Overlooked Central Ukraine: A Homecoming Road Trip
By Natalia Iwanek
Twelve years after my last visit, I recently returned to my ancestral homeland with hopes of reconnecting with family and seeing parts of Ukraine that had only existed in my imagination.
Born in Poland to an ethnically Ukrainian family, much of our history has been grim, including deportations and resettlements. After settling in Canada during the late 1980s, I experienced a typical diasporic childhood, complete with folk dancing, Saturday heritage classes, and making traditional varenyky with my babcia.
Sunflowers and Stories
Recollections of the family who had left decades ago and traditional Ukrainian stories filled my mind with images of endless sunflower fields, traditional villages in shades of white, magical forests, and otherworldly steppes.
These romanticized images are far from reality, as 21st century Ukraine is modern and industrialized, with major sprawling metropolises and infrastructure.
However, this reality of present-day Ukraine surpassed my dreams and, if you leave the cities behind, glimpses of the past can still be seen in parts of the country, including the center.
Often times, international travelers to Ukraine follow a well-worn backpacker trail. They fly into Kyiv, take an express train to Lviv, and then continue to cities further west. Although this route is popular for good reason, if you have a few days to spare, often-overlooked Central
Ukraine offers a tremendous amount of beautiful attractions, unique museums, and photographic natural wonders.
Keep in mind that this is a lonelier type of trip, with less human interaction outside of the main cities, but perfect for travelers who prefer to experience a great deal of natural beauty – and the occasional goat.
Driving from Podil to Ukrainka
After a harrowing drive from Podil district in Kyiv, which I would recommend to only the most seasoned of drivers, I followed the Dnipro River to the village of Ukrainka, located approximately an hour and a half from Kyiv.
Ukrainka is popular among Kyiv’s locals for its slow pace and quiet atmosphere compared to the bustle of the big city. I recommend watching the anglers on the shore, taking a walk down the boardwalk, or eating at the many cafes that surround the river. Ukrainka offers a glimpse into history, as the streets are filled with Khryschovka-style buildings, low-cost buildings typically constructed during the 1960s.
Approximately three miles away, Trypyllia, a tiny town known for being the settlement of the Cucuteni-Trypillian culture from 4300–4000 BCE, is worth a stop, especially the Trypillian Culture Museum.
A further six miles leads to tranquil Vytachiv, whose green fields and a gorgeous view of the Dnipro make it the perfect lunch spot. I spent the day wandering along the paths, eventually encountering the path to the beautiful Vytachiv Kaplitsia, a wooden church, and enjoying the views from the solitary bench. The village dog will make an appearance at some point during the visit and accompany travelers on their way.
After a night’s rest in Kyiv, I continued west, eventually leaving the highway and heading down a bumpy, dirt road. The Korostyshiv granite quarry is the perfect place for a quick lunch and respite from the summer heat. I suggest bringing some towels and relaxing on the sandy shore; the “new Odessa,” according to locals.
On to Zhytomyr
Continuing down the highway, I reached Zhytomyr, often overlooked due to its proximity to Kyiv. The Sergei Korolyov Museum of Astronautics on Dmytrivska St 2 is the absolute highlight, even for those with no interest in space travel. I learned a great deal seeing inside a replica of the Soyuz spacecraft and learning more about Korolyov, the chief engineer of the USSR’s rocket and space program.
The center of town, Zhytomyr Main Square, pays homage to Korolyov with an impressive statue, as well as featuring a path full of colorful umbrellas that rival most large cities. Zhytomyr’s outskirts are also not to be missed, as Holova Chatskoho, at 2-y Kryvyi Ln. is a secluded, wooded area, with quiet paths and rushing water.
On the highway, I was struck by the sudden sight of a stunning teal-washed church amongst the trees. Located approximately eighty miles from Zhytomyr, the beautiful village of Koryst, with a unique blue church and corresponding blue cemetery, is an easy stop just off the main highway.
Stay the Night in Rivne
Since towns are quite small in this part of the journey, I suggest spending the night in nearby Rivne. Rivne Hostel at Soborna St, 19-21 is comfortable, affordable, and comes with spacious lockers. Located right in the center of town within walking distance to most attractions.
At this point in the journey, Central Ukraine had more than surpassed my personal expectations. However, understandably abandoned quarries, space travel, and old churches are not for everyone.
The next portion of the trip is guaranteed to win over the harshest of critics. Klevan’s Tunnel of Love, of recent Instagram fame, is a quick thirty-minute drive from Rivne. Arriving early to beat the crowds, local vendors informed me that the railroad track was still, indeed, used by trains.
As if on cue, the large train came chugging through the greenery, revealing that the trees have in fact molded to the shape of the train. No one knows the exact schedule of the train and visitors are to enter at their own risk.
The Four Mile Track and Green Tunnel
Walking down the isolated four-mile track, visitors can see ribbons of various shades tied to the trees; these are wishes for everlasting love.
Luckily, after the initial train, I managed to have a great deal of time alone in the tunnel, with no frightening surprises.
The town of Kremenets is worth a pit stop, boasting a fortress and hilly center. Many different food options are available here, especially quick snacks.
Two and half hours south and I was in Ternopil, a city offering a stunning boardwalk, with fences dotted with locks signed with hopeful messages from loving couples.
Forty-minute boat trips around the area are highly recommended and cost about one dollar. Shynok Restaurant at Zamkova vul. 10-A has beautiful sunset views and meat platters, green and red borsch, and wonderful platters of cheesy, buttery Georgian khachapuri are all available.
Kozivka, located on the outskirts of Ternopil, is a traditional village in which visitors can spend an hour simply walking the streets, stop for snacks and a chat at the village store, watch chickens cross the road, and see various religious monuments. However, the true attraction is about a ten-minute drive away.
Sulfur Water from a Tap
The Sorotske Dzerelo Church offers visitors natural sulfur water directly from a tap in the church itself. Bring a receptacle; it is said to cure many ailments.
Nine miles away is Berezhany. Berezhany Castle offers visitors a museum to learn about the history of this beautiful landmark, built during the 1500s. Admission is about 70 cents. A few miles Berezhany, Ray village offers stunning views of the surrounding towns.
Far too quickly, my trip concluded in the beautiful city of Lviv. No visit to Lviv would be complete without a stop at the hidden Kryivka Restaurant at Rynok Square, 14. After uttering the secret password, Slava Ukraini, an armed guard will grant you entrance and you will be given a shot of liquor.
Follow him down the dark and winding stairs, where you will reach a basement restaurant built like a bunker. My meal of traditional cheese varenyky did not disappoint.
Ukraine Can Be a Challenge
Ukraine’s sheer size, quickly changing terrain, and unpredictable transportation infrastructure in less-populated areas make travel a challenge at times. This massive country would take years to properly explore, but do not limit yourself if you only have a short amount of time.
A number of beautiful things can be seen in any corner of this vast country. In only eight short days, I reconnected with family, experienced village life, and got to see a side of Ukraine often overlooked. For travelers with more time, further travel to Ukraine’s south is always an option.
Consider taking a train to Uzhhorod and using it as a base to explore the famed thermal waters before making your way to Romania, Poland, or Slovakia.
Natalia Iwanek, born in Poland, is a freelance writer living in Ontario, Canada.
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