A 48 hour vacation in Ternopil, Western Ukraine

Oksana and I took our first vacation without Eddie this week. Anna, who has been living with us for about a month now, covered for us as we went to Ternopil.

The six o’clock fast train got us in at noon. I splurged for first class – all of about $30 per ticket. We had the car pretty much to ourselves and a very solicitous and doctors came by on the hour to offer us tea and coffee.

Oksana called the car rental company from the train to reconfirm our reservation. They told her that the taxi from the train station to their location, about a mile away, should cost $1.20. That was an introduction to the amazingly low wartime prices outside the big city.

It took us almost an hour to execute the rental contract. I still have it – six pages long! They photocopied every document we had. They work without credit cards. I left a $400 cash deposit for the car. Oksana took advantage of the long negotiation to quiz the other guy in the booth on what there was to see and do in the area. She had a full page of notes by the time we were ready to go.

I was apprehensive – this was the first time I had driven in more than three years. We went slowly, slowly at first. We stopped at a restaurant on the way out of town. Driving in Ternopil reminded me of driving in Vietnam. There were narrow streets, lots of pedestrians, and people coming at you at odd angles. It was hardly the ideal circumstance to reappoint myself with driving. We parked and went in to get something to eat.

The second story restaurant overlooked our parking place and I could see how precarious it was. People were having to squeak by our car very carefully. I bolted my lunch quickly and told Oksana she could go shopping, I was going to move the car before it got hit. And so I did. Oksana went to the grocery store and got a bag of travel supplies and we got on the road.

I had insisted that we buy a paper map. Although our marriage contract says nothing about it, one of the most attractive features one can find in a wife is an ability to navigate. Oksana did well. She was able to read the street signs, follow the map, and tell me where to go. Most of the time – street signs in Ukraine are an iffy thing even for a pedestrian.

Her fourth and most viable ability is to accost anybody and ask any question. We stopped the car every 10 minutes to ask somebody for directions.

Let me add a fifth quality. Discernment. People in Ukraine will provide an answer whether or not they have information relevant to the question. Oksana is able to figure out when somebody is answering the question out of knowledge, and when they are answering simply to be polite. She knows when to stop somebody else and get a second opinion.

In any case, we headed north up to our supposed destination, the Pochaev Lavra, the second most impressive church complex in Ukraine.

About 15 miles up the road was a town that was mentioned in the guidebook, which the fellow in the car rental had also recommended to Oksana. It is a 17th century castle in the town of Zbarazh (pronounced zzzbarrage). It was a proper castle, with the moat, a deep well that they used the fill the moat and for drinking water during sieges, and a residence. The epoch of its construction marked the end of the fortified castle – cannons were too effective at knocking them down – so the owners focused more on increasingly fancy houses. This one had marble floors and a lot of ornate curved furniture. Still seemed cold and uncomfortable.

Most interesting to me was a small museum. It seems out of place to put an archaeological Museum in a castle, but so it was. They had stone artifacts from the Paleolithic, Mesolithic and Neolithic ages. Their definition of the timescale was a little different than I recalled, so I just looked it up. The ending dates are 10,000, 7000 and 4000 BC by their reckoning.

The Paleolithic stone tools were large and crude. You don’t kill a mammoth with a bow and arrow – you trick them into running into a ravine and doing themselves in. Ironically, it was small game that required the better stone tools of the later ages. They had arrowheads, daggers, fishhooks and other pretty refined stuff. The museum included the bones of mammoths and other prey animals.

Oksana observed that history is a history of slaughter and cruelty. Yes. The things they considered worth displaying all seem to have to do with warfare, culminating with suits of armor and cannons. Somewhere along the line they got better at agriculture, but it wasn’t documented here. I observed that Oksana’s stature and blonde good looks didn’t come from rice farmers. It was those savage, cruel Norsemen who dominated Europe a thousand years back.

We continued north to Kremenets and then turned west to Pochaev. Road signs being what they are, we missed the turn we intend to take. When we arrived at the first one marked “Pochaev” it looked to me as if I had my choice between going against traffic on either of two lanes. Rather than make that choice, I took the wrong direction and looked for a place to turn around. I took a hard look at that intersection going by it from the other side, and it still did not make sense, but we were on our way.

We got to Pochaev with enough sunlight left to take a very thorough walk-through the place. Like the Pechersk Lavra in Kiev, it consists of a large number of churches and chapels. Whereas in the West there will be one huge building, like Notre Dame or St. Peter’s, Orthodox holy sites feature numerous large but not overwhelmingly big chapels.

The largest of the chapels seems to have services continually. This is another difference between the Orthodox and Western faiths. People do not sit during the service, and they are free to walk in and out. It is all ritual and ceremony – there is no sermon, and there is very little participation from the worshipers. There are one or two pieces of music that they all know, one of which I think is the Lord’s Prayer.

We walked to our hotel which is about half a block from the Lavra. As the restaurant closes at seven o’clock, we had missed dinner. We weren’t hungry in the first place, so we ate a few cookies in our room and went to bed.

We had a leisurely morning Friday. The hotel did not open for breakfast until nine o’clock. Oksana wanted to go back to the Lavra one more time, so we spent another hour walking around and seeing pretty much the same things we had seen on Thursday.

Among the things that Oksana had heard was worth visiting was the spring of Saint Anna. It is a small oasis in the middle of nowhere where the water has supposedly miraculous powers. It was about 20 miles north, bringing us into Rivne Oblast.

There is nothing natural about the spring anymore. It is totally walled in, like a swimming pool. The bottom is natural, which is presumably where the water seeps in. It is about three feet deep, with steps leading into it so that pilgrims can send to the water. The sign says that the water is about 40 degrees Fahrenheit year round. I do not know of what that would cure me of except perhaps a hangover, but three or four carfuls of people during the hour we were there we actually went in the water. You can undress in a changing room and go down the stairs, or else dip yourself in a secluded corner behind walls, presumably without any clothes on.

I found the place where they served tea and told Oksana I would wait. Two long cups of tea later, there she was, radiant and beaming about the rejuvenating experience. I was ready to get on the road. We took off our warm clothes in the car, turned the heat on full blast, and pointed it all at Oksana so she could dry her hair.

The third time we touched the town of Kremenets we actually drove through it. The tour guide said that the only thing really worth seeing was the old castle, the only one in all of Ukraine which had withstood the Mongol attacks in the 13th and 14th century. It had, however, fallen to cannon fire in later centuries, and was thus a ruin.

As we drove through town, we saw this impressive castle upon a hill to our left, and a while later we saw the sign for the road. We couldn’t resist an indication like that so we went. Although the hill couldn’t have been more than about a thousand feet above the highway, it took us 15 minutes to get there.

Walking into the castle one is impressed by the surrounding countryside. The hill is the tallest one around, and there are a great many species of trees. I recognized some of the pines and firs, but there were others that were totally new to me. The guidebook said that this is indeed a national park celebrating Ukraine’s wilderness. They pointed out that the rugged landscape is due to the place’s geological history. It is all sedimentary rock, but as often happens there is a layer of hard rock over a layer of softer sediment. The hardpan dissolves rather unpredictably. When it does, it results in steep cliffs as the soft layers underneath are rapidly eroded. That was what we saw – flat-topped mountains with fairly steep sides.

It had started to rain a little bit when we left from Kremenets. I wanted to get rid of the car as soon as possible, so we drove straight through to Ternopil. All things considered, it worked out pretty well. Try to envision a two lane highway going through the gold country of California 60 years ago, and you have an impression of the quality of the pavement and the traffic density that I was dealing with. There were, as always, slow trucks. I needed to pass periodically. Passing on a two lane road in the rain has always been a fairly dangerous undertaking. However, I felt just as confident as I would have 50 years ago.

Returning the rental car was almost as much of an adventure is getting it. They inspected the whole car top to bottom, inside and out, make sure that there wasn’t a scratch. To their credit, they did not invent any scratches, and decided to return the full $400 deposit that they were holding. The car had gotten dirty in the rain, and they charged me four dollars to wash it. The whole process of giving a back must’ve taken 45 minutes.

We had eight hours until the train. Oksana and I consulted our map and decided to walk through thecity park. It is an absolutely beautiful place, stretching for a long ways along a lovely stream about the size of Rock Creek in Washington DC or Wildcat Creek flowing through Orinda.

Upstream from the park this river is restrained by an earthen dam about 15 feet high, behind which there is a lake a couple of miles long and half a mile wide. Somebody had the wisdom not to build the road along the lake front, but simply a wide, paved pedestrian path. It is gorgeous, set with a very nice playground and a few restaurants. We had sushi overlooking the lake where we watched a replica of a Viking ship – a very small scale replica – with about 10 oarsmen making pretty good time up and down the lake.

We dawdled in a pedestrian square on our way back to the train station, and caught the 10:45 sleeper back to Kiev. We got in at seven in the morning, overpaid for a taxi, and got home in time to change for the Toastmasters club meeting that Saturday morning.

I’ll close with a few additional observations about Ternopil. Everything is amazingly cheap: restaurants, taxis, and hotels.

Africans are much more visible in Ternopil than they are in Kiev. God knows why they are there, but they are. They are clustered in downtown, hanging around in languorous knots, shambling loosely and loudly down the streets. My guess is that some of the powers that be in Kiev succumbed to pressure from Europeans to take refugees, and they put them in a place that was too backwards and powerless to resist.

Ternopil is definitely Western Ukraine. They do not speak Russian, and they don’t seem to want to hear it. I was very glad that Oksana, with her excellent Ukrainian, was there to conduct most of the business. When I needed to get something done, I found English to be almost as useful as Russian.

This 48 hour vacation was a good experience in many ways. Perhaps the best is that after about 36 hours Oksana was saying she was ready to go home. We really are homebodies. However, the next time we feel the urge to get out it is a pretty good bet that we will take another vacation in Ukraine. Though the guidebook doesn’t make the places it names sound terribly exciting, once you were there you find attractions that aren’t even mentioned. I was happy to discover as well that Oksana is a pretty good navigator and as always, she is fun to be with.

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2 thoughts on “A 48 hour vacation in Ternopil, Western Ukraine

  1. It sounds like you had a great time on your mini vacation. I’ve seen some pics of Ukraine’s West. It’s pretty.

    It isn’t easy to look out a car window for landmarks, then down at a map, then back out the window to verify a position. A few miles or kliks of that will make one think he’s a dippy bird (or drinking bird) toy. So props to Oksana on her navigation skills.

    Your reference to Wildcat Creek brought back good memories. About once in a month when school was out, the kids in my El Sobrante neighborhood used to hike down the hills to San Pablo Creek (issuing out of San Pablo Dam), cross the creek and the adjacent Dam Road (nobody ever called it the “San Pablo Dam Road” in the 1940s and 1950s) and then leg it up the hill to Alvarado Park where there was a roller skating rink. To get there via a diversion to a good rafting pond (scrap lumber had two uses: forts and rafts) we crossed the same Wildcat Creek that you mentioned. It was easy to get stung by the nettles around San Pablo Creek. It was easy to get lost in the dense brush around Wildcat Creek.

    Thanks for the good memories.

  2. Welcome!

    I Googled to find out about the Africans. They are apparently students. Some local newspaper got in hot water for characterizing them more or less as I do. I’m glad to be inconspicuous.

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