When people think of Ukraine, they tend to think of the capital city with the golden-domed churches: Kiev.
While I enjoyed Kiev, I really fell in love with Ukraine during the two weeks I spent exploring the western part of the country.
My first stop after Kiev was Lviv – the pseudo capital of western Ukraine and spelled and pronounced so many different ways I really have no idea which is “right.” While braving frigid temperatures, I spent my time checking out the town’s diverse churches – Russian orthodox, Catholic and Armenian – including a tiny church built in 1250.
I took a class in traditional Ukrainian egg painting and I visited several small, but interesting museums. I also spent a day traipsing through fresh snow at the Lychakivs’ke Cemetery, one of the most incredible cemeteries I have ever visited (that seems weird to say about a cemetery, but it’s true).
From Lviv, I made my way into the Carpathian Mountains – one of the highlights of western Ukraine. Several towns within just a couple hours of each other can make a good base to explore the Carpathians. I had planned to base myself in Kolomyya and take a few day trips, but due to some transportation issues (i.e., waiting too long to buy my train ticket and discovering they were sold out!), I ended up spending a night in Ivano-Frankivsk as well. You may recall, Ivano-Frankivsk is where my camera froze and I had my breaking point when it came to the deep freeze that took over Ukraine while I was there.
I didn’t see much of the town, but it seemed cute from what I did see – no major sights, but a nice place to wander around when it isn’t -15F.
I spent three nights in Kolomyya, whose two main attractions are the Museum of Hutsul Folk Art and the Pysanky Museum, which showcases several thousand hand painted eggs. I also enjoyed roaming the streets of Kolomyya, where sidewalks are almost non-existent, many people have functioning water wells in their yards and small orthodox chapels are often found on the side of the road.
Kolomyya is also home to the On the Corner Bed & Breakfast, easily the best place I have stayed in the last six months. Staying in a large double room with private bath, I enjoyed a home-cooked breakfast and dinner each evening, free wi-fi, and the helpful advice of Vitaliy when it came to planning my time in the area. I especially appreciated Vitaliy’s efforts to ensure my meals were gluten-free – something that has been quite rare during my travels!
From Kolomyya, I took a day trip to Yaremche to visit its prime attraction, the Dovbush Cliffs. Yaremche has the feel of a ski resort town which isn’t surprising since it is one of the main jumping-off points to visit Bukovel, the pride and joy of Ukrainian skiing. Unfortunately, I don’t think I actually made it to the cliffs, but I enjoyed my few hours in Yaremche nonetheless.
Heading out of the Carpathians, I made my way to Kamyanets-Podilsky – a city that made almost every Ukrainian I met ooh and aah a bit. Everyone seemed to agree it was not to be missed and it did not disappoint. This fascinating town was built on a sort of island, formed by the Smotrych River winding around the center of town and forming a loop. The Old Town sits across the river from the New Town and a large, centuries-old fortress sits across another bridge from the Old Town. The fortress itself is the largest draw in Kamyanets-Podilsky and is quite impressive – even more so because you can pretty much wander around as you like. Aside from a couple roped off areas, most of the fortress was a free-for-all and provided great views of the entire city.
Kamyanets-Podilsky was formed pursuant to the Magdeburg Law, under which each ethnic group had their own quarter. Thus, it had a Polish quarter, an Armenian quarter, etc., each retaining a bit of its original character today. It also has many of its original town walls, gates and towers in place – more than I can recall seeing almost anywhere else. Below the Old Town sit residential settlements along the Smotrych River, which I reached by a couple precariously slippery stone staircases and some even more questionable wooden bridges – one of which wobbled so much that a local babushka laughed at my attempt to cross it and then demonstrated the “correct” way to walk so as not to swing the bridge. If the bridges had not been covered with packed snow to cover the gaps between the planks, I am not sure I would have attempted a crossing in the first place!
From Kamyanets-Podilsky, I took one day trip – to the town of Khotyn to see how its fortress compared to that in K-P. The fortress itself was a bit of a letdown – it seemed much of it was closed in the off-season and the grounds were so covered in snow that I couldn’t wander around as much as people likely do in the summer months. However, the view of the Dniestr River was superb and the town itself was pleasant to wander and get lost a little.
My final stop in western Ukraine before moving on to Moldova was Chernivtsi. Just about 2 hours from both Kolomyya and Kamyanets-Podilsky, it would make a nice day trip from either, but it would also provide a nice base from which to explore the surrounding area. Chernivtsi is a university town and it feels like it. The National University of Chernivtsi is actually the big thing to see in town due its unique architectural style, inspired by ancient Byzantine styles. With just an afternoon there, I missed some of the city’s other sights, such as the Regional Art Museum, Museum of Folk Architecture and the Kalynivsky Market, which gives me all the more reason to return some day!
Overall, western Ukraine had a much different feel than Kiev. I enjoyed getting out of the big city and into smaller towns with more quirks and charm. I heard Ukrainian spoken much more frequently than Russian and I felt like I was getting a taste of the more traditional Ukrainian culture. The mix of mountains, rivers and forests provided an amazing backdrop and I can’t wait to return and explore more of the Carpathians in the summer months when everything is green and lush.
Disclosure: I received a discount at On the Corner Bed & Breakfast and Active Ukraine arranged my egg-painting class free of charge.