If you like your trains to arrive on time, your menu in English and an itinerary nailed down months in advance, travelling in the Ukrainian countryside is not for you; it is a whirlwind of a ride that requires an appetite for adventure and the ability to embrace the unexpected.
The Euro Cup initially lured us to Ukraine but immediately upon arriving in the Carpathian Mountains, the crowds and problems linked to the soccer tournament fade into the background. Our drive takes us past fields of red poppies, through picturesque towns blighted by a few decrepit Soviet-era buildings, a countryside dotted with worn-down but colourful traditional homes featuring trademark tin roofs and ancient dark wooden churches nestled next to bell towers.
The rural roads in Western Ukraine are as breathtaking as the scenery, although for different reasons. As we travel farther from the city and deeper into the foothills of the Carpathians, the potholes get bigger and more frequent. We swerve to avoid hitting a cow, then a flock of geese, and narrowly miss a kerchiefed Baba who darted out in front of the car dragging a piece of furniture.
Our home for the next week, the village of Vorokhta, has long been a tourist destination. More recently the village, which lies 17 kilometres from the burgeoning Bukovel ski resort, has emerged as a winter hotspot. The former Soviet Olympic biathlon and ski jumping teams trained in Vorokhta, and even now in the summer months, young ski jumpers launch themselves over a rickety ramp that would give Canadian athletic officials heart attacks.
We find a place that surprises then delights. Travellers who can let go of stereotypes will be enchanted by the natural beauty of the forests, rivers and mountains, the delicious and cheap local food, the change in pace from modern Western society, as well as the hospitality and culture of the Hutsuls, the mountain people who have lived here for generations.
Our host and guide here is Ruslana Wrzesnewskyj, a Canadian of Ukrainian heritage who calls Vorokhta home for half the year. Her Hatky Ruslany (hatkyruslany.com.ua) – translation: Ruslana’s cottages – are a magnet for skiers and snowboarders in the winter and hikers, bikers and lovers-of-the-outdoors in the summer.
“The first time I walked through these mountains, I fell in love,” says Wrzesnewskyj, who started coming here to visit family in the early 1990s. “My parents used to tell me stories of the beauty of these mountains and I wanted to show that to people, to create something special.”
She bought the land and hired a local man to build the log cabins in a fusion of Canadian and Ukrainian styles. A heated summer pool, sauna and accompanying restaurant went up in subsequent years.
Each of the seven guest cabins, as well as the restaurant and lounge, are decorated with Hutsul artifacts she collected or salvaged from the surrounding area. At one time, such items as carved wooden crosses were being used for firewood and the brightly-stitched shirts were torn for rags. “I would go into these villages, into homes that had been abandoned years earlier by people and find treasures like these embroidered shirts rotting away,” Wrzesnewskyj says.
Washed and repaired, they are now on display in the cottages and dining room at the Hatky. Similarly, the tables in the restaurant were built from restored blanket boxes, each telling a unique story through the engraved patterns. “At the time these types of things were not being treasured by the local people. Now, people realize they need to preserve their history. This is one of the impacts of the Orange Revolution – it taught them to be proud of their past.”
Our last night in Vorokhta was spent at a Hutsul feast. The cooks at Donechky treated us with one delicious serving after the next: cheese platters, pickled herring, a lovely pumpkin puree and delicately seasoned coleslaw salad of fresh cabbage, carrots and onions. The steak and potatoes were as delicious as the dessert, but the real star of the night was the live music, which was equal parts uplifting and haunting. In short, amazing.
The band behind this music are the Petrovychi, three brothers and one sister, along with her husband, who are all under the age of 30. Their style is a mix of folk, jazz, and drum and base, with clear roots in their local Hutsul culture.
“What we try to do is put our own bent on these national songs, we make them our own,” says Petro, who plays the tsymbaly, a traditional lap-held stringed instrument.
His sister Iryna says that across the country, traditional sounds like theirs are experiencing a resurgence. “Our parents taught us this music and now we are making a different modern kind of sound with it. So this music is living, not dying.”
However you choose to describe it, the magic of this music is infectious and we spend our last night celebrating – laughing, eating, drinking and dancing under the Carpathian stars.