I first went to Vereckei-hágó in Transcarpathia, Ukraine, by means of independent travel, 10 years ago. To have gone there before would have been more difficult, due to visa requirements and very limited on-site information, at least in English. My inspiration came after hearing much about Vereckei-hágó’s historical significance from Hungarian friends, but then I was quickly surprised to learn that so few had actually been there. Plenty of Hungarians had visited Transylvania and elsewhere within the Carpathian Basin but not so much this particular region, which left me wondering why…
For those people not familiar, Vereckei-hágó is a strategic landmark in Hungarian history; a place of the Hungarian conquest. It was at this 850-metre peak in the year 896 that the Hungarians, led by Chieftain Árpád – of the Magyar tribe – crossed the Carpathians via a pass from the east and arrived in the Carpathian Basin.
Over the next thousand and more years, Vereckei-hágó was perched at the edge of north-eastern Hungary until the Trianon treaty of 1920 drastically changed the face of the country forever, leaving two-thirds of its territory to neighbours. From this point, Vereckei-hágó with Transcarpathia was annexed into Czechoslovakia, before becoming part of the Soviet Union. Finally in 1991 Vereckei-hágó resided in Ukraine.
The views from the summit are spectacular. When after making my way to the peak by means of bicycling and walking I stood and walked around in the footprints of Chieftain Árpád, I looked onto the valleys with a great sense of wonder and sensed the splendour and calm of this great place. What’s more, I had it all to myself on this particular summer day.
Today there is finally a Vereckei-hágó commemorative stone (pictured), completed in 2008. The stonework draws attention to the historical and geographical significance of this immediate area, and provides an ideal rest before either returning to the valleys or heading northwards towards the wonderful city of Lviv, about 150 kilometres further on.
Finally it became clear why so few people have travelled here, because in Soviet times the Transcarpathian region was closed off for many decades. All that was left to refer to, from a tourist point of view, were historical and political references that did not make particularly desirable reading because the area went through a very repressive time.
Now there is a new beginning as Transcarpathia, alongside the rest of Ukraine, is more open than ever and welcomes tourists, as there is much on offer.
I took the train from Budapest to end-stop Záhony and then bicycled across the Ukraine border to Chop, although today cycling across this particular border is not permitted; a taxi will help get you and bike across. From Chop, I cycled an easy-going 50 kilometres eastwards in the heat and the dust of the road before arriving at the enchanting town of Munkács, birthplace to the world-famous Hungarian artist Mihály Munkácsy and home to the equally famed Palanok Castle at the foot of the hills. But that is very much an article for next time.
From Munkács one can either take the train or cycle 60 kilometres into the hills and valleys towards Volovets/Volóc. Certainly a high-quality map of the region is needed at this stage, as well as some knowledge of the Cyrillic alphabet. Volóc town is more of a stepping-off point for the great outdoors rather than anything else, as Vereckei-hágó is a mere 25 kilometres away.
Although mostly uphill among the rolling green valleys, this bike ride was not as difficult as expected. In any case, the higher one gets, the more dramatic the views, and the more exhilarating this mind-over-matter venture becomes.
Time-wise and comfort-wise, I accomplished seeing Vereckei-hágó in one full day by using Munkács as a base. This was a wonderful experience I highly recommend to any outdoor enthusiast. It made me want to find out more about this lesser known region and return, as in fact I have done many times since.
However, there are other ways to get to Vereckei-hágó with far less effort, as nowadays various tour operators take bookings by bus or mini-van. Further information can be easily found online, as well as at the Beregszász tourist information office 10 kilometres into Ukraine from Hungary.
Although quite demanding, independent travelling in this region is not so difficult to accomplish if one prepares carefully in advance with food provisions, becomes familiar with train timetables and generally abides to local conditions, which one must accept and will eventually overcome.
With the challenges come the rewards, which are definitely there as nowadays tourist information is plentiful in many languages either on-line or at information bureaus.
While this wonderful region is very much worth a visit, there is poverty. But the local people are welcoming and friendly, and it is possible to get by in English with some young people. You can also converse in Hungarian around the Chop, Beregszász and Munkács areas. Beyond this point, communication does become harder if you don’t speak the local language, as is the case with me. But my demands were few, so I got by most effectively.
Visas have not been required in the past few years but border crossings to and from Ukraine, although lighter than before, still remain very formal as everyone who enters and leaves is registered. Please check with local authorities for up-to-date travel information as this situation may change at any time without warning.
Although an outsider, originally from England, I want to give something back, as Transcarpathia gave so much to me. I want to present this region in a new and different spotlight which it so richly deserves. So please don’t be put off by negative stereotypes and see for yourself! There are now many websites operating in this area that are easy to find, such as this excellent Uzhgorod site: http://www.tourinform.org.ua/
For those interested in Hungarian history and needing a further introduction, as well as wanting to see something very special, I suggest visiting the small town of Ópusztaszer, near Szeged. There is a vast, monumental painting by legendary artist Feszty Árpád depicting the Hungarian conquest. This panoramic work measures 15 metres high and 120 metres long. The subject matter is Chieftain Árpád leading the Hungarian tribes into Hungary through Vereckei-hágó. This colossal painting was finished in 1896 for the Hungarian millennium, and is very much worth a visit too.