Bear growls, but I know how to deal with these situations. I shove a book into his hands detailing Zakarpathian cuisine that soon has him grinning like a Cheshire cat.
A Heart-warming Welcome
On arrival, the sun is shining brightly. I’m looking forward to catching the last scraps of summer, a season that seems to have left Kyiv long ago. We head to our hotel to get the party started. Having booked a room in advance, we know our residence this weekend is imaginatively called Hotel Uzhhorod. Not too far from the train station, nor the city centre, its location couldn’t be more perfect, and it thankfully has everything we need: double bed, cable TV, air-con, telephone, hairdryer and mini-bar. The price is right too: only 439hrv!
Bear hibernated on the way down, and now that he’s awake he’s hungry. I am too, so I suggest we have a nice Saturday morning breakfast somewhere in the city. Strolling into the town along the Uzh River, we come across a few fishermen who look like they’ve been lucky this morning. I’m awed by the landscape, in particular the mountain river reflecting the city’s buildings and the bridges connecting the two sides of the city. But Bear just wants to eat, so we continue our hunt for our first cup of Zakarpatthian coffee.
The coffeehouses in the central streets are already as busy as ever. After mulling about, we find a cosy little place by the name of Mio. Within two minutes we’re sipping hot coffee with cinnamon and digging into hot cherry pie. The hostess chatters about in her exotic Uzhhorodian accent. I think it’s wonderful and is a brogue I myself would like to learn. I’d also like to find out how they make such delicious coffee, but Bear just laughs and says it’s time to explore the city. I leave my compliments with the girl manning the door and we’re off.
Accordions and White Rabbits
The first must-see is Uzhhorod Castle. Already more than 1,000-years old, both of us are eager to investigate this heroic reminder of the past. On the way to the castle, we pass the famous Christo-Vozdvyzhenskiy Cathedral. Its roots go back to 1646 and I’m enamoured. We also pass numerous brides, grooms and wedding guests clamouring about with flowers and presents. Dozens of pigeons want to know what all the fuss is about, and we even catch sight of a white rabbit. Gypsy men play the accordion and sing snappy ditties, while gypsy children throw flower petals, asking for treats in the process. As I sit listening to the music and watching this happy scene, I’m reminded of the film Black Cat, White Cat by Emir Kusturica. Amazingly, it looks exactly the same.
A few minutes more and the castle is in sight. Built on the Zamkova Mountain, it’s hard to imagine the bloody fights and constant sieges that took place here. There were battles that completely destroyed the castle but they always built it back up again. The most modern fortifications were done in the 14th century, where Italian engineers were invited to give it their best shot. A palace (now a museum) appeared two centuries after that, with covert tunnels running between the two.
In keeping with this time of year, we learn something about the castle we weren’t expecting: it has a ghost! As legend has it, the ghost was the daughter of Dryget, the castle-owner. Four centuries ago, the Poles were invading and the girl fell in love with one of the soldiers. She told him how to seize the castle amid their love affair, and when her father found out he ordered that she be bricked into one of the walls. The White Lady has been trapped ever since, and is often seen floating through passages from dusk until dawn.
A Delicious Afternoon
The palace is full of interesting exhibits such as clothes, musical instruments, coins and manuscripts. We head outside to walk the grounds, and without a guide we both feel as though we are hostages of an affable maze! We find our way back through, and the yard fills with people preparing flowers and filling goblets. I ask what’s going on, and I’m told all the fuss has to do with marriage registrations. We feel as though an army of brides and grooms are chasing us, so we head over to the open-air museum, not far from the Uzhhorod Castle, where we find the peace and quiet we left the city for.
Built on top of a cemetery in 1970, this territory used to be referred to as the Witches Pitfall. Today it is a Zakarpattya Village reproduction. Accommodating fifteen peasant huts, (the oldest of which is 220 years old) and one church, every building has its own guide. We walk around learning about the region’s routine and lifestyle. With all the facts and information, we almost feel as if we’ve been transported back to the 19th century. Unfortunately, the feeling doesn’t last long: more brides and grooms are heading in our direction.
It’s information overload about attractions in Uzhhorod, and we’re starving; desperately in need of fuel to keep us going. Vertep has been recommended for lunch local-style. Inside, the venue is animated. The waitress suggests the bograch (a soup with pork, dumplings, vegetables and lots of paprika) but Bear opts for the chirke poprikash (chicken with dumplings and sour cream). I go for tokan with goat cheese and grits – polenta a la Zakarpattya. There are a number of dishes that we’d both like to try – they all seem savoury and striking. When the food arrives, I’m delighted with my dish and am already feigning saturtion. Bear just grunts and keeps eating. Finishing up, this time it’s me that tugs at Bear’s shirt sleeve saying, “City marvels await us!”
The City Sights
On Sunday morning I wake up relaxed. and tell Bear how much I’m enjoying my time here. What I like most about the city is how it spreads out before your very eyes. The main street, called Korzo, is also known as Little Italy. Its name comes from the Italian for “walking street”.
Walking around and picking up various titbits, the Uncle Kolya Lamplighter monument attracts our attention. His bronze figure climbs up one of the walls while his briefcase rests gently on the pavement. Residents say Uncle Kolya loved to read but drank like a fish, and you could always find a few books and a bottle of something in his bag.
Off we go to Teatralna Ploscha, where the oldest puppet theatre in Zakarpattya can be found. We gaze up at one of the most magnificent synagogues in Europe. Built in 1904, its architecture fuses Moresque and Byzantine styles, whilst its current purpose is to host the philharmonic orchestra. There are beautiful sounds coming from all around. Casting my eyes over at the River Uzh and listening to the divine music, I’m as happy as a clam. Uzhhorod is like a fairytale. People are in no rush, and they know each other by name. It’s a place where music rings out from various buildings, delicious coffee is ground and field flowers are sold on the bridge from which residents crumble bread into the water to feed the trout.
The bridge links the old part of the city with the new part. The prominent Hungarian poet Schandor Petefi arrived here in 1847 and threw cold water on it. He compared the city to a tippler who had fallen into a puddle while trudging home. Despite the harsh comparison, Petefi was a star in Uzhhorod, and as such, he has his own square, complete with monument.
After strolling down the longest street in Europe (Lime Lane, 2.2 km) we take some respite at a rock garden beside a couple of monuments to the first Zakarpatthian artists Erdeli and Bokshay. Quite randomly, there is also a monument to a brown bear there, which is said to guard the entire region. Bear is beside himself, and it takes some coaxing to get him to leave.
A Lingering Likeness
Heading back into the city centre, we run into a weekend fair with all sorts of goodies. There are huge pots of bograch and banosh (another sort of polenta), and people buzz about sipping the local vino. Bear gets his paws into some of the local honey and seems incredibly pleased with himself. We continue on, and notice that everything being sold is done so with a smile. Earlier we’d smelled only coffee, but now we catch the scent of meat, spices, baked potatoes, honey and wine.
City residents say there is no better coffee in the world than that found in Uzhhorod. No-one here starts their daily routine without it. Uzhhorodians proudly drink gallons of the stuff, and real aficionados consume 2-2.5kg per year! We even see people on Lime Lane drinking it straight from jars. It takes me back to the days of the Soviets, when mayonnaise jars filled with coffee were used as bribes.
As our journey takes us into the evening and into Medelin, one of the city’s better-known coffee chains, I realise I want something special. The waitress just grins and says there are more than 20 “special” options so I decide on a cappuccino dolce. Bear wants plain old espresso, but served in Zakarpattya style, it’s also very good. Lounging on the terrace, coffee in-hand, we exchange smiles. We recall the days where cosiness, friendliness and multi-culturalism reigned true. It’s almost as if we have been dropped down Alice’s rabbit hole, landing in whole new world. I remember the white rabbit we saw the day before, and allow myself to ponder. Could it be possible...?
Hotel Uzhhorod (Khmelnytskoho Pl 2b)