Culture In Depth, 06/06/2020

Picture This: Trip to Zakarpattia on the ‘Other Side’

On my first visit to Kharkiv this year it came as a little surprise to discover that no one I met had been to my own favorite place in Ukraine – Zakarpattia.

After all, it’s 1,300 kilometers or so right across the country from your side to the other side, plus maybe another 1,000 kilometers clocked up with sight-seeing and then the return journey home. Understandably, it’s too far for a quick getaway from your end. Remember, then, the renowned and touching expression that “Every picture is worth a thousand words,” and so perhaps the less I write about this welcoming wilderness the better, and we should reflect more on the photographs, which ultimately say it all. For all it’s worth, let me present one of my best-loved places and in return, I will do my best with my story-telling powers and limits not to indulge you with too many lavish tourist clichés.

But if a cross-country trek to Zakarpattia could actually be accomplished, it would be equally exhilarating and add to the experience. When I made a point of asking around in Kharkiv to see who might have been there and came up blank, I did at least find that Kharkivites have considerable goodwill towards the region. And the same goes for me. My relationship with Zakarpattia began over 10 years ago, and I have taken the train from Budapest to the not-so-far-away and not-so-picturesque Chop border many times, where the great outdoors always awaits me.

Zakarpattia with its traditional ways and the bygone atmosphere is a step back in time. As an outsider, originally from England, I have written much about this place and observed developments that continue towards improving general infrastructure, and have worked with local media to promote and facilitate future tourism.

The environment is similar to neighboring Transylvania, which faces directly southwards in Romania, though what is clear is that Zakarpattia, despite not being as developed as Transylvania, is gaining in popularity. In particular, Ukrainians from elsewhere and visitors from neighboring countries, mainly Poland, are coming to see. But far fewer come from further afield, due to the war that still regrettably takes a toll today. Until this crisis is over and the flutter of negative stereotypes is dispelled, tourists will remain reluctant to visit Ukraine.

Still, the Zakarpattia tourist board is making great efforts and the local people are always most hospitable. The region – and indeed the rest of Ukraine – has much to offer, from rolling hills to wondrous valleys and majestic mountains. The region has a general mystique, across about 400 kilometers from Uzhhorod by the Slovak border in the east to Chernivtsi on the western side.

With the timeless scenery come enchanting wooden houses and churches. Vintage folklore arts and crafts are often inscribed on buildings, bus stops, Easter eggs and so forth. There is an abundance of forests and nature. Horse-drawn carts and the traditional values of working the land have a high-spirited sense of having been handed down from generation to generation. The unique culture and slower pace of life are an escape from much of modern-day life. This tranquil region is probably unmatched anywhere else in Europe.

Careful planning is required for a comfortable time. A map, strong hiking boots, all-weather clothes and reliable transport with a dependable set of wheels – car or bike – are essential for getting by.

 

The Uzhhorod, Synevyr and Hoverla Triangle

 

In your case, heading westwards from Kharkiv to Kolomya makes a good start. Although I was never there, I was based in a nearby village called Vorokhta. But larger and more developed Kolomya, an attractive locale, and gentle Vorokhta both lead to the all-important Mount Hoverla, Ukraine’s highest peak at 2,061 meters and surrounded by other lesser-known summits. Some of them have traces of snow for much of the year, something I hope to witness next time.

Alongside rugged Mount Hoverla, probably the other most frequented landmark is the greener Lake Synevyr and its surrounding territory. Accessing both these serene nature trails is relatively straightforward. The paths are clearly marked and easy to follow.

Time-wise, it’s up to you to manage these itineraries. Especially when at the Mount Hoverla range, which took me the best part of a day to complete this ramble, an additional 20 kilometers from Vorokhta. Additional help from a taxi took me for the first 15 of those kilometers before the grand ascent. When I was there in 2008 I knew I had reached the top, for the proud blue and yellow independence flag, trident and cross stood before me. Perched above the clouds, it’s an emotionally high triumph!

Proceeding towards Lake Synevyr, or “Sea-Eye” as this body of water is known in folklore legend, is a lot less demanding. Surrounded by beech trees, the cooler lake itself is symbolically characterized by two large, prominent wooden ornaments representing “Syn” and “Evyr,” Zakarpattia’s legendary equivalent to Romeo and Juliet. These clearly stand out by the side of the water.

The Mount Hoverla and Lake Synevyr national parks are the main highlights, and few people go beyond their walkway. Otherwise, for more, you are on your own. There are plenty of off-the-beaten-track trails but to proceed further into the real wilds away from safety requires more endurance and far greater planning and care.

Both parks, although contrasting, are outstanding in every sense. You don’t need to be indulged with further truisms. More sightings will follow while on the road, such as the commendable bear sanctuary 10 kilometers from the lake and Mizhhir’ya, a pleasant town nearby. See more of the bear sanctuary on this link starring me and featured on UA-TV.

To round off in style, I highly recommend a visit to Uzhhorod. I often say to friends that if one does not have the time or willpower to see Zakarpattia sufficiently, then it’s OK to capture some high atmospheric splendor with a stroll around the wonderful outdoor Zakarpattia Museum of Folk Architecture and Heritage, which exhibits original and restored wooden houses and churches from this region. Also, the excellent Bokshay and Ilko art galleries exhibit much ancient and modern art from local artists depicting life there. For this and more check out the many Uzhhorod information links such as this one.

For further news and local information within the Uzhhorod area, try Tysa TV.

At a guess, to fulfill this itinerary would surely take one full week to go.

 

The Zakarpattia Flatlands

 

Fifty kilometers before Uzhhorod is Mukachevo, and I encourage a visit to the picturesque Palanok Castle. See my write-up at Budapest Times. This charming château with 1,000 years of history is in between the hills and flatlands. Mukachevo was home to world-famous Hungarian artist Munkácsy Mihály, who is similar in vein to Ilya Repin.

Fifty kilometers south of Mukachevo is Vinohradriv, a quaint off-beat town within a wine production area. Nearby is a remarkable buffalo farm that specializes in buffalo cheeses and other dairy products.

Away from the main road and tourist scene between Uzhhorod and Chop is an intriguing political and historical case study village called Slemence, “the Divided Village.” This sleepy border community was once wholly in Hungary but after 1920 it went two different ways: the western part to Czechoslovakia, then to EU Slovakia, and the eastern side from the USSR to Ukraine. But during Soviet times this village, still with its Hungarian majority, lived with an artificially closed border for more than 60 years until fairly recently. Today Slemence is more liberated but still divided and represents two different worlds.

Challenging and rewarding is how I summarise Zakarpattia. In my early days, when I knew nothing about this region, there was less tourism, even less tourist information (in English) and less general traffic. But to overcome this, I often took my bike and cycled hundreds of kilometers around this area. Those were the best bike rides of my life. Despite no command of Ukrainian, local people went out of their way to greet and occasionally help me to get by. The only concerns were staying within the map zone and not being chased by wild dogs, which occasionally happened. This may have been more my fault when drifting unaware from some of the main roads. Fortunately, I got away each time. To read more about my time there see here.

Then it was a return to the hills again, as the last great bike ride I had was two years ago when I had a “trembita calling.” Once again, I made my way from the Hungarian border, at the height of summer, and took a 150-kilometer trek upon dusty lanes with valleys on one side and the abundant River Tysa on the other, to Rakhiv.

This is a cheerful town in a clear view of the Hoverla mountain ranges. To discover more about life within the mountains and Hutsul culture, a prominent feature of this region, visit the Biosphere Reserve Museum. Also nearby is the Geographical Centre of Europe monument. Pose for a selfie and reach for a large kvas drink at the buffet bar whilst there.

I can recommend a friendly family in Rakhiv, offering excellent accommodation high on the hills with stunning views, as well as a chance to blow the trembita.

There is still more to see, much I haven’t mentioned. But to conclude, there are spa baths, boating and winter sports – the list of delights goes on. All-year-round Zakarpattia makes a wonderful holiday. The difficult part is having to leave.

Should aviation return after the 2020 plague, and if you prefer to leave your car behind, there are airports at Uzhhorod and Lviv that may resume flights to and from Kharkiv. When landed, there are specialist travel firms that specialize in package tours to the main landmarks. See local and national Ukrainian tourist information for the latest news and advice and book sufficiently in advance.

Then directly northwards, passing the graceful but perhaps lesser documented Volovets and Skole valleys on the main E471 road, is Lviv, an enchanting historical city. But that’s another story for another time as I have exceeded my initial ambition not to “eclipse” my photographs with their “instant” 1,000 words appeal. No doubt, you will also do the same when you return home.

Enjoy! Zakarpattia awaits your arrival.

Text and photos:  Alexander Stemp