Nestled between its Eastern European neighbours and Russia, Ukraine is the second largest nation in Europe. But while self-determination may have brought fresh opportunities and a burgeoning elite, for the most part this is still a land of poverty and pastoral beauty.
The abundant forests and fertile plains dotted with goats and haystacks make it a walker’s dream. That’s not forgetting the dramatic Carpathian Mountains, still inhabited by wolves and bears.
The Ukrainians are troopers (grannies wielding pickaxes are not uncommon) and they know how to have a good time – a knees up involves folk dancing, stories and songs washed down with plenty of vodka.
All this, combined with handsome architecture and outlandish supernatural beliefs (who knew that rivers are full of evil water nymphs?), makes for a truly compelling destination.
Winters in Ukraine are bitterly cold and snowy, especially in the northeast. Crimea is the exception, with a year round Mediterranean climate.
Summers (June-September) are warm and sunny with long days, a host of festivals and unfortunately a swell of tourists too. Spring and autumn are mild but short lived. The autumn harvest is well worth seeing.
Boryspil (KBP) 40 km from Kiev
Jetting between cities on domestic flights is surprisingly inexpensive and speeds up long distance journeys.
Most parts of Ukraine can be reached using the former Soviet rail network. Trains are slow but cheap and reliable.
Most people get to the countryside, Crimea and the Carpathian Mountains by autobus. Driving is not really worth the stress – the roads are bad and the Ukrainian drivers even worse.
If you hitch a lift you will be expected to pay for the privilege. In cities you will find trams and trolleybuses as well as a ready supply of taxis.
There has been an explosion in hotels over the past few years meaning that visitors are no longer restricted to grim Soviet accommodation. Hotels at the luxury end provide TV/internet access, hot water, central heating/air conditioning and squeaky clean bathrooms.
Damp and grubby Soviet-era pads usually come complete with paper thin mattresses and smoke-tarnished walls although many are now undergoing renovation.
Plumbing and water problems affect most of the country and budget hotels may not have hot water. Other options include private apartments, campsites and rural bed and breakfast homestays.
Borsch (tangy soup) is enjoyed at all times of the night and day. Often thought of as beetroot soup, it is actually made up of cabbage, potatoes, onions, beetroot and dill with other assorted ingredients chucked into the mix.
Holubtsi (meat and rice in cabbage leaves smothered in tomato sauce) and varenniki (stuffed dumplings filled with potatoes, meat or cheese and coated in fried onions) are popular.
A sweet variation of varenniki where the dumplings are stuffed with strawberries or cherries is eaten in the summer. Vegetarians won’t encounter any problems as meat is still viewed as a status symbol and is absent from many dishes. Bread is a staple, often combined with cheese or sausage.
Vodka is consumed with gusto. Other beverages include coffee, kvas (a non alcoholic drink made from black bread and sugar), beer and chai (tea) served with lemon and sugar. Expect looks of horror if you request a little milk in your tea.
State medical facilities aren’t good. Private clinics and hospitals are better but still don’t reach western standards.
It’s likely that you will suffer from travellers’ diarrhoea. Dysentery and giardiasis can also occur.
If near Chernobyl don’t eat freshwater fish from nearby rivers or mushrooms and berries from the Polissyan woods as they contain radiation. Throughout the country you should refrain from drinking the local water.
Wrap up warm in winter and look out for tell tale signs of frostbite – white skin and pins and needles. Be careful when walking on frozen lakes.
Check your belongings are secure when travelling on public transport, particularly on overnight trains.
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