Even with the dark skies and torrential rain, this train trip through the mountains is up there with the best of them. The scenery is stunning, and the inhabitant’s close tie with nature is abundantly apparent in the rickety carts lying in the fields and the odd-shaped haystacks huddling under tarpaulins for shelter.
The rain is still coming down in a steady stream as the train pulls into Uzhgorod station, and so we do something that has been out of bounds since I was asked to pay fifty bucks by a taxi driver outside the station in Lviv for a trip of about a mile-and-a-half – we ask one of the drivers waiting outside the train station how much he’ll charge to take us to our hotel. I’m wearing my stern face and getting ready to laugh scornfully at his opening gambit, but when he asks for a fare of 15hrv my frown transforms into a pleasant smile and I respond “Da” with enthusiasm and relief.
It’s about a fifteen-minute drive to the hotel, which gives us time to treat the poor driver like a weatherman – “How long’s it been like this for?” and “Will it end soon?” are the two most important questions we ask him. He tells us it’s been going on like this for weeks, and the sun is due to make an appearance on Sunday, the day we’re returning to Kyiv. Great!
We check into the Ungvarskiy Hotel, which Kitten had found on the Internet, and we’re shown to our room, which is pink. On further inspection, the whole place, inside and out, is pink, making me wonder if they got a job lot of undercoat from a shipyard, or did a deal with maintenance at the Ukrainian Navy. To be fair, it’s a fairly pleasant pink, with a slight hint of peach, so it kind of adds character, and not as offensive on the eyes as it might sound.
The room is simple, but comfortable, with a double bed, TV, table and chairs and an en-suite shower room. Not bad for 250hrv a night.
The plan had been to go and explore the old Czechoslovakian centre of Uzhgorod, which has been widely applauded by everyone I know who’d been here, but it’s raining. So the question arises – what do we do now?
Kitten mentions that she’d noticed the Ungvarskiy has a wellness centre, and suggests we take a look. I’m not usually a man looking to be pampered with massages and aromatherapy treatments, but it’s been a long hard slog recently so the thought of some relaxing activities has a certain therapeutic appeal.
It has to be said, and hats need taking off, these people know how to provide service. We wander into the wellness clinic of the hotel with a sort of what-you-got-to-offer attitude and we’re promptly and pleasantly treated to a full tour. There’s plenty of options including all sorts of cosmetic stuff (which isn’t really what we’re needing), massages, hydrotherapy, ultrasonic therapies, a back stretching thing and something called a Scotch shower, which I am instantly drawn to as I imagine myself being drenched in a stream of Glenfiddich or Cardhu, but upon further inspection it turns out to be a treatment where you hold tightly to railings on the walls while you’re blasted with jets of alternating hot and cold water. We’re assured that this has a very invigorating result on the skin and muscles, but it’s not the kind of relaxation I’m looking for so I decide to pass.
De-stressing Big Time
We finally decide upon a hydrotherapy bath each followed by a massage. Here you can have five types of hydrotherapy baths including mineral water, aromatherapy, milk, vanilla and something listed as vine, which I’m hoping might be wine, but after the disappointment of the Scotch shower I decide to opt for mineral water (80hrv) while Kitten goes for aromatherapy (120hrv).
The lady tells us that, unlike a Jacuzzi, their baths create small “pearls’ of water and are much more gentle. I have to disagree with this as lying there I find myself getting battered about a bit, and my trunks keep filling with air and acting like a flotation device. That aside, it is a very relaxing twenty minutes. When I step from the bath, however, I find the white trim of my trunks has been turned orange by the minerals in the water (later I find this rinses out so it’s not a big deal).
Kitten is beaming when I meet her afterwards, and says she loved it. Next we opt for an anti-stress massage with aromatherapy (165hrv each). I am shown to a room and instructed to undress, lie on my back, and place a towel over my lower region. I enter the room to find it is subtly lit with candles, and there’s soft music playing. I do as I’m told and a moment later I am being softly massaged in the most wonderful manner. After a while I wonder if it is the pretty young female masseuse or the hairy but mildly effeminate man I spied earlier. This thought is quickly followed by another one – who’s massaging Kitten?
I push these thoughts from my head and focus on the soft and sensual hand movements that quite simply dissolve the pent-up stress in every muscle of my body. The thoughts return. This time I lift my head a little to check. Yes, it’s the man. I have to admit for a moment it feels a little strange, but I tell myself he’s a professional. However, that means that Kitten is being massaged in the same manner by the pretty young masseuse and I find myself cursing the fact that I’m not there to witness the event, possibly armed with a video camera.
It’s a strange experience I have to admit, because I’ve never had another male be so intimate before – except for the time I put my back out and had to see a chiropractor who spent a lot of time massaging my lower back – but I have to say, the lad did a great job and I feel like I never experienced stress in my life by the time he’s finished.
When I next see Katusha her beaming grin is so wide it looks like her face might split. I ask why, but she won’t tell. Hmmm.
It’s still raining. And it’s raining hard, so while we’d really love to go and see Uzhgorod, it’s not quite time yet. We ask what else we can do to pamper ourselves and the girl says she has the perfect solution. The Ungvarskiy Hotel, we are told, has been painstakingly reconstructed from photographs of the original hotel that was built on the same site in 1876 by a businessman who discovered the natural springs under it that contained mineral waters with therapeutic qualities. Then the Soviets came along and demolished it.
One of the most popular features, we are informed, in the original hotel was the hot mineral bath known as the Ungvarskaya Kupil (kupil being a special Ukrainian type of bath). We agree to give it a try and we are told it will take an hour to prepare.
We laze about in the room for a bit then return after an hour and the experience we are about to undergo can only be described as heavenly. This ‘bath’ consists of a completely private antechamber with showers and toilets where you undress before hand (wrapping yourselves up in thick bathrobes) and shower afterwards. A flight of wooden stairs leads down to a second antechamber where there is a sofa and chairs and a table with a large jug of chai and a jar of honey to sweeten it. Another short flight of stairs leads down into the bath, which consists of a raised platform with a large iron bath filled with the mineral water with a wood-burning stove underneath to heat the water. Beside this is a smaller plunge pool with cold mineral water in it. The lower area has beds to lie out on and a massage table. The lighting is subdued, naturel music eminates gently from hidden speakers, and candlelight effuses from behind stained glass. Look under ‘tranquil’ in a dictionary, and it should describe this place.
We undress and slide into the warm mineral water, sitting on large flattened rocks placed on the bottom of the iron bath. We’ve been instructed to ‘sweat and plunge’, which we do, and it is fantastic. Afterwards we wrap ourselves in the sheets provided and sip warm honey-sweetened tea. When we’ve finished this amazing, intimate and secluded experience I feel as if the bones in my body have softened. It costs 500hrv for an hour, but it is well worth it.
After all that it’s time for dinner, and we’re both too chilled out to bother thinking where to go, and the hotel restaurant looks more than adequate so we head there. And we find that it is more than adequate. Tastefully decorated in light beige with dark-wood tables and chairs, it certainly has a pleasant ambience, and the waiter is polite and attentive. There is a wide choice of local fare on offer that is very reasonably priced, a half-litre of Chernigivske is only 6hrv, and there’s wine starting at 35hrv a bottle!
The food is good, and there’s plenty of it. Katusha is intrigued by the language the waiter is speaking, which she is sure is Ukrainian but with lots of words she doesn’t know. A girl at a nearby table hears us talking about it and offers to tell us.
The area we are in she calls zakarpatya which translates as ‘behind the Carpathians’, and it has a very chequered history. “This land has been under the control of 18 nations,” she explains. “Uzhgorod was known for a long time as Ungvar and was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.” She goes on to tell us that in many of the villages around the town, the only language spoken is Hungarian and in others it is Slovakian. In Uzhgorod, according to our impromptu historian, Russian, Hungarian, Slovakian and Ukrainian with a lot of the other tongues incorporated are all spoken. She reckons that no one here wants to be Ukrainian, but who they should be is such a complicated question that most people just don’t think about it.
A First Look at Uzhgorod
In front of the hotel is a huge Soviet-style factory, which, we are told, resides on what used to be the castle gardens. After dinner, we decide to go and have a look at Uzhgorod itself, but first we have to circumnavigate this ugly monstrosity. It’s still raining, but warm enough as we make our way through narrow winding streets. We pass under the Castle, which sits rather ominously on top of a short cliff face, and make our way into the centre. It’s getting dark, the streets are badly lit, it’s raining, it’s late on a Friday evening and there’s a lot of drunk people about – in short, our first experience of Uzhgorod is a little uncomfortable and after a quick look around we head back to the hotel.
After a good night’s sleep on a bed with a bit of a spring problem but still comfortable enough, we have a quick breakfast in the hotel restaurant and head back to have another look at Uzhgorod’s centre. Sadly, it’s still raining, but the sky is looking a little brighter and the cloud cover a bit more broken, so we’re hopeful the sun might show itself at some point.
This time round the town of Uzhgorod looks a whole lot different, and a whole lot better. The Czechoslovakian centre is something I’ve not seen in Ukraine before and even brings to mind some areas of Prague or Cesky Krumlov. The narrow winding streets lined with interesting two-storey pastel-coloured buildings are a joy to wander through, and while the place is in a bit of a bad state and needs a bit of money spending on it, it has a class and character all of its own.
We follow signs up to the castle, which we’ve agreed should be our first port of call on our whirlwind sightseeing tour. On the way up we pass the cathedral, which is an impressive yellow structure. Judging by the scaffolding surrounding it, it is undergoing massive repair works, and that, by the look of it, is something the town needs a lot more of. A little later we find the castle. Sitting like a cork on top of the town, it is clearly visible that the castle has been, and probably still is, undergoing reconstruction as well, but it’s a formidable fortification with walls several feet thick.
Once within the walls, the only structure left standing is the main building which once would have housed the local royalty, but now houses a series of very interesting museum exhibits. There’s one on natural history, local musical instruments, art, traditional clothes, and weaponry, and there’s a couple of rooms kitted out as they would have been hundreds of years ago. I’m not much of a museum man, but this place is well worth a look, and Kitten loves it.
Outside the castle walls we find an outdoor architectural museum just like a little Pyrohovo. In fact, on closer inspection it has just about everything Pyrohovo has to offer – numerous cottages and churches from various regions and times – just in a smaller area. As we wander round, taking a look in this cottage and that church, a wonderful thing happens: the sun comes out!
Everything looks better in the sun, it’s just a fact, and with the sun shining on it Uzhgorod takes on a vibrancy and colour that hadn’t been apparent before. After the museum we wander back down into town past the large red opera house, which, while not a patch on Kyiv’s, is an interesting column-fronted place. Soon we find ourselves by the wide river running through the centre, which looks on the verge of bursting its banks due to the weeks of heavy rain.
There’s a leafy tree-covered lain down the side of the river, which we walk down, then spend another hour-or-so wandering the meandering streets, enjoying the laid back pace of life.
We return to the hotel late in the afternoon where we’ve got the small ‘banya’ or sauna booked for an hour (200hrv). This sauna is another experience that completely exceeds our expectations. Entering an antechamber with showers and toilets we enter the main room to find there’s a little thatched cottage built inside, which turns out to be the sauna proper. Next to this on one side is a large plunge pool, and on the other is a large wooden table with benches either side, and there’s another jug of tea sitting there waiting for us. A little room off to the side has some beds for lying out on. This ‘small’ sauna takes up to five people, but we have it all to ourselves. We roast in the sauna, then plunge in the pool, and repeat.
After doing that a few times we sit close to each other, sipping tea, and with the intimate privacy, the heat and the romantic lighting one thing and one thing only is on both our minds. So we’ll just draw a veil over that and you lot can imagine waves crashing on a beach or something of the like.
Dinner is in the hotel restaurant again, because firstly, on our wander round town we didn’t see anything else that took our fancy, and secondly, it’s a fine place to eat. While we’re eating Katusha realises she’s left her hairgrip in the sauna and runs off to find the guy who operates it. A few minutes later she’s back to say he found it and left it at reception. When she returns from reception she’s giggling hysterically. “What’s up with you?” I ask.
“I asked the girl at reception if she had my hairgrip and she reached behind her head, removed it from her hair, held it up in front of me and asked, ‘This one?’”
We sit in the restaurant for a long time after dinner, sipping wine, chortling every now and then at the memory of the hairgrip, and enjoying the pleasant ambience. We seem to have been right about this place being the best in town as it seems to be full of all the well-to-do locals, and there’s chat and laughter going on all around us. Nice!
The following morning we’ve booked another hour in the Ungvarsky Kupil, because it was such a pleasant experience the first time round. I have a motto (sporadically enforced, as all mottos should be) – never go back. And this is one of the occasions where I should have enforced it. This time round there’s a different guy doing it all, and the water’s not hot and he doesn’t give us the discreet seclusion the previous chap offered, instead appearing at inopportune moments to check if everything’s ok, and to keep re-iterating his opinion that the chamber is based on the design of the interior of the Great Pyramid of Giza. We try to ignore his intrusions and make the best of it, but it’s just not the same. If you go, try and get the first bloke!
All too soon we’re back on the train and heading home, but the sun is shining which gives us glorious views as we traverse the Carpathians, and that makes leaving the little town of Uzhgorod and its exceptionally friendly people behind a little easier to bear.
Kitten and the Bear