Chasing Summer’s End In Chernihiv
Ukraine? Who goes to Ukraine? And at the end of summer too?
Not too many people, that much I can say. But there I was, at the end of September last year, the only Asian on the Emirates plane flying from Dubai to Kiev. At Ukrainian immigration, I stuck out so badly like a sore thumb that even the rest of the immigration officers came over to my booth just to find out where I was from. It was pretty crazy and funny, and I should have known right then how crazy and fun my trip was going to turn out.
It was the end of summer, they said. The temperature would be dropping, the tourists would be gone; things just wouldn’t be as fun as they could be. But the end of September was the only time my friends and I could agree on, and Ukraine was the only country that made sense to us all. And so Ukraine at the end of September was set for the grand reunion the Six Pack.
The Six Pack was formed in 2008, when six seemingly incompatible individuals met in the sleepy university town of Olomouc in the Czech Republic to pursue a master’s degree in European Culture. Hailing from the USA, Canada, Bosnia, Portugal, Ukraine and the Philippines, we formed a strong bond early on based on a love of food, travel, and everything (well, almost everything) European. After parting ways in 2010, we were hard pressed to find ways to get together again. But plan and plot we did. And in the end, four of us managed to make it to our dream reunion: Sarah, who is currently pursuing her PhD, was on a study visit to Ukraine, doing some research on their food traditions; Genevieve who had just gotten married and was on her honeymoon in Croatia (which isn’t all too far from Ukraine when you think about it); I myself who had a promise to keep to Olena, who visited me in the Philippines way back in 2009, that I would visit her country as well; and Olena of course who had recently moved back to Kiev.
As soon as I got out of the airport, my friends whisked me off to Chernihiv, two hours north of Kiev, where Olena grew up, and where her parents still live. Chernihiv is known as one of the most ancient and beautiful cities of Ukraine. Formerly the second capital of Kyivan Rus, about one fourth of all Old Russian architecture in Ukraine is found here.
While we only spent two days in Chernihiv, I would say this was the best part of the entire trip, if only because of Olena’s parents.They were the sweetest hosts of all, looking after us with such care and genuine pleasure.
The food, always at home, was another highlight. Each meal was cooked with fresh vegetables and herbs from their garden, and came with story. One has to try their potato pancakes called deruny, which usually comes with a generous serving of sour cream. Also amazing is the syrnyky, which are cottage cheese fritters, also served with sour cream and jam. For those with a sweet tooth, the marlenka cake is a must!
But most wonderful of all was the shashlik, which is a form of Shish kebab popular throughout the former Soviet Union. Meat for shashlik (as opposed to other forms of shish kebab) is usually marinated overnight using vinegar, dry wine or sour fruit/vegetable juice and a variety of herbs and spices. The aroma alone of this grilled meat rising through the brisk cold air was enough for me to forget how miserable my tropical island self was due to the chilly Chernihiv night.
Also helping me with my body warmth issues was the omnipresent vodka. But of course! I found that Nemiroff Vodka is really good (no painful hangovers the next day!) and goes down so well with pickled cucumbers. But the most interesting thing about drinking vodka in Ukraine is that there are designated toasts for each shot. Having indulged myself as locals would, I never got to memorize these toasts, except that toasts #3 and #7 are made to love. Isn’t that awesome?
Other than gorging ourselves on the delicious food and enjoying our vodka shots, we also found time to play the tourists that we were. With the sun thankfully coming out the next day, we walked around town, we found ourselves at an old Soviet style amusement park and playground. And amuse ourselves we did!
We all got on the old Ferris wheel that surely had seen better days. As creaky and scary as it was, we enjoyed a bird’s eye view of the whole park from the top, noting the lovely woods surrounding the park with some trees already turning red to signal the beginning of a new season. Craving for a bit more excitement, Kevin (Sarah’s husband) and I got on the brand-spanking new rollercoaster -- it was inaugurated the day we were there, with the mayor and media coverage to boot! It wasn’t such a smart idea though as Kevin suffered some whiplash while I ended up with bruises. Still, we had no regrets. The summer sun and the warm blue sky made us feel young, wild and free.
We literally skipped along, and soon we found the Saviour Cathedral, which is the oldest church in the whole of Ukraine. I read belatedly that this five-dome church was commissioned way back in the early 1030s by a guy named Mstislav the Bold and was eventually completed decades after by his brother Yaroslav the Wise. As my knowledge of Ukrainian history is almost zero, all I can say is that it is impressive how beautiful this church has remained through the centuries. Also, many times I have walked into a lovely old church but found no one else but tourists. This time though I was mildly pleased to discover a service being held when we walked into the church.
The Saviour Cathedral is found within the territory of the Stronghold, where more than a thousand years ago a prince's citadel and a chain of fortified installations were situated. At some point, there were administrative buildings, boyar's houses, markets and temples beyond the protective walls. The Saviour Cathedral is one of the landmarks that have survived until today and it remains a fascinating example of Old Russian architecture. Additional sights to enjoy from the eastern part of Stronghold are impressive views of the city and the golden cupolas of Catherine's Church, which is recognized as one the most beautiful in Ukraine. Also nearby, by the bank of the river, is another of Chernihiv’s landmarks, the 12 Cast-Iron Cannons. As legend has it, they were a present from Peter the Great for the courage shown by Chernihiv’s Cossacks during the war against the Swedes.
I guess seeing an old park and some even older churches is not much for some people. But in Chernihiv, the most important factor was the people I was with. Catching up with friends that I love so dearly but don’t get to see because of geographical considerations and getting to know such wonderful and charming folks as Olena’s parents -- this for me is what makes a trip memorable.
It was an extremely emotional parting for us then when we had to go back to Kiev. Olena’s parents sent us off with delicious food, warm blessings, and tears in their eyes. While my travel plans call for visiting as many new places as possible, I would definitely welcome a chance to return to Ukraine, if o nly simply to see my friend Olena and her parents again.
All in all, we managed to visit four cities in the nine days that we were together: Chernihiv, Kiev, Odessa and Yalta. Nine days are not too long in the grand scheme of things, but we managed to fit a lot of activities, sights and stories into that time -- too much, in fact, to recount at one time. I will tell you more about the rest of the trip another time. In the meantime, enjoy the photos of me and my friends discovering the delights of the small city of Chernihiv.
Text by Bea Guidote
Photos courtesy of Bea Guidote