What Travel Writers Say

The Ukraine: Nation of Contradictions

© By Nick Brune

  My wife and I cruised the Black Sea and Dnieper River aboard the MS Princess; the sights were breathtaking and the experience unforgettable. We landed in Bucharest, Romania named after its founder, a shepherd named 'Bucur' meaning 'joyful.' Bucharest has developed into a beautiful city, earning its nickname, "the Paris of the East." With its wide tree-lined boulevards, Orthodox churches, numerous parks, huge squares, impressive galleries and museums, and a rich architectural heritage of over 500 historical buildings, it impresses the most seasoned traveler - the highlight, among many, the Palace of Parliament, the second-largest building in the world after the Pentagon. Built by the reviled Present, Nikolai Ceausecu, at a cost of $10 billion, it is a testament to ostentation. At the conclusion of a two-hour tour which took in 200-metre hallways, huge twenty-metre ceiled rooms with massive chandeliers, we were told that we had seen only seven percent of the structure.
     From Bucharest, we journeyed to Tulcea on the coast, in the heart of the Danube Delta, where we boarded our cruise ship. Our first port-of-call on the Black Sea was the impressive and multicultural city, Odessa. Originally founded by Empress Catherine II in 1794 to serve as a naval fortress and to bolster the southern border, Odessa has grown into Ukraine's fourth-largest city with a population of over one million people. Boasting a marvelous view of the harbour from the top of the Potemkin Steps, Odessa is one of Ukraine's most beloved cities. Impressive buildings with ornate facades line major squares and make wonderful backdrops for the many wedding photo-ops we witnessed.
     The Ukraine is a fascinating nation of contradictions that should appeal to far more travelers. The second largest country in Europe but only the forty-fourth largest in the world is home to 46 million people, more than three-quarters of whom are ethnic Ukrainians. It combines the old and the new, the rich and the poor, the religious and the secular, and infinite variations in climate and topography. Given the high number of Ukrainian-Canadians, it should be well know to the people of Canada. Sadly, it is not. Even something as simple as changing Canadian dollars into the local currency, the hryvnia, proved to be a daunting task. Nevertheless, given the spectacular beauty of the countryside, the Crimea, the magnificence of the multitude of the Eastern Orthodox onion domes, and the friendliness of the people, it should become a favoured travel destination.
     Also on the Black Sea, we toured both Sevastopol and Yalta. The former is a major naval fortress and is Ukraine's largest commercial and fishing port. With over 1,800 monuments and memorials, the city is a veritable outdoor museum. It is also home to a very realistic and arresting diorama depicting a 19th century Crimean War battle. Yalta is nestled between rugged forested mountains and the dachas (summer homes) that hug the Black Sea coast. It was the summer home for many Russian and Soviet elite, including leaders as diverse as Josef Stalin and Mikhail Gorbachev. The magnificent palace at Livadia was the summer residence of Tsar Nicholas II and his family, the last of the Romanovs. As well, it was the site of the signing of the famous Yalta Treaty between Franklin Roosevelt of the United States, Winston Churchill of Great Britain, and Josef Stalin of the Soviet Union, which many historians regard as the beginning of the Cold War. A visit to the Crimea would not be complete without a trip to Bakhchisarai. Dating back to the 16th century and meaning "Garden Palace," this Moorish-influenced grand palace with its slender minarets, is today known as the inspiration for the poignant poem by Alexander Puskin, "The Fountain of Bakhchisarai."
     We left the Black Sea and journeyed up the Dnieper River, the largest river in Ukraine and the third largest in Europe. Several absolutely massive locks allow the Dnieper to be navigated by both commercial and passenger ships. Dams along the river are also an important source of Ukrainian hydroelectric power. Our first stop cruising up the Dnieper was the town of Kherson where we were treated to an authentic Ukrainian meal as well as having the opportunity to purchase many local crafts, such as hats, blouses, paintings, and Matsurka dolls. We then traveled to Zaporizha, home of the mighty Cossacks. We were entertained and brought to our feet by a rousing and fearless demonstration of highly skilled horsemanship.
     Our final destination, the wonderfully rich city of Kiev, was a fitting way to end a wonderful trip. The heartland of Ukrainian culture and home to the 2004 Orange Revolution, Kiev is a modern, yet ancient, city of over two million. We viewed the magnificent skyline of the statue of Mother Ukraine as well as the awe-inspiring copper-plated cupolas of the Orthodox churches coming into the harbour. Our tour of the city began on a somber note as we toured Babi Yar, a ravine where approximately 200,000 Jews were massacred by the Nazis in September 1941. The blue-and-gold onion dome of St. Michael and that of St. Sophia visible down a wide boulevard are awe-inspiring in their grandeur. The latter, a World Heritage Site, is home to the world-famous Caves Monastery, a vast series of tunnels and caves overlooking the Dnieper River valley. The final visit on our itinerary was to Pirogovo, an authentic open-air Museum of Ukrainian Folk Architecture, Rural Life, and Folk Art.
     While Ukraine's popularity as a tourist destination is slowly rising, putting it currently in fourteenth place, the vast majority of the over 20 million annual visitors come from Eastern and Western Europe. Relatively few come from North America. That really should change given the great beauty and variety that Ukraine has to offer. This land of rich variety and seeming contradiction, this blend of the ancient and the modern, the religious and the secular, offers wondrous sights, more than enough to satisfy the most discriminating and demanding traveler. Now with the days of the world-record hyper-inflation of 1993 relegated to the past and with the substitution of the former vast political corruption with stability, Ukraine can look forward to becoming a favoured travel destination for North Americans, not just Europeans.

Nick Brune is an historian who has written for a wide group of organizations, including C.B.C. News in Review, The Dominion Institute (The Memory Project, Passages to Canada, etc.), the Hong Kong Commemorative Veterans Association (The Forgotten Heroes), and Elections Canada (The Democracy Project). He has co-authored more than half a dozen history textbooks for elementary and high schools.

Photo Credits
Nick Brune

If you go
This Destination
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Bucharest Travel Guide: www.world66.com/europe/romania/bucharest
Tourism Ukraine: www.ukraine.org/tourism.html
Wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Black_Sea

What's happening, money, distance, time?
Media Guide: http://www.abyznewslinks.com/
Currency conversion: http://www.xe.com/ucc/
Distance calculator: http://www.indo.com/distance/
Time zone converter: http://www.timezoneconverter.com/

Transportation, visas, health, maps and temperature
Airlines (Wikipedia): http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_airlines
Embassies/Consulates (Embassy World): http://www.embassyworld.com/
Health precautions (WHO): http://www.who.int/ith/en/
Google interactive map: http://maps.google.com/
Temperature (Temperature World): http://www.temperatureworld.com/


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