Getting back to a Central European scene again

Trip Start Apr 08, 2007
Trip End Oct 01, 2007

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Flag of Ukraine  ,
Sunday, August 19, 2007

All the confusion of logistics taken care of, I've traveled onward from throbbing Kyiv to the western regions of Ukraine. Really, if you glance at a map, it looks like I'm backtracking. After moving gradually east from Iaşi via Moldova to Odesa, I was finally making northward progress by continuing to Kyiv. Now I'm back on the Romanian border once again, just a couple hours north from Suceava! But my current destination is one I've long wanted to see, and it makes the perfect place to pause for a few days before my final Ukrainian stop in Lviv.

Chernivtsi is a city that's long been tossed around by great powers. Originally near the northwestern edge of the medieval principality of Moldavia, it later was absorbed by Polish-Lithuanian expansion. The Austrians marched in around 1775, and they promptly built up the city (then renamed "Czernowitz") as the capital of their Bukovina region. A resurgent, newly unified Romania took over in 1918 as they brought the territory back into the Moldavian fold, then renaming it once again as "Cernăuţi." Then finally it became the subject of Stalin's typical gerrymandering, when it was sliced off the top of Romania as part of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact. Ever since then, it's been attached to Ukraine, with the demographic adjustments to keep it so.

Well, the Germans, Jews, Armenians and even most of the Romanians have gone, but Chernivtsi remains a beautiful place. After arriving this morning and going through the usual taxi negotiations (I came out on top, for reference), I was amazed to see how thoroughly intact the old city still is. Ever more surprising is the fact that most of it has been painted up and nicely restored, which is far from what I'd expect from what is basically a provincial city in Ukraine's poorer west. Fifty years as part of the Soviet Union essentially acted as a cocoon, and the lack of any major conflicts in the area meant that pretty much everything was preserved just as it was before World War II struck. Romanian nationalists might disagree, but it's a good thing that it was snapped up by the USSR, because certainly Ceauşescu wouldn't have been so kind to its urban landscape. Its particularly interesting to consider that despite the city constituting one of the best-retained, large Austro-Hungarian town centers in Eastern Europe, very few people seem to recognize it. Most Ukraine-bound tourism makes a beeline for Lviv or Kyiv (or Odesa), and all Chernivtsi gets is a dubious mention by Lonely Planet for having "lopsided charm."

I was supposed to be staying in a modern flat just off the town center, arranged by the hostel manager in Kyiv. The problem was, he never really got a hold of his mother before I took off, and upon my arrival at the residential block, no one was home. So that left me with a rather annoying entrance to the city - having to lug my heavy pack back into town for about twenty-five minutes' walk so I could secure a pad at the Hotel Kyiv. The positives, on the other hand, were that I've ended up staying at a suitably cozy hotel smack in the town center, with a total bill little different than what I was set to pay at the homestay. Net result: better off.

The weather today hasn't been the most optimum for sightseeing and (especially) picture-taking, but it hasn't exactly been rainy and miserable either. I made it a point to head for the city's university as my first stop of the day, as it's far and away Chernivtsi's most famous site. Built originally for the metropolitan Orthodox clergy in the late 19th-century by Czech architect Josef Hlavka, it's a wildly eclectic mix of architectural influences done in red brick. The Soviets gave it its current function after they moved into town, and it remains a center of learning today. That fact also means they're kind of picky about who they let in. The entrance is manned by a grumpy old guard who does his best to deter any curious tourists. The only way around it is to attach yourself to a guided tour group, whose leader apparently will have the proper credentials to get people into the courtyard.

I was told by an English couple to wait around for said tour group to appear, then a few minutes later got to talking with a German couple that were also perplexed by the stern refusal of admittance. Within a short time, an older Ukrainian-Canadian had walked up with her niece and a guide, so once we'd passed a few moments in idle banter, we got in through the gate. As much as I tend to shun tours, having a guide helped explain the background of the place better, and we were able to have a closer look at sections of the university that are otherwise off-limits to visitors. To boot, the company was interesting and talkative, so it made for a more lively visit than I had originally anticipated upon walking out.

Apart from the university, most of my day out consisted of wandering the town, visiting its many churches and taking in the beautiful architecture (as well as an ultra-cheap local lunch - 8uah!). The main event of interest later was my chance meeting of a couple friendly, university-age girls on Teatralna ploshcha (Theater Square) who then took me to the town hall for a special trip up to the top of the bell tower. They never had the opportunity to do it themselves, so it was a unique experience for all. I sincerely doubt many foreign visitors to Chernivtsi are allowed up to the top of city hall just because they want a bird's eye view. They also made noises about accompanying me out to nearby Khotyn and Kamyanets-Podilsky tomorrow, but it ended up not working out after all. Even so, it was nice to chat for a while with some of the locals.

For dinner I stopped into a rustic, Ruthenian-style restaurant by the name of Koleso, where I managed to run into Martin and Juliana - the same two Germans that were on my tour of the university buildings! So for a change my restaurant meal was accompanied by conversation, with some lovely local food along with it. It also turns out that the two of them are off to Kamyanets-Podilsky for the day tomorrow as well, so I may have a little companionship for the day's activities then also. Whether the conditions will hold up is another matter - it's threatening rain at the moment - but I guess that just means the old umbrella will get a little more use.
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