The border between Romania and Ukraine is situated at less than 100 km from my hometown.
Just as any normal family knows all sorts of things about its neighbors, in the region where I grew up we were all familiarized with stories about Ukraine (and, as you will see later in this article, other things).
As Ukraine was the only Romanian neighboring state I had not visited yet, ignoring the stories about it being a dangerous place in these times, I finally decided to visit it. It was late August 2015.
Special significance(s) for Romanians
One should know that Chernivtsi (known as Cernăuţi in Romania), and a large area surrounding it now part of Ukraine, used to be part of Romania in the interwar period. Many Romanian ethnics continue to live there nowadays.
Moreover, this city was the capital of the historical region Bukovina, which was split between the USSR and Romania at the end of WW2. Being a place where several significant Romanian personalities were born or studied, a certain feeling of nostalgia for the area is shared by many.
Many people from my region often go to Chernivtsi, which holds one of the biggest bazars in Eastern Europe, to purchase goods for personal or commercial use as the prices are lower than in Romania.
Since Ukraine is not part of the EU, the Ukrainian goods are subject to significant fees when entering the Romanian market. But, people who live in the vicinity of the border are permitted to do the so called “small traffic” and bring limited quantities of goods to Romania without paying taxes. These quotas were not always respected. Thus, with the complicity of corrupt officials, a lot of smuggling over the border had been going on. Even though some officials were caught and ended up behind bars, some claim that illegal trafficking continues nowadays too.
Reserving tickets online was useless so I had to resume old methods and ask people. In the end, I heard there is a bus leaving every day at 1 PM from Suceava to Chernivtsi. Before leaving, I had time to visit Cetatea Moldovei, which is located near Suceava’s bus station.
The journey lasted 3 hours (border check included) and costs were around 6 Euros.
“The Russian bus”, as described by the staff from the bus station, was cool and most of the people inside were speaking Romanian. A lady in front of me, accompanied by her disabled child, was going to the Bânceni Monastery to meet one of the monks there who is said to have healing powers when it comes to ill children. This monk became quite famous (also in Romania) because he transformed his monastery in a home for abandoned children.
In Chernivtsi I stayed in Yard Hostel, an affordable and comfortable hostel located on Olga Kobyleanska Street. What was cool for me is that at night I had the chance to have very interesting conversations with the owner of the hostel, an International Relations graduate, on topics related to Ukraine’s current crisis. He was not positive at all about the future of his country.
Knowing of Ukraine’s struggling economy, I had no expectations regarding Chernivtsi’s appearance, but to my surprise this city was clean and in a good condition.
The first thing that captured my attention when I started to stroll the streets of Chernivtsi was how similar the architecture was with the one from my hometown. The most beautiful and important buildings in both Câmpulung Moldovenesc and Chernivtsi were built while they were part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.
During mornings and evenings, old ladies would gather at street corners and sell goods they produce at home – vegetables, fruits, milk, sour cream or cheese. I tried some of these and they were tasty and natural, better than any of the bio products from the supermarkets.
Prices were small and I could spoil myself in nice restaurants with a few dollars only; for vodkas and brandies I paid what many would see as spare change.
The young were well dressed, good looking and eager to answer your questions. The old Soviet cars on the streets were funny like they’ve always been. Utility poles were painted in the colors of the Ukrainian flag and soldiers were smiling at you from large posters on the streets.
One day, while looking for a place to eat, I bumped into the statue of Mihai Eminescu, Romania’s national poet, who used to study in Chernivtsi. Every once in awhile you could hear people speaking Romanian.
But strolling the streets is not enough for knowing a place, you also need to get a little bit cultural and visit its landmarks.
Chernivtsi National University
Soon after I reached Chernivtsi, I started to ask people to recommend something to visit and most of them told me to visit the university. Chernivtsi National University was founded in 1875 following a decree from Franz Joseph, Emperor of Austro-Hungary. As of 2011, the building where the university is located is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. This place indeed is beautiful and deserves to be considered town’s no. 1 attraction.
The Chernivtsi Museum of the History and Culture of Bukovinian Jews
Chernivtsi has always been a diverse city with population of Romanian, Ukrainian, Polish, German and Jewish ethnicity. However, this situation changed during and after the WW2, when many left for other countries, were deported or culturally assimilated within the Ukrainian majority.
In remembrance of the Jews who lived in Bukovina, a museum was built in 2008. I was happy to hear that such a museum existed as Jewish people had a strong impact on the region where I was born, but at home there weren’t too many monuments or institutions that remember their impact.
Unfortunately, this museum is pretty small (only two rooms) and it does not have many exhibited items, just a few personal objects and photocopies of pictures or documents. Audio guides available in several languages explain the significance of everything that is shown.
Chernivtsi Museum of Regional Ethnography
This was the place I enjoyed most while visiting Chernivtsi, as it had large collections of documents, clothing, old advertising and traditional tools that helped me better understand how people from this area used to live.
Particularly interesting was to see the old public announcements issued by the local authorities. These announcements were available in several languages, as to cover all the ethnic groups living in the city, but the first language on the list always depended on which administration was in charge. If the Romanians were in charge, the Romanian was the first language on this list.
I also enjoyed that the period when the city was under Romanian administration was very well covered by original documents
I think there is no better place to tell the story of Chernivtsi than this old cemetery.
Inside, you will find gravestones of all kinds that show how the city was under different administrations and how that had an impact. The oldest of the gravestones are also the most elegant, and written in several languages (a lot of them in German though). Sadly, they are covered by ugly tall plants as there is no one to take care of them, since the descendants of the people buried there are most likely also long dead.
The gravestones located in the front of the cemetery are for the WW2 Soviet heroes and you could say they are also elegant – the same way that IKEA furniture is elegant.
The recent gravestones are all written in Cyrillic and seem to lack identity. Although I did not see their gravestones, I heard that Jews are also buried in this cemetery.
I enjoyed Chernivtsi and I plan to return there next year. Its interesting stories, beautiful buildings and cheap prices make it a good travel destination.
From Chernivtsi I took a night train to Kiev. I will talk about that in my next article on Ukraine