With another public holiday weekend, I had the chance to explore some areas of Western Ukraine, which I hadn’t managed to see on my trip the previous month. I was especially keen to see Chernivtsi, another city in an area where there are so many cultural influences. I’d been in 1993, using a Baedeker guide from the 1930s, but this time I had more up to date information. Chernivtsi was an important city in the Habsburg Monarchy, and a university town from 1875.
It was known then as Czernowicz. Then in the inter-war period it was Romanian Cernauti. It was seized in June 1940 by the Soviet Union under the Molotov-Ribbentropp Pact, briefly returning to Romanian rule from 1941 to 1944 after Romania joined the German invasion of the Soviet Union. The city was re-annexed by the Soviet Union at the end of World War Two. Then in 1991, it became part of independent Ukraine.
Once again, I made the long train journey from Bucharest, leaving at 6 a.m. As it was June, it was a little lighter than on my previous trip. Again the train was made up of sleeping cars even though my journey was during daytime. (It runs from Sofia to Moscow). The attendant brought me a little parcel in a sealed bag with sheets, a pillow case and a towel just after the train had left Bucharest. This time around I had the 4 berth compartment to myself all the way. In spite of being daytime, the sleeping car was actually rather nice when tiredness from the early start and generally accumulated stress got the better of me around 11. So I snoozed until Suceava, which we reached just after one. The twenty minute stop gave the chance to buy beer and some more food, as my stomach was churning, having had breakfast at 4 a.m.
The coaches were standard Soviet, and probably had been running around since well before the fall of communism. The empty magazine rack took me right back to my journey from West Berlin to Cologne in 1988. I’d been to Berlin after spending the summer semester at Giessen University in Germany as part of my UK university degree and came back on the through train which ran from Moscow to West Germany and even had coaches for Ostend. So I’d explored the Soviet carriages in the middle of the night, with no sleeper attendant in sight, and found the magazine racks filled with little booklets of Gorbachev speeches.
It’s only 90km from Suceava to Chernivtsi, but the train takes nearly five hours because of the Romanian and Ukrainian border controls, as well as the wheel changing operation. So it was only in the early evening just after 6.30 p.m. that the train finally rolled into Chernivtsi station. The station building itself looked imposing in the evening sunlight, and I guessed it probably dated from Habsburg times.
Once I’d climbed out of the train and wished the sleeping car attendant dosvidana (they are Russians and go all the way from Moscow to Sofia and back again), the first challenge was trying to find somewhere to change money. The perennial problem with Ukraine is that it is almost impossible either to buy or sell the currency outside the country. So I had no Ukrainian money. There was no exchange office at the station, perhaps not surprisingly as the daily train to and from Bucharest is the only international service. So I avoided the taxi touts and started to walk into town. The station is quite a lot lower than the rest of Chernivtsi, so I began to drag my case uphill. I passed two exchange offices which were closed and then turned into Khmelnytskoyo street, aiming to pass the Filarmoniya and find out if there were any concerts scheduled.
Khmelnytskoyo street was a shock. Although the architecture was pleasantly pre-communist, the road surface was disastrous. There were barely any cobbles left, and I had to struggle across potholes, opting to lift my case rather than risk wrecking the wheels. I had never seen a city centre street so poorly maintained, except perhaps the old centre of Bucharest in the early 2000s before it was renovated. A group of 4 or 5 wild dogs yapped aggressively near the junction. I kept well clear, but one local decided the best way to deal with them was to chuck as stone in their direction, which naturally set them off barking even more. The whole scene gave an impression of a once grand city, fallen on hard times.
I soon reached Filarmoniya Square, and things took a turn for the better. The square was well kept and well signed, with Habsburg era architecture enhanced by the evening sunlight, and its little concert hall at one end. I headed on towards the main central square and finally found a place to change money. In spite of the reasonable signing, the street layout is confusing and even though I had two maps, I found myself looking for the way. But a friendly young lady who spoke English saw that I was looking lost and didn’t just point me in the right direction, but walked me all the way to the central square, while telling me that she had been on the maidan.
Chernivsti’s central square has a large town hall at one end, and a statue of the Ukrainian poet Shevchenko at the other. A small cultural centre testifies to Chernivtsi’s Romanian community, now much depleted due to deportations under Stalin. My hotel, the small Allurein, was wonderfully located at the northern end of the square in a renovated building. One of the receptionists, an immaculately made-up young lady with jet black hair, spoke some English, and explained how to get to the restaurant. I soon settled into the room, which, like the rest of the place, had rather a garish colour scheme, but was comfortable. The electrical system was curious, with some dials by the bed which looked like a radio, but which actually worked all the lights and the TV.
The hotel had a vibrant restaurant, full of young people, with tables outside. What a joy, the menu was in English, which meant I didn’t have to struggle with a phrase book. Maria, the friendly waitress spoke English too, and helped me choose what to eat. She had spent time in Boston, working in MacDonald’s and wanted to go back. She wasn’t optimistic about a future in Ukraine, in spite of the recent developments.
Chernivtsi University, the Art Gallery and the churches
Breakfast the next morning in the restaurant was a slow affair, with waiter service rather than a buffet, and I was worried about missing my appointment for a tour of the University. But the food eventually came, and the “Ukrainian breakfast” of meat, potatoes and omelette was filling and tasty. I polished it off quickly, dashed back up to the room, and set off towards the University. The friendly young lady who I had met the previous evening was sitting in an outdoor café with some friends. She recognised me, and pointed me in the right direction. The University is a few minutes walk from the centre of town, up a slight hill.
Chernivtsi University is the most well known building in the city. It is an elaborate and ornate structure built of red bricks. It was originally built both as a university and also as the official residence of the Orthodox Church leaders of Bukovina and Dalmatia, with a seminary attached. Students and former students run tours, and I’d called ahead to book one. My guide, Tara, showed me first into the main courtyard which leads up to the university entrance. She explained the tradition that students should not walk on the gravel in the centre except at the start of the year and when they graduate. To take a short cut across it at other times is to invite bad luck.
Chernivtsi University is a UNESCO heritage site, as Tara explained. The architect, Josef Hlavka, was one of three who had designed the Vienna Opera House. It is named after the Bukovina writer Yuri Fedkovych. The inside contains some impressive rooms, and corridors. In one room, a mirror hangs which was a gift from the Habsburg Emperor, Franz Joseph II when the University opened. It’s said that if women look into it they will find a husband and that if men look into it, their sins will be forgiven. So I took a good look. Tara explained that there were only seven UNESCO heritage sites in Ukraine, one of which is in Crimea. This is a very low number, given the amount of culture the country has to offer, and an indictment of the bad government it has suffered since independence. Tara herself had been on the maidan demonstrations in Kiev.
After visiting the University building, we went back outside and into the Orthodox church. Tara explained how priests undergo their training. The seminary is inevitably an almost exclusively male preserve, with the exception of a limited number of women, destined to become nuns. Tara was surprised when I explained that the Anglican Church has women priests and is debating allowing women bishops.
The church marked the end of my tour, and the lady in the administration office where I paid was one of the few Romanian speakers I encountered in Chernivtsi. She explained to me how to get to Kalynivsky Market, the next place I planned to visit. I took a marshrutka (minibus) from just outside the University. Kalynivsky Market is huge, and rather like Harrod’s has a reputation for selling everything. It’s also said to attract people from all over the world, including places as far afield as China.
But this was hardly Harrod’s. Stall after stall sold mainly clothes and shoes, with a few selling washing machines and electrical goods. Its passages are a rabbit warren, like in a souk in the Arab world, and I soon got lost. The most useful thing to do there from my point of view was to change money at a better rate than in the centre. But that done, there was no reason to linger and eventually I managed to find my way back to the main road and the marshrutka stop to head back into town.
My next stop was at the Chernivtsi Regional Art Museum on the main square. This has an interesting collection, beginning with religious paintings and then moving on to the secular. My favourite was Love and Faithfulness, by Justyn Pigulyak (1845-1919). It was painted in the early twentieth century and shows two women, a blonde and a brunette. The brunette is standing up straight, looking happy and arranging her hair. The blonde is kneeling down, looking dejected. She looks as though she wants to be consoled by the brunette, whose thoughts, however, are elsewhere. The question is which is love and which is faithfulness? The painter leaves it up to the viewer to decide. Probably it is the dejected blonde who is faithfulness and the happy brunette is love. But it could easily be the other way around. The dejected blonde might be unhappily in love, while the brunette could be confidently in a faithful relationship. It’s a very interesting picture, and each viewer will probably have a different opinion.
The Art Museum houses several temporary exhibitions, and during my visit there was one by a contemporary artist called Ivan Snigur. This included a haunting painting Ukrainian Famine 1933. It did not contain horrific scenes of starvation. Instead, it depicted a beautiful young woman, in traditional costume, sitting on the ground alone, looking towards a series of gravestones, set against a sunset. It was all the more powerful for its understatement.
From the Art Museum, I then went on to visit some of the city’s churches, which reflect its diverse culture. First I saw the distinctive Polish Cathedral of the Holy Spirit, built in 1844, with its pink walls. From there I went on to the Armenian Catholic church, which was designed by Josef Hlavka, the University’s architect. Tara, my guide at the University, had mentioned this church, and that it is well known for its organ. I had not realised that there were Armenian Catholics, as I had assumed they were Orthodox. In the Orthodox Church, no musical instruments are used- only the human voice.
From the Armenian Church, I visited the two St Nicholas churches. First I saw the modern one, which is known as the “drunken church” because of an optical illusion which makes its towers look as though they are askew. Aside from the optical illusion, the church is modelled on Curtea de Arges in Romania, the burial place of the royal family. It was built in the 1930s, during the time of Romanian rule. I then visited the old St Nicholas Church, a wooden structure dating from 1607, and one of Ukraine’s oldest wooden churches. The one I had seen the previous month in Kolomiya also dates from the seventeenth century. This time I was lucky enough to get inside, as vespers were due to take place within the hour. Inside there are several paintings, including a fine Last Supper.
I dropped back to the hotel, and walked to Filarmoniya Square, hoping to attend a concert, as I’d seen a poster earlier on the day I’d arrived. It was a beautiful sunlit evening, but the front door and the ticket office were firmly locked. Later I found out that the concert was in the Organ Hall- a different venue. These are the problems you encounter when trying to decipher posters in a language you don’t speak which uses a different alphabet. But I did discover another Orthodox church, with Central European orange walls, where a service was taking place. The floor was strewn with leaves and branches, which I’d also seen earlier in the modern St Nicholas church. This seems to be a custom in Ukrainian Orthodoxy, and I’ve yet to comprehend the significance.
A half hour chill at the hotel and a shower and I was ready for dinner. I’d chosen to eat at the Reflection restaurant, in the north of the town, and walked up the square, past the town hall and then discovered a little statue on a corner, dedicated to the dead of World War One who fought for Austria-Hungary, with inscriptions in Ukrainian and Romanian. The statue was re-erected after Ukraine became independent- the original had been removed by the Soviets. The grand old Hotel Kiev looked interesting as a future accommodation option and had a tour bus parked outside.
The Reflection restaurant had a good write up in the Lonely Planet guide and the food was good, albeit with slow service. I walked back to the hotel, through the Central Square after dark, full of young people enjoying the fine summer evening.