Favourite destination in Ukraine: If you haven’t seen the Carpathian Mountains, then you haven’t seen Ukraine. This magnificent mountain range that runs from the Czech Republic to Romania is home to Ukraine’s highest peak, Mount Goverla. It is also home to the rich cultures of local ethno-cultural minorities – Hutsuls, Boykos, Lemkos – as well as vast nature reserves.
The region’s astonishing beauty, tranquillity and remoteness from hectic city life; proximity to Kiev, the capital of Ukraine; quality of service to match that of the best European resorts; and surprising affordability have made yearly visits to the Carpathians a family tradition.
We try to get into the mountains once a year to wander in the forest and breathe in the fresh air. We typically go in winter or summer, but the Carpathians are amazing all year round.
You can’t understand the Carpathians until you’ve climbed one of its peaks, preferably before dawn. The mountains offer dozens of awe-inspiring views and there are plenty of peaks to choose from, such as Pop Ivan, Goverla and Syvulya. Local tour guides or the hotel concierge can advise travellers on the best mountains to visit at different times of the year.
The mountains also contain numerous nature reserves, including National Park Synevyr. Synevyr Lake is the largest lake in the Carpathians.
There is also a Four Paws rehabilitation centre, which rescues brown bears from illegal private ownership.
In the Carpathians, each hamlet is like a museum, where ancient traditions are carefully preserved. The old Hutsul village of Kryvorivnya is a must for any traveller, with its picturesque scenery and insights into old country life. Enjoy the wooden architecture and ethnic decorations which cover the interior and exterior of local houses.
If you have a day to spare, take a ride on the Carpathian Tram, a train which travels through villages and mountains, providing the most breathtaking views of the region, for €15 (S$23) a person.
Other nice places to go to are the Bukovel ski resort and the historic cities Ivano-Frankivsk and Mukacheve, which have old castles and fortresses, some of which are more than 800 years old.
The Carpathians are covered with forests and polonyna (alpine meadows), where sheep have grazed for centuries. This is why brynza, or sheep milk cheese, is a staple ingredient of the local cuisine, as are forest berries, mushrooms and fragrant honey.
At Bukovel, the largest ski resort in Eastern Europe, pop into Korchma Filvarok, a local tavern decorated in the ethnic Hutsul style. It serves traditional food which is characteristic of Ukraine and the Carpathian region, in particular.
Try the borscht (Ukrainian beetroot soup), deruny (smashed potato pancakes served with different sides), varenyky (Ukrainian dumplings), mushroom broth and galushky (fried pastry pieces with onions, meat, lard and soft local goat cheese). This is a mid-priced korchma (tavern) where an average dinner costs $3 to $5 a person.
You must also try banosh – a traditional porridge of the Hutsul people, which is made from maize flour and served with brynza and stir-fried lard. It pairs deliciously with mushrooms mixed in sour cream. Carpathian wine adds the finishing touch to these authentic Carpathian meals.
Small markets found in every hamlet or town offer local organic produce, while shops have a range of handmade woollen and wooden souvenirs.
One special souvenir is the local cheeses. It can be traditional sheep milk cheese (usually sold in a glass for preservation) or a cheese horse, literally a horse figurine made of cheese, which has been produced by mountain dwellers for centuries.
Other unique food items from the region are organic, fragrant honey and medovukha, a honey liquor.
Mushrooms can also be taken home. In the Carpathians, they are dried and sold on a long string that looks like a necklace.
A bottle of homemade wine is the perfect complement to this customary set of Carpathian food items, which can be bought in most markets. The total cost of everything would be around $15.
The Transcarpathian region adjoining the Carpathians is famed for its thermal springs. It is a compact region with all the major attractions closely located, so it is easy to spend a day bathing in the healing thermal springs at Berehove or Kosino.
If you like colourful festivals, there are a number of back-to-back celebrations in winter, starting with the festival of St Nicholas on Dec 19, followed by the Catholic Christmas on Dec 25, the Orthodox Christmas on Jan 7 and the holiday celebrating the Baptism of Christ on Jan 19.
All these celebrations are vibrant with masquerade parties and parades and they give one an insight into the local traditions. They are impressive for those unaccustomed to Eastern European cultures.
In spring, the city of Uzhgorod celebrates the cherry blossoms, and in autumn, it holds a festival for the Transcarpathian Beaujolais, a light-bodied red wine, and the tasting of the first harvest.
For the more adventurous, the best way to experience local culture is to stay in a private country house. This kind of ecotourism is well developed in the Carpathians. Landlords of these guesthouses will be happy to share with visitors the local traditions, show places of interest in the area and introduce the local cuisine.
The mountain dwellers are renowned for their hospitality, so if visitors are invited to a local celebration or for a home visit, they should accept without hesitation.
• Lviv, the principal city of western Ukraine, is a good starting point of a journey around the country.
The best way to get there from Singapore is to fly with Turkish Airlines via Istanbul. Spend a few days in Lviv before heading to the Carpathians by car, train or bus. The journey takes three to four hours.
• Travelling in the Carpathians is generally safe. Local people are friendly. They do tend to be religious, however, so if you plan to visit a place of worship, go when there is no religious service and be respectful of local customs.
• Shops are likely to be closed on weekends in remote villages so do your shopping during weekdays.
• It is likely that you will not be able to exchange money in a village, so it is better to do it before leaving a city. Paying by card is rare in the countryside.
• It is best to stay seven to 10 days to enjoy the scenery and explore the nearby cities.
• The Carpathians are shrouded in myths and legends. I recommend reading the novel Twelve Circles by Yuri Andrukhovych.
This article first appeared in The Straits Times.