Beautiful Cities + Friendly People = Great Ukraine

Trip Start Dec 12, 2010
Trip End Dec 16, 2012

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Flag of Ukraine  , Crimean Peninsula,
Monday, March 18, 2013

Once a sheltered country as part of the USSR, now the second biggest country in Europe, Ukraine has it all. We were always intrigued, but the need for a visa did keep us away from one of Eastern Europe's best kept secrets. But as we took the time to obtain a Ukrainian visa, we would soon learn that this was no mistake. Travelling across this big country via overnight trains, we decided that Ukraine was so worth it. From West to East, we encountered beautiful cities and met amazingly friendly people. In all, we left this Eastern European gem, giving it the title of Amazing Ukraine.

Flying into the Ukrainian capital city of Kiev, we were excited. We had wanted to come here for such a long time, but it didn’t seem to fit into our itinerary until now. So as we walked the central streets of Kiev, with the flaky snow dusting our heads, we knew we were definitely happy to be here.

Through Couch Surfing we met a lovely local girl from Kiev named Christina. Through the snow, Christina showed us some of the sights in central Kiev. We were mesmirised by the beautiful buildings, like the quirky House of Chimeras which featured animal sculptures on the exterior. And of course we strolled around the iconic golden onion domed Orthodox churches. This place was beautiful, and the snow made it magical, and it was obvious straight away that Ukraine was more European than soviet now.

Christina had given us a great introduction to beautiful Kiev, but we left with one more day to explore more on our own. Ukraine seemed different to other former soviet countries we had visited, but it still had its history. And a big part of that history was the Great Patriotic War (WWII). We ventured to the Great Patriotic War Museum, which was really interesting, informative (had English translations) and created a clear picture of the extreme impact the war had on Ukraine and its people.

Being Orthodox, Ukraine has many orthodox churches throughout the country. But Kiev is home to Kvio-Pechers’ka Lavra, a cultural complex containing many orthodox churches and some mysterious caves. We ventured inside these caves to find lots of narrow alleys that are home to mummies of monks in glass cabinets. This place was interesting and it wasn’t just a tourist attraction. Actually is was a regular place of pilgrimage for the locals, who would stop at every mummy, pray, and kiss the cabinet as part of a religious ritual. These people were serious, especially the little Ukrainian 'Olgas’ who would push their way through the caves in true cranky old lady fashion.

Being the beginning of spring, Kiev was a white winter wonderland. After a couple of months in the snow, we were still so fascinated at the sight of perfect snowflakes that would drop softly on our clothes and in our hair. Like in Russia and Belarus, the snow was light and fluffy and perfect for making a snow man. That is exactly what Karen did in Kiev, just like a little kid. But Shaun had his own childish acts going on as he could resist throwing snow balls at Karen. We were having fun in this beautiful city, and so far, the amazing country of Ukraine.

Couch surfing had really opened the door for us to make some new friends in places we visited. In Kiev, Christina became a new friend. We had dinner with her and a couple of her friends. It was great to chat to some locals and just hang out and we could see that Ukrainians were really friendly. This was a great start to our time in Ukraine.

Next stop was Lviv. So many people had previously told us that Lviv was a beautiful small city that had a European feel. They weren’t wrong. As we explored this gorgeous city on a walking tour from our new couch surfing friend Yuliya, we had to agree. Even though it was raining, Lviv had a charm about it. The impressive European styled buildings, the quirky cafes with sculptures of dragons etc., the historical churches that were both impressive inside and out, and overall the nice feeling that the city brought us.

We thought we had left the snow in Kiev, but on our last day in Lviv, we were treated with a day of endless snow. We checked out some museums, strolled through the markets, enjoyed a Ukrainian lunch, then hit the brewery museum. At the brewery museum, we were informed about the history of beer and the history of Lviv’s own brewery. We were given quality Lvivske beer to taste, and finished the visit on a culinary high in the restaurant.

Lviv was a beautiful city, and once again, thanks to couch surfing, we met another friendly Ukrainian. As we walked about 4km in the snow with our back packs, we finally made it to the train station. We were loving this weather, this city, this country. After all beautiful cities + friendly people = amazing Ukraine.

As we headed east we found ourselves on the Black Sea at the port city of Odessa. We weren’t surprised to find another Ukrainian city of beautiful buildings, quirky cafes, and gorgeous churches. We explored the city by day, checking out the port, the famous Potyomkinski stairs, and were intrigued by the many sculptures and monuments around the city.

But in our own Ukrainian style, we met another local through couch surfing. And once again Ukraine delivered us a friendly local Irina, who was willing to show us her city at night. Irina talked about her city and country with pride, and had a real passion for travelling, as do we.

The next day, we explored Odessa from the underground. Irina organised some of her friends to take us on a tour of the catacombs, just outside Odessa. We spent three hours in these limestone mines which were interesting and at times, a little claustrophobic.

To finish our time in Odessa, Irina invited us to a poker night at her friend’s house. Once again it was great to meet some more friendly Ukrainians. But also, it was great to do something normal, and we were also able to indulge in some sushi, which we hadn’t had in ages. Irina really made our time in beautiful Odessa, a great time.

The curtain was soon closing on our time in amazing Ukraine. We were off to the area of Ukraine known as Crimea. We heard so much about Crimea; that it was beautiful, great for hiking, right on the Black Sea etc. We were excited! But when we arrived in Yalta and had a walk around, something was wrong. This is not like the rest of Ukraine that we had experienced. This was not a beautiful city, but a touristy place for Russians to holiday. It certainly wasn’t our cup of tea. Not to worry, this was Ukraine, and surely there was a beautiful city within reach.

So the next day, we boarded a bus to the nearby town of Sevastapol. And yes this was another beautiful Ukrainian city. A city of many war monuments, a city on the Black Sea, a city which was nice just to walk around! Sevastapol had saved Crimea for us. We enjoyed the beauty of Sevastapol, and the scenary of Crimea was we travelled back to Yalta.

On board a 17 hour bus ride to our next destination, we said goodbye to Ukraine. We had a great time exploring the beautiful cities, learning about its interesting history, and meeting the amazingly friendly people. We fell in love with Ukraine, and would recommend it to anyone that wants to see an up and coming European country, without the extortionate price tag. After all beautiful cities + friendly people = amazing Ukraine!!!!
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