds of millions of years. The adventurous can embark on walking trails, white water rafting or take an idyllic boat ride to take in the Canyon’s marvels. 

Bukhovel Ski Resort is a popular winter destination for Ukrainians. (Photo by Thomas Beckett / Unsplash)

Charming Uzhorod 

The town of Uzhorod, seated at the bottom of the Carpathians and in the heart of the Zakarpattia oblast, is close to the border of Slovakia. This is the town where Ms Sakhno, as a young graduate from the SS Prokofiev Donetsk State Musical Academy in the east, ventured to and found herself playing in the Uzhorod Philharmonic. 

“I would say that this is my town, because of how much I felt at home here,” she says. And as a musician who loves the Philharmonic Orchestra Concert Hall, which was once a synagogue, she shares: “It is really grand inside and the acoustics are amazing.”

With past Hungarian, Austrian and USSR marks in its history, architecture admirers can enjoy identifying the hallmarks of each era in the town. 

Korzo, Uzhorod’s charming main pedestrian street is lined with cafes, restaurants and shops. Ms Sakhno recommends Kactus, a lively bar on Korvo which serves up great bar food and live band performances: “Great vibe here, it’s a fun place to catch up with friends or have a party.”

Stroll along the Korzo, and you will find the Lviv Handmade Chocolate café, an offshoot of the locally famous chocolate company from Lviv, one of the main cultural towns of Ukraine. Indulge in a hot chocolate, fondue, coffee, and a wide range of desserts while people watching. 

“They have these chocolate-covered coffee beans that are wonderful, and I love them. I always buy them when I’m back,” she gushes. “They also make great gifts.”

At the top of Korzo on a hill sits the Uzhorod Castle, constructed as early as the 11th Century. It is today the Museum of Local Lore, History and Economy Life, which houses the largest collection of bronze archaeological excavations in Ukraine, including ancient coins and rare handwritten books. Ms Sakhno insists that this is a must-see for history buffs. 

Aerial view of Uzhhorod Amphitheatre. (Photo by Raimond Spekking Elke Wetzig / Wikimedia Commons)

Tastes and feels like home

Once the sightseeing is done, perhaps it is time to shop for souvenirs. 

Pysanky (singular pysanka), or traditional elaborately hand-painted eggs, is a thoughtful gift or a good conversation piece for the home, she says: “They are painted using wax and dye, and each pattern and colour has special meaning.”

Another souvenir to buy someone back home is the Vyshyvanka, an embroidered shirt that is “very Ukrainian”, according to Ms Sakhno, steeped in history and folklore, and has become quite fashionable: “I think you can get it easily from local bazaars.” 

Brandy is also a potential present to take home. Uzhgorod Cognac Distillery produces brandy lines that are aged between three and 12 years, including Tysa, Uzhorod and Karpaty. Says Ms Sakhno: “I don’t drink brandy myself, but these are great gifts from that part of Ukraine.”

Despite the Russian supermarket filling her food needs here, there are some things that are only freshest and best in Ukraine. “Kefir, for example, is very cheap and good. There, it costs only about S$0.80 (US$0.60) per litre, and it is much better than what you can get here,” she says. “Also, Ryazhenka, another type of fermented milk product quite like yoghurt, is something that must be tried.” 

Also sink your teeth into Kremzliki (potato pancakes) and Gombovtsi (cheese dumplings). 

Despite news of civil unrest, Ms Sakhno says that Ukraine is generally a safe place for travellers. But she warns against pickpockets and to steer clear of gypsies, although taking normal travel precautions as you would when visiting other countries is enough for the most part. 

Pysanky, hand-painted Easter eggs, make for colourful souvenirs. (Photo by Alisa Mizikar / Pixabay )

Some useful phrases

It is useful to have some basic phrases at hand, as using them could help to connect with the local population. When in Ukraine, try these:

Hello – Pryivit

Thank you – Dyakuyu

Where is… – De tse misto?

How much is this? – Skilki tse koshtuye?

Do you speak English? – Tyi rozmovlyajesh anglyijskoyu?

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