By Natalia Holub
First secretary, Embassy of Ukraine
If you have never visited Ukraine, you are missing a wonderful and an unforgettable experience. Although it is Europe’s largest country, Ukraine has yet to be discovered by tourists. This may soon change, however, as Ukraine and its next-door neighbour Poland have been chosen as joint hosts of the 2012 European Football Championship (EURO 2012).
By all accounts, EURO 2012 (which runs from June 8 through July 1) is expected to attract millions of soccer fans and tourists to Ukraine. The EURO 2012 soccer games will be played in the following four cities in Ukraine: Kyiv [Kiev], Lviv, Kharkiv and Donetsk. Once discovered, Ukraine will surely become a “hot” travel destination for tourists.
Ukraine has a lot to offer to tourists of all ages — historic architecture, ancient churches and fortresses, opera, ballet, classical as well as traditional folk music and dance, rock concerts, art galleries that feature works by world renowned painters and sculptors, delicious food and, most importantly, the opportunity to meet a warm, generous, kind and friendly people.
As background, Ukraine is centrally located in Eastern Europe and borders on Poland, Slovakia, Hungary, Romania, Moldova, Russia and Belarus. The southern part of Ukraine includes the Crimean Peninsula which juts out into the Black Sea. I should note that the Crimea is known for its beautiful beaches and palm tree-lined streets and boardwalks. Its numerous hotels, nightclubs and restaurants offer entertainment for everyone. Crimea is also famous for the unforgettable scenery of its picturesque mountains overhanging the Black Sea (which offers an assortment of water sports).
In addition to its beautiful beaches and mountains on the Black Sea, Ukraine also has the Carpathian Mountains. A large part of this mountain range is located in Western Ukraine and its numerous winter resorts provide an excellent venue for sports such as skiing (both downhill and cross-country), ice skating, sleigh riding, sledding and snowboarding.
I would be remiss if I did not mention Ukrainian traditional food. On the whole, you will find that the food is rich, hearty and very tasty. Much of this can be attributed to centuries of growing crops in Ukraine’s fertile soil. One thing I can promise: You will never feel hungry after eating a Ukrainian meal.
The two most popular and beloved dishes in Ukraine are borsch and varenyky. All Ukrainians, including myself, were raised on these foods. Borsch is a thick beet soup filled with chunks of meat and vegetables. Varenyky are large stuffed dumplings. They are usually filled with potatoes and smothered in fried onions and sour cream (known as smetana). However, they can also be filled with meat, cheese, cabbage and mushrooms. When served as a dessert, they are filled with apples, cherries, strawberries, poppy seeds and raisins. Other traditional Ukrainian foods include: holubtsi (stuffed cabbage covered with a mushroom sauce or a tomato sauce), salo (lard which is usually cut into small strips and served with bread) and deruny (potato and mushroom pancakes).
The dishes described above can be found in any restaurant that specializes in Ukrainian food. If you are in the mood for ethnic dishes other than Ukrainian, in our larger cities you can easily find restaurants that specialize in French, Italian, German, Chinese, Vietnamese, Japanese, Turkish and many other ethnic dishes.
Here’s a sampling of the four cities that will be involved in hosting the EURO 12 games.
The first city, my hometown, is Kyiv, the capital of Ukraine. Kyiv is an ancient city founded approximately 560 AD. Legend has it Kyiv was founded by a Viking family — three brothers (Kyi, Schek and Koriv) and their sister Lybed. Kyiv was named after the eldest brother Kyi. The city was situated on top of a number of hills overlooking the Dnipro River. Due to its strategic location, Kyiv grew into a prosperous, lively and secure trading post. By the 10th Century, Kyiv became one of the most powerful cities in Europe. In contrast, London at that time was half the size of Kyiv. In 988 AD, Prince Volodymyr brought Christianity to Ukraine by baptizing his entire nation in the Dnipro River.
When visiting Kyiv, a “must” visit is Kyivo-Pecherska Lavra, also known as the Monastery of the Caves. Founded in the 11th Century, the vast network of underground tunnels and cells was built to house the ever-expanding number of monks and disciples who spent their entire lifetimes praying and writing. At street level, the Lavra consists of numerous beautiful old buildings and churches. Needless to say, it is Kyiv’s No. 1 attraction for pilgrims, tourists and locals alike.
Since its founding, the Lavra has been the centre of Orthodox Christianity in Eastern Europe. Its numerous churches, bell towers, and underground cave systems with their narrow corridors, living quarters and chapels, are architectural masterpieces. Relics of saints, preserved in the catacombs, have been drawing devoted Christians to worship here over the last 1,000 years.
There are other churches worth visiting. St. Sophia’s Cathedral is Kyiv’s oldest standing church. It was built in 1037 by order of Kyiv’s Grand Prince Yaroslav the Wise to thank God for protecting Kyiv against the invasion of the Pechenegs, a semi-nomadic Turkic people. The church contains a large amount of original frescoes and well-preserved Byzantine mosaics. Both St. Sophia and Kyevo-Pecherska Lavra are UNESCO World Heritage sites.
St. Mikhail’s Monastery of the Golden Domes was originally built in 1108-1113 and was recently reconstructed, adhering to the Byzantine-style architecture.
If you are interested in art, be it classical or contemporary, Kyiv has numerous museums and art galleries. Some of my favourites include Mystetsky Arsenal, a huge new museum and art gallery complex which houses temporary and permanent art exhibitions, both classical and contemporary; Pinchuk Art Centre, a large privately owned gallery that features contemporary world-renowned artists, sculptors and photographers; the National Museum of Art and the National Museum of Ukrainian History.
I recommend that, on a sunny day, you visit the Museum of Folk Architecture and Life. It is an outdoor museum that contains more than 300 architecturally and culturally significant buildings.
If you are in the mood for walking, take a leisurely stroll on Andriyvsky Uzviz, a bohemian section of Kyiv, sometimes referred to as the “Montmartre of Kyiv.” As you meander down the Andriyivsky Uzviz, you will pass antique shops, art studios, galleries, theatres, small museums, hotels and cafes. It is a great place to shop for Ukrainian crafts and art work.
If you stroll along Volodymyrska Street, you will come upon the famous Golden Gate of Kyiv, which was modeled on the Golden Gate of Constantinople. A bit further beyond the gate you can get a glimpse of the National Opera House, built in the early 20th Century. Further still are other architectural treasures, such as the Kyiv National University and the monument to the great 19th Century Ukrainian poet Taras Shevchenko in a beautiful park across from the university.
Kharkiv is Ukraine’s second largest city. It is a comparatively young city as it was only founded in 1653. The city is known for its achievements in science, industry, art, education and technology. It should be noted that it has the largest student population in Ukraine. Due to the availability of technical expertise, Bill Gates sought out programmers in Kharkiv to develop the Ukrainian version of Microsoft Windows.
Another city, unlike any other, is Ukraine’s most sophisticated city, Lviv. It is truly European and cosmopolitan in all aspects — music, art, history and culture. Today, it is a favoured destination for many Europeans and Ukrainians. Lviv’s numerous open squares, wide boulevards and distinctive architecture are reminiscent of Paris, Florence and Vienna.
Lviv was founded by Prince Danylo of Halychyna in honour of his son, Leo. The name Lviv is derived from the Slavic root for “lion” which is the symbol of Lviv. You can see statues of lions all over the city. Lviv is considered to be the keeper of Ukrainian culture, traditions and statehood.
Through the centuries, due to its proximity to Western and Eastern Europe, Lviv grew into a wealthy, intellectual and cultural metropolis. It underwent a large building boom during the 16th and 17th Centuries and was heavily influenced by the Italian Renaissance. As a result, Lviv has a feeling of a medieval city and this adds to its attraction. Many tourists consider Lviv to be Ukraine’s most tourist-friendly town. The hotels are abundant and offer excellent accommodations in a range of prices. Cafés and restaurants offer a wide variety of foods and are highly service-oriented. It is no wonder that Lviv is Ukraine’s No. 1 tourist destination.
There are, of course, churches in Lviv. They number in the hundreds and represent an unbelievable diversity of faiths and architectural styles. Some of the more significant churches include the Armenian Cathedral (built in the 14th Century), Bernadine Cathedral (Greek Catholic with black and gold interior), Church of the Transfiguration (decorated with traditional Ukrainian embroidery and a gold iconostasis — a wall of icons), St. George’s Cathedral (Greek Catholic Church that marked the beginning of the Pope’s visit to Ukraine in 2001), Latin Cathedral (Lviv’s largest Roman Catholic church) and others too numerous to mention.
UNESCO designated the entire city of Lviv as a World Heritage site in 1998.
Finally, we come to Donetsk, which is situated in the Donbass, Ukraine’s coal mining region. It was founded in 1869 by a Welsh man named John Hughes. Though the city is mostly known for its coal-mining operations, it is also known for its energy, chemical and metal production. As you can imagine, the city attracts mostly business travelers. Interestingly, Donetsk has actually been recognized by UNESCO as the world’s cleanest industrial city. Five rivers flow through the city and the Sea of Azov, the world’s shallowest, is only an hour away. Donbass Arena is Ukraine’s first stadium built for the European Football Championship 2012 in accordance with the Five-Star (Elite) standards of the Union of European Football Associations.
If you do happen to attend the Euro 2012 games, I encourage you to return and visit Ukraine’s primordial landscapes — Askania Nova, the Black Sea and the Carpathian Mountains and more.
Natalia Holub is the Embassy of Ukraine’s first secretary (responsible for culture and information, and being a liaison with the Ukrainian community). Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org or (613) 230-2961, ext. 105.