“Don’t forget to look after your bag and watch out for thieves!”
I reassured my cousins that I’d take care and I boarded the bus to Rakhiv, wiping condensation from the window to give one last wave. I fought an urge to haul my backpack off the bus and ask if I could stay another day or so. But I had a reservation in the mountains of Transcarpathia that could no longer be cancelled.
One of the best things about Rakhiv is the journey in and out. I was on a bus heading south from the Ivano-Frankivsk region and we were soon winding through the forests and open pasture of the Carpathians, past traditional wooden structures. More surprising was the billboard for Erotic Massage and the bizarre row of brand new terraced houses painted in primary colours that wouldn’t be out of place in Bristol.
The bus filled with shoppers: older women in patterned headscarves sat next to younger women in sequined baseball caps. Sacks of vegetables were heaved on and off, with the odd potato falling out to roll into the dust.
Finally, we pulled into Rakhiv, described by Lonely Planet as chaotically post-Soviet. My hotel wasn’t chaotic but it had no soul. Not for the first time I wondered why I’d left my father’s village, with its clean air and inquisitively friendly inhabitants, for a place choked by fumes from ancient Ladas.
The hotel had no maps and no information on hiking. The receptionist gave a vague instruction to “walk up into the mountains – just turn right. There’s only one road,” and suggested I visit the tourist information point. When I eventually found it, it was just a souvenir hut, where the woman directed me back to the hotel for information. Instead I walked around the town and over a precarious wooden suspension bridge over the Tisa that gave a sickening lurch with every step.
Why had I come here? How was I going to fill four days?
“A ticket to the Centre of Europe, please.” The cashier in Rakhiv’s bus station nodded and took the equivalent of 15p for the fare.
Back in 1887, when this part of south-west Ukraine land belonged to the Austro-Hungarian Empire, ‘specialists’ determined that here, where the 48th parallel of northern latitude crosses with the 24th of longitude, was the geographical centre of Europe. No matter that other countries have claimed their own ‘centre of Europe’; Ukraine celebrates its version with a visitor centre. With all the anti-EU nationalism back home in the UK, it seemed an appropriate time to visit something that symbolised our unity.
Unfortunately the bus whizzed past the Centre of Europe without stopping, and I struggled to push through the shoppers and get off, leaving me with a two mile walk back along the main highway that connects Lviv with the southern border. But it sounds more frightening than it actually is:
Behind the original Austrian marker stone lies a modern visitor centre with bilingual displays in both Ukrainian and English. It explains that Transcarpathia was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire until 1919, and was then handed to Czechoslovakia until 1938, before being divided between Hungary and Romania until 1944. The timeframe then jumped to Ukrainian independence, missing out the Soviet years entirely.
I read that 85 nationalities live here in Transcarpathia, some of whom were given bizarre stereotyping: imposing Hungarians, tolerant Germans, cheerful gypsies, hard-working Romanians and even-tempered Slovaks. All living happily alongside the Hutsuls, the local mountain people.
In the Hutsul restaurant my bowl of borscht came with brown and white marbled bread. After strolling around the souvenir stands I flagged down a marshrutka, one of the privately owned minibuses that ply the roads of Ukraine. I sat up front, giving bundles of notes from passengers to the driver and passing back their change.
The following day I followed the River Tisa as far as the Museum of Mountain Ecology, where a young man unlocked the building for me during the lunch break. I suppose closing for lunch is isn’t that essential if there’s only one visitor a day.
The museum is informative about the Carpathian woodlands and their Unesco status but the displays are showing their age. Supplies of materials must have been limited at the time the dioramas were set up. The scene of rafting Hutsuls was inventive in using a smashed block of plaster to convey white water, with ripped plastic sheeting to imply water flowing off the end of the raft. In another scene plaster had been thrown over a youth to suggest snow, but it made him look like one of those people you see emerging from an earthquake.
The next day, keen to get out into the mountains, I took the hotel’s suggestion to ‘turn right’ and followed a stream uphill. Each house had its own mini bridge for access; some wooden, some concrete. The road fell into the river at one point, and its surface had mostly disappeared, exposing the straight kerb’d edges of an ancient cobbled route.
An elderly man stopped to talk and told me of a hotel further up, where there was food and music. I thanked him and carried on, following crude yellow way marking up through steep forest trails to emerge above the trees and then up to a small summit that opened out to views of mountains, one of which must be Hoverla, Ukraine’s highest. In the near distance was the Maramureș region of northern Romania. From up here the blot of Rakhiv seemed trivial, its shabbiness and fumes now insignificant in the vast green mountain folds.
Elaborate balconies came into view; was this the hotel recommended by the old man? No, it was deserted; ghostly and nameless. A little later I recognised the name he’d given me on a small yellow metal plaque that hung from a tree. The arrow pointed up a track. I peered through the trees but there was no sign of life.
The next morning I took one last walk over the wooden suspension bridge with its bent chicken wire sides and then boarded the bus for a four and a half hour ride to Chernivtsi. In the end I’d grown fond of Rakhiv, but there’s nothing quite like pulling on the backpack and heading for a new, unfamiliar destination.