Over the past year, I’ve thoroughly enjoyed getting to know my adopted home. In addition to establishing day-to-day routines, we’ve explored a number of festivals, hit up lots of the tourist sites and doubled down on cultural events.
But Kyiv is still a city, and sometimes it’s nice to escape the city life.
Last year, Cory’s school organized a few day-long and weekend trips to various parts of Ukraine, and while I appreciate these efforts, they’re still wrapped up in the frustrations that come with group travel. You know what I mean: waiting around for everyone, frequent bathroom stops, trying to please the masses. In any case, I’ve wanted to travel beyond Kyiv without being constrained by the inconveniences of large-group travel.
Which is why I was beyond thrilled when a friend of mine invited me to join her for a long weekend road trip earlier this fall. Yes, I’m just now getting around to writing about it.
And, yes, I drove! Okay, she did all the city driving, but I definitely did a fair amount of highway driving, so three cheers for that!
Our destination was about 250 kilometers to the east of Kyiv, in the area known as the Gogol Circuit. Nikolai Gogol is one of Ukraine’s most famous authors, a master of mysticism and folklore, and this is the part of Ukraine in which he set many of his strange tales. We didn’t actually set out to visit destinations along the Gogol Circuit, but our weekend road trip ended up encompassing a number of destinations that fall within its realm.
Totally unrelated to Gogol, but absolutely the highlight of our trip for me, this is village is devoted to pottery. It is the pottery capital of Ukraine, and the entire village’s focus is on pottery.
At one time, more than 1,000 potters studied in Opishnya (also known as Opishnye or Opishne). The National Museum of Ukrainian Pottery, with hundreds of pieces of work on display, is the highlight of Opishnya. An enclosed museum showcases several plates, vases and similar small items and several works of art cover the multi-tiered lawn. We had the opportunity to make our own small piece of pottery — I made a salt dish. And, resident cats wander the grounds, so bonus points there!
Though the National Museum of Ukrainian Pottery is the showcase site in Opishnya, there are six other sites related to the village’s pottery history including family estates.
Unfortunately, Ukraine doesn’t have a lot of money to direct toward tourism, but this village is on the right track to attracting visitors. Numerous signs along the road point out the pottery attractions, but the infrastructure is poor. The village roads are really rough, and there is no designated parking. The only place to buy pottery is at a marketplace along the highway just outside of Opishnya.
If there is one place that Ukrainians would point to related to Gogol, it is Dikanka. Gogol’s famous tale Evenings on a Farm near Dikanka takes place here, though the film of the same name was not filmed here. A Ukrainian who traveled with us was severely disappointed to discover the village looked nothing like she expected.
I had no expectations, though, and my friend had connections with someone living in Dikanka, so we had a personal tour guide. The village is tiny, but she took us to half a dozen points of interest.
The Triumphal Arch, a strange architectural marvel erected for the visit of Russian emperor Alexander I, sits right off the highway. There are two churches of note: the Classicist Nikolai’s Church holds the family burial vault of Vasyl Kochubey (a Crimean Tartar nobleman) and the Trinity Church is the one Gogol wrote about in his famous story.
We stopped by a lovely little lake and a lilac grove, which wasn’t in bloom this time of year, but apparently its really popular for visitors in season. My favorite thing about Dikanka is that there are several oak trees older than 800 years planted here. Fences placed around them provide protection.
The purpose of our road trip was to visit the annual Sorochynska farmers’ fair, a “cultural fair” spread across 40 acres.
I was expecting something akin to a state fair in the United States, with hands-on demonstrations, display halls and cultural presentations, but it didn’t quite live up to those expectations.
Several handicraft vendors were selling handmade goods, which was my favorite part of the fair. I loved looking at the vyshyvanka designs, and a number of vendors sold nice wood products, pottery and jewelry. But more than half of the vendors hawked off-the-back-of-the-truck clothes, shoes and comforters, and several commercial vendors pushed everything from cell phones to dairy products.
A small section of the fair had questionable-looking carnival rides, and the food vendors didn’t offer much beyond meat-heavy options.
Though the schedule mentioned “master classes,” we never found anything resembling hands-on demonstrations. And while I enjoyed watching the singers and dancers perform in their traditional wear, there was no seating in any of the stage areas, so it was crowded, hot and uncomfortable.
I’m glad we went — after all, it’s because of the Sorochynska fair that we made the trip at all — but an hour or two is all it really deserves.
We stayed in Poltava, which is the government seat of the area. A decent-sized town, it has a wonderful pedestrian area with lots of restaurants and cafes. In the center is the circular Korpusny Park, which has a tall monument topped with an eagle in the center.
Before heading back to Kyiv, we spent the morning at Poltava’s Museum of Local Lore, a three-story collection of totally random but surprisingly interesting things. There were rooms dedicated to archaeological finds and geologic notes of interest from the area. I most enjoyed the small room displaying pysanky — the Ukrainian decorated eggs — some of which dated back to the 1850s! The building itself was stunning, with ceramic crests and detailed tile work.