Places of Magic and Wonder: The Carpathian Mountains, Ukraine

28 August – 2 September, 2016

I am undeniably a city girl. I grew up in Los Angeles, one of the largest, most sprawling cities in the US, a huge asphalt jungle of a metropolis. Despite this, I appreciate and enjoy being in nature. I’m not going to go ice-climbing or trek the Colorado River basin any time soon, but I love camping and hiking and the clarity that being in nature provides. And no place did that more for me in my recent travels than the Carpathian Mountains in Ukraine.

The Carpathians are a chain of mountain ranges, the second-longest in Europe, that spans the Czech Republic, Poland, Slovakia, Romania, and Ukraine. In Ukraine, these mountains run through the South-Western side of the country, and are home to the Hutsuls, a fascinating ethnic group known for producing colorful and intricate crafts, herding their sheep and cattle in the mountain highlands, and for believing in their own brand of witchcraft and magic.

We stayed in two different locations in the mountains. First we were in Yaremche, one of the bigger towns and the “gateway” to the mountains. Our bus to Yaremche was one of my favorites. The marshrutka (minibus) was vastly oversold, so the driver squished us up in front next to him, with me perched on a ledge between the seats, riding side-saddle. This gave me front-row access to watch him smoke out the window, organize money, answer his ancient Nokia cell phone, crank up the stereo for his favorite Ukrainian tunes, and remove his cap every time we passed a church or roadside shine – which was often. He did all this while navigating turns, potholes, other cars, and the frequent roadside hazards in Ukraine.

Yaremche is strange and a touristy, with tons of ski resorts clustered along the main two-lane highway through the town. In summer, when we were there, one can find really cheap deals on the mountain resorts, now out of season. Although you do get what you pay for. The Complex Khziki, where we stayed, would probably have been bumping in the winter, but was very quiet in August. The room looked like a business hotel crossed with a log cabin, the staff couldn’t give two fucks about anything, and the location was pretty far from town. But it was really cheap. It was so removed from everything that we ended up spending a lot of time in our hotel room, streaming films online, including Force Majure, an amazing Swedish black comedy that takes place in a ski lodge. 

Not all the time was spent in our room though. We did manage one epic hike in the mountains. First we visited a local site to see some interesting rocks in the forest, but our outing turned into so much more. The path through the forest was pleasant, an uphill jaunt on an overgrown path lined with trees, mossy rocks, and delicious earthy smells. I really tried to feel the forest, spiritually and physically, touching tree bark, moss and lichen delicately with my fingertips. There were good informative signs, surprisingly in English, that told of the history, flora and fauna, topography, and local legends of the place, such as a cave that turned greedy fortune-hunters to stone.

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Mysterious trees in the forest

The rocks we had come to see were amazing, a cluster of huge boulders mysteriously piled on top of each other in the middle of the forest. After exploring them sufficiently, we continued hiking uphill. Where we were supposed to continue on the loop path, I’m not sure, because a while later we had hiked up and out of the forest and had walked along the ridge of not one, but two, mountains! The mountains in the Carpathians are not big by any means, but they are still mountains, and it was an exerting uphill slog. I saw an old babushka with a cane, partially supported by a young woman coming down towards us, and thought “Well, if she can do it, so can I!”. She’s probably been walking up and down these mountains her whole life. In addition, a storm was rolling in, and the turbulent clouds added a moody, magical feeling to the already incredible scenery. On our way down out of the mountains, we passed cottages with farmers bringing in their cows from highland pastures, living their lives as they always have in this part of the world. 

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Beautiful highland pastures in Yaremche

After the touristy weirdness of Yaremche, we were eager to head deeper into the mountains, and went to the small village of Verkhovyna. It was there that we found our paradise. For some, paradise is a secluded island with crystal-clear waters. For me, paradise is the house that I found on Air BnB*. Oksana, our delightfully eccentric Ukrainian host, was a masterful carpenter and woodworker. She built the small house where we stayed on her property, and love was evident in every creaky floorboard and warped pane of glass. The house was close to the small bus station, but far enough into the hillside to be surrounded by nature, small village life, and Hutsul culture. The house was filled with antiques and Hutsul crafts: clothing, decorative plates and pictures, equipment for carding and spinning wool, and lovely wooden objects by Oksana, who was a dream host. She is passionate about Ukraine and it’s rich cultural history, and made us delicious local meals and herbal teas with plants and flowers from her garden, and was balanced in giving us time to ourselves and taking care of us.

We really didn’t do anything remarkable or special while we were in Verkhovyna; it was more about simply enjoying the environment we were in and being at peace. On our first evening, we took a walk to the tiny “downtown”, which is just a couple blocks along the highway, and ended up at a tiny cafe eating varenky (traditional Ukrainian potato dumplings) and drinking coffee. The proprietress did not speak much English but was very touched that we were all the way from America and sitting in her cafe! We continued our stroll, looking for a museum on Hutsul culture and magic. We never found the museum, but the walk was so lovely, twilight in the Carpathians, and we passed houses and farms with traditional decorated tin paneling on the eaves and tiny farm wells, the path getting more rural as the sun sank lower.

A stay at Oksana’s magical guesthouse includes home-cooked meals made of local ingredients, and that night she made us a simple Hutsul feast. First was a delicious, creamy soup of mushrooms and potatoes, with fresh herbs and some spicy pepper. I mistakenly thought this was all, but soon after she came in laden with full plates of a delicious boiled cornmeal similar to polenta, that was to be eaten with a crumbly cheese called brinza cheese and a tangy yogurt. Oksana put on a record of a Ukrainian folk trio on the record player, which gave a really soft and lovely atmosphere to our meal. We went to bed early that night, sleepy and stuffed, and were woken early from the menagerie of animals on the neighboring properties.

The next day, we paid a visit to the bus station to buy our tickets for the following day, and were surprised and delighted at the small but bustling bazaar next to the station. It was a great place to people-watch and pick up a few souvenirs. The people watching got better as we strolled into the town center. Many of the teens and children milling about were quite well-dressed, with traditional Ukrainian embroidered shirts and skirts and dress pants. It turns out that 1 September is a holiday in Ukraine, the beginning of the school year, and it was pleasant to see families out together, or gaggles of school chums, buying ice creams and treats.

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The village church
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The sun setting over the village of Verkhovyna

We took another beautiful hike that evening, through the forest and straight up a steep hill to a viewing tower that Oksana had designed with gorgeous, sweeping views of the the town, river and surrounding mountains. We hiked up farther, past hilltop cottages with cows and chickens, and took in beautiful twilight views of the hilltop pastures and forests. I loved those walks, they were just so peaceful.

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A farm high in the hills

Overall, the Carpathian Mountains in Ukraine were a pure blessing, offering a delicate balance of time spent in nature and a peek into a mysterious local culture. More sporty types can find all sorts of hikes, climbs, trekking and winter sports here as well. Next up: the magic continues into Western Europe, with avant garde art in France and fairy tale castles in Germany.

Good Luck and Happy Travels,

Mo

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*Disclosure: I don’t particularly like Air BnB. I find the prices are usually higher than what I find elsewhere and I find the website and app unintuitive to use. This was the only time on this trip that we found an incredible lodging with Air BnB; the others were rather mediocre.

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