Exploring Uzhgorod Ukraine’s Central European enclave
Ukraine gained more territory from WWII than any other nation. Indeed, it has often been noted than in purely territorial terms Ukraine was (and remains) the true winner of the Second World War – a fact that many Ukrainian nationalists may find difficult to equate with the more traditional Stalinist legacy of terror and genocide. Of all the territories ceded to Ukraine in the immediate aftermath of WWII, Uzhgorod is probably the most incongruous and certainly the most indulgent. It lies far beyond the Carpathian Mountains and is to all extents and purposes divided from the Ukrainian cultural world by a formidable natural barrier than for centuries meant the city was part of the Hungarian and Slovakian hinterlands and very much part of the Central European cultural orbit. Slavic influence here was always strong – the region was settled by ancestors of the modern Slavic nations at around the time of Christ and has always had a strong Russian and Ukrainian Orthodox congregation. But nevertheless until 1945 the city of Uzhgorod and its rural surroundings had traditionally been melting pots of north Balkan culture that were far removed from the agricultural idyll of Western Ukraine or the Homo Sovieticus lifestyle synonymous with the often rootless urban populations of Eastern Ukraine.
Unlike anywhere else in Ukraine
This cosmopolitan cultural heritage, together with the city’s unique geographical position detached from the rest of Ukraine by the imposing natural barrier of the Carpathian Mountains, have combined to help make Uzhgorod a little bit different. The city has an ambience about it that carries strong traces of Central Europe and offers distant echoes of the eastern Alps. As a major international border crossroads, Uzhgorod is also a place with plenty of the glamour and swagger that tend to come with prolonged contact with major international trade and smuggling routes. The city is just a few hours from Budapest, making it a popular stopoff point throughout the past 20 years for smugglers and contraband operators alike as they look to use Ukraine as a staging post for entry into the EU proper. The days when bandits used the city as a stop off along well worn Eurasian trafficking routes may now be over, but there is a certain worldliness about modern Uzhgorod that owes much to its heritage as a gateway city.
A Ukrainian language city
Visitors to today’s Uzhgorod will be struck by the predominance of the Ukrainian language on the streets of the city. Those without Ukrainian language skills will be glad to learn that Lviv Today magazine will now be distributed at a number of venues in the city. In general there should be little trouble being understood in Uzhgorod as the close proximity of numerous international borders makes this a multi—lingual town where English is more widely spoken than in most other Ukrainian cities, despite the fact that with a population of just under 120,000 people it is by far Ukraine’s smallest regional capital. There is much to see, from the city’s impressive castle and former Bishop’s Palace to the picturesque and progressive architecture that dates back to the interwar period when Uzhgorod was part of Czechoslovakia.
Where to stay
(2 Bohdana Khmelnitskogo Square, Tel.: 0312- 619050, [email protected])
stands directly across the bridge from the central old city. This newly refurbished hotel features a sleek glass and steel exterior housing a range of rooms offering good value for money. An army of multilingual staff are always on hand to help with anything including pick-ups from either border crossing point.
(27 Koryatovycha Square, Tel.: 0312-614095, [email protected])
is arguably the most European of Uzhgorod’s hotels, although it is also worth noting that it is probably not the best value for money. The Atlant boasts about a dozen immaculate and modern rooms and is located right in the city centre. Some rooms have kitchenettes and they also offer good deals for families with children. There are a few rooms on the top floor which are somewhat smaller but which feel slightly more romantic with their skylight windows that allow you to peer out over the rooftops of the city. A very nice sauna and mini-pool are also located up on the top floor and the hotel’s restaurant is a cut above the rest.
(5 Kirila y Mefodiya Square, Tel.:0312-673143, [email protected])
is handily located close to the train station on the southern side of the city and is a small hike from the centre. As the city’s former Intourist venue – the Sovietera brand of hotels designed to accommodate (and impress!) visiting foreign guests, this cenue has plenty of facilities although few have been updated since Gorbachev’s time. Most helpful is probably the in-house travel agency which can offer support and book tickets and excursions.
(22 Bachynsky Str. Tel.: 0312-613355, [email protected]) is a small private upscale operation located to the north of the city centre that offers intimacy to guests along with ultra-clean rooms and a good sauna and swimming pool.
(12 Vysoka Street, Tel.: 0312-237233, [email protected]) is Uzhgorod’s other Soviet-era hotel and it brings a touch of class to the old school style with its hilltop location and stunning panoramas. The great views of the north side of the city which this pearl of Soviet chic offers more than make up for the long but pleasant hike up from the city centre and the quite and wooded neighbourhood in the hills attracts Uzhgorod’s business crowd for weekend conferences. Many a wild night has begun in the Druzhba Hotel, and many a romantic meeting has been consummated on the hotel’s balconies as the sun comes up over the Carpathian Mountains in this mystical spot between East and West.
Where to eat
All of Uzhgorod’s hotels uphold a strong culinary tradition and deserve recognition. Hotel Atlant deserved special credit for its gourmet Hungarian and Slovakian cuisine, while Hotel Old Continent (4-6 Shandor Petefi Square) features an equally refined restaurant. The Zakarpattya restaurant is a little more Soviet as you would expect of a former Intourist joint, but in its favour it is open all night long. For mid morning or afternoon snacks you are strongly advised to stop by any number of the coffee shops along the city’s Naberezhna (riverbank) where lethal little thimblefuls of Hungarian espresso can be procured. There’s also an inordinate number of small restaurants and pizzerias in town that offer excellent value for money and plenty of options. The Terrace Restaurant at Uzhgorod Castle is an upscale restaurant located right at the medieval gates of the castle. Serving a diverse menu of Hungarian and Transcarpathian
favourites, this is arguably the most atmospheric eating out in the Trans-Carpathian region.
‘Detsa u Notarya’ (98 Gagarina Street, Tel.: 0312-661166) is Uzhgorod’s happiest restaurant with its wide range of traditional Trans-Carpathian food on offer for below average prices and amid a lively ambience. Delphin restaurant (3 Kyivska Naberezhna, 0312-614963) is regarded by many locals as the best restaurant in town. It serves up traditional Ukrainian fare and grilled meats together with a number of international and Soviet favourites. Eat indoors or enjoy the views from the venue’s sensational rooftop terrace. Sarmat (6 Minaiskaya Street, Tel.
0312-221443) is a popular beer and banquet hall with lots of pork dishes and jolly live music on the menu where you will quickly make acquaintances and get to know the local hospitality. Kapitansky Mostik (56 Sobranetska Str. Tel. 0312-642340) offers hearty food and often the best place to spend an artsy evening watching art house movies or pontificating about the meaningless of existence in the post modern world.
A tradition of wine-making
Among the most interesting activities on the autumn calendar is the annual Carpathian Beaujolais festival of young wines which is traditionally held on the third weekend of November in Uzhgorod. This Festival has become a special tradition in the Trans-Carpathian town − this year will be the 17th time it hosts connoisseurs of young wine, as well as those who want to enjoy the bright and romantic autumn in Zakarpattia. In 2010 the best Ukrainian winemakers will present their products of the season over the weekend of November 20- 21. During these two days of festivities guests will have the opportunity to taste up to 15 sorts of young wine produced locally. Uzhgorod has a long history as a centre of the East European wine trade and this is the perfect opportunity to get to know the sector better!