Friday, 6 July 2012

Ukraine – The first cannon shot

Ukraine – The first cannon shot

June 28-30

If you have been following our adventures around the Southeast of Europe, you may have noticed a theme running through these blogs. Not so much running as firing. AK-47s, pistols, crossbows, longbows…but the loudest and oldest has been saved for the south of Ukraine.

We were based in the southern port of Odesa, having taken a bus across from Moldova. Avoiding Transdniestr and any border crossing issues that may have arisen, we were instead delayed by something more common – a puncture.

Nonetheless we arrived in the sweltering sea town that was surprisingly overlooked as a host city for Euro 2012. Having asked a couple of locals about this, they aren’t too happy that other cities, in particular Kharkiv and Donetsk, were chosen ahead of them. They said that the stadium had even been renovated in preparation for it being involved.

The face that a tourist-friendly city was overlooked in favour of mining towns can be seen as either expanding the tournament across the whole country…or a very bad decision that cost the Ukraine many visitors and a lot of money. Depends which way you look at it.

One of the main attractions of Odesa is its location on the Black Sea, meaning that locals and Russians alike flock here to the Arcadia beaches in the summer to get some sun, sea, sand…and any other words starting with S that you can think of. Yes, the obvious one…shashlik. It is a party town, which renders it unfortunate that this is the time when I had the first feelings of lethargy and fatigue on my travels thus far. Being melted by the sun in the day probably didn’t help – it is particularly strong here.

 If the beaches have a vibe that wouldn’t be out of place on certain Spanish or Greek islands that annually morph into Little Britain horror shows, the town itself is quite pleasant without being overly impressive. Sights include a famous set of steps that were in a renowned horror movie, many monuments to Shevchenko (the poet, not the footballer – yet), and a bustling market.

One new experience offered to me in Odesa was Salo. Around the world there are many different foods which are sold to accompany beer. In Britain, it is crisps or peanuts. In Korea, it is sticks of fish and M&Ms. In Ukraine, it is salo.

As you can see, it is essentially a strip of pork fat. Delicious, I know. They try to flavour it with salt and garlic, and you eat it on black bread. I have to say that I wasn’t convinced, but compared to the other beer snack we had in Odesa they were a delight.

Below are pig’s ears. They are revolting, and were an insult to my mouth. The place where we tasted these awful things also refused to allow us to play cards, which I have never experienced before. The fact that they couldn’t give a reason merely annoyed us further, and left an unfortunate taste in the mouth. Not as bad as the pig ears, though.

We did venture out of Odesa for a day, which turned out to be the undoubted highlight of this part of our travels. A 2 hour bus took us to the remote town of Belgorod-Dnestrovsky. The reason we came here was that one of the guys in the hostel in Chisinau said that there was a fortress here. Within her crumbling walls was a cannon. The rumour was that, if you parted with enough Ukrainian hryvnia, that you could fire this beast.

The rumour was true. Admittedly a cannon ball doesn’t exit the barrel, but the bang is still ringing in my ears.

At this delightful fortress we also witnessed medieval fighting…played to a background of metal music, which I’m sure they had at that time. The great views of the sea merely added to the aura of this fascinating find on the south coast of Ukraine.

It is now time to fire ourselves away – in a plane, as opposed to a cannon – from Ukraine. The plan had originally been to head north through Belarus. Being told that a visa would cost $228, and may not arrive in time, promptly forced a rethink. Instead, Belarus has been bypassed as we flew north to the Baltics. Ukraine has been a fascinating country, and the cities of Kyiv and Lviv were a particular highlight. Being able to read the signs and converse slightly with locals has made an immeasureably positive difference to the trip, but as the region opens itself up to tourists as part of the Euro 2012 legacy, English will become more widespread and more people can enjoy its culture. Just not pig’s ears…

Love you all


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