For many people these days one word is likely to spring to mind when Ukraine comes into the conversation: football. Boycott, too, might come up among those acquainted with the poor state of Ukraine’s current international relations.
Some might find the conjunction of the two a little too much and decide to stay away at all costs, at least until the end of the summer. Others might think this is precisely the time to explore a country that does not normally top the charts of tourist destinations.
Far from the football crowd
Away from the main cities of Kyiv, Lviv and Odessa and from the lure of the Black Sea coast, and right at the border with Hungary, the Ukrainian Carpathians are among the most remote – and certainly among the most tourist-free – areas the country has to offer. A tiny fragment of the 1,500-kilometre range of mountains stretching in an arc from the Czech Republic to Serbia via Poland and Romania, they occupy the westernmost corner of Ukraine and host their share of the wildlife – wolves, bears, lynxes and a variety of plant species – for which the Carpathians are famous.
Human settlements too provide attractions, whether it be the colourful customs and handicrafts of the Hutsuls, an approximately 25,000-strong ethnic group living in the region, the wooden churches and houses that dot the countryside or the slow pace of some of the horse and cart transport.
Despite all this, Alexander Stemp’s book is one of the very few guides in English dedicated to the region. Eye-catching title notwithstanding, no detailed account of the local flora, fauna and geography can be found here. Rather, the thin, 76-page volume is an introduction of sorts to tourism in the area, based on several cycling trips made by the author in the years since the country dropped its visa requirements for EU citizens in 2005.
Rough guide to the Carpathians
It opens with a (very) potted history of the country and region, mixing considerations on location, national heroes and the weather with a description of a number of folk legends and customs linked to Hutsul culture.
The remaining chapters are devoted to general practical advice on travelling to the area from Budapest (strangely omitting to mention that clocks need to be adjusted on crossing the border), on getting around, finding accommodation and food, and to the three suggested itineraries covering roughly the north, centre and south. A short glossary provides a few essential words in English, Ukrainian (in Latin transcription) and Hungarian (for those who can manage the pronunciation).
Small maps, roughly customised for each itinerary, provide pointers to the location of important beauty and historical spots such as Hoverla mountain, Ukraine’s highest peak at 2,061 metres; the Veretskyi Pass, historically used by the early Hungarian tribes to enter what then became Hungary; and Synevyr Lake, the Ukraine Carpathians’ biggest lake.
Towns, castles and mansions too get a look-in, starting with Chop, the first port of call for those crossing the border from Hungary, and continuing with Mukachevo, the late medieval Palanok Castle, and the mock renaissance Schönburn-Buccheim hunting lodge.
The text is too succinct and the style too plain to make the book either a stand-alone informative guidebook or an atmospheric travelogue, but the multitude of pictures illustrating each page give a sense of the remoteness and richness (in scenery rather than GDP per capita) of the areas the author passes through.
Stemp, a Budapest-based writer and landscape gardener, writes from the point of view of an English speaker arriving from Hungary and well-versed in Hungarian history. This provides some useful context to the Ukraine Carpathians, whose history overlap somewhat with that of their western neighbour. It also makes the book that little bit less useful or flexible for those with no interest in Hungary or who choose a different entry point to the Ukraine Carpathians.
For all its shortcomings, Stemp’s is a rare, useful guide to a region where English-language information and cyclists are likely to be few on the ground.
Buy the book
The Ukraine Carpathians: Europe’s last great wilderness
By Alexander Stemp
Paperback, illustrated, 76 pages
Milton Contact 2011
HUF 3,000 or GBP 14.95
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