Into the Ukrainian Heartland

A short trip into provincial Ukraine, with stops in Uman and Vinnytsia.

Walking through Sofiivka Park, in Uman.

Walking through Sofiyivka Park, in Uman. Right to left: our tour guide, Liuba (Mykola’s mother), me, Maki.

This school year, my family is hosting a foreign exchange student from Vinnytsia, a provincial city in central Ukraine of some 370,000. Upon finding out that we were hosting Mykola for the year, I made contact first with him, back before I left Ann Arbor in May, and then his mother, figuring it might be neat to meet him before he went to the states. I didn’t quite manage to meet him before he departed, but having never been to Vinnytsia, Maki and I decided it would be a lovely excursion and a wonderful opportunity to meet his parents. They proved to be very delighted hosts, and went out of their way to arrange a wonderful visit, even including transportation. We were picked up early on a Tuesday morning and were driven to Uman, a small town about 2 hours from Kyiv, on the way (by road) to Vinnytsia. There, Mykola’s parents met us and had arranged a guided tour of Uman’s Sofiyivka Park.

Various views of Sofiyivka.

Various views of Sofiyivka. Clockwise from top left: a rock called Monomakh’s Hat (you can look up the original); a gazebo on a rock; a boat in one of the ponds; a snake fountain, colloquially called the fountain of the favorite mother-in-law.

The park, built by a love-struck Polish general for his second wife, Sofia, is truly one of the most fabulous parks I have ever seen. Spanning acres upon acres of territory, the park is home to some 2,000 kinds of trees and plants and receives some 500,000 visitors a year. A good chunk of the park is laid out as an English-style garden, which is to say, largely unplanned and forest-y, with plenty of walking paths. Other parts are lined with fountains and statues, with heavy inspiration drawn from Greek mythology, as the Sofia for whom the park was built was Greek.

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At one point, we even took a boat through an enclosed passageway to a lower part of the park. It was pretty cool.

Most of this short little ride was in the dark, with just the occasional opening above for lighting. Here we are at the end of the passageway.

Most of this short little ride was in the dark, with just the occasional opening above for lighting. Here we are at the end of the passageway.

Mykola’s parents got lots of pictures of us, which is nice, because we haven’t taken many this summer.

Various views from around the park.

Various views from around the park.

And also, because I always like the bad pictures

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From there, we enjoyed a nice lunch in Uman, before we rode back to Vinnytsia with his parents. Having woken up at 7, we both pretty promptly fell asleep, though I awoke shortly thereafter to Lenin’s gaze as we passed through a small town.

Lenin presides over a small town.

Lenin presides over a small town.

We got situated in a hotel, and Maki and I were left to our own devices for a few hours before dinner. After kicking back for a bit, we decided to take a walk. Vinnytsia proved to be quite a pleasant little town.

A statue in front of the Vinnytsia water tower, easily the town's most recognizable landmark.

A statue in front of the Vinnytsia water tower, easily the town’s most recognizable landmark.

Mostly, though, we were on the lookout for coffee — our much-anticipated first coffee of the day. We found a pleasant cafe that had an impressively long list of cakes and sweets. I ordered a strudel, Maki some mousse-cake with a fruit-jelly topping. Not surprisingly, the cafe was a Vinnytsia filial of a Lviv coffeehouse, one of a small network encompassing 5 cities in Western Ukraine.

Maki's coffee and cake.

Maki’s coffee and cake.

Finally caffeinated, we wandered a little more around the city, stopping by the World War II memorial and other various sites.

Top: two views of the WWII memorial. Below: a Ukrainian Orthodox and the Holodomor (Ukrainian famine) memorial, which we saw the following morning.

Top: two views of the WWII memorial. Below: a Ukrainian Orthodox and the Holodomor (Ukrainian famine) memorial, which we saw the following morning.

From there, we headed back to meet Artur and Liuba, who took us to a restaurant for a fabulous (and fabulously filling) dinner. We made a very rookie mistake: filling up on the delicious salads (and in Maki’s case, sausages) that were the first course, forgetting that there was still a main course to come. By the time it arrived, we could barely eat. And that was before yet another round — this time, a large assortment of desserts. We were, needless to say, stuffed. From there, we headed to watch the fountain show that operates every evening during the summer. It was pretty incredible.

Roshen fountain show. The fountains were pretty neat.

Roshen fountain show. The fountains were pretty neat.

Exhausted from our day, we were glad to call it a night. The following morning, our tourism program commenced with a tour of a museum dedicated to the life and work of Nikolai Pirogov, a 19th century wunderkind-physician who made vast improvements in surgery procedures and pioneered the use of anaesthetic during surgery during the Crimean War. He lived in Vinnytsia (then Vishnia) following retirement, though he continued to see patients until his death in 1881.

Various views from the Pirogov estate.

Various views from the Pirogov estate.

After touring the museum and his office and pharmacy, we headed over to the church where his embalmed body is displayed. Though it dates more than 40 years ahead of Lenin’s embalmment, the preservation of the corpse is impressive — arguably better, particularly considering it’s received considerable less care and attention than Lenin has received through the years. Naturally, there was no photography allowed inside. From there, we made one more stop in the city before heading back to their apartment, where Liuba was waiting for us with lunch. We went through old photo albums and chatted about all sorts of things, and Maki even recorded a 20 minute interview, since they lived in Kharkiv in the 1990s. Before we headed out and back to Kyiv, we did manage to get one picture all together.

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And from there, we headed back, with a brief stop at the site where Hitler and the Nazi leadership were headquartered for their operations in Ukraine, not far out of Vinnytsia. The site was dismantled by the Nazis before their retreat, but

Various views from Werwolf, the headquarters. You can see some of the groundwork for the buildings which once stood there.

Various views from Werwolf, the headquarters. You can see some of the groundwork for the buildings which once stood there.

Along the footpath through the sites, a series of informative signs tell more about the place’s history.

Various sign postings at the bunker.

Various sign postings at the bunker.

From there, it was back to Kyiv. Maki and I both slept most of the way back, waking up only as we approached the outskirts of the city. It had been a lovely two days, jam packed of activity and getting acquainted with Mykola’s parents, who were ever so hospitable.

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