Western Ukraine Part 2 – The Carpathian Region

Situated in the southwest corner of the country, the Carpathians are the only mountain range of significance in all of Ukraine, with the exception of the Crimean mountains ringing the southern tip of Crimea. The Carpathians (Karpaty in Ukrainian) are a lovely, densely wooded range of medium altitude which remind me of the lower reaches of the Cascade range of the northwestern U.S. minus the higher, glaciated peaks such as Mt. Rainier and Mt. Baker.

Grand Chateau in the Carpathian Mountains

(Grand Chateau in the Carpathian Mountains)

Second to the Alps in size and altitude among European mountain ranges, the Carpathians stretch 1500 kilometers (930 miles) in a descending arc to the south and east. They are actually a chain of smaller ranges beginning with the Tatras of the Czech Republic running through Slovakia and Poland, becoming the Central Carpathians of Hungary and Ukraine, and ending with the Eastern Carpathians of Romania. They top out at around 2,600 meters (8,500 feet) hold no snow year round, and contain no glaciers.

The greater portion of the Carpathians – fifty-three percent – lies south of the border in Romania, but approximately eleven percent of the range is within the confines of Ukraine. For me, just the name Carpathians – and especially the Transylvanian region in Romania – conjures images of dark and forbidding castles clinging to the peaks of stormy crags, and a certain historical personage by the name of Vlad the Impaler, the real life inspiration for the most famous vampire of them all, Dracula. These legends arose many centuries ago, of course, fueled by the imaginations of the locals and passed on in folk tales and songs.

Railway station in Carpathian village

(Railway station in Carpathian village)

In actual fact, while traveling through the Carpathian region of Ukraine, I never found anything particularly creepy, scary, dreadful or remotely Dracula-like anywhere. Not a vampire in sight, no werewolves, no hunchbacked servants dressed in black. Maybe they keep all that stuff cornered down in Romania. A little disappointing if that’s what you’re looking for, but in every other way it’s a lovely area of Ukraine. The people are friendly and helpful to a fault and the scenery is grand as long as you’re not expecting glaciated Matterhorn Alp-style vistas. In American terms I would compare the Carpathians to the Appalachians as contrasted to the Alps – Rockies. There are picturesque alpine lakes and villages, streams and woodlands abound, and lots of colorful local history in the form of castles and monuments.

Water lilies and pond at Sanitori Karpaty

(Water lilies and pond at Sanitori Karpaty)

One thing which this part of the country specializes in are sanitori. There is no direct corollary to these institutions in the U.S., but the closest thing would be a health spa/resort. In Soviet times these sanitori were used as a sort of reward system where the average worker could go free of charge for several weeks a year and receive therapeutic medical treatments for just about any malady imaginable. Many of these sanitori in the Carpathians are renowned for their mineral spring waters which are reputed to have special healing qualities.

Sanatori Karpaty

(Sanatori Karpaty)

My wife and I spent a week at one of these places, called, appropriately enough, the Sanitori Karpaty. Checking in was an adventure in itself. Still unacustomed to the cash-only style of Ukrainian commerce, I arrived at the front desk with my credit card in hand to pay for our stay. Wrong. I had only a hundred or so hrivnas in my pocket – about twenty bucks – and needed more like a thousand hryvnas to pay for the two of us. Luckily, there was an ATM machine right there in the lobby. Unluckily, it was fresh out of cash.

Okay, now what? The desk help said the bank had been notified and that someone would be out to refill the ATM.

When?

Some time today.

Any chance you could narrow that down a little?

Soon.

So we hung out in the lobby for a couple hours, hoping and waiting for Soon to come. Eventually, Soon showed up and threw in some cash. By this time there was a line of people waiting to use the machine and I began to fret that it would run out again before I got my turn. In the end we got what we needed, but when we came through the lobby once more a couple hours later, we saw a sign on the ATM indicating it had been emptied a second time.

Among the trees

(Among the trees)

I am told that a week is much too short a time to glean the full medicinal benefit from a sanitori visit. The average for those who come here is more like three weeks. We drank the water a couple times a day, which had a slightly sulfuric and suitably minerally tang to it, got a jacuzzi-style mineral bath and a nice massage once or twice, three meals a day and a room that reminded me of nothing so much as my old college dormitory. The food was average cafeteria style fare, filling but not exactly tasty. Okay, I’m being kind. The fact is, it also reminded me of my old college dorm cafeteria, and that is not a positive memory. Still, we weren’t really there for the treatments or the food, we were using the facilities more as a base jumping-off point for exploring the region.

Every day there were inexpensive, guided excursions available to many local attractions, and we took full advantage of them. As always, the guides speak only in Russian or Ukrainian, so it was all lost on me, but my wife assures me it’s all quite interesting historical and cultural information.

Uzhgorod Castle

(Uzhgorod Castle)

One day during our stay we took a bus excursion and visited the town of Uzhgorod along the banks of the Uzh River. Uzh is Russian for grass snake, and gorod means town, hence Uzhgorod is Grass Snake Town on the banks of the Grass Snake River. It’s the largest city in southwest Ukraine, population 116,000 in 2010, and is situated only a few kilometers from the Slovakian border. We had some time to roam the city on our own, plus a guided tour of the local castle and a side trip to the Slovakian border crossing, but I have to say I never saw a snake anywhere. False advertising if you ask me.

Forbidden photos of Slovakian border crossing

(Forbidden photos of Slovakian border crossing)

At the border our bus parked and we got out and wandered around watching the guards for a while. There were lots of signs warning you to stay back, do not approach, and absolutely NO photographs! Naturally, I took some anyway. I felt like Secret Agent Man, sneaking highly verboten photos of highly sensitive border areas with my highly sensitive and top secret not-so-well hidden camera.

Honestly, I don’t know what the big deal is all about. Maybe it’s just leftover Cold War paranoia. The Ukrainian side had a shack manned by four or five uniformed guards, a gate which could be lifted manually to let vehicles through after their papers were scrutinized, and about a hundred meters down the road a similar checkpoint on the Slovakian side. It all seemed pretty tame and routine to me.

Another very LARGE war monument

(Another very LARGE war monument)

In a nearby field stood a huge statue/monument of some soldier. I never found out exactly who or what he represented, whether commemorating a particular person or battle or if it’s more a generic relic of the Great War (the Soviet term for World War II). One thing is certain, they do like their monuments done on a grand scale around there. Dude must be thirty feet tall if he’s an inch.

Inside Uzhgorod Castle

(Inside Uzhgorod Castle)

Alpenhorns and fiddles inside the castle museum

(Alpenhorns and fiddles inside the castle museum)

Not your average Easter eggs

(Not your average Easter eggs)

Back in Uzhgorod, we strolled through the city streets and visited the local castle, which was honestly more impressive outside than inside. Originally built in the fourteenth century, it’s been rebuilt a couple of times since, and presents a formidable stone-walled edifice to the world. Inside the walls the grounds are somewhat trashy and there’s evidence of some sporadic restoration work being done. Going inside the castle, we were led through several well restored and maintained rooms, but a majority of the interior is closed off to the public. You run into this a lot in Ukraine, where some of these grand old buildings are in a state of disrepair and there simply isn’t enough private capital available to do the necessary restoration work and make them a viable tourist attraction, nor does the government have the funds to do everything needed.

There were also several rooms dedicated to museum type artifacts, weapons, costumes, musical instruments, and most fascinating and colorful of all, a plethora of decorated eggs. I’m not talking about your standard six-year-old Easter egg coloring job here. These eggs are true works of art, intricately designed and hand-painted, some of them with small inlaid jewels, fabric, and each one completely unique and so brightly colored they make your eyeballs pop.

Some fine handiwork

(Some fine handiwork)

Back outside Uzhgorod Castle

(Back outside Uzhgorod Castle)

The old wooden church in medieval village

(The old wooden church in medieval village)

Just outside the castle is a replicated medieval village with several dwellings, barns, a watermill and an old wooden stave church built in the authentic style, the entire building wood-tooled with no nails, and some folks wandering around in traditional costumes. The best part is it’s all a hands-on experience so you can go inside the buildings. Watch your head, the doorways are low, the interiors are dark and a bit gloomy and it adds up to an eye-opening glimpse into the simple peasant lifestyle of several centuries ago. It also gave me a whole new appreciation for living in the 21st century, you know, running water, indoor plumbing, electricity, little things like that. I think places such as this would quickly disabuse anyone’s misguided romantic notions of dwelling in the past, especially if you had to actually live here for a while.

Medieval village

(Medieval village)

The church

(The church)

Relaxing with some friends in the park in Uzhgorod

(Relaxing with some friends in the park in Uzhgorod)

A couple of days later we took another trip to the nearby town of Mukachevo and spent a good portion of the day exploring a different castle.

Palanok Castle in Mukachevo

(Palanok Castle in Mukachevo)

Outside the walls of Palanok Castle

(Outside the walls of Palanok Castle)

Palanok Castle, built in the 14th century, dominates the town from its perch on a hill about forty meters (120 feet) above the surrounding flat terrain. Once inside, this affords an all encompassing view from the castle walls of Mukachevo, the plains to the north and the hills to the south. It shows to full effect the value of holding the high ground in ancient warfare, the futility of trying to storm such an edifice, and why a siege would be the only effective tool against it.

Inside Palanok Castle

(Inside Palanok Castle)

Town of Mukachevo beyond

(Town of Mukachevo beyond)

As usual in the long and bloody history of Ukraine, this particular castle and the territory around it was fought over and held by a variety of kings and princes and Grand Hoozits throughout the centuries – Kievan Rus, Hungarians, Ruthenians, Austrians, etc. – and there are several rooms inside dedicated to the details with corresponding drawings and maps and other paraphenalia of the times. Those who revel in such things will visit and enjoy. Yes, I’m talking about myself here – I was the weird kid in school who actually liked history class and all the attendant dates and names and maps and battles. Others can simply drink in the views and stroll the grounds.

Interior courtyard of Palanok Castle

(Interior courtyard of Palanok Castle)

Stairway to the tower

(Stairway to the tower)

These walls are not tumbling down anytime soon

(These walls are not tumbling down anytime soon)

There’s honestly not much else to recommend in the town of Mukachevo itself. It’s a nice enough place with the usual Orthodox churches and statues but nothing else of significance. My advice is visit Palanok Castle and move on.

The town of Berehove

(The town of Berehove)

And move on we did. The town of Berehove is practically right on the Hungarian border, and for many centuries was within the borders of Hungary. Even today, the city boasts a higher percentage of folks whose ethnic background is Hungarian rather than Ukrainian. For those who can’t read Russian or Ukrainian, like me, when you get to Berehove you can add signs written in Hungarian to the mix of things you don’t understand. It’s not often you get the chance to be confused in three languages at once.

Old joke: What do you call a person who speaks many languages? Multilingual. What do you call someone who speaks two languages? Bilingual. What do you call someone who speaks one language? An American.

Berehove

(Berehove)

The one thing I really remember about Berehove is going for a swim in the largest outdoor (or indoor, for that matter) swimming pool I’ve ever seen. This thing is beyond Olympic sized, it’s huge, it’s enormous, it’s Brobdingnagian. I’ve gone swimming in lakes that were smaller. You could stage hydroplane races in this pool. Fishing trawlers dock at one side, swimmers enter the water from the other side. Did I mention that it’s really big?

The other interesting thing besides its size was coming out of the changing room and realizing that people were staring at me. Not in a hostile or even obvious way. It was more of a curious, sidelong glance, lack of understanding way. Did I have a sign on my head reading “American Idiot”? Did I forget to zip? Nope. No zipper to forget. Just my standard mid-thigh length swimming trunks. And that was the issue.

Irina finally enlightened me and once she pointed it out, it was obvious. Every other male in the place, man and boy alike, was wearing speedos. The women wore a variety of styles and colors, one-piece, two-piece, no different than you would see at any American beach or swimming pool. But for the men, it didn’t matter if they were a skinny 90 pound teenager with beanpole legs and no butt, or a fat slob with a gut hanging down to his knees, they all had on skimpy, crotch-grabbing, butt-pinching speedos. This works fine if you’re Brad Pitt maybe, with your six-pack abs and buns of steel. Not so lovely on the other 99 percent of the population. But for them it’s normal and I was the oddball in my baggy shorts. Now in many ways I subscribe to the “when in Rome, do as the Romans do” method of traveling, but in this case, I’ll stick with my American style, thanks.

Coming Soon: Western Ukraine Part 3: Kamianets-Podilskyi and Medzhybizh

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