I paused to catch my breath on the exhausting rocky trail that climbs the highest peak in Ukraine. Wouldn’t it be hilarious, I joked to my family, to haul a guitar up the mountain and belt out a few Ukrainian folk songs at the top?
Surely one would be that foolhardy. The path, winding past a memorial to a hiker whose heart gave out while making this very trek, poses enough challenges without taking on such a frivolous burden.
What I hadn’t yet grasped, however, is that Mount Hoverla, in the heart of the eastern Carpathian Mountains, beckons as more than a beautiful day hike. It soars as a symbol of national pride, a reflection of the perseverance and distinct cultural identity of the Ukrainian people.
So when I finally got to the top, a windswept flat spot half the size of a football field, what I found was a celebration, an impromptu ethnic party at 6,700 feet.
Couples had written inspirational snippets on small Ukrainian flags, adding them to a pole adorned with hundreds of others. Members of a youth group cheered as they gathered for a photo. And, sure enough, a guy in a Ukrainian soccer jersey, guitar strapped on, sang those ancient songs.
The moment captured much of what I’d already discovered during my stay in western Ukraine, far from the turmoil in the east. The country, with all its history and tenacity, abounds with joy, charm and lovely views. The surrounding mountain peaks, worn down by the slow battering of geologic forces, stand majestically like the often-besieged Ukrainian people themselves.
A new threat emanates, once again from the east. Russia, under the direction of President Vladimir Putin, seized the Ukrainian territory of Crimea in 2014 and continues to foment unrest in eastern Ukraine.
Thankfully, however, there is no military fighting or immediate threat from Putin in the Carpathians. Ukraine is a large country. The turmoil, as troubling as it is for the entire nation, is about 700 miles from this part of the Carpathian region.
The only hint of the simmering conflict my family encountered was the car rental agent in Lviv making us promise not to drive to the eastern city of Donetsk, the scene of much fighting in the past few years.
A popular family destination
Summer life in the mountains, then, hums along in peace. As exotic as the notion of vacationing in the Carpathians may sound to many Americans, this is not a remote region. In fact, it’s a popular getaway for families from all over Ukraine and other eastern European countries.
At one point, I mused aloud that the Carpathians are the “Wisconsin Dells of Ukraine” (minus the water parks). My spouse, a Minnesota native of Ukrainian descent, didn’t go for this comparison. More apt frames of reference, perhaps, are the Catskills in upstate New York, the Appalachians or the hills and valleys of Vermont.
Encircling the highest peaks in this region are surprisingly charming villages and small towns. Must-stop scenic overlooks abound. Ascend a rise and gasp at the beauty as another village spreads out in the valley below. Haystacks dot the greenery along a winding river. A sturdy old woman, wearing an embroidered blouse and faded skirt, leads a milk cow from one pasture to another. You can’t help but notice the amazing lack of pavement.
Each town offers up a gorgeous church or two and a series of roadside chapels, adorable little structures often sided with ornate metal panels that reflect the bright sunshine. Many of these places of worship appear relatively new or recently renovated, reflecting a burst of religious and cultural freedom following the collapse of the Soviet Union.
Driving is an adventure. South of the gateway city of Ivano-Frankovsk, the roads turn into narrow two-lane asphalt affairs, often without lane markers or dividing lines. Driving a little Volkswagen hatchback on these winding highways, needing to pass micro-buses and the occasional horse-drawn cart as oncoming truck bears down, isn’t for the faint of heart.
This is a land of day-trip serendipity, where your ultimate destination on any given adventure hardly matters. One day we set out for a mom-and-pop pottery shop in Kosiv, a few towns from our rented cabin. We pulled over so frequently along the way to marvel at the scenery that the tweens in the back seat started mocking their parents for incessant exclamations about everything being so “charming.”
At one point, we veered off the main road toward the village of Sheshory to see what the guidebook described as a few waterfalls and wading pools. What we found was a lively riverfront festival with food, music and craft vendors. A short ways away, along a bend in the Pistynka River, hundreds of people lounged along the rocky shores. Kids jumped from short cliffs into the deeper water while adults hung out in bubbling, hot-tub-like rapids.
Dining brings pleasant surprises, as well. Roadside restaurants offer hearty local takes on Ukrainian staples — borscht, stuffed cabbage rolls, buckwheat groats and grilled meat kebabs called shashlik. Farm-to-table is not a trend here, it’s a matter-of-fact way of life.
While we dined on a restaurant patio one afternoon, a young boy walked up the road bearing a satchel of freshly picked mushrooms, asking if we were the couple who had commissioned his foraging. A few minutes later, two fishermen pulled up in an old Lada sedan and, after some raised-voice negotiations in the kitchen, cut a deal with the restaurant manager for a bag of trout they’d just caught. So that’s where this delectable grilled fish I’m eating comes from.
Many lodging options
Small marts along the road prove endlessly fascinating. Next to the counter there’s a woven basket full of unwrapped dried fish, eyes and all. Here’s a bucket of butter sold by the scoop. Thirsty? Grab a two-liter plastic bottle of beer. In a little cluster of vendors at the trailhead to Mount Hoverla, the most refreshing offering was ice-cold kvass, a fizzy nonalcoholic drink made from fermented rye and served from a keg.
Families have plenty of choices for accommodations. Most every village offers a small resort or two and several wooden villas. The larger towns feature old Soviet-era resorts with sprawling grounds. Decades ago, the proletariat from Moscow and other big cities enjoyed respites at these compounds on state-mandated vacations.
My family chose a stand-alone cabin outside the crossroads town of Tatariv, which more than a century ago became a popular fresh-air getaway for urban Europeans. Today it serves as a home base for day hikers, day-trippers and an increasing number of backpackers. From our log cabin, we ventured into the mountains without having to get into the car and meandered down a gravel road to the Prut River to cool off. We picked up fresh vegetables from a nearby farm stand and restocked our supply of pivo (beer) at a little grocery store.
A few miles from Tatariv, the modern resort town of Bukovel offers choices for those who prefer less rustic digs. This is the “Vail of Ukraine,” where winter vacationers find great skiing at more affordable rates than more well-known European locales. Western-style resorts cater year-round to hikers, skiers and those who want to combine their nature experiences with a bit of pampering.
Whether a traveler picks an upscale villa or opts for backcountry camping, this section of the Carpathian Mountains provides a fascinating snapshot of Ukraine — representative of the enduring culture of the Ukrainian people and yet distinct in its regional identity and geography.
Bob Ingrassia is a marketing and communications professional from St. Paul.