Ukraine


Frequent travelers like to seek out places that are more off the beaten path and less expensive than their well-known counterparts, places they can claim as their own well before their fellow globetrotters have even heard of them.  Twenty years ago or so, these travelers discovered Prague, in the Czech Republic, and they fell in love with it for its grand architecture, its interesting history and its manageable prices.  Unfortunately (for them), word of their discovery got out.  Prague is now full of souvenir stands and tour groups, and those travelers have been left to try to discover the “next Prague.”  Well, intrepid travelers, look no further.  We’ve seen some amazing places during the last month, and I’m certain that one of these European destinations deserves the honor of being the next in line to inherit Prague’s tourism throne:
Wawel Castle and Cathedral
1.     Krakow, Poland – Considering it was the royal capital of Poland until 1596 and was left largely unscathed during World War II, Krakow’s old town has to be one of the greatest in Europe.  Hundreds of ancient buildings once occupied by noblemen and dignitaries are now home to a dizzying array of restaurants, cafes, bars and art galleries.  The gem, though, of this immaculate town is its main square, a square that’s the size of some small towns.  Two hundred meters (that’s two football fields!) wide and two hundred meters long, the square seems to have a life of its own.  And if you’re into history, Krakow gives you the enormous Wawel Castle, the old Jewish quarter of Kazimierz, a nearby Jewish ghetto made famous in the movie Schindler’s List and, less than an hour away, the gruesome death camp at Auschwitz.
next_prague2
2.     Ljubljana, Slovenia – The fact that Ljubljana (and, for that matter, all of Slovenia) is not world-famous is an outrage.  Pronounced “Lyoo-bli-yana”, the city name means “beloved” in Slovene…and for good reason.  Crammed between a massive hill (which is, of course, crowned by a huge castle) and the Ljubljanica River, the Romans, the Austrian Habsburgs and Napolean all took advantage of this city’s strategic setting.  This brought great wealth to the city, which produced some remarkable architecture, much of which was destroyed in a 1895 earthquake.  Fortunately, Ljubljana called upon the services of Joze Plecnik, a young architect who had learned his trade while working on Prague’s marvelous Hradcany Castle, to return the city to its former glory.  His training paid off, leading him to build some of the grandest and most interesting buildings, bridges and sculptures (many of which are of dragons, since legend has it that the city was build on the spot where Jason, of Argonauts and Golden Fleece fame, slew a dragon) found anywhere. Our mostly tourist-free time spent walking along the river, admiring the colorful buildings and shopping at the daily market is one of our greatest memories of Europe.
Scenes from streets of Bratislava
3.     Bratislava, Slovakia – During forty-five years of Communist rule, the largest Communist-era housing complex was built in Bratislava – scores of identical and soulless buildings marring the landscape.  Luckily, the Communists didn’t go near the old town of Bratislava, leaving unscathed a town that is the very definition of quaint.  With cobblestone, traffic-free streets, maze-like alleys and tiny, cafe-filled plazas, all you’ll want to do is walk around the tiny town and sit unhurried in a cafe soaking up the romantic atmosphere.  Luckily, you can!  Even though Bratislava is over 1,100 years old, it is blissfully free of any must-see destinations, enabling you to relax guilt-free without worrying about missing that umpteenth castle or cathedral.  My suggestion for the Bratislava Tourism Board’s new slogan is “Come to Bratislava…and Do Nothing.”
statue in main square of Lviv
4.     Lviv, Ukraine – Even though its Old Town was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1998, Lviv sees precious few Western tourists.  As I explored the city’s charming streets and public squares, though, I got a feeling that that’s about to change.  The hotels are nice, the restaurants are diverse and the churches and medieval buildings are as grand as any we’ve seen. This, combined with a culture and people that is drastically different from much of Eastern and Central Europe, is just too irresistible for tourists to ignore for much longer.

Amazing Castle of Kamyanets-Podilsky
5.     Kamyanets-Podilsky, Ukraine – The greatest military strategists couldn’t design a more secure location for this town.  Situated on a large rock island, surrounded by a river that acts as a natural moat, Kamyanets-Podislky has been inhabited for thousands of years by people seeking protection.  To bolster their security, a wooden castle was built here in the 10th century and reconstructed with stone 500 years later.  Our initial view of the castle as we walked across the bridge into the Old Town was, to us, one of the greatest visual spectacles this world has to offer.  And since the city is well off the tourist track (even its residents were puzzling over why we took the time to visit…), you’ll probably have the unforgettable view to yourself.

So there you have it.  If you’re bound for Europe any time soon, make sure you see some of these amazing places now.  Before everyone else does.

Krakow:

Ljubljana:

Bratislava:

Lviv and Kamyanets-Podilsky:

Town of Miklosvar and surrounding area
To many, “Eastern Europe” signifies the old Communist bloc – an area of the world continuously grey and bleak, with long lines filled with desperate people waiting hours to score a loaf of bread or a piece of meat. Fortunately, these stereotypes are mostly a thing of the past. Since the Soviet Union collapsed in the late 80s/early 90s and the communist strongholds of Eastern Europe have changed their political and economic bent, Eastern European countries have undergone a slow, but significant, change in their way of life. As many of the countries have entered the European Union and their economies have expanded rapidly in the past few years, many places in Eastern Europe seem as much, or even more, “Western” as their geographical neighbors. Selfishly, we’ve been a little disappointed, hoping to witness some of the old school ways of the Communist era. Well, we finally got our wish…
Sights on drive through rural Romania
As we were waiting in line to cross the border between Romania and Ukraine, a uniformed border guard looked down at the French license plates (a novelty in this part of Europe) on our Peugeot rental car and knew we were ripe for some harassment. He approached us and asked us for the receipt for our payment of the Romanian road tax. We correctly informed him that we were unaware of such a tax, had never been asked to pay such a tax and had found no mention of a road tax in either of the Romanian guidebooks we had consulted. Brilliantly feigning surprise at our lack of knowledge, he informed us that the penalty for not paying the tax was $200 and that, after finishing the border-crossing formalities, I should park the car and come see him in his office.

Once our passports had been stamped, I quickly found myself in the guard’s tiny office. Brashly, the young officer announced, “I just told you the legal process for handling your lack of payment of the road tax. Why don’t you suggest an alternative solution?” Acting perplexed, I asked him what he meant. “The fine is $200. How much do you think is a fair payment?” Resisting my innate urge to punch the corrupt guard in the jaw, I started a negotiation that resulted in an agreement of $40 for the mythological “road tax”. As I began to hand over the bribe money, the guard spotted his superior officer coming towards his office and began freaking out, saying “Put the money away! Hide! Oh, %!@&! Don’t say anything!” Fortunately for the guard but unfortunately for me, his boss reversed course and went away to handle another matter. Wiping sweat from his brow, the guard quickly grabbed the $40 from my hand, and I ran for my car as quickly as possible.
Flooded roads in northern Romania/southern Ukraine
It was a rainy day (in fact, it had been raining for days), and just a mile after crossing the border, we spotted pools of water on the road. As we continued to drive, the water started getting higher along the side of the road and under the bridges we crossed. Cautiously, we made our way through sections of the road that were partially flooded. We saw rivers that had escaped their banks and flooded several villages. Luckily, we made it past the flooded area fairly quickly and without incident, only to find out a couple of days later that the floodwaters had risen to produce Ukraine’s worst flood in 200 years, killing 22 people, affecting over 40,000 homes and causing over $800 million in damage (unbelievably, the country’s special disaster fund only has $57 million in it).
Flooded roads in northern Romania/southern Ukraine
As we continued our drive, we were pulled over by a police officer. This stop brought our trip total to five – South Africa (speeding – no payment), The Netherlands (driving across a bridge reserved for buses and taxis because we couldn’t read the sign that, in Dutch, told us not to – $60 hit), Croatia (passing a car in a no-passing zone – no payment), Romania (speeding – no payment) and now Ukraine. When behind the wheel of a motorized vehicle, I drive faster than the speed limit at almost every chance I get. This is especially true in Eastern Europe, where the speed limits typically hover around 30 or 40 mph–even on the highway. When I got pulled over this time, however, I was definitely not speeding because I had been stuck for several minutes behind a huge truck that was barely moving. When the cop pulled out his radar gun, though, it registered 50 mph – 20 mph over the speed limit. I told him, in English, that his radar gun was incorrect, but my English was as comprehendable to him as his Ukrainian was to me. He quickly cut to the chase and started ask for money. Immediately, we began a caveman-esque process of negotiation, flashing numbers with our fingers, accompanied by grunts and head movements. Eventually, our negotiations ended with the cop pocketing only about 10 euros (about $16). A paltry sum for a story I’ll have for the rest of my life.