Bulgarian vignette and border crossing
The Negru Voda border was one of the few Bulgaria-Romania border crossings I hadn’t been through and it also suited us because it avoided the busy coastal route from Constanta to Mangalia. Dobrich is a dry city on the Bulgarian side, it has a huge ring road and was always an awkward place to hitch-hike. Hitch-hiking, as frustrating and rewarding as it is, generally comes without the complications of having to tax your car. Bulgaria has a vignette system as well, in this case, you buy the vignette at the border. There’s a vignette window immediately after the border. I did not have a lot of cash on me and they did not accept cards. I handed over my car documents and said, “vignette,” and when the guy came back to me with the price, I was surprised to find that it was 15 Bulgarian lev or 40 Romanian lei. I only had 33 lei but it was too late, he had already printed off the vignette with our registration details. When I explained this, he shrugged his shoulders as if to say, “tough shit,” and pointed to the exchange office.
The currencies I carried were of no importance at that particular border. They were 200 PLN and some remnants of Moldovan lei and Ukrainian hryvnia. I didn’t really expect the office to change them but went over there as a token gesture. I decided my last resort was to explain the situation to another driver and thankfully, a generous Romanian guy stumped up the missing 7 Lei. The grumpy vignette guy reluctantly handed back my documents and the vignette with a face liked a chafed thigh.
The drive from the Danube delta was our longest throughout the trip, it totalled 487 kilometres and whilst most of it was on fairly good roads, the stretch from Dobrich to Shumen had quite a lot of misleading signposts and a road that started out with the look of a trunk road deteriorated into a small country lane, which was bumpy and windy. It took forever. The road from Varna to Veliko Tarnovo is a pretty good one but you will often encounter what look like large chunks of meat on the road, unfortunately, carcasses of dogs that have been run over. It’s not ideal for those with a queasy stomach, nor is it the most pleasant sight for kids to see.
Our accommodation was in Arbanasi, which is a couple of kilometres up the hillside from Veliko Tarnovo. After a long day on the road, we wanted to settle down and have a beer but unfortunately, there had been something like a landslide on the road and the road was closed. The detour signs took us back in a circle to Veliko Tarnovo and no one seemed to know an alternative. My phone battery had died so I was unable to check the map. Finally, a woman in a jewellery store managed to give us the correct directions.
Arbanasi is incredibly posh by Bulgarian village standards, villas and hotels abound but they are made very tastefully with nice gardens. Our hotel was really nice, although by having the swimming pool in the centre of the restaurant, it did feel a bit as though our noisy children were the centrepiece!
Veliko Tarnovo has an impressive fortress ‘Tsarevets’ and numerous churches and monasteries nearby. It’s well established on the tourist trail and was probably one of the more commercial places we visited on the trip, but it was still relatively quiet by summer standards.
A change of plan
Our initial plan would have seen us spend two nights in Borovets where I was planning to climb up to the peak of Musala, but the guesthouse there contacted us to say that several guests had contracted measles. Although our kids have been vaccinated, we were not totally sure if Sylwia had been, so we decided to give it a wide berth. We looked for alternatives but they were all a bit resort-like and eventually, we made a total change of direction by heading to Petrevene.
Petrevene is a Bulgarian village, 70 or 80 km north of Sofia. It is not a tourist destination, in fact, it has little going for it at all. Our reason for staying there was that it was close to a very interesting cave called Prohodna and we found some accommodation there with a big swimming pool and our own kitchen. Parts of the village were in abject poverty, a gypsy shanty town where people looked down and out. The hotel, ironically named Kontrasti, was quite plush. We arrived in the mid-afternoon, did our shopping in nearby Lukovit and spent the evening swimming.
The next morning, we headed to Prohodna, which was signposted as ‘God’s Eyes,’ it’s a spectacular cave with two holes in the top that look like eyes. There is no entry fee and the caves are part of an extended walking trail connecting it to the Iskar-Panega Geopark. The kids loved exploring the caves, in fact, Alex said he would like to live there!
Vazov Eco Trail in Gara Bov
We then made our way along small roads through the towns of Roman and Mezdra to the Iskar gorge, an impressive river canyon where we stopped off in Gara Bov to hike up the mountain following the Vazov Eco Trail. The trail loops around between the villages of Zasele and Gara Bov. It is well marked and a fairly easy hike.
It was perhaps a bit stupid of us not to realise that the Skaklya waterfall would be dry considering that there was no snow on the mountain peak and it had not rained recently. It was a nice walk all the same and we found a nice picnic spot.
Who was Ivan Vazov?
Ivan Vazov is one of Bulgaria’s most well-known poets and novelists, he is closely linked to the Bulgarian movement for independence against Ottoman rule and was in exile both in Romania and later Odessa. He was said to have visited the area near Zasele several times and mentions parts of the area in some of his literature.
A town called Thompson
Following the gorge towards Sofia, we passed through the town of Thompson, an agglomeration of several villages. It takes its name from a young British army officer. Major Thompson was a member of the communist party but did not support neutrality. He saw action in England, Serbia, Italy, North Africa, Syria, and Iraq before working as a liaison between the British Army and the Bulgarian partisans. He took part in a skirmish between Bulgarian Gendarmerie and the Second Sofia Brigade of National Liberation and was wounded and captured by the Bulgarian Gendarmerie and later executed by a firing squad. After the war, the village was named after him.
His grave can be seen in the Sofia War Cemetery.
Our final stop in Bulgaria was the small spa town of Sapareva Banya, located in the foothills of the Rila Monastery, it makes a pleasant alternative to Borovets. As we entered the town, we saw a rare sight. The fields were on fire, I’m not sure whether this was intentional or not. Several people were stood around watching, while an old fire engine tried to put it out. What was weird, though, was that lots of storks were descending upon the newly burnt ground and were attracted to it like magnets. We thought that they’d burn their talons but having read about it, it seems common practice among storks as they try to catch insects and small animals fleeing from the fire. Grilled worm, is a delicacy worth burning your feathers for apparently.
We had chosen accommodation (Guest House Simona) that fitted the profile we were looking for, an apartment with a kitchen and a swimming pool and it was in our price bracket at 70 lev. The only problem was finding it. As usual, our batteries were running low, so low that I could not make out the display nor find my way to the settings to turn the brightness on. Sylwia’s phone has been playing up throughout the trip anyway, so we’ve been relying on mine. The street we were looking for was not on a map in the centre of the town and so rather befuddled, we parked up at a petrol station on the outskirts of town and I asked a mechanic if he knew where it was. To my surprise, he got someone in the garage to make a call to a person who lived on that street, who told Simona and her grandmother to come down to the garage and within a couple of minutes, they were there to lead the way in their old Opel.
The following day was Alex’s birthday and we were keen to get him a birthday cake and some candles. Not knowing our way around Sapareva Banya, we asked Simona if there was somewhere that sold cake. This helpful young girl went out of her way to accommodate us, phoning a local cake shop and then travelling with me in the car to show me where it was and help me choose it. We then hid it in the family’s fridge. It turned out to be the yummiest birthday cake, we’d ever eaten.
Their generosity knew no boundaries as they also gave him a present – a Batman type action figure. That evening, we had a walk around Sapareva Banya and visited what is probably its biggest attraction – the geyser in the central park.
Sapareva Banya is close to the Rila mountains and there is a lift that leads up towards the Seven Lakes. We thought that the lift might be an interesting attraction for Alex but the walking would have been too much, so we passed on it this time. I’d love to visit the Seven Lakes and Musala on a future trip and plan to go back to Guest House Simona.
To stump up – to provide the necessary money
Chafed – skin made sore through rubbing, particularly at the top of the legs
Thigh – the part of the leg between hip and knee
Stretch – here: section, part
Trunk road – a main road between large towns, suitable for heavy traffic
Carcass – the dead body of an animal
Queasy – feeling nauseous and sick, easily feeling sick through the sight of something unpleasant
Abound – are plentiful
Abject – extreme, absolute
Down and out – without money or home
Plush – luxurious, very well appointed
Liaison – here: a go-between, intermediary
Skirmish – fight, hostile exchange
To flee – to run away, to escape from
Befuddled – confused
Moldova – Romania border in Cahul
Leaving Moldova was a fairly straightforward affair, Cahul was located a couple of kilometres from the border with next to nothing between the town and the border. The Moldovans enquired about the contents of our boot but waved us through pretty quickly. The Romanian border guard was more chatty and inquisitive. A British passport reads ‘Citizen of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland’ and most border guards unfamiliar with them, just see the last word and think Irish. Having looked at the passport and decided I was Irish, he also decided Ireland was not in Europe and started asking me questions about how I liked Europe and how long I was travelling around it. Very strange. Unable to grasp the concept of teaching English in Poland, he marked me down as working in Moldova.
I think it could be worth becoming a border guard and asking completely inappropriate questions.
Do you have any ham sandwiches in the car? How many pairs of socks have your children brought with you? Do you play the lottery?
It did not take longer than 15 minutes to cross the border and we were on our way again.
The Romanian territory that runs alongside the Moldovan border is generally known as Moldavia and was once part of the same country, it looks pretty similar but Romanian drivers are more competitive. I love Romania, I have been there countless times and it always feels like home. Everyone is so friendly.
It’s a relatively short drive down to Galati and takes about an hour from the Cahul border crossing. Galati is not the easiest town to navigate through, especially if you’re trying to get to the port. The city is a lot bigger than I imagined. Follow signs for Tulcea, Galati is on the banks of the Danube and a river ferry crosses the river. There are several of these river ferries throughout Romania. Having parked up in a queue, you head to the ticket office to buy a ticket for the car and passengers. Kids do not pay and neither does the driver, he is included in the vehicle price. A car is about 20 lei and passengers 2 lei. The loading and unloading of the ferry took about ten minutes, in our case there was a wedding party going across the river, so there were lots of elegantly dressed people on the boat. The crossing itself takes 5-10 minutes.
The road to Tulcea is a beautiful drive through small hills, most of the cars from the ferry are heading 100km to Tulcea and jostle for position in a Mario Kart style. Tulcea is often called the gateway to the Danube Delta, it’s where the ferries to Sulina go from. Our destination was deeper into the delta, the village of Mahmudia.
The area is surprisingly hilly and very fertile. Mahmudia is one village before the end of the road, has several shops and one large riverfront hotel. Our abode was the Delta Rustic, situated on a small side street but still close enough to the river to get a view. Delta Rustic turned out to be one of the best places we’ve stayed in. On arrival, a group of people helped us to check-in. I think they were younger relatives of the owners, who could not speak English. We asked them about a boat tour of the Danube Delta, something I’ve wanted to do for over 10 years and they said it was possible, ideally in a group with some other people but if that wasn’t possible, then the owner himself would take us on a boat. The 200 lei for 4 people for four or five hours seemed a good deal. I initially thought about going to Sulina or Sfantu Gheorghe on the coast but they seemed surprised by my request and pointed out that the routes to those places were largely big channels whereas the majority of the wildlife was in Lac Gorgova and the adjacent lakes.
The accommodation in Mahmudia was great: there was a small shop fully stocked with cold beers, you could cook yourself, swim in the pool, use the grill or ask the owners to cook something. A Spanish-speaking man ushered me into the kitchen to proudly show me his catch. I still don’t know if this guy was a tourist, a Romanian who had worked in Spain or a Spanish co-owner. I don’t speak Spanish but it’s better than my knowledge of Romanian and somehow ordered a fish soup, fish, french fries and two salads. The whole meal for all of us came to 60 lei. It was some of the best food I’d had for a long time.
A small group of us, basically all the guests in the hotel (6 adults, 3 children) congregated outside the reception at 9am in the morning and then descended on Mahmudia’s harbour where we were greeted by our sailor. He was an entertaining chap whose first move was to pull into the river petrol station and stock up on beer, his knowledge of these waterways was impressive. We filled in an entry card for the National Park and then raced along the Danube in the motor boat, eventually turning off into a smaller channel and then branching off once again until we were travelling with the engine almost off through jungle-like waters in search of wildlife. The area is teeming with bird life but capturing them on camera, particularly on a moving boat with your mobile is not as easy as it looks. If I did any of these feathered friends injustice with the pics, I apologise unreservedly to ornithologists globally!
Some farmers and fishermen live isolated along these channels and it’s not uncommon to find cattle drinking from the river, it has a real Amazon feel to it.
Lake Gorgova is a popular place to spot pelicans and indeed we did, but it was too late in the morning to catch them in a big group. We also saw pygmy cormorants, glossy ibises and lots of different kinds of ducks. I was on the lookout for jackals and raccoons but the search proved unfruitful. The lakes are connected by channels and each one is slightly different. There’s an impressive amount of lilies on the water.
Engineers from all over the world worked on creating two channels that could be used in commercial shipping, the English in particular, played a big part and their legacy can be seen in the name of the village ‘Mila 23’ which was created 23 miles from Sulina. (Sulina is Mila 0 and the channels are measured in miles), Anglican and Protestant graves can also be found in Sulina.
There are speed limits to obey on the waters but the driver of a speedboat called ‘Gypsy Girl’ was absolutely hammering it in one of the channels, resulting in large plumes of spray squirting up everywhere, and all in the vicinity denouncing him as a mad man. He later pulled into Uzlina, a village with big riverside houses and swanky hotels, only reachable by boat.
Overall, the boat ride was great value, the weather was nice and I thoroughly enjoyed it. A longer trip might be tiring, particularly with kids but I’d certainly consider going back again.
When we left Mahmudia, we drove along the lagoon to the south, Lacul Razim. It’s a beautiful drive, as is the road from Babadag down to Constanta.
At the time of writing:
1 EUR = 4.47 Romanian lei, 1 GBP = 5.29 Romanian lei, 1 PLN = 1.03 Romanian lei
grasp – to understand sth fully
abode – a place of residence, here, somewhere to stay
point out – to draw to one’s attention
adjacent – next to
ushered – prompted, directed
move – here: action
pull into – leave the road to go into somewhere
branching off – emanating from
unfruitful – without result
obey – do as instructed, adhere to rules
plumes – here: long, feathery jets
vicinity – immediate area
denouncing – declaring as wrong
Road to Rososhany
The Rososhany border crossing did not look far from Kamyanets-Podilskyi but the road from Khotyn to Rososhany was worse than imagined. Trucks had left heavy imprints on the tarmac, which had formed giant grooves and in some parts, if you drove too quickly you would hear the oil sump cover, bumper or undercarriage grind against the road surface.
Crossing the Rososhany – Briceni border
The border crossing itself was rather low-key. When we got there, there were two cars in front of us waiting behind a barrier. The barrier was broken which was keeping both the border guard and the driver of the car at the front occupied in trying to fix it. Eventually, a local villager turned up with a tool kit and we were on our way.
As was the case when entering Ukraine, a border guard wrote down the license plate and the number of people in our car then handed us the piece of paper. Leaving the country was rather straightforward. We were waved through the barrier, we parked up with the other two cars and were greeted by a customs officer who asked me to open the boot and then said ‘clothes?’ That was the interrogation over. Next up, the passport officer asked where we were going and seemed happy we were going to Orhei, he then ran the passports through his computer system. Last up was the vignette window. You need to buy road tax to drive in Moldova, which costs 3 euros for a minimum of 8 days. I only had Ukrainian Hryvnia on me but he took me to a ‘bank’ office located behind the vignette office, where they changed the money and sorted out the purchase of the tax. This chap, also happy we were going to Orhei, spoke quite good English and was an all-round friendly guy. We had high hopes for Moldova after this first encounter.
We made our way through the dusty town of Briceni and it quickly became apparent that Moldovan roads were a lot better than expected. Moldova was green with lots of rolling hills with fields full of vines and horses. We skirted round Balti and the road got better and better until it was a bit like a race track devoid of traffic. On reaching a crossroads, we followed signs for Orhei – 34km, which would give us our first taste of rural Moldova. The road gave way suddenly and we drove about 12-13km on a dirt track, I was hardly pussyfooting around but got overtaken by two large Russian built-trucks (Gaz-53B) that were absolutely flying. Eventually, the tarmac made a comeback and we rolled into Orhei to go to the bank and buy provisions.
Moldovan Myths Debunked
Moldova took me by surprise. The roads were way better than expected, although poor, it was more modern than I thought. You’ll see more horses plying the roads in Romania and older Soviet-style vehicles in Ukraine. On many blogs, you’ll find Moldova described as ‘dirt cheap.’ Sure, if you’re coming from Norway then things are cheap but in fact only alcohol, cigarettes and fuel are cheap. Accommodation is relatively expensive, meals out are comparable to Polish or Czech prices, as are food products in the shop. Then there’s the hospitality – if you’re expecting something like a Georgian welcome, forget it.
Casa din Lunca
We stayed at Casa din Lunca, which had received quite good reviews on Booking.com, I was hoping it would be the highlight of the trip. Unfortunately, the pool was nearly empty and dirty on arrival. It was hard to get exact prices for everything, the bill seemed inflated and I had to
quibble about it. Everything was charged in euros as opposed to local currency and their currency conversion seemed to be suspect. The homemade food, though costly, was very good and came as a nice change from the heavily fried foods of Ukraine we’d grown accustomed to.
Old Orhei is one of the ‘must see’ sights in Moldova. The village of Trebujeni is surrounded by what looks like a giant moat. The river carves its way through large banks, caves are built into the escarpment and there is a church on top. At first sight, it’s quite impressive. The Old Orhei complex is badly organised, there are no signposts and the map sold in the administration office is poor. One of the caves is accessible through a door located behind the first church tower, it is easily missed so look out for it!
Everyone we met, whether people in the administration office, local shop, villagers or people at souvenir stands, seemed annoyed we were there. The problem is, that if you’re travelling to Moldova, you’re probably going to be quite a seasoned traveller and therefore you’re not going to be particularly amazed by it.
What is Wine?
We were happy to leave Old Orhei, perhaps we should have gone to the Saharna and Tipova monasteries or Soroca instead. We drove 40 minutes south to Cricova and things seemed to slowly improve. A lady in a supermarket made us two 3-in-1 coffees with some boiling water and we turned up to the Cricova winery right on time. We took a tourist train with an English speaking guide into the underground labyrinth of wine. The guide was nice and the tour was informative. It was interesting to see the streets of wine and the bottling process.
The tour was broken up by a visit to a cinema underground. The 20-minute film, ‘What is wine?’ featured a combination of wine drinking pretentiousness and small country propaganda, and was something I could do without. The wine collection at the end was particularly interesting and contained some of Goring’s wine, which was confiscated by the Red Army in the Second World War, as well as wines from Algeria and Kyrgyzstan. The degustation seemed a bit dear because it included service and lots of snacks, so we passed up on it and spent our savings in the shop.
Putting diesel into our car is extremely problematic, there are two flaps and if the pistol doesn’t go deep enough inside then the diesel overflows and spits back at you. The Ukrainian petrol pump attendant resolved this issue by putting a hosepipe on the end of the pistol and pushing it down inside the tank. I tried to explain to the Moldovan petrol pump attendant the issues with the car and that it would really be better if I did it but he was reluctant to let me do so. Neither did he pay attention to my warnings that it would spit back, so he battled away with it repeatedly spitting diesel all over the petrol court and cursing it, then tried to convince me that the petrol tank was full but because we’d only put in 12 litres and I’d been on empty, I knew it couldn’t be. So I told him to wait and then try again. This time, the pistol went in deeper because I managed to readjust it while he was serving another client. He had to swipe the machine again and somehow it was reset to 0. I assumed he would stop at 12 or 13 litres which would make up the full 25 litres but he just kept going despite consulting with the woman behind the till.
I think we accidentally stole 12 litres of diesel in Moldova because the tank was almost full when I turned the engine on. Being unsure of how to explain myself to two incredibly grumpy petrol station employees, I just decided to leave it.
Gagauziya to the rescue
Gagauziyans are an ethnic minority in Moldova with their own language. They are a Turkic people with a strong love of Russia and they actually broke away from Moldova before Trans-Dniester but settled for autonomy rather than the complicated status that Trans-Dniester has. Comrat is the main city there and a place we happened to be passing through around lunch time. This was our third day in Moldova and we’d still not mustered up a smile from anyone in the service industry. Could the city that proudly displays a Lenin statue change that?
We stopped for something to eat at ‘VIP Pizza,’ which is bang in the centre. The waitress was friendly and helpful, we ordered lunch, charged a telephone and then stocked up on goods in the first large supermarket we’d seen in Moldova.The supermarket staff was also smiley. Things were looking up! Long live Gagauziya!
Our destination that day was Cahul, a border town near Romania. We had booked some accommodation with a pool to break the trip up a bit but we weren’t expecting too much from the town itself. Cahul’s streets seemed to be one endless market apart from the university building and a section with restaurants and bars which looked quite ‘civilised,’ as Sylwia put it.
In fact, Hotel Oasis was a pretty decent place to stay. The swimming pool was nice, the owner or guy working there was around when we needed him. A pint of beer was 12 Moldovan lei. We used a local bus to go to the centre in the evening which cost 3 lei per person, had some good affordable food at ‘Andy’s Pizza’ and then took a taxi back for 25 Moldovan lei. ‘Andy’s Pizza’ even had a little playground where our kids happily played with local Moldovans. I heartily recommend it.
1 EUR = 21 Moldovan lei, 1 PLN = 5 Moldovan lei
I really wanted to like Moldova and report back that it had been unfairly overlooked in European tourism. There really isn’t a lot to see, though. Near Orhei and Chisinau, I felt there was a lack of hospitality and lots of people were surly and unhelpful. The further south we went, the better it got though and the people of Gaugazia and Cahul were nice. Roads and border control are a doddle.
oil sump – the lower chamber of an engine where oil is held
groove – a cut or depression on a surface
low-key – quiet, restrained
to skirt – to go around the edge
to pussyfoot (around) – to do something cautiously
flying – moving very quickly
dirt cheap – extremely cheap
quibble – argue, dispute
suspect – suspicious, doubtful
moat – a wide ditch filled with water around a castle or town
escarpment – a steep slope
labrynth – a network of passages where it is difficult to find ones way
confiscated – taken away by an official
dear – expensive
pass up – refuse, say no to
to muster – to assemble, to bring together
bang in the centre – right in the middle
surly – bad tempered and unhelpful
a doddle – something done very easily
Possessed by Sataniv
Another day of trafficless, straight Ukrainian roads awaited us. Outside of the towns, Ukraine is such a breeze to drive in that I can’t imagine how anyone could have any problems. Kremenets to Ternopil was straightforward, slightly bumpy, relatively empty and very straight. Ternopil was easy to navigate around and rather than following the M-19 towards Chortkiv, we opted to go to Husiatyn a different way.
All was going to plan until I saw a sign for ‘Sataniv’. Sataniv is a small town, diagonally to the south-west of the Ternpoil – Husiatyn road, theoretically its shorter. I threw all caution to the wind and deviated from our planned route. Sataniv it was.
The road was empty, first passing through some picturesque fields and later through a tunnel of trees. The road gradually became more and more narrow, as if nature was reclaiming it. On reaching the village of Krasne, the road disintegrated totally, it was one pothole after the other and the name of the game was trying to choose the smallest pothole or trying to drive on the adjacent verges as much as possible without scratching the doors on branches.
After much toiling, we eventually made it to Sataniv. Sataniv is not really worth the diversion and you’d be best off avoiding doing what I did. From Sataniv, it’s a straight road to Kamyanets-Podilsky and it’s in good condition.
The newly built part of Kamyanets-Podilsky is the same as any other Ukrainian town, wide roads and some communist blocks but it’s the old town that attracts visitors.
The old town seems somehow cut off from the rest of the town and in a way it is, for it’s surrounded by a deep canyon and river that runs around it. It’s connected to the rest of the city with a bridge. It has several impressive churches, cobbled streets, a fortress and castle but it seems rather quiet.
As has been the case throughout Ukraine, we have only seen Ukrainian tourists. This was not the case a couple of years ago, so I can only think the war in the East of the country is putting people off but it’s a pity because Ukrainians are friendly to tourists.
Castle entrance is 25 UAH for adults and 15 UAH for children older than six.
Khotyn is about 25km south of Kamyanets-Podilsky and although we would be passing it the next day, we were not sure how long the Moldovan border crossing would take and so decided to do it when the weather looked a bit murky. The drive down there was uneventful. We were warned about police on the road by several drivers flashing us and considered swapping drivers (with Sylwia being the rightful car owner).Thankfully, they seem occupied when we passed them. As you enter Khotyn, there is a sign to the historical sight and a road veering to the left. This road is really bumpy, but it’s no more than a kilometre before you get to a security guard manning the gate to the car park. Parking is 10 UAH, Entrance is 25 UAH and 15 UAH for children. Once again, Alex was deemed too ‘malinki’ to warrant being charged.
Khotyn overlooks the Dniester river. The majestic castle has stood the test of time. Unfortunately, the top is off limits, but we did instead investigate the chambers below which housed an interesting array of weapons such as catapults and battering rams and another room which held rather macabre instruments of torture. Admittedly, not ideal viewing for children but quite interesting for those with an interest in history, or just nutters.
Kamyanets-Podilsky’s old town is surprisingly rural. There’s a bumpy cobbled road that leads from one of the main squares, down past the fort walls, to a small river that lies just a couple of hundred metres away from the castle. It’s tranquil and there are next to no tourists wandering around that particular area.
Our hotel, Bilya Richky was on the edge of the river, so you could enjoy a meal or a drink next to the water mills. There is plenty of room for children to play and there was also a small swimming pool, although that cost 15 UAH per hour.
We rented a chalet with two double rooms and a bathroom in between it. It was in a row of chalets, directly opposite from the restaurant/bar/reception and so you can drink coffee on the terrace. Various aromas emanated from the kitchen all day long as women toiled away cooking various dishes.
Some sample prices –
Borsch – 25 UAH
Green Borsch – 25 UAH
Vareniki – 25 UAH
Deruni – 25 UAH
Pelmeni – 30 UAH
Shashylk – I had had a bit too much homemade wine by this time but I think the price was 60 UAH per 100g.
Shopska Salad – yes, you guessed it, 25 UAH.
I thought that the stay at Bilya Richky was fantastic but Sylwia likes to put a damper on all things and warns that the walls are thin, so if you find yourself in a room next to a family with a young baby, you could potentially find yourself awake all night. The chances of this happening, however, are quite slim and I imagine the solution to it, would be another 1,5-litre bottle of homemade wine for 60 UAH.
The most important news for parents is that Ukrainian children seem very friendly and willing to play with others and will get by on a mixture of languages and gestures. Our kids don’t even do this amount of socialising in the park in their own neighbourhood. We’ve had an unexpected amount of time to ourselves and plenty of time to sample local food and drink.
Food and drink
Ukrainian food is essentially very similar to Polish, however, it’s a bit oilier and the portions tend to be smaller. Vegetables are hard to come by and rarely seem to make it onto the dinner plate.
Vareniki are essentially the same as pierogi but a little smaller. Deruni are potato cakes. Pelmeni are similar to vareniki but with a doughier outer shell.
Most people will be familiar with borscht, the beetroot and sour cream concoction that Ukrainians will often start the day off with. What was new to me, though, was ‘zeleny borsch’ (or any other way you want to transcribe it) is known as sorrel soup in English. It’s similar to the Polish ‘szczawiowa’, however, it also contains a bit of beef and an egg.
The Shashylk with onions, wrapped in lavash with a spicy sauce was by far the yummiest meal we had.
Pancakes are common for breakfast. Fillings such as poppy seed paste, apricot jam and white cheese are the most popular.
There are some caves called ‘Pechera Krysztalowa’ that are about 50-60km from Kamyanets-Podilskyi and would make a nice day trip when combined with Khotyn. Unfortunately, little Alex is going through a stage of not really enjoying dark tunnels and so we decided to pass up on a visit and not traumatise him!
In the next post read about driving across Moldova – the tourist attractions of Old Orhei and Cricova and how the Gagauz manage to rescue our opinion of Moldovans being grumpy.
breeze – something done easily
I threw all caution to the wind – I acted without worrying about the consequences
the name of the game – the unwritten rules, the way something has to be done
toiling – labouring, struggling
putting people off – discouraging people from doing something
murky – dull, damp, misty
manning – operating or acting in a position
warrant – justify
stood the test of time – proved to endure over a long time
array – range, variety
nutters – crazy, mentally disturbed people
tranquil – calm, peaceful
emanated – came from
to put a damper on something – to act or speak discouragingly
hard to come by – difficult to find or obtain
doughier – having a thicker, spongier consistency
concoction – a mixture of various elements
Driving to Dubno
After the stress of not knowing whether our car would be roadworthy or not, we needed a fairly relaxed day and that’s exactly what we got. We left the Motel Euro at midday and decided that I’d drive, despite having been warned by the border guard that Sylwia should. We coasted to the town of Kovel on the well-surfaced road towards Kiev, then turned to Lutsk. Again the road was not bad, there was only the occasional hole. The last section of that road was under construction, which meant lots of little bits of tar flicked up at the car. We turned left just before entering Lutsk and followed the signs for Dubno. All of these roads were very quiet and quite relaxing to drive on. Just before Dubno, the road joins the main Kiev to Lviv drag which is a road in good condition.There was not a policeman in sight.
Because it was only a couple of kilometres out of our way, we decided to visit the Tarakanovskiy Fortress. With no signposts to the fortress, it could be hard to find. I’d checked out the route on Google Street View beforehand.
It’s on the south side of Tarakaniv and you need to follow a small dirt track which starts off near the cemetery. Navigating your way around the puddles, you might think you’re going to a dead end but eventually, there is a clearing and in our case, there were several cars parked and even a guy selling souvenirs and offering tours from his car.
The Tarakanovskiy Fortress has been abandoned since WW2 when it was used as a hideout for Polish soldiers who gave it its last lease of life. Despite being an impressively large fortress, initially built by the Russians and later captured by the Austro-Hungarians, it has never lived up to expectation and has in fact been empty for a lot of its life.
You can mooch around the ruins free of charge, there is an impressive network of dark corridors and some tunnels which connect different parts of the fort. The surrounding countryside is also very beautiful.
On our way out of the complex, Alicja decided to go for a wee in the bushes. One of the guides warned us about something like ‘Borshivik’. As he was pointing to a plant, it became apparent he was not talking about Bolsheviks. He told us it was poisonous and with a little bit of research we found out it was hogweed. I’ve heard lots about hogweed but have been pretty oblivious to it, but since being warned of it, I notice it everywhere in Ukraine! It’s definitely not recommended to brush it against your bottom!
Heading back towards Dubno there is a signpost for Ternopil, we followed that road to Kremenets which only took us about 30-40 minutes, stopping to take a picture of a particularly gaudy Orthodox church. Again the road is fine, a bit bumpy but hole-free.
I’d checked out the location of Hotel Panorama in Kremenets on Google Maps before leaving Poland and found it easy to navigate my way there. I’ve never really used GPS, in fact, I don’t really use maps anymore either. I have a photographic memory, so I just need to look at the map a couple of times and it stays in my memory forever! The signposts in Ukraine are pretty good, perhaps less regular than in Western countries. If there isn’t one, just go straight and you should be fine. As a backup, I have Wikiloc on my phone. It’s free and you can download a map of a country and then see your location on that map without connecting to the Internet. I used it once on a mountain trail and found it to be effective.
Our first impressions of the Hotel Panorama were really good. We’d booked two twin rooms for 300UAH on booking.com (150 UAH per room). The rooms were nice and clean but it was the outside that won us over. Hotel Panorama is a dream for kids. There are two playgrounds, a swimming pool, two large trampolines, a range of rides, and lots of pondside cafe tables. The food was delicious, although if you’re a fan of vegetables, you’re probably going to want to order a salad since dishes like shashlik are purely meat. The pizza is very good.
Here are some sample prices –
Beer – 16 UAH
Pizza – 40-60 UAH
Shashlik – 65 UAH
Natalia in reception was very friendly and did her best to speak Polish. Getting by in English would be quite difficult. Every order was a mix of Russian, Ukrainian, Polish and English-Polish, and a lot of gesturing but the more beer I drunk, the better my ordering skills got. The bar staff – Yuriy, Denis and Ivanka were particularly cool. Our kids, Alex and Alicja were so overjoyed with the possibilities for playing that they became rather careless with their tablets. Alex has a LeapPad2, which he left on an empty table far away in a secluded part of the resort, meanwhile, Alicja left her Hudl with a new friend, then lost her and couldn’t quite remember what she looked like! By the time we discovered they’d mislaid their items, it was almost 10 pm. The hotel was showing Dynamo Kiev v Shakhtar Donetsk on a big screen and a lot of the children had gone home.
Thankfully, both items had been handed into the bar staff who had kept them for us. We were over the moon, perhaps more so than the kids. The tablets have been a saviour on some of the journeys. They keep them occupied and also double up as cameras and they take pictures of churches and other buildings as we pass by them.
We were not expecting the Hotel Panorama to be such an attraction but it kept us all occupied all afternoon and evening. The weather was nice and the kids played football with lots of other kids. There were five choices for breakfasts, we tried three – one was an omelette, another was pancakes with sweet white cheese and raisins, and Alex’s personal favourite – fried eggs and sausage. Additionally, there was bread, cheese, butter and ham. Three breakfasts and coffee cost 150 UAH.
The more we explored, the more we unearthed – there was a large gym upstairs which cost 15 UAH per day, four or five billiard tables, several football tables and another play area for children. All of these facilities were open but not being used. There’s a shop on site and a very handsome cat made of straw bales to greet new arrivals. Despite all the in-house attractions, it was time to get out and see the surrounding area and the town of Kremenets (Krzemeniec) which was once a Polish centre of culture.
We wound our way up the hill following signs for ‘Zamkowa Gora’ in Cyrillic script. The road eventually petered out into a single-lane dirt track. On the top, there was a car park. The entrance fee was 7 UAH for adults and 2 UAH for children. Alex was deemed too ‘malinki’ to be charged an admission price.
The castle in Kremenets was once given to Bona Sforza as a gift from her admiring husband – Sigismund I of Poland. Considered a bit of a looker in her time, I had only ever seen pictures of her that made her look a bit constipated, so either tastes were very different in the 15th century or the artists failed to capture her true beauty. Today the castle is in ruins, although some parts still stand quite tall. You can circumnavigate the walls (either by walking along them if you are brave) or round the bottom if you are feeling more cautious or with children, this gives you a good view of the whole town.
Down in the centre, there are numerous brightly coloured churches. My favourites are the two blue ones. We did some shopping in Kremenets and everyone seemed rather friendly. It’s a bit run down but it has a certain charm to it.
Just before departure, we made sure to stop by the Juliusz Slowacki Museum. Sylwia still remembers the horrors of having to analyse his work as a high school student but I told my Polish teacher that we’d pay a visit. You might be familiar with the poet’s work and probably know that he was born in Kremenets, but did you know he had such an array of ornate fireplaces. Never before have I seen such a collection of them. He had them in every room, even two in the visitor’s room with a piano.
If you’re a Slowacki fan then you’ll no doubt love to see some of his first edition books in all their glory and find the information which is all in Polish, extremely interesting. Tickets cost just 15 UAH. The museum is easy to find but not signposted. The street is a narrow street called Boulevard Juliusz Slowackiego, it is on the right after the church and court. You can also buy a guide book of the museum in English for about 50 UAH.
There’s something intriguing about Orthodox churches and monastery complexes, they seem so colourful and exotic. A mere 30 minutes drive south-west from Kremenets lies the town of Pochayiv. There’s almost nothing between the two towns and as you get closer towards Pochayiv you can see the monastery complex standing proudly on the hill. It is Ukraine’s second biggest monastery and is still growing. A popular place for pilgrims, you can park down in the square and then make your way up to the gates. The path that leads up to the gates was lined with beggars and just in front of the gate, on the right, was a place where women can borrow/rent clothes such as headscarves and long dresses to match the religious dress code. Alternatively, you could buy your own from the market stalls near the square. The priests were apparently not offended by my hairy ginger legs as I had no problems getting in. I entered the grounds and admired the buildings from the outside. The locals genuflect at every occasion, so I felt as though I stood out a bit, just taking pictures on my smartphone! Unless you’re an Orthodox pilgrim, Pochayiv will only keep you busy for around an hour, despite its size. The road from Kremenets is very good.
In this blog post 6 PLN = 1 UAH, 1 GBP = 30 UAH and 1 EUR = 27 UAH
In the next post find out how I became possessed by Sataniv. We explore the medieval fortresses of Kamyanets Podilsky and Khotyn and give you the lowdown on Ukrainian grub.
roadworthy – meeting the necessary safety and technical requirements to drive on public roads
coasted – travel easily, without using much power
mooch – to walk around slowly without purpose
overjoyed – extremely pleased or happy
over the moon – ecstatic
unearthed – discovered, revealed
wound our way up – travelled slowing in a winding way
petered out – gradually diminished to nothing
deemed – considered
looker – an attractive person
array – wide selection
mere – a small quantity, this only
I am writing this blog post from the comfort of the Hotel Panorama in Kremenets, meaning that thankfully, the mechanic saved the day. Having hooked up the car to a computer system which read the failure codes, it diagnosed it as a problem with fuel. The cheapest part to replace was the fuel filter and so we gave that a go, we had to wait 4 hours for the part to come and then it took no more than 10 minutes to change it, the car was firing on all cylinders by 1 pm and against all odds, it looked like we would be on our way.
Unfortunately, Sylwia was tied up with work and could not leave until after 4 pm, by the time we’d left the house it was almost 6 pm and 6 hours later than we’d have liked but better than nothing. The road to Lublin was terribly congested and slowed us down further. There were several places along the way where traffic was at a standstill. Traffic eased after Ryki but we still had to pull into a garage to change one of the headlamp bulbs and for an obligatory hotdog. We took money out of the Euronet machine in Chełm, opposite the McDonald’s just as you enter the town (best place to do it before the border) and rolled up at the border at about 11.30 pm.
Crossing the Dorohusk-Jagodin border
My understanding was that there were 3 lanes at the border, the lengthy truck one, the shorter but still lengthy one for Ukrainian passport holders and the EU queue, so I drove down the left lane passing all of the cars until I could go no further due to the presence of a border guard jeep. At this point, I cut into the lane to the right of me which left me about 5-6 cars from the barrier. I’m not really sure if I did the right thing or inadvertently passed about 150 cars in a diplomat / Mafia style move. Sylwia suspects the latter.
The border guards allow a certain amount of cars through the barrier at once, maybe 10-15, the Ukrainians bunch up on the right and the EU passport holders / cars should make their way to the left. I’m not sure what came over me but I felt a strange attraction to one of the middle lanes and packed our car in there with cars on either side of me. After a few moments, I realised that the EU queue was on the far left and had to ask the driver to the left of me to let me out when the cars moved forward.
The EU queue was pretty small, maybe 5-6 cars at the most. First, there is a Polish custom officer who asks you where you’re going, takes your passports, checks the boot of the car and in some cases the engine as well. Having collected enough passports, the customs officer, gives the passports to a woman in a passport booth and then hands them back to you.
After passing that part, you then join another queue which leads up the hill and over an iron bridge, traffic nudges forward every 10 or so minutes. On the bridge, a Ukrainian officer will ask you to come forward and write down the registration of the number plate while you come towards him. I didn’t realise what he was doing and almost ran him over, unfortunate fellow. He then checked how many people were in the car, wrote it on the form and handed us the slip. We tried to photograph it but got told not to take photos, the one we do have is a bit blurred and probably not worth posting. There is yet another barrier and the queue turns around the corner, until at last, you are guided into a queue by a border guard with a torch. Keeping left throughout this procedure is a good idea.
Regardless of whether you’ve been moved to the queue on the left or right, you need to head to the passport office in the middle lane – you need to take all passports, the car documents and that little white slip of paper that was given to you on the bridge, which will then be stamped.
In our case, it was about 3.30 am, so our kids were fast asleep in the car, the border guard did not have a problem to come out to the car to look at them. After everything is sorted out at that office, you need to go to the customs office with the stamped slip of paper, car registration documents and the passports. If the car has not crossed the border before, they will enter the details into the system. The lady border guard did not seem to like me much, but Sylwia somehow bonded with her and managed to get a smile from her.
My name does not feature on the car documents as an owner and the border guard said Sylwia should drive, which at 4 AM she was not particularly keen on. After letting you through the barrier, you go forward a couple of metres and stop at the next stop sign, a border guard will come and take the slip of paper off you, that’s it, you are in. ‘Welcome to Ukraine. Happy Road.’
The petrol station on the right, straight after the border offers an exchange rate of about 6.2 UAH for 1 PLN, which is worse than the official mid-market rate but better than you’ll get in most places in Poland.
Luckily our hotel was not very far from the border, a mere 16km away on the ‘Warszawska’ road (Dorohusk-Jagodin to Kiev road). The road was quiet and being a dual carriageway, it didn’t take long to get there. The only catch is that the hotel is on the opposite side of the dual carriageway from the direction we were heading. If you too, are coming from the border, then you need to go past all the petrol stations and then do a U-turn where there is a signpost for a road to the left. Motel Euro is illuminated at night and it has a long driveway that joins the dual carriageway.
There is private parking which is watched over by a security guard. The night porter took passport details, payment and gave us the keys. It has a 24 hour reception and because of the border being close by, they seem used to people arriving at awkward hours. The rooms were clean, we had one with two single beds and one with a double bed. We had booked the rooms in advance on Booking.com, and they set us back 700 UAH (350 UAH per room) for the night. If I had one complaint, it was that one of the rooms smelt a bit smoky.
In the morning, we had breakfast in the bar / restaurant / reception. For 4 plates of scrambled eggs with sausage, bread, 3 coffees and 2 juices, we paid 200 UAH. Motel Euro is a good choice for a bit of shut-eye, a proper motel for those on the road. I say morning, it was almost midday, which is when we decided to hit the road again.
In our weary state we forgot to take any photos of the Motel Euro.
In the next post, I’ll cover our journey from the Motel Euro to Kremenets, sightseeing in Kremenets and Pochayiv and an abandoned fortress near Dubno, now home to the dangerous Sosnowsky’s hogweed. First I need to get acquainted with Robert Doms and some of his beers.
hooked up – connected
to give something a go – to try it
firing on all cylinders – to be operating as powerfully as possible
against all odds – despite very low probability
tied up – busy
standstill – at a complete halt, stopped
inadvertently – unintentionally, accidentally
latter – the last option
to make your way – move to
what came over me – what affected me, made me do something
nudges – moves slowly
keeping left – stay to the left
keen on – enthusiastic about
catch – drawback, difficulty
set us back – cost
used to – accustomed to / familiar with
weary – tired
Yesterday, when I delved into the world of blogging, I’d had hoped that by now I would be writing that we were packed and ready to go but unfortunately, not everything has gone to plan. I had counted my chickens before they had hatched. In fact, today has been one setback after another.
At the start of this week, on Monday, I took the car to the mechanics to replace the brake pads and have an oil change. It seemed I had opened up a can of worms. He pointed out that there may be some issues with the turbocharger and suggested that I got it checked out with a local turbo specialist. As he had suspected, the turbocharger was not working correctly and had also pushed through dirt into various connecting parts.
Before we knew it, we were making our way across the city to yet another mechanic who would take out the turbo, send it to the specialist and clean up or replace other parts of the engine. The one comforting factor of the costly outlay was that the car would be raring to go come Thursday. When I collected it today, the car seemed to be running OK and I gave it a celebratory hoovering.
Shortly afterwards, I needed to make a short 70km round-trip to collect our kids and my mother-in-law from the countryside. Imagine my despair when 40km into the journey, a warning message popped up with the message ‘engine failure’ and I lost the power of acceleration. It did not bode well for tomorrow’s journey. I managed to get the car there and back in one piece but the turbo is definitely not working. Thankfully, the work that has just been done is under guarantee and so I’m taking back the car first thing in the morning. We were hoping to leave at midday, so it only gives me a couple of hours to sort it out.
We’ve spent the last two summers in Macedonia and with a bit of luck we’ll be doing so again. We usually drive down and stop off in a couple of places along the way. Last year, we spent much of the route pottering around Bosnia-Herzegovina in search of various waterfalls and this year, we’ve decided to drive down through Ukraine and Moldova. Over the last decade, I’ve travelled regularly in Ukraine, but it will be a first visit to Moldova. Our planned route is below:
Let’s hope that it materialises.
to delve into something – to explore
counting chickens before they hatch – make plans that depend on something good happening before you know that it has actually happened
setback – a complication, something that slows you down
opening up a can of worms – to do something that creates other problems
pointed out – to show somebody something or tell them about it
outlay – expenditure
raring to go – enthusiastic about something, ready
hoovering – cleaning with a vacuum cleaner
popped up – appear
bode – forecast. signify
pottering around – move without purpose
materialises – become reality
As you can see, our website is now out of the blocks.
Let us know what you think of the site. Is there something you think looks a bit iffy or could do with tweaking?
We have developed a diverse following, from writers through to language learners and hope that there’s something of interest to all of you. We hope that our blog will appeal to as many of our readers as possible.
Our blog will be written by me, native English speaker and teacher, Daniel Sandford.
I am an avid traveller and partial to a slap-up meal as well. Each blog post will feature underlined words and a glossary below so that language learners can brush up on their vocabulary.
On Friday, I begin a three-week road trip with my wife and two children (ages 5 and 7), which I will strive to cover, providing that Wi-Fi is plentiful. Before the trip gets underway, a few loose ends need to be tied up here in Warsaw. So, it’s a short introduction from me but pop along to our blog tomorrow night to find out where I’m heading and what lies in store.
out of the blocks – has started running, has got going
iffy – something that is not very good
tweaking – changing / altering slightly
diverse – mixed
avid – devoted, passionate
to be partial to – to enjoy / like
slap-up meal – a large and tasty meal
brush up – improve (especially with languages)
strive – work hard to achieve a goal
cover – to write about or feature
plentiful – readily available
gets underway – starts
to tie up loose ends – to finish things that have been started
pop along – visit
heading – going
lies in store – lies ahead, awaits