When we’re heading off for a weekend, we usually try to get away on a Friday evening, but this time it’s not possible. We are, however, very eager for a change so we’re up at the crack of dawn on this particular Saturday morning, and after a quick cup of coffee we throw our bags in the car and we’re on the road by 6.00am.
No traffic! Fantastic! We sail through Kyiv and Boryspol, and we’re on the road to Poltava (the same road as Kharkiv) in no time. It’s a wide two-lane road, but in very poor condition and this soon has us chatting about how much work is needing done before 2012.
We’re in no rush, and the road is so uneven, we cruise along at a very comfortable 110km/h and I’m very surprised to notice that we’re not overtaken very often making me wonder if the apparent psychosis of Kyiv drivers leaves them as they leave the city. I can understand that.
The car has one of these new-fangled displays that guesstimates how many kilometres can go before you run out of gas. When we get in the car it read 332, and now it’s saying 516 and for a moment I wonder if I’ve been given a car with a magical tank that refills itself as you drive – wouldn’t that be good? But then I realise that cruising at 110km/h uses a lot less petrol than the stop-start-stop of driving in town.
Apart from this minor excitement, there’s nothing really interesting about the drive to Poltava – the road is lined by trees for much of the way cutting off the view, land when there is a break allowing us to see the land beyond, it is flat and unchanging.
The road is lined with plenty of restaurants so when we start feeling like it’s breakfast time there’s plenty of choice available to us. We choose a place purely on the basis that it has lots of cars parked outside (always a good indicator) and stop off for some eats. Filled up on coffee, orange juice and very tasty omelettes, we set off again on the last 100 kilometres to Poltava.
The road runs along the southern side of Poltava, and we drive along wondering which right turn is going to take us into the centre because not a single one of them is signposted. We pass by a wide boulevard and we’re thinking that’s the one we should have taken when we finally see a sign to the centre. Strangely, the road we turn onto is narrow, twisting and heavily potholed so we reckon the city administration is having a good laugh at the expense of visitors to the town.
We find the hotel easily – well almost. We can see it, but we can’t get to it because it’s the wrong way down a one-way street. In fact, we seem to have ended up in a labyrinth of strangely winding one-way streets and it’s another half-an-hour before we finally pull up in front of the Palazza Hotel.
Kitten had found the place on the Internet and booked us into a standard room costing 616hrv per night including breakfast, but when we are shown to it, we find it is rather small and, more importantly, has two single beds. We ask for a room with a double bed and we’re told that only junior suites have double beds and they cost 832hrv for two people including breakfast. We ask to be shown one, and it is a much better room – larger and better equipped – so we agree to stump up the extra. We’re given two chits for breakfast valued at 55hrv each, and allow myself a little chortle when I see this because the cost of any room for two people without breakfast is exactly 110hrv less than the price including breakfast, so there is absolutely no benefit in booking a room with breakfast included. The room, however, is very nice. Decorated in an inoffensive light peach, it has, of course, a double bed, two large windows that let in plenty of light, a table and chairs, wardrobe and chest of drawers (which look as if they’re made of oak and have large, brass handles and hinges), and a well-decorated bathroom with shower, toilet and sink, but no bath, which is a little bit of a disappointment. But the bed, which always needs immediate testing, is firm and very comfortable.
A Random Wander
Leaving our bags in the room we head out to see what the town’s like. We don’t ask for directions or a map, and just wing it, hoping we will come across all the good stuff by accident. Everything starts well as we walk down through a park area in the centre of the street, which has a monument to Ivan Kotliarevskiy. Kotliarevskiy wrote what is considered to be the first ‘classic’ play in Ukrainian, ‘Natalka Poltavka’, and is therefore considered the father of Ukrainian drama.
A little further on we come across the central square (which is actually circular) within only a few minutes. It’s got the stereotypical Soviet-style monument in the middle, this one topped with a strange-looking gold bird on the top that might be an eagle, and might not. The great thing about this square is the beautifully maintained flowerbeds which run all the way around it, and looking at the stunning colours therein, I wonder why Kyiv can’t do a better job with its parkland.
There are so many brides and grooms getting their photos taken here, that it seems as if the whole town is getting married on the one day, and it is very hard to take photos without a white dress and a suit entering the frame.
We continue on our wander but don’t come across anything else of interest, only passing by Soviet-style governmental-looking buildings and apartment blocks. After lunch in a little pizza place, we return to the hotel because we think they may be able to help guide us to the right places, and after our early rise we’re both feeling like a little snooze might be in order.
Right enough, the women at the hotel reception gives us a map and points out all the good places to go. She explains that the town is more-or-less divided in two – one side being residential (where we ended up) and the other having all the good things to see.
After a snooze in the room we head out again in the direction the lady recommended.
This time round we see why the people that have been here were telling us to come. After a couple of blocks we arrive at a very nice park with a small amusement park. There’s dodgems (bumper cars for our American friends), a Ghost Train (which is sadly closed when we visit) and some large ship-shaped swings for two people. Watching young men scaring the hell out of the objects of their affections on these things is more than a little amusing – one poor girl even looks on the verge of tears and is screaming at her man to stop. We consider having a go ourselves, but I know it’s me who’d be frightened on these things, so I pass.
Further on we come across a large outdoor amphitheatre, which must be very nice on a warm summers night, but there’s no way of knowing if it still plays host to any plays or concerts. Beyond this, we are very surprised to see, the city ends and laid out in front of us is a large forest dotted with the odd wooden cottage.
There are plenty of the ubiquitous golden-domed churches in the area, and it all seems to be mainly parkland. We come across a stunning building with two towers, coloured columns in the windows, crests on the walls and many other interesting features. Even the tiles on the roof are multi-coloured. On closer inspection we find out is the history museum. It’s early evening and the place is closed, but we make a mental note to return the next day for a look. Across from the museum is the required statue of Shevchenko, but this one has a cubist feel to it, which makes it stand out from the crowd.
Passing another gold-domed church in another park, we find ourselves standing at the brow of a hill with the land falling away beneath us. The view before us is quite breathtaking. We can see for miles across the Ukrainian countryside, there’s a monastery (gold-domed of course) standing a top a hill to our left, and directly below us is a lovely little dacha area, all trees and greenery.
It’s a warm evening, and we’ve walked a fair way so it’s definitely time for a beer. There’s a bar near the viewpoint so we grab a table and order a couple of cold ones. They cost 6hrv each. Can anyone remember when you could get a half-litre of beer in Kyiv for that price? Oh yeah, or course you can, it was only last year!
Eating Out Ukrainian Style
Returning to the hotel, we ask at reception about places to eat. They give us the names of a couple of places, but strongly recommend we try the restaurant in the hotel. “It’s the best in town,” we’re told, and a menu is shoved under our faces. We browse through it, and it looks pretty good and reasonably priced. It’s getting late (already 8.30) so after brief negotiations we decide it’s the best option rather than traipsing about the town looking for somewhere else that might close as soon as we get there. Also, I had noted the large number of cars sitting outside earlier in the day, and so it seems to be a fairly popular place to eat.
After showering and changing we get to the restaurant at 9.30 and see that it closes at 11.00, which makes us wonder if we’ll be rushed, but early closing could be a local thing and we decide we probably won’t be any better off anywhere else.
The waitress who greets us is very smiley and pleasant, and after some more browsing and little negotiation we make our choices and order. I order steak for the main course, but the waitress doesn’t seem to understand the cooking grades so we describe in great detail that a rare steak (the only way it should be cooked in my opinion) is one that is seared on the outside, pink in the middle, and when you press on it blood should ooze out. She says she understands and off she goes.
Our wine, a bottle of Chilean red, reasonably priced (at least by Kyiv standards but extortionate for a provincial town anywhere else in the world) at 160hrv, arrives quickly and is pretty decent, as all Chilean wines tend to be.
Kitten’s starter – an interesting layered salad that includes peaches, apple and shrimps – is absolutely delicious, and my calamari rings are cooked just right so the batter is crisp and the squid melts in the mouth, but it comes with no dip or sauce, which is unusual. The baked salmon with vegetables Kitten ordered as a main course smells and tastes exquisite, but problems arise when I cut into my steak: despite our explicit instructions, it is medium to well-done.
We complain, and the waitress, looking a little worried, says: “So you won’t eat it then?” I say no, and she takes it away. A little later she returns telling us that they’ve cut it open in the kitchen and it is pink in the middle. I take pity on her, thinking that the cost of it may come out of her wages, and against my better judgement I agree to take it. It’s not very good, even accounting for the fact that it is far too overcooked for my liking.
It’s 11.00pm by the time we finish our main courses and all the kitchen staff have left the kitchen and are sitting around looking at is impatiently, so we decide that there’s not really any time for dessert.
The bill arrives and seems rather cheap, and I’m hoping that they’ve deducted the cost of the steak, but upon closer inspection I see that we’ve not been charged for the wine. We tell the waitress and she looks truly shocked, thanks us profusely and says she will sort it. I tell her that in return she should consider giving us a least a discount for the steak, but surprise, surprise, when she return with the bill there’s no such thing. I can’t be bothered arguing and we leave more than a little disgruntled.
Battlefields and Museums
The following morning we’re back in the same restaurant with our 55hrv breakfast chits. Breakfast isn’t bad at all it has to be said, apart from two details – firstly toast in mentioned in just about every dish, but when we get ours we find it’s just bread and the waitress tells us the toaster’s broken, and secondly the eggs Benedict I order has melted cheese instead of hollandaise sauce, which was a bitter disappointment.
Full up on bread, eggs and melted cheese we decide to take a stroll down through dacha town and up again to the monastery on the hill. The dacha area in Poltava is a leafy little haven of rickety brickwork with the occasional modern mansion thrown in for good measure. It makes for a very pleasant Sunday morning stroll, and the climb up to the monastery is well worth it.
Forward thinking as ever, Kitten’s come out in a short skirt and vest top and only realises this isn’t appropriate attire for a monastery on a Sunday morning when we get to the gates. Deciding it would be disrespectful to enter, she waits for me at the gates while I go in for a quick nosey. Apart from the bell tower at the entrance, which looks on the verge of collapse, the buildings in the monastery are exceptionally well maintained. Fresh white in colour, they’re decorated with colourful painted flowers and portraits of saints. The gardens – a mix of flowerbeds and vegetable plots – are equally worth seeing, the latter indicating that this is a working and self-sufficient place. You could definitely spend some time here, but Katusha’s waiting so I don’t dally.
In the afternoon we head back to the museum of land history. Approaching, we think it must be closed because the large wooden doors are closed, but trying them they open and we step inside. Entrance is only 2hrv per person, and that’s money very well spent. While there’s a really funny smell in the place, it has a very good collection of exhibits that cover the land and all its natural elements both existing and extinct, and the complete history of the area from prehistory all the way up to modern day.
There’s far too much in this place to tell you about here, but the highlights for me are the nature exhibits, reconstructions of peasant life, the portrait of Mazepa who has to be the funniest looking bloke in Ukrainian history, and when I tell Kitten that’s she probably not meant to stroke the stuffed moose and she says that there’s no sign telling her not to only to be chastised for doing so a few moments later by a rather matronly attendant.
Of course, Poltava is most famous for the battle, which brought to an end another of Ukraine’s attempts at independence. It all started when then Cossack Hetman Ivan Mazepa decided to switch allegiance during the Great Northern War in an attempt to rid his people of oppressive Russian rule.
From his point of view it must have looked like a pretty safe bet because Charles XII and his Swedish army were rampaging through this part of the world with a vengeance. He took the gamble and joined forces with the Swedes in order to shirk of the yolk of Russian rule. It was a bad mistake. Heavily outnumbered the Swedish Army was crushed in what is considered one of the worst defeats in history in terms of army size.
Coming to Poltava would be incomplete without a visit to the battlefield and museum, but the museum is small and not particularly informative, and while we’re expecting the battlefield to be marked out, we find it is no such thing. We ask at the museum and they say that 800 hectares of the sight of the battle are preserved, so maybe in the future there might be more to see.
By now it’s late afternoon and time to return to Kyiv. We collect the car and head off on the return trip home, which is largely uneventful apart from getting stopped by the cops twice, the first of whom, upon seeing my press card, let’s us go without penalty saying the president has decreed that taking bribes is no longer allowed, and the second of whom takes a bribe.
Kitten and the Bear