Chernivtsi Stories and Tips

An Introduction to Chernivtsi

Orthodox Church in Chernivtsi Photo, Chernivtsi, Ukraine

Situated in south western Ukraine, the city of Chernivtsi is usually over-shadowed by its (relatively) near neighbour Lviv, which is a shame because it's a very handsome city that is worth a day or two of your time if you happen to be travelling in this part of Europe (and increasingly, many travellers are).

Admittedly you do need to make an effort to get to Chernivtsi; you'd probably have to fly to Kiev or Lviv and then travel by train, bus or car to Chernivtsi. Alternatively, you can take a bus from northern Romania too, and the idyllic region of Bukovina straddles the border, so if you visit Chernivtsi you get the brilliant city and the beautiful countryside. Once you're in the town you can pretty much see most things on foot but the main bus station for destinations elsewhere in Ukraine or over the border, is a few kilometres from the centre and entails a trolley bus ride. If you do use the trolley buses in Chernivtsi, be warned - they get absolutely crammed and are not much fun in the height of summer when you're carrying a rucksack.

Arriving in the city we were immediately impressed by the number of trees and the amount of flowers; yes, it was summer but Chernivtsi is a really attractive city with wide tree lined streets and plenty of well kept squares from where to sit and watch life go by. For most men this probably means watching Chernivtsi's young women who are, it must be said, for the main part, very attractive and like to strut around town making sure that everyone notices.

Chernivtsi is often referred to as "Little Vienna" because the buildings are similar to many in Vienna and because it was - and still is - an important educational centre. It's a very cultured city and this is no doubt perpetuated because of the number of academics living in the city. Chernivtsi should be of particular interest to those interested in architecture and it boasts a seemingly greedy number of magnificent buildings, predominantly built in the Viennese secessionist, neo-classicist and baroque styles, though there are a handful of other gems too. It's an old city - it celebrated its 600 year anniversary in 2008 - but as recently as the mid eighteenth century it was mainly a settlement of wooden huts on what became Central Square: stone houses attracted much higher taxes so wooden ones predominated until the Austrians took over and granted generous benefits to anyone building stone houses as they saw it as key to developing the city.

We were particularly keen to see the Chernivtsi University having read that it was a very special building and we had an afternoon stroll out to it on the edge of the city centre. The university is housed in the "Residence of Bukovina Metropolitans" (built between 1864 and 1882). It really is an amazing building, drawing on all kinds of architectural styles with Romanesque, Baroque and even Byzantine features ; there are domes, a splendid tower, roofs tiled with green, blue, white and brown glazed tiles, verdigris'ed domes. The lawned courtyard is lined with buildings on three sides while the fourth is a fabulously grand gate. We tried to get in here believing that we were allowed; the place was packed, it looked like the end of term and graduation time as there seemed to be a lot of parents as well as students. Within seconds a security guard stopped us; he spoke no English (and we virtually no Ukrainian) but it was clear he was stopping us from looking around. A student offered to show us around the courtyard but the guard was having none of it (he did laugh when I reminded him in very bad Russian that Stalin is dead now, but would not back down; Ukrainians tend to believe that ruled are meant to be obeyed - at all times).

Back in town there are no such problems and it's easy to walk around town admiring the sights. One of the most impressive parts of town is "Theatre Square", an elegant square with beautifully designed and lovingly maintained gardens in the centre of it. At one end of the square stands the Kobilyanska Drama Theatre, which designed by Ferdinand Fellner and Hermann Helmer who together were responsible for almost fifty theatres in Ukraine, Austria and Bulgaria and other central European countries. Other notable buildings on this square include Jewish National House (now the Culture Palace) and the Romanian People's House (now the Officers' House).

Close by is Chernivtsi's main square which is known simply as "Central Square" where you can find the Bukovynian saving-bank (an elegant secessionist style building but in need of restoration), the town hall and the "Romanian People's House" which is the centre for promoting the culture of the Romanians living in Chernivtsi. The classicist town hall has an imposing fifty feet high tower which was used a fire watch tower in its early days. When the Austrians ruled this part of Europe they added an eagle made of copper to the top of the tower but the Russians took it down. Today a trumpeter plays 'Marichka' a popular 1960s song from the tower every hour.

I won't list all the wonderful buildings to be found in Chernivtsi, suffice to say that there are colourful orthodox churches and cathedrals with distinctive onion domes, a fascinating synagogue (the only one remaining although Chernivtsi did at one point have a large and important Jewish community - the Chernivtsi Museum of Bukovynian Jewish History and Culture on Theatre Square is excellent but you do need to find a helpful guide if you don't speak Ukrainian or Russian - we met a lovely student who helped us), a brilliantly quirky railway station and countless elegant residential buildings. There are a few museums but the only one that is really very user friendly for those who don't speak Ukrainian is the Museum of Arts on the Central Square.

Possibly because it is home to a large number of academics, Chernivtsi has a surprising number of restaurants offering cuisines other than Ukrainian. We ate at a sushi restaurant in the basement of a grand building on Central Square where the food was good and cheap, although it was a rather unorthodox version of sushi using whatever ingredients could be obtained locally. With a high number of students in the city there are plenty of cheap places to eat and Ukrainian cooking is hearty and filling, perfect for cash-strapped backpackers. Coffee shops are popular and tend to be in the central European mould (reminiscent of Vienna or Budapest) selling good coffee and lots of naughty cakes.

There are a handful of hotels, several of which are of a decent standard, but a few Communist-era relics remain. We stayed at Hotel Bukovyna which is very reasonably priced and offers an excellent standard of accommodation at prices that anywhere else would be hostel prices.

We visited Chernivtsi as an unscheduled stop en route to Romania. We had planned to cross into Moldova much further south near Odessa but found out just in time that because we didn't have visas in advance we'd have to go north, go into Romania and from there into Moldova. As it can take a long time to cover even relatively short distances by public transport in Ukraine we found we needed to stop overnight in Chernivtsi and take the first bus over the border the following morning. We found that Chernivtsi's main sights can be seen in the course of a day - an exhausting, non-stop one but an enjoyable one as there are plenty of lovely outdoor spaces to sit and have a rest, and because the trees and flowers do make Chernivtsi a more attractive place to pound the pavements than most Ukrainian cities. Realistically though, a day is too ambitious and you could easily fill three days if you are serious about seeing the interiors of some of the churches and other buildings. If you have transport, you can also use Chernivtsi as a base for visiting some of Bukovina's famous painted monasteries.

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