Situated in the east of Europe, between Poland and Russia, Ukraine remains a mystical and misunderstood land. A simple west-to-east cross of this country – one that few people realise is larger than France or Germany – and you are bound to get the most intriguing history lesson. After all, Ukraine’s story, from its 9th-century Kievan Rus origins to the Orange Revolution and beyond, as well as its incredible mix of cultures, is one of the most enticing and rich in Europe.
Today, this grand state beckons travellers to explore its intricate church architecture and delicate frescos, bustling cities and authentic rural villages, and gorgeous natural resources. Along the way, you will discover that there are plenty of cultural myths and stories, the kinds about unique local archetypal characters that will capture your imagination and keep you coming back for more local travel experiences in Ukraine.
Here are just three stories with which to whet your appetites.
The Babushkas of Ukraine’s Cities
Babushka (in Russian) or babusia (in Ukrainian), as Ukrainians call their elderly ladies, are an inevitable sight in any city or town in Ukraine, no matter where you go. Stroll along the cobbled sidewalks in Lviv and you will see them, chatting and singing folk songs in front of the impressive Opera Theatre. Hop on a train headed east and you will be greeted by their curious eyes and voices selling homegrown apples and freshly baked buns with jam or poppy seeds. Head further east and you will find them sitting on every street bench, letting the world pass by in the greenery of Kharkiv’s parks, or selling everything from sunflower seeds to flower bouquets in Donetsk.
The cultural phenomenon of babusia in Ukraine is directly tied to the country’s troubled history. The 20th century saw an epic tug of war waged between five empires parceling up the country, two world wars fought on Ukrainian territory, tragic famine and a repressive communist regime. Together, these afflictions laid waste to most of Ukraine’s men, leaving behind the now-familiar crowds of babushkas. It is the stories of these women that make Ukraine so different from other cities in Central Europe.
But there is much more to Ukraine’s cities. Charming Lviv will leave you with the smell of freshly ground coffee, the memory of cosy cobblestone streets in a World Heritage-listed town centre and the air of jazz and classical music. Kyiv, the capital city of Ukraine, has the ruthless bustle of a teenager, but also wide promenades and maple trees, the sparkling golden domes of St. Sophia Cathedral and painful insights at the National Chernobyl Museum. Further east and south, grandiose Tsars’ palaces pop up along the Black Sea shore, Tatar mosques call for prayer, and statues of Lenin and Karl Marx crowd the streets of like Donetsk and Odessa.
The Traditional Hutsul Highlanders
Far from the urban scapes of Ukraine’s cities are traditional rural villages dotting the hills of the Carpathian Mountains. Lush pine forests and hard-to-access trails make it difficult for many travellers to explore the countryside of the Hutsuls, an ethno-cultural group of Ukrainian highlanders. Unlike more heavily explored areas in Central Europe, Ukraine’s Carpathian Mountains remain largely cut off from the main tourist routes. You will find few marked walking trails; organised campsites are virtually non-existent. Most highland roads can only be reached via four-wheel-drive vehicles, on foot or by the horse cart. Few if any people speak English, and most still live by the centuries-old customs of their ancestors.
Hutsul society was traditionally based on forestry and logging, as well as cattle and sheep breeding. Right up until the present day, the month of May marks the Hutsul’s most exciting and colourful celebrations, a time when Hutsul shepherds leave their homes to spend three months herding flocks of sheep and producing delicious cheese known locally as brynza.
Stepping into a rural Hutsul house is a trip back in time: you can sample delicious homemade bread, enjoy fresh water from deeply-dug wells, taste vegetables from the local fields and even try on colourful Hutsul clothes, still worn on major village celebrations.
Hutsul people are also famous for their incredible craftsmanship. At the local bazaar, you may find beautifully and intricately decorated eggs, ornate clothing and delicate woodwork.
Travellers lucky enough to spend a day or two in the Hutsul villages during traditional holiday celebrations will come away mesmerised by the whirlwind of colours, timeless customs, plentiful dinners and authentic culture carefully preserved on the outskirts of Europe.
The Vast Expanses of Nature
The Dnieper – Ukraine’s largest and Europe’s second-longest river – is bested only by the Danube. So great is its presence, ”Rare is the bird that flies to the middle of the Dnieper,” wrote Nicolai Gogol, a well-known Russian and Ukrainian writer. And while the Dnieper is definitely not the majestic waterway it was during Gogol’s lifetime, it remains an impressive and imposing sight, a symbol of Ukraine’s stunning natural landscapes.
Beyond the Dniepr, due to the sheer vastness of the territory, Ukraine can satisfy even the pickiest nature lover. Dense forests in the north hide countless rivers, marshes, lakes and swamps. In the west the gentle peaks of the Carpathian Mountains tower over the lush valleys, underground caves and World Heritage-listed beech forests boasting an abundance of wildlife. The south brings the warm sunshine, pebbled beaches and the grand Black Sea.
Whether you choose to go hiking in the Carpathian highlands, kayaking along the winding rivers or just enjoy sipping your morning coffee at the artsy cafes of Lviv, don’t forget to listen to the background stories of caring babusias, welcoming Hutsuls, cheerful women, ambitious youngsters, fearless Cossacks and countless others that form an eccentric and yet truthful-to-the-core mosaic of Ukraine, Europe’s largest unexplored frontier.