Sunday, 1 July 2012

Ukraine – The first kvas and crossbows

June 22-23

Kyiv is the capital of and largest city in the Ukraine, but there are many more places that give this country its identity and culture. A five hour train ride took us to one of the more fabled and historical towns of the country – Lviv.

Lviv is in the west of Ukraine. It’s very west, a mere 40km or so from the Polish border. The connection with Poland is strong – indeed, it used to be part of Poland, and didn’t come under Ukrainian jurisdiction as the YCCP after the Second World War. 

The Polish influence is obvious from the moment you walk around Rynok Square. Looking around the charming square on a cloudy morning, you can observe numerous buildings that owe to a Gothic or Renaissance, as opposed to Soviet, era. The vivacious flowers and gently moving trams merely increase the authentic European atmosphere. It seems more Euro-influenced even than Kyiv, so maybe we shouldn’t stereotype all former Soviet states as still behaving as if they were in that age.

At times the place had a Germanic feel to it. Admittedly, this was most prominent when we were in the brewery of the local beer, Lvivske, eating sausages & pretzels, and watching Germany play some wonderful football against Greece. Can’t get much more Deutsch than that, even in Ukraine.

The searing heat that we experienced in Kyiv had transformed into light drizzle in Lviv. The beauty of the architecture meant that this didn’t dampen our enthusiasm for exploring this pretty city. It is dotted with pretty churches and houses, all of which can be seen from up high if you are fit enough to climb the enormous bell tower in the middle of the square.

After one full day in Lviv, we boarded a bus and bumped along what constitutes a road to a small town called Kamyanets-Podilsky. A small town, KP (we took to calling it ‘nuts’) has what would become one of Ukraine’s major tourist attractions if it made itself more accessible on the back of this successful hosting of a football tournament.

KP sits on a hill, and is in a brilliant defensive position for an army. Conseuqently, a large fortress was built here possibly as early as the 14th century. The fortress, of which seven of its twelve towers remain, can only be reached along a spectacular bridge hanging over a large, looming valley. Though I have seen similar fortresses before, it is nonetheless a wonderful and powerful sight.

The inside of the fortress is somewhat underwhelming when compared to its exterior. Indeed, the highlight of the day was getting to fire a bow and arrow and, for the first time, a crossbow. It’s fair to say that, in conjunction with my pistol shooting, I need some lessons in accuracy with a weapon. Many lessons, in fact. It seems strange for the arrow to release so quickly from the crossbow and at such a speed – it is a surprisingly powerful device.

The fortress is able to mask a more infamous reason for Kamyanets-Podilsky being known. It was one of the first places to witness the ‘Final Solution’, even before the full implementation of the plan was agreed to by Hitler at the Wannsee Conference in early 1942. On August 27 and 28, 1941, an estimated 23,600 Jews were murdered in this area, with apparently little regard for secrecy. Secrecy is now the watchword – there is no obvious memorial, and I only found this out through research.

KP has little to offer aside from the fortress, aside from the usual cobbled streets and kvas, a wheat beer that is unexpectedly refreshing in the Ukrainian heat. Fruit is quite cheap here, which allows us some variety from bread-related produce…and beer.

Kamyanets-Podilsky and her imperious fortress were just a short stop on our sojourn through this part of South-eastern Europe. It was time to broaden horizons once more, and visit another new country on this illuminating and so far enjoyable excursion. It’s arguably the least known country in Europe. Try to guess where…

Love you all


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