Turns out, however, you can only get the boat to Kaniv if you have a boat. It seems a ferry used to run there during the summer months, but it was cancelled for some reason back at the turn of the century. So Kitten and I end up on the marshrutka to Kaniv. Not exactly how we’d planned it, but the only way to get there without a car.
Bumpy Back Roads
The little bus heads out of Kyiv, taking the Obukhov highway through Koncha Zaspa. And then it takes a right turn and we’re on winding twisty roads full of potholes. The first town is Ukrainka (The Ukrainian (female)), which I’d never heard of before, which is surprising considering it’s so close to Kyiv. But then, once we’re in the town it’s not so surprising as it is a dilapidated industrial place. It reeks of poverty, which is quite shocking to see so close to the nation’s capital. Then again, there’s poverty in the nation’s capital that’s quite shocking to see.
Once through this little port of call, we’re out in the country among fields of corn resting on undulating hills. It’s quite idyllic really, and it would be much more pleasant to enjoy if we weren’t rattling over such huge and consistent potholes in a rickety little bus.
The journey, which takes us through some beautiful scenery and more depressing towns, takes around two-and-a-half hours, and I can’t wait ‘til it’s over ‘cause my ass is numb about an hour in. The whole journey I keep thinking, “How much better this would have been if we were on a boat.”
We enter Kaniv and my aching ass says a big thank you, but little does it realise we’ve still got another ten minutes to go before getting off the bus. While the town only has a population of around 30,000, it sprawls.
Finally, we disembark and wander across the street to a line of waiting taxis. The driver tells us it’s about six kilometres to the hotel, but only wants 20hrv so we jump in and a few minutes later we’re pulling into the hotel car park.
The Knyazha Gora (Prince’s Hill) Hotel gives a good first impression. It’s alpine in style, with a dark wood and white wall exterior. We’re greeted very pleasantly in Ukrainian, and quickly shown to our room – a Panorama Plus. Rooms at the hotel start at only 450hrv for an economy, but we’ve opted at the best on offer which costs 950hrv per night which is still very reasonable.
In fact the room is a suite, with a very nice bedroom, sitting room and bathroom. All are a good size, very comfortable, and, most importantly, clean. The only slight negative is the sitting room has no TV, which makes it kind of pointless for sitting in unless you’re going to play cards or a board game. But Kitten and I wanna chill for a little while, so we stretch out across the very comfortable bed in the bedroom, and scan through the channels to see what English language offerings there are. There are a few.
But we’re not here to lounge around, and the view we had of the sandy beach and beautifully blue Dnipro flowing gently by the front of the hotel requires more inspection, so we head back down stairs and outside once again.
An Early Evening Stroll
We cross the street in front of the hotel and step onto a gloriously sandy beech. Glorious? Because it’s clean – completely free of empty beer bottles and other trash you’ll find on the beaches in Kyiv.
There’s a speedboat pulled up against the shore, and alongside it sits a strange looking catamaran thing with some sort of fixing on top. There is an older man and a younger boy carrying what looks like a hang-glider wing down to the beach, but at this moment Kitten and I don’t put two and two together, and start to stroll along the beach.
It’s been a beautifully sunny day, and although it’s now early evening, there’s still plenty of warmth in the sun, and its rays glint off the surface of the river making for a myriad of shiny little diamond lights shining from it.
We end up walking along the road which takes us to the entrance in which resides the Taras Shevchenko Museum. We decide we should leave that for when we’ve got more time, and keep walking along the road.
Just past the car park for the museum we come across a brand new ferry port. Not a big one you understand, but a very modern looking passenger ferry port with dock. It’s locked up and there’s no one around, but it seems ready to take passengers. It’s something we’ll need to find out about.
Finding ourselves hungry, we turn and start to stroll back to the hotel. We’re ready for dinner, and hoping the food they have to offer is as good as the accommodation. As we’re walking we hear a noise something similar to a small plane. We look in the direction of the sound to see the strange catamaran type thing with the hang glider wing attached, and sure enough, the thing is flying over the river – a kind of cross between a flying boat and a microlight. Looks dangerous to me, but cool all the same.
So Much to Do!
Back at the hotel we shower and then head down to the restaurant for dinner. It’s a beautiful evening, so we choose to sit out on the terrace where were quickly brought menus.
As well as the terrace, there is a lawn area with little covered cabins for eating in, and beyond this there is a rather classy children’s playground, all of which makes for a very home-away-from-home sort of feel.
The cuisine is a mix of Ukrainian and Georgian, and it’s very reasonably priced. We sit back with a couple of nice cold beers, enjoy the evening sun, and allow ourselves to be fed some great hachipurri followed by very tasty chicken and pork shashlik served by the exceptionally polite and friendly staff.
As we’re chilling and stuffing our faces, we’ve got a copy of the hotel manual that tells of all the things the place offers in the way of leisure activities. There are bicycles for hire; the motorboat we saw earlier can be hired with driver for tours on the river as can the scary catamaran/microlight; they will make picnics if you’re going to be hiking or cycling all day; and there is billiards, darts, chess and all manner of board games on offer.
All this, combined with the play area, makes this an excellent place for a family vacation. The kids would certainly never be bored!
After eating too much, Kitten and I decide to pit our chess skills against each other for the very first time. I’m not good at the game, having only played a handful of times after learning some tactics from a Nigel Short video I got as a Christmas present many years ago, but I still manage to win the first couple of games. However, after that, Kitten’s skills (taught to her by her dad) come back to her, and she thoroughly trounces me on the third game, after which I decide I’m too tired to play more and it’s time for bed.
Cycling and Sun
We’ve already decided to hire bicycles in the morning, so we’re up early. I awake to find rather numerous mosquito bites covering my body which I’ve obviously acquired during dinner on the terrace the previous evening (the room is triple glazed and has mosquito wire so there’s no chance I’ve been bitten inside), so I decide we have to find an apteka where we can get some repellent. We’ve also realised we’ve come without toothpaste, so that decides it.
We head downstairs to the restaurant, where we find a buffet-style breakfast on offer with cereals, eggs, sausages, salad vegetables, bread and croissants, and lots of other tasty fare. Once we've stocked our bellies with more than enough to last us a morning of exercise, we head out to select bikes of an appropriate size.
Now, I’ve not been on a push-bike for more years than I’m going to tell here, and Kitten hasn’t been on one since she was a kid, so we need a little practise in the car park before we venture out into the street.
Once out there, Kitten gets freaked by the first passing car and nearly falls off. She’s a little shaken and I have to spend some time soothing her nerves while explaining that the cars will avoid her. To make her feel more at ease, I tell her I will cycle behind, keeping outside her a little so that if anyone gets hit by a passing car, it will be me.
She seems to like this idea, and a little later we’re whizzing into Kaniv in search of a pharmacy. After a little while we come across a little square with some shops, one of which is indeed an apteka. Toothpaste no longer necessary as the hotel has a stock of little packs of toothpaste and brushes just in case you forget (how good is that?), we get a can of mosquito repellent, and then take a break to drink some water (it’s a very hot day).
Taking in our surroundings, we notice that this dilapidated square with a scant number of shops and not a single noticeable restaurant has very little going for it. Kitten reckons it’s the main square of the town, but I’m sure it can’t possibly be. Kitten stops and asks a man passing by. Sure enough, this is the main square of Kaniv, a fact that highlights once again just how lucky we are to be living in Kyiv and how much poverty sits right on its doorstep.
We spend the rest of the morning cycling along the riverside road. The Dnipro here is wide and dotted with islands. It’s very beautiful scenery indeed, and we take it all in as we cycle, stopping every now and then to take photos. It’s fun, it’s exhilarating, it’s exercise (which we both lack with our lives in Kyiv), and it’s all in stunning surroundings.
The only problem is, the sun is beating down on us and we’ve forgotten sunscreen. So after around an hour-and-a-half riding out of town along the river, we turn around and cycle back.
An Interesting Speedboat Tour
After a light bite of lunch, we can both feel the sunburn, and realise whatever it is we decide to do in the afternoon, it has to be done in the shade. The little speedboat we’ve seen parked on the beach has a canopy covering the seating, so we reckon this could be a good option.
We enquire at reception, and the lady tells us the boat's available and arranges for the driver (captain?) to come in an hour.
An hour later and we’re speeding up the Dnipro, the canopy shading us from the sun, the rushing air cooling us. Our driver (captain?) is a very pleasant young chap who also doubles up as a guide, telling us about the history of the place. He takes us north first, up to the damn, telling us there used to be 15 cement factories operational in the town, but now only a couple remain. He also shows us where the new Kaniv ferry port is, and explains how the boats are brought down from the higher part of the river.
After that we head south. Now, just south of Kaniv there is a very large nature reserve which covers part of the mainland, and a number of the islands on the river. No one is allowed to set foot on the islands without permission, as they are home to some very rare flora and fauna.
One thing we can notice while still some way off, is that the branches of many of the trees have been stripped bare, and there is a large number of nests. There is a massive population of Baklani (cormorants) here, and as we draw close a huge number of them take to the sky, startled by the noise of the boat’s engine.
It’s quite a spectacular sight, and as we slowly cruise around the island, we see many large nesting sites like this one. Once off the main channel of the river and in amongst the islands, this stretch of the Dnipro is almost like the Amazon, with its diverse and intricate maze of channels.
We again take lots of photos, trying to capture these strange birds in flight, and nesting. As we do so, our man tells us about some of the other rare species on the islands, of which, apparently, there are many. There are golden eagles, various types of owl, red-footed falcons, kestrels, cranes and many more, making it a mecca for bird watchers.
Our boat man also explains that with advance notice, the hotel can arrange the necessary permits, and armed with their packed lunches one can make a day of it, exploring.
Pork ‘Ribs’ and Bonfires
Back at the hotel, showered and changed, and after a brief nap, we’re back at the restaurant ready to eat. We’re tired out after so much fresh air, and all the exercise in the morning, and we’re also very hungry.
We peruse the menu once again while supping a couple of beers, and Kitten translates a specials menu as containing pork ribs, and pork ribs. We ask the waiter and he explains that the first one consists of small ribs, and the second one of larger ones. We’re not too sure about his description but we order the second option anyway.
When they arrive, it turns out that the larger ribs are actually very large pork chops on the bone. And there’s three of them for two of us. It takes us a while, but we get there.
As we finish, a chap who’s been sitting at the table next to us comes and introduces himself. His name is Yuri and he is the owner of the hotel. Now, that’s what we should have more of in this country – owner/managed places. It really makes all the difference.
Yuri asks how we’re getting on, tells us a little bit about his history with the place, and his plans for the future.
And he has plans. He owns a lot of land around the hotel, and he’s wanting to expand. He’s already converting a couple of old cottages behind the hotel into holiday chalets, and he wants to do more. And his focus is on family.
While we’re chatting, the subject of the ferry ports comes up, and Yuri tells us that the ferry service stopped many years before because the fleet was too old. Since then successive governments promised to buy new boats and start it up again, but nothing ever happened. He says that the ports have been built since Yanukovych came to power, and that the ferries are ordered and should start up again soon.
Not only that, Yuri also explains that Yushchenko started the plans for the Shevchenko Museum but only got about as far as the foundations. But it was completed double quick after Yanukovych came to power. And this boy Yuri is from Lviv, so you just know he’s not going to be saying these things unless they're true.
After a little more discussion, he leaves us, just pausing long enough to invite us to join them on the beach for a bonfire in a couple of hours – something they do every weekend. “It’s a family thing,” he says.
After another few beers, we wander over to the beach as they’re lighting the bonfire. The rest of the evening is spent sipping beer, chatting with new friends, playing games with the kids, and warming ourselves in the moment and the flames of the fire (it’s got quite cool since the sun went down).
Saying Hello to Shevchenko
The Sunday morning we’re fully aware this is our last day and we’ve still not been to see the bard. So after a quick breakfast we stroll along the road and climb the very long iron staircase up to the hill where he is buried.
I won’t go into a lot of detail here about the museum except to say that this great poet and artist enjoys wonderful views from his resting place, and he would be proud of the brand new museum containing much of his art. Suffice to say, this is a must see for any visitor to Ukraine, whether long-term ex-pat or tourist. You just have to pay this place a visit.
There is one comment I'd like to make, which is that after spending some time wandering around inside, I find myself needing to pay a visit. The toilets of this new showcase museum are to be found in the basement, down a long flight of stairs. Here I come across an immaculate state-of-the-art disabled toilet – in the basement of a building sitting on top of a hill that can only be accessed by climbing a thousand steps. Genius!
Our weekend is over, and our return journey to Kyiv is made a whole lot more comfortable as Yuri has offered to drive us home in his nice shiny BMW 4X4! How's that for service?
Knyazha Gora Hotel
Rooms from 450 – 950hrv per night
Kitten and the Bear