An important part of an expat’s life is the travels he or she makes during the stay in a new country.
On the weekend of 11-13 of April, for (the Orthodox) Easter, we have done such a trip and gone to Cernăuți, a town in the South-West of Ukraine, close to the border with Romania. The town was actually part of Romania for a while, in the period between the two World Wars, which explains why even today the second most common language after Ukrainian is actually Romanian there.
Having traveled overnight by train, we have got an early start on Saturday, with the sun on our side. The train was crowded, and full, and most people were going away for the long weekend, but the experience was interesting, and there is a sense of togetherness and comradery, that goes from striking conversations with neighbours, sharing food (or toys in our case) and ends with a cup of tea ”from the house”.
The first day was spent discovering the town, which struck me as old, but well kept. Sweeping people were there bright and early as we arrived, as well as the people in the markets, buying their eggs in order to paint them red (an Easter tradition here), or their ”cozonac” (sweet cake bread) to enjoy with their families on Sunday Easter. The preparations run on Saturday, so on Sunday night people would be ready with their baskets and take them to church where they would be blessed.
The other half a day we kind of spent looking for the correct bus station to take us to monastery Bănceni, where we decided to spend Easter, an Orthodox community run by a Romanian priest who is well known as the monastery runs a neighbouring orphanage which hosts around 300 children, and whom the children know and address as ”father”.
Finding the right bus station was tricky, but after getting directions in Romanian (instead of English, that was a first!), walking for about a kilometre, and then getting the help of a local Ukrainian who called a Romanian friend to be our translator, we arrived at the correct bus stop, next to „Ekvator” (terminus of bus nr. 9 for future reference). There it seemed we have stepped into a ”mini Romania”, as everyone on the bus, including the driver, were speaking Romanian, and we could ask for directions.
The bus left us at the intersection with the small road that goes to the monastery, and after about 2 km of uphill walk, we finally arrived at this piece of Heaven that is closer to Romania than to Cernăuți. It is actually part of the Herța region, territory which belonged till June 1940 to Moldova, and then to Romania, without being part of either Bucovina or Basarabia. As it happened, it had been occupied by Soviets together with Basarabia and Northern Bucovina, following the Ribbentrop-Molotov agreement. After the disunion of the USSR in 1991, the Herța region was attributed to independent Ukraine, as were Northern Bucovina, Northern and Southern Basarabia.
The monastery is set up on a hill, seemingly looking towards Romania, as well as Ukraine. The scenery is lovely, and peaceful, and the buildings are new – the construction of the monastery started in 1994 – and well kept. They welcome everyone, and they even have animals around, the children can enjoy playing with the rabbits and peacocks.
The Easter celebration was very nice, a lot of people gathered in the imposing church, and, on the strike of midnight, all lights went out as the priest exited the altar with the torch, from whom everyone took the light and continued the prayers till morning. For me it was special indeed, as the ceremony was in Romanian, and therefore felt like home, not in a foreign country. These are the things one cherishes more if living abroad.
With a sense of peace and positive thoughts, we left on Sunday again for Cernăuți. We actually got a lift from a Romanian who has been crossing the border for Easter for 3 years now and enjoys spending the holidays in this part of the world. I was a little reluctant to go back, as it seemed to me that Cernăuți would be quiet on a Sunday afternoon, moreover Easter Sunday, which people usually spend in family. Actually, it turned out my suppositions were wrong.
Arriving in the centre again, we discovered the main pedestrian street which opened a new view of the town – and it was then that I understood why the place is also called ”little Vienna”. The architecture here is a more Germanic one, reminiscent of the Austro-Hungarian rule. And it turned out that the town wasn’t deserted at all, but everyone seemed to have decided for a stroll and took advantage of the warm weather. Different street musicians gathered from time to time, including break dancers, to the great delight of the children, who were even imitating – a great view!
As we turned into a nice restaurant for dinner, we didn’t regret spending more time in Cernăuți rather than the countryside. The town was definitely lively and fun!
All right, after experiencing the old, traditional town, but also the more modern, lively part of it, and when we thought the town had nothing more to offer, we chanced upon a leaflet of a fair at the Village Museum. Since it was our last day, and quite a sunny one, we decided to go for it and join the event. It turned out to be my favourite day on the whole!
The Village Museum hosted a folk fair which included live music with different groups, carriage rides, stools with different handmade objects, and of course, barbecues! All in open air – the Village Museum just seemed to come to life. It was an amazing venue for a nice event, I enjoyed the fact that my daughter could run freely (the confines were imposed by the wooden fence of the museum), that the products served were fresh and homemade, that I occasionally heard Romanian spoken or even sung (for those who know ”Dulce-i vinul”), and overall because it was not overcrowded, just the right amount of people with the right amount of spirit to make the event fun, and therefore successful.
As it turned out, there was not a day that was the best, but each had their own, unique appeal, and left us with a very eclectic and wonderful impression of Cernăuți, this borderline town that seems forgotten somewhere on the map, which does not receive a lot of tourists, and those who come are generally nostalgic after one era or the other, and forget to see the new place that has become, buzzing with life and with young people. Personally, we enjoyed the place and were happy to get this positive vibe to take back with us, and in the spirit of the holidays just passed, I cannot end without wishing you – Hristos voiscrese!