10 Must Visit Places In Ukraine

Eastern Europe has a lot to offer to its visitors, in some aspects even more than Western Europe.

Ukraine is the biggest country in Europe with unbelievable hospitality, more than a century old culture, not an easy history but one very positive spirit.

Some of you may think that it’s not safe in Ukraine because of annexation of Crimea and current war conflict with Russia in the Eastern territories. You will be surprised to find out that it didn’t really effect tourism.

If you are a history buff, love great food, stunning architecture, plenty of UNESCO World Heritage Sites, mountains and seas – Ukraine’s got it all!

1. Lviv

Lviv (city of Leo) is the unformal capital of Western Ukraine and is more than 750 years old. A city with poetic spirit, narrow medieval streets paved with stones, architectural decoration in different styles all preserved in its original form. In ancient times Lviv was the capital of a mighty Slavic state called the Galicia-Volyn Principality. Being a part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and later Poland contributing to the formation of the city’s unique image. You have to see Lviv Opera House and High Castle which is an area from where you can see the entire city. Do not leave Lviv without visiting famous Lviv’s Brewery that is successfully brewing beer since 1715.

2. Chernivtsy

Chernivtsy is a city close to the Romanian and Moldavian border in Western Ukraine and is more than 600 years old. Most of the architectural contributions were made by the Austrian-Hungarian Empire and back in the day Chernivtsy was often called Little Vienna. Brick roads of the city center were swiped daily with rose bouquets and only the rich were allowed onto the Kobilianska street. Now this street is pedestrians only and has numerous cafes and restaurants with a very modern vibe. The highlight of this city is Chernivtsy National University which is the former Residence of the Metropolitans, and has a status of UNESCO World Heritage Site. And don’t forget to stop by the Drama Theater as it is one of a kind, there are only 3 equivalents to this building in entire Europe.

3. Kyiv

Kyiv is the nation’s capital and is the largest city of Ukraine, which is located on Dnipro River and filled with beautiful churches and cathedrals like St. Sophia’s Cathedral and Kiev Pechersk Lavra (Monastery of the Caves). The history of Kiev is going back for at least 1400 years. According to the legend, Kiev was founded by three brothers, Kyi, Shchek and Khoryv, and their sister Lybid. Kyiv’s prosperity was directly related to Kievan Rus – country that existed from late 9th to the mid 13th century and from which both Belarus and Russia later deriving their names. The highlight of Kievan Rus was introducing Christianity by King Vladimir the Great in 988. Kyiv is also home to a lot of monuments of World War II and the deepest subway station in the world – Arsenalna station. If you’re in town, be sure to visit Andriyivskyy Descent filled with artists and arts. Take a stroll on the beautiful Maidan square and Khreshchatyk Street, feel its rebel spirit as that’s where fatal fights between protesters and government took place in 2014. And if that didn’t give you goose bumps – visit ghost city of Chernobyl which is only a 2 hour drive north from Kyiv.

4. Crimea

Crimea Peninsula is located in Southern Ukraine and is surrounded by the Black Sea. It is known for the Crimean Mountains filled with artifacts and lost treasures of previous civilization – Skif’s tribes. Subtropical climate of Yalta city attracts thousands of tourists to visit every year. My favourite spot in Crimea is Swallows Nest which is a stunning castle on top of a giant cliff and is now converted into a high end restaurant. Just imagine sipping your cocktail here and watch the sun setting into the sea on a summer afternoon.

5. Odesa

Odesa is a southern city of Ukraine located on the Black Sea and is a marine port for navy, cruises and cargo ships. It is famous for its Festival of Fun of the 1st of April – April Fool’s Day. Odesa history starts as early as in 1440. A Unique opera house and maritime station, the famous Privoz outdoor market, Potiomkin’s Steps with funicular ride and most importantly its humorous people will not leave you indifferent.

6. Carpathian Mountains

Carpathian Mountains are in Western Ukraine, with the highest mountain of Hoverla being 2061 metres high. Enjoy Carpathian Mountains all year round and go hiking, biking, hunting, discovering remote villages and feeling the shade of ancient trees. There is something particularly special about the mountain nation of Hutsuly. They know all the herbs and all the secrets of these mountains. I would suggest you visit Bukovel ski resort, National Park Hutsulshina and wooden arts and crafts outdoor bazar in the town of Yaremche where you can find beautiful national clothing, wooden toys and sheep wool carpets.

7. Sofiyivka Park

Sofiyivka Park in Uman is the real world landscape architecture masterpiece of the end of the 18th century and the beginning of the 19th. The park was established in 1796 by a rich polish magnate, Stanislav Schensny Pototsky, in honour of his beautiful Greek wife Sophia and was presented to her on her birthday in May of 1802. The park is spread out over the territory of 155 hectares and is situated at the outskirts of the ancient town Uman, Vinnytska oblast. It is considered to be the standard of the landscape combination of water, land, architecture and sculptures. This masterpiece was created in the shortest period of time, it still astounds the imagination of visitors. Walk its exotic gardens, discover unique scenery and cozy spots. Feel the love that is still in the air.

8. Khotyn Fortress

Khotyn Fortress is located on the bank of the Dnister River in Khotyn, Bukovina region. The fortress was built in 1325. Hotyn Fortrees was the center of numerous wars and fights. In 2007, the fortress was named one of the Seven Wonders of Ukraine. It is also a National Ukrainian Architectural Preserve as of 2000. Swim in the Dnister River with the fortress view, visit the church on the hill next to the fortress, pretend to shoot from a very old cannon and breathe the history of these thick walls.

9. Kamianets-Podilskyi Fortress

Kamianets-Podilskyi Fortress was first built to watch over the River Smotrych. There’s even evidence to suggest that a settlement has existed on this rock outcropping for close to 2,000 years. Kamyanets-Podilskyi, one of the oldest cities in Ukraine, is considered a phenomenon of great cultural importance. Kamyanets-Podilskyi town has the fortification system that is unique all over the Europe. Kamianets-Podilskyi fortress and Khotyn fortress are within 45 minute drive from each other. Brilliantly convenient, isn’t it?

10. Pysanka museum

Pysanka museum (Ukrainian Easter egg museum) is a one of a kind museum in the world and it is located in the town of Kolomiya, Ivano-Frankivska Oblast. The Museum, built in 2000 is famous for the fact that you can spend all day wondering about different traditional styles of Easter eggs paintings. The museum is not only shaped like an egg (14 m in height and 10 m in diameter), but parts of the exterior and interior of the dome are painted to resemble a pysanka. Embrace yourself in a friendly atmosphere and local vibe, very hospitable people and tons of souvenirs. Do eat the pierogis, kebabs, bacon potatoes and cabbage rolls in Korchma which is a traditional Ukrainian café with a real wooden stove in the middle of the restaurant.

How I got stuck in Iceland

The best thing that has ever happened to me in Travel was getting stuck for 1 night in Iceland.

When my flight was delayed for 3 hours from Amsterdam to Reykjavik I could already feel that there is no way I will make it to my connection from Reykjavik to Toronto.

I was absolutely right, and Wow Air paid for transfers and the Keilir hotel for the night and even dinner.

I could hear some folks complaining that they are not going to make their connections in time to fly to Toronto, Boston etc. I, on the other hand could not be any more excited about this adventure as Iceland has always been on my bucket list. This was the best layover in my life and it was not even planned.

Icelandic language is very cute with ‘ki ‘ki Reykyaviki kind of sounds. For example: ‘For Your Safety’ in Icelandic will be just 1 word – Öryggisreglur. I also found this language having no intonation whatsoever because when they speak it is all on one tone, one breath, one paste, one everything. Oh well, maybe it was just one hell of a tired flight attendant that I`m talking about.

I knew right away that I want to get to the Blue Lagoon at any cost. I quickly found fellow travelers whom wanted to go there as well and we shared a cab together just after we dropped our luggage at the hotel.

We were rolling down the black roads made from volcanic lava for about 30 minutes. All of the sudden I saw colorful mist far away – we were getting closer to their famous Blue Lagoon.

This natural wonder SPA was expanded in 2016 and is nothing like I ever seen or felt. The water is really blue, it is also half salty so you can’t really float like you do on the sea, but you feel pretty light and pretty good just by being in this warm nutrition filled water. It is not deep, it is just perfect to walk around. No one was really swimming, for some reason it was easier to just stroll through it. There are also saunas, steam rooms and stinky but very healthy small waterfalls where I gave my back a little massage.

I loved the mask station where you have 1 soft facial mud mask that is included in your entrance fee. Just imagine, a tall blonde Icelandic girl is in a coat (because it is windy 2nd of December we are talking about) in Mask Kiosk making you a fresh silica mud mask. After that you are in a swimming suit on the other side of the kiosk in nice warm water applying that mask. I have also purchased with my smart admission bracelet an algae mask for a few Euros because since I am here I need the Young Look mask as well.

 

Special thanks to my sister who just gave me a new bathing suit in Italy as a present because otherwise I would have to soak in Blue Lagoon in regular underwear as I would still go no matter what. There are also massages, restaurants and a gift shop.

 

I had only 1.5 hours before the lagoon closed for the day, but those were the most amazing and relaxing 1.5 hours that I ever had after traveling.

 

While floating in the lagoon, I lost my new buddies that I shared the cab with and on the way back I took a cab alone which was 50 Euros, entrance to the Blue Lagoon is also 50 Euros. In general everything is expensive in Iceland as this country has crazy debts.

   

I found fish and crabs to be cute on the Icelandic króna coins. I found it similar to Switzerland situation except debts because salaries in Iceland are also accordingly high, cab driver told me that his salary equals 5000.00 USD a month.

I woke up so fresh after the Blue Lagoon that I decided to take another cab and go to the Viking World Museum first thing in the morning and to be back by the time of my airport transfer.

I was the only person in this museum at 10 am and I loved it. It gave me chance to try some clothes on, to watch videos without being interrupted and to stare on Vikings and trolls tales for as long as I needed to.

The Atlantic Ocean smelled so good and morning birds were singing around me. I took a walk around the museum and even got the chance to see the Northern Lights through the lenses of my camera. It was a cloudy dark winter morning as we were on the darker half of the year where day light is limited to just a couple of hours per day.

I couldn’t see the Northern Lights with my bare eyes, however when I looked through my camera I saw something greenish in the sky and between clouds. God was sending me signals or Northern Lights were just above me!?

Iceland looked exactly how I pictured it in my head: yellow grass, black roads, hospitable blond people with blue eyes who put paper snowflakes in their windows…

From hotel I saw mountains far away. It is too bad I didn’t see any volcanos or gazers. I have to return to this magical land one day and for now this fresh air makes me tired, let’s fly back home. After all I only have half an ocean left till Canada.

Waiting in check-in line I heard people exchanging their “stuck experiences“ and I felt sad for those who just spent the night in the hotel and didn’t go anywhere. We have only 1 life to live so live it right!

How I got a heat stroke or unforgettable Havana with Poquito

Cuba Time is not a saying, it is a phenomenon that I believe also can be called island time because no one is in a rush and no one is ever on time. After 1 hour of waiting for our excursion and drinking strong Cuban coffee at 8 am in the lobby of our hotel we started to have doubts if anyone is coming for us at all.

After our driver showed up he said that he was late because his car was in a shop getting fixed. That is Cuban favorite excuse and it didn’t surprise anyone because cars in Cuba are as old as my grandpa. His car was this elite old pink corvette. He said: “Not your transportation, this is for photos“. After photo session this man drove us in second vehicle to nearest town of Veradero where we were transferred into a third vehicle to finally start our journey to the capital. There was 5 of us and so we were not scared to transfer vehicles. You just have to look at it as an adventure because if you are too punctual of a person, you would already go crazy after waiting for 1 hour to begin with.

I happened to have the privilege to sit at the front so I started the conversation with our driver:

–  What’s your name?

–  Call me Poquito.

–  Doesn’t poquito means small in Spanish?

–  Aaaa, no. If your dad is Frank and you are Frank that means you are Poquito Frank, comprende?

– Oh, comprende. You mean Junior like Robert Downey Jr.?

– Yes, I am an Iron Man, you can’t tell?

After this phrase I started to realize that Poquito is not only going to be our driver and guide but also a stand-up comedian all in one.

We were rolling through green areas of country pretty fast as for an old car.

– Hey Poquito, what is the average salary in Cuba?

– 20 US dollars per month. Doctor can make 40 dollars a month.

– And how much do you make on excursions?

– I make more than a doctor! See, I have Ray-Bans.

He pointed on his sunglasses and wide smile appeared on his well-rounded mid age face.

The weather was in higher 30`s Celsius on this late April day. There was not a single cloud in the sky. I could feel drops of sweat rolling down my back.

–           Poquito, can you please turn on the AC?

–           Roll down all windows, that’s my AC.

–           Then at least make music louder and how old is this Chevrolet with no seat belts anyways?

–           1957 model, I saved money and got a new engine now!

–           Holy, and how old is that jeep over there?

–           1929 model.

After this shocking number we all agreed that jeep appearance didn’t change much since the 30’s.

–           Where are you guys from?

–           Canada.

–           Oh, I want to go there, it’s a dream.

–           And we want to come here, it’s a dream. Too cold in Canada, Poquito, trust me you don’t want to go there.

He really encouraged us with his motivational speeches such as: “You didn’t come to Cuba to drink water and you didn’t come to Cuba to sleep, did you?! Party and go out and enjoy the beach and enjoy yourself and enjoy your life!“

We asked him a lot of questions about Cuban communistic regime. He said government is the biggest mafia and he kept repeating “Remember, it`s Cuba? Crazy country!“.

I really think this sunny weather has a lot to do with positive mentality of its people.

Two hours later we walked through squares and brick roads, smelling a mixture of sweat, cigars and blooming flowers that cover cracks of old buildings on the balconies, spotting Capitolium and hanging out in square of Revolution.

There was extremely hot and exhaustively exciting day ahead with cheap Legendario rum, snacking on a fresh food market and stocking up on Romeo and Juliet cigars, participating in bribe given to the road police, lining up in a wrong bank to exchange some dollars for the CUC and learning that there are 2 currencies in Cuba. We also will be discovering a statue of naked woman riding the chicken with fork in her hand that represents modern art, visiting huge cathedral with statue of my favorite Pope Saint John Paul II, visiting gigantic Statue of Jesus Christ on a hill with breathtaking view of Havana and the ocean, watching local kids play soccer right next to us…

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Poquito was extremely proud that Fast and Furious 8 got filmed in Havana.

It will be a few months later that I will watch this movie and with incredible and even somehow childish excitement say: I have been there, I have been there with Poquito!

 

I left my heart in Amsterdam

Have you ever heard of cultural shock? I have experienced it in Amsterdam!

I have booked myself on purpose layover for 1 night in this capital of European LGBT.

Holland is not about mills, tulips and wooden shoes because I didn’t see any of the above.

The Friday night flight from Milan to Amsterdam was packed. Folks were going away for the weekend which is a huge plus of living in Europe: You are very close to at least 50 countries.

A couple of hours in the air and a quick train from the Schiphol airport brought me to stunning Central Station.

A Girl in front of me yelled from the top of her lungs: ‘’I love you, Amsterdam!‘’ at the very second wind hit her face while opening doors to get outside from the Central Station. She scared me a bit but really what is there not to love about this city?

Walking towards Royal Palace, smelling water from canals, passing by Sex museum and famous coffee shops with cannabis products, I made a mental note to myself that Amsterdam is an unimaginable combination of old nice churches and modern leather fetish stores.

If you think it smells like weed in downtown Toronto I suggest you visit Amsterdam.

I do not know why I booked my flight for Friday night but everything and everyone around smelled like weed.

I am pretty sure I got a second hand high because it was nearly impossible not to.

Food smelled everywhere too. Restaurants and kiosks serving amazing pastry and famous waffles all night long. Pick your topping on a waffle, buy Heineken beer and grab a bike from millions of bike stations.

I saw their Christmas tree and I felt their Christmas spirit on the first day of December. Downtown’s stunning architecture cannot leave your heart cold.

  

The same song was following me from Milan’s Piazza del Duomo to Amsterdam’s Dam Square. Through clouds of smoke I saw a street musician playing his guitar and singing:

“She broke your throne and she cut your hair

And from your lips she drew the Hallelujah“…

Museum of Prostitution was already closed however I managed to see 1 prostitute in a window closer to the Red Lights District.

If you still didn’t get it, weed and prostitution are legal in Holland so as gay/lesbian marriage. Nice ways of making taxes for the government but let’s not get into politics.

  

It wasn’t my first exposure to Dutch people. I find them disturbingly straight and to the point people. I like them though.

I minded my own business and went to sleep in hostel with 2 complete strangers’ girls in my room who I saw for the first and last time in my life.

Next morning I was walking brick roads back to the train station and through mist I saw totally different Old Town. Cleaners were sweeping last night’s mess, food trucks were delivering goods, paramedics were trying to save life of probably overdosed guy and an Old Catholic church was ringing its bells for those who can wake up on Saturday morning and pray for their sins from last night to be forgiven.

  

Overall Nothing But Thieves were absolutely right when they sing I Left My Heart In Amsterdam.

Did I really think that one night was enough in this memorizing city? Silly me!

I have to come back here, in fact I know I will come back here one day…

Unveiling the Mystery of Transylvania

Only God knows what I am ready to go through for travel…

I’m ready to take days long car rides, fly with crazy long layovers, go through family fights and suffer from a jet lag just to GET THERE, to stare at passport stamps later on, to check mark my bucket list, to catch that rare moment of happiness when you realize all over the sudden that you are making your dream come true and you are doing it right now.

And dreams don’t come true if you don’t work hard for it.

I talked my parent into having a road trip to Romania. I booked hotels, dad filled up gas and mom made sandwiches and next thing you know we were on our way to mysterious Romania.

It took us full day of driving from my native city of Chernivtsy, Bukovina, Ukraine to Bran, Transylvania, Romania.

Sheep were everywhere, not only on Romanian fields but also in the middle of the town crossing train rails. They were extra cute though.

I was lying on the back seat of a car and was watching bright stars in the night sky through the window. Moon was really skinny and was changing colors from orange to red. I had never saw moon so low in my entire life. As we were spinning on serpentine roads while going up on a mountain ridge, mist was covering the surface as a soft blanket. I felt like someone made this extra fog on purpose just to make it scary like in movies. However fog was real and was forming in shape of clouds in front of the car…I was scared that we will get lost and will end up in Stephen King`s Rock and Roll Heaven town.

Dad turned on Europa FM and all mystery suddenly fade away…

We stopped at the restaurant by the road to eat bean soup with smoked bacon and hunter sausages along with cheese plate. Staff was very friendly. Overall Romanian people left very nice impression on my family. I don’t know why they often get associated with gypsies in Europe. I bet they don’t like this association. However some gypsies and magicians are from Romania. There is even a special term for Carpathian magician – Molfar. There is also no doubt that there is something particularity magical about Carpathian Mountains. Count Dracula and even dragons are believed to be from dark forests of ancient Carpathian Mountains.

We arrived to our hotel in Bran almost at midnight and it was too dark to see the full picture of mountains sight. Entire sky was divided into a half. It was half foggy and half in stars.

Hello Transylvania! Hello mysterious land! I’m here, I’m yours for the night…

Romania joined European Union in 2007 however their currency is still Romanian leu (RON). I could still see their Soviet past in some communistic buildings we were driving by. Luck of architectural style can be seen also on some Soviet “box looking“ apartment buildings. I know all those buildings because I saw them in Ukraine and in Cuba.

Our first sightseeing was in city of Bran.

To get to Dracula’s castle you have to go through an outdoor market where you can buy all kinds of Dracula souvenirs and wool clothes thanks to the sheep we saw earlier on the field. Here you can also get good goulash soup, kebab and hot wine, cheeses and sausages for any taste. 

Pay admission fee and walk up to the castle. The castle itself is gorgeous and is located on the top of the hill with breathtaking view of Carpathian Mountains and roads that lie underneath the hill. I have been to number of castles in my life but I have never seen anything like this one. This 640 years old castle has way too many levels and floors to be count, secret stair case, game room, torture room, well, inner courtyard and the list goes on. It also has tourists from all over the world and it is late windy fall, just imagine what`s happening here in summer.

Did you know that Count Dracula, a fictional character in the Bram Stoker`s novel, was inspired by one of the best-known figures of Romanian history, Vlad Dracula, nicknamed Vlad Tepes (Vlad the Impaler), who was the ruler of Walachia at various times including from 1456-1462. Vlad Tepes adopted the method of impaling criminals and enemies and raising them aloft in the town square for all to see. Almost any crime, from lying and stealing to killing, could be punished by impalement.

Did you know that Bram Stoker has never been to Romania? He did the extensive research in libraries.

Disney tried to buy this castle and turn it into amusement park but Romanians are too proud of their heritage to let this happen.

Are vampires real? We will never know the answer to that questions. However Vlad Dracula was real ruler.

 Welcome to Saghisoara next.

Beautiful citadel, medieval walls and churches, narrow streets, museums and brick roads streets – all this is in one complex on the top of the hill in 14th century town of Sighisoara which is in couple hours of driving from Bran.

This is a native town of Vlad where you can visit the house in which he was born, now hosting a restaurant with dishes names that often include words bloody, red etc.

Vlad Dracula was born in 1431 in Sighisoara and resided here until he was 4 years old.

It is a 3 story house that contains restaurant and Draculas bedroom. In his room there are mostly pictures and also coffin with someone jumping out of it to scare you to death! We got there at 7 pm, restaurant was open until 8 pm however this interesting room was closed already. We were told by our waiter that “coffin person“ works only until 6 pm and that’s why bedroom is closed already.

It was upsetting but what can you do, vampires have schedules too.

Our second hotel was booked in Salina Turda which is a real museum of salt mining in Transylvania. I usually book small family style hotels with the local spirit.

Salina Turda has nothing to do with Dracula and has everything to do with salt.

This centuries-old salt mine is 100 meters deep and 75 meter wide with shape of a bell. It is an extremely interesting place. Pay your admission fee and you can spend there as many hours as you want.

Do you feel like you on another planet there? Yes, you do!

You have to go 13 floors down in the small 7 person elevator to see it as a whole. There is entire civilization down there: From fitness center to billiard tables, soccer field, bowling, fair will, mini golf and souvenirs kiosk, and even amphitheater for the events.

After being amazed you go into smaller 4 person elevator and go down 13 more floors to discover the salt lake. Rent a boat for 20 minutes and have the saltiest ride of your life. Look up but don’t freak out: You are just 100 meters below the ground. Drop a coin to return.

Salt mine is no longer active. Now it is a place for many asthmatics and just curious folks like me visit it to breathe the salt as it makes your lungs and immune system healthier.

After all it is a therapy I am writing about.