A massive post-Soviet nation where Russian and European spheres of influence are overlapping these days, Ukraine has had a tough go of it over the past thirty years. Since the fall of the USSR, the country has been in a virtual tug of war between their former Russian overlords, and the European community that wishes to usher the huge country into the EU fold.
The aftereffects of this have manifested themselves in huge street protests, the throttling of precious natural gas every other winter seemingly (Ukraine imports the vast majority of its gas from Russia, making dissent a tricky game indeed), and the “accidental” illnesses and death of certain pro-west political figures.
Compounding all of this has been the suffering that the Ukrainian people have borne collectively ever since Chernobyl happened in 1986. One of the world’s worst nuclear accidents, the meltdown of the Soviet-built reactor core in Pripyat irradiated large portions of the Ukraine’s populated and arable land, cursing its inhabitants with contaminated food and land that has contributed to many cancers and deaths in the decades since that fateful day.
Despite all this drama, the Ukraine is lurching forward heroically, and with its wealth of old building stock from 1,200 years of civilized history, the character-filled Carpathian Mountains, and the highland draped seacoast of the Crimean peninsula, it has much to entice the intrepid traveler. They have even turned the immense catastrophe of Chernobyl into a tourist draw, offering a look into one of the world’s few but first post-modern ruins.
Indeed, having the foresight to go against the crowds and head to this transitional country between Europe and the Russian Federation may prove to be the excursion that will stand out as the highlight of your Euro Trip!
Currency: Ukrainian Hryvnia
Languages: Ukrainian, Russian, Romanian, Polish, Hungarian
What To Do
Starting off in Kiev, the first sight one should take in is Saint Sophia’s Cathedral, an Eastern Orthodox landmark that has been in existence for almost 1,000 years. First constructed in 1037, it was named in tribute to the Hagia Sophia in Constantinople (now Istanbul), and it has withstood many hardships over the years, including a sacking of Kiev by the Mongols and the antireligious zealots of the old Soviet Union, who wanted to tear it down to make way for a park.
The interior of the church will greet the eyes with incredibly intricate frescoes adorning the columns and walls of the cathedral, leaving one to be in wonder of how such an amazing structure has survived for so long largely intact!
Heading out of the capital city, make for Lviv, a city that has retained much of its medieval charm from over the centuries. The city centre has retained so much of its former glory, that UNESCO has recognized it as a World Heritage Site, for its architecture as well as its multicultural past, as Poles, Germans, Jews and Ukrainians lived alongside each other for centuries peacefully in this city.
Many museums, performing arts venues, and churches await the cultural traveler, who will enjoy their time in this place, as the cost of living is very low, given that the quality of life is quite close to western standards.
While some travelers may be turned off from this for various reasons, it is undeniable that the Chernobyl nuclear disaster has been a defining moment in this nation’s history. For those willing to brave low (but still dangerous at long exposures) levels of radiation, tours of the exclusion zone around the nuclear plant are available, including a visit to the abandoned modern ruins of Pripyat.
Visitors will don a protective suit, and trained tour guides will accompany you through a post-apocalyptic landscape that more resembles Silent Hill or The Walking Dead (sans walkers) than the modern world we know and love. Ironically enough, nature has taken over here, despite the unhealthy levels of radiation present in the environment, proving that in the end, Mother Nature is the boss of us all.
For travelers looking to experience the Ukraine’s natural side, a trip to the Carpathian Mountains is in order. Here, hiking is the primary preoccupation in the summer, while skiers and snowboarders hold court on the slopes of the Carpathian Mountain’s many alpine resorts, allowing for tonnes of excellent glade skiing!
Along the northern coast of the Black Sea lie the relaxing beaches of Crimea. A peninsula that is almost an island, as the isthmus that links it to the mainland portion of the Ukraine is only mere metres across, Crimea had been a choice destination for vacationing elites during the Soviet era, retaining its popularity among local Ukrainians in the present day.
It’s not hard to see why, as the beaches are backed by mountains that rise straight up from the shore in many places, and the water has a clarity that almost rivals the Aegean Sea. Those looking to earn their swim in the refreshing Black Sea can work up a sweat on the many trails that wend their way through the high country that makes up the interior of this resort region, with dry rugged ridges providing killer views of the forested valleys below.
What To Eat
One dish that defines this nation, as it has also gained popularity abroad in many Ukrainian communities, is the humble perogy. Known within the Ukraine as varenyky, this dumpling is often stuffed with mashed potatoes and cheese, but it can also be impregnated with meat and vegetables depending on where you have this tasty treat.
Despite being associated with the Russian Federation by many people, borscht, a soup made with beetroot, a popular meal for many citizens here, is a dish that was conceived here many years ago.
Being crimson in colour, variants of this soup also include tomato paste, potatoes and cabbage; it is a dish enjoyed not only nationwide, but across Russia, the Caucasus region, and the Balkan region of Europe.
Some people, when eating a steak, count eating the fat along the trim of the cut of meat as a guilty pleasure. In the Ukraine, you don’t need to act embarrassed, as one of the side dishes that are commonly eaten at meals here involves eating a slab of animal fat.
It is referred to as salo, a piece of fat that has been cured, salted, and seasoned with black pepper. It usually has a small bit of meat attached, which will make it less weird for brave culinary travelers looking to try something truly exotic in the Ukraine.