I will be the first to admit that I had some preconceived notions of Ukraine before visiting recently, and they were almost all very wrong. I thought of Ukraine as the land of Chernobyl where citizens consume huge quantities of vodka, only eat borscht and wear big fur hats. It turns out Ukraine and its generous people are much different than I ever envisioned.
But more on that in a moment. The greatest thing about traveling in Ukraine was my journey of discovery.
Why visit Ukraine?
A few months earlier, my brother and I decided to take a night train to western Ukraine after touring Poland. Western Ukraine is very safe and away from the war-ravaged eastern part of the country around Luhansk and Donetsk. We decided the gorgeous city of Lviv would be an interesting place to visit because it’s off the traditional European tour map. And according to many, it’s the most beautiful city in Ukraine. After our first day exploring Lviv, we certainly agreed.
However, we also wanted to venture outside of Lviv and see some of the countryside and learn more about Ukrainian history. We decided to book a half-day tour to Krekhiv (Крехів) Monastery, along with a first stop to visit the old historical town of Zhovkva (Жовква). Little did I know this tour would be a highlight of my visit to Ukraine.
Outside the Panorama Hotel in Lviv, our guide Ihor and driver Sergey picked us up at about 10 a.m. Ihor is a professional guide and historian who has been leading tours to Zhovkva and Krekhiv for almost 20 years. I don’t speak Ukrainian and my Russian is basic, but Ihor spoke English fluently. Not only was he a fantastic guide, but a very affable and intelligent man who did a great job introducing us to western Ukraine’s culture. Many guides like Ihor may not perceive themselves this way, but for visitors like me, they are truly ambassadors to their nation. Ihor certainly does Ukraine proud!
First stop: Zhovkva
After a 30-minute drive through the countryside surrounding Lviv, we arrived in Zhovkva, located about 25 kilometers away. I wasn’t sure what to expect, but this small town of 13,000 inhabitants was loaded with monumental buildings. Like many towns in Ukraine, it has a long and proud history. However, Zhovkva is extra special and dates back to the 14th century.
In 1594, something monumental happened. The legendary Polish hetman, or military commander, Stanisław Żółkiewski bought the area and decided to build the perfect Renaissance city in Zhovkva with heavy fortifications. Later in the 17th century, it would become a royal city as the residence of King John III Sobieski of Poland. The city’s strategic location between western and eastern Europe and the Orient subsequently made it a very wealthy trade town. Today, much of Zhovkva remains well preserved, and this in particular offers a unique window into Ukrainian history.
Our first stop was the wooden Holy Trinity Tserkva (Church) built in 1720. I have seen wooden stave churches such as the Fantoft stavkyrkje in western Norway, but this church was even more stunning.
Ihor showed us inside and explained that UNESCO listed the church as a World Heritage Site in 1993. We saw about 50 icons painted on the linden wood carved by sculptor Ignatiy Stobenskyj. Ihor also explained to us the intricate building techniques of the timbers and how they were typical of the old tserkvas in Ukraine and Poland’s Carpathian region.
After hopping back in our taxi, Sergey drove us to the stunning old town and its spacious Vicheva Square. UNESCO declared the town center of Zhovkva a heritage site in 1994, and though money is tight in Ukraine, restoration work is still under way. But what is clear when walking around the old arch arcades of the square is that this city had a golden past as a trade and manufacturing center.
Following the founding by Żółkiewski, the town became famous for its skilled craftsmen and artists — so much so that they formed the Zhovkva School of Artists in the 18th century. The town became known for its glass-making, which is still celebrated today. Zhovkva also became an important religious center, with many churches, monasteries and a beautiful synagogue.
Żółkiewski decided to build Zhovkva Castle, the town’s oldest and largest building, to protect the town from Tatar raids. Nearby we saw the remnants of the brick defensive walls and two city gates. We walked inside the castle and observed how it is being converted into a culture and conference hall. There we also saw fascinating exhibits on Ukrainian history, from the Renaissance, to World War Two, to the Soviet Union, to the Orange Revolution, to the present day. There were even fascinating items and paper angels with photos of the “Maidan Angels” — the more than 100 men and women — who died during the Maidan protests. I will not discuss the politics of this because I have both Ukrainian and Russian friends, but the loss of any lives over liberty is extremely tragic.
Nearby, we then toured the marvelous St. Lawrence Catholic Church, which is an incredible showpiece of Renaissance architecture. This main Catholic church in Zhovkva was built between 1606 and 1618 as the pantheon for Żółkiewski and his family. Italian architects designed the domed church with a hexagonal bell tower, which was originally part of Zhovkva’s fortifications, so that it now leans a little to the east. The church also has been viewed as a shrine to the golden age of Polish military victories won by Żółkiewski and King John III Sobieski. Because of this, it was turned into a warehouse under Soviet rule. But after Ukraine declared independence in the early 1990s, the church was restored.
The visit to Zhovkva provided me with some insight into the tumultuous and complicated history of Ukraine. During the 1200s, Zhovkva and other parts of western Ukraine and southeast Poland were part of the Kingdom of Galicia (Галичина). It was located in a strategic spot between Byzantium and Western Europe which made it very valuable. Poland and Hungary long fought for control of the kingdom. After the first partition of Poland in 1772 until the end of World War One, much of the area was part of the Austrian monarchy. The West Ukrainian People’s Republic was established in 1918 before if became part of the Second Polish Republic.
During World War Two, around 4,500 Jews made up half of the city’s population, but most of the Jews were murdered during the Holocaust. In fact, the synagogue was blown up by the Nazis in 1941, leaving only the outside walls. Today the synagogue is being restored and will one day rise back to its former glory. After the Soviet invasion of Poland, the area became part of the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic in 1944. Only in 1992 did Ukraine become independent of the Soviet Union after the USSR collapsed.
On the road to Krekhiv
After touring the town of Zhovkva, we drove through a beautiful countryside with fields full of blooming flowers and farmers tending to their wheat crop. Ihor explained how many Ukrainians remain proud country people, even if they go to work in the cities. Like the Russian dachas— or small countryside homes — that I had read about in Russian novels, we saw a number of Ukrainian wooden dachas dotting the countryside. A lot of Ukrainians like to spend their spare time at these small countryside homes to relax and get back to nature. Many had plots of land where their owners were growing wheat and tending small gardens. Ihor reminded us that Ukraine — much like the plains states in the United States — was traditionally the wheat belt for Eastern Europe.
As we left the wheat fields and dachas behind, our car drove through a secluded forest under a canopy of firs, beech and linden trees until we saw some small church domes and white-washed walls in the distance. We had finally arrived at the Krekhiv Monastery of St. Nicolas (Крехівський Свято-Миколаївський монастир), founded in the 16th century. Today it is a popular pilgrimage site in Ukraine. It is also known for hosting what the faithful believe are the miracle-working icons of Mary and St. Nicholas.
The monastery itself is actually a large complex of churches and structures built in the Ukrainian wooden monastery style. The most beautiful structures are the Church of the Assumption and its bell tower, dating from the mid-1600s. Krekhiv is surrounded by walls that were built to defend it from Tatar armies in the 17th century. In 1949 the monastery was closed and many of the monks later died in Soviet gulags. However, in the 1990s the monks returned after the collapse of the Soviet Union to begin a renovation of the monastery.
What I learned about Ukraine
Upon leaving Krekhiv, I reflected on some other things I had learned about Ukraine during my visit. Before I traveled to Ukraine, the most I really knew about the nation was its Soviet past, Chernobyl, the Orange revolution and the recent Maidan revolution. Beyond that, I knew little about the country, and much less about its people.
The culture in Ukraine was a real surprise to me. No, Ukrainians don’t drink all the time nor do they constantly consume vodka. In fact, Ihor explained that it’s really only a problem in small villages. Ukrainians drink much less than the citizens of Ireland, Hungary, Austria, Germany, Poland and the Czech Republic. No, they also don’t all eat lard, but borscht is popular and there are about 30 different varieties.
As for linguistics, Ukrainian doesn’t have much in common with Russian. In fact, it’s about as similar as English is to Flemish.
Yes, Ukraine is not as rich as Poland and Hungary next door, but things are improving here following the global recession in 2008 when the Ukrainian hryvnia nosedived by 70 percent against the U.S. dollar.
But what struck me most was something Ihor told me. He explained that Ukrainians are optimistic about the future. He said not many western Europeans nor North Americans visit Ukraine these days because of fears of the turmoil in the eastern part of the country. However, he said I should encourage all of my friends to come. He said one of his biggest fears for Ukraine was being forgotten by the West.
Last but not least, I learned there is something special about the Ukrainian people. Yes, it can be cold during a Ukrainian winter, but the Ukrainian people are very warm and friendly. And they are extremely hospitable people who definitely show the best their nation has to offer.