Looking back, Uzhhorod was one of the most interesting places I have visited in my travels. At the time, though, my feelings towards it were very different. Let’s begin by saying that even the journey into Transcarpathia began in a somewhat surreal way.
We were going to get there by train from Lviv. The distance is not that great, but as this is a hilly region, the trip took about six hours. The most interesting bit was that the train that greeted us at the platform in Lviv was a sleeper, even though this was by no means an overnight route. The very old carriages were divided into compartments of four bunks each. The used sheets were still there, left over from the previous, most likely night-time passengers. To get to the top bunks one had to be both relatively athletic and ingenious, as the ladders were long gone. Our two fellow travellers, very kind Ukrainian ladies, chose different ways of travelling. The younger one sat by me on one of the bottom bunks, one that luckily had no bedding on it. The older lady chose the other bottom bunk, but she clearly decided to make the most of the situation by ordering a fresh set of sheets and going for a regular nap. Michał, my travel buddy, felt adventurous and climbed one of the top bunks, to admire the views from a different perspective. I, too, couldn’t get unstuck from the window. That is for two reasons. Firstly, it was for the layer of decades-old dirt covering it. But secondly, and most importantly, it was because of the beautiful vistas of the Carpathians. This region of Ukraine is green, hilly, sunny and charming. The scenic route reminded me of train trips across Poland’s region of Kłodzko in Lower Silesia, known for its medicinal water spas. For me, this definitely made up for the state of the carriage. Watching the scenic landscapes unfold, I also quickly forgot about the consistency of the rug on the compartment floor.
Uzhhorod is an interesting meeting place of cultures. All sorts of influences can be spotted here: Hungarian, Ukrainian, Russian, Roma, Ruthenian and Jewish. My guess is that, because of this, and because of the Carpathians separating Transcarpathia from „Ukraine proper”, the people kind of agreed it was easier for everyone to just talk in Russian. It seems that having such a lingua franca helps the locals to communicate effectively with each other, despite obvious linguistic differences. All of this makes the town feel diverse and homely.
But still, Uzhhorod felt rather overwhelming for me. There are a few nice pedestrian zones, pretty architecture, a magnificent linden tree boulevard along the Uzh river (which you can walk for several miles)… But there are also many contrasts, which, given the small population and size of the town, stand out much more acutely than they do in Lviv, for example.
First of all, yes, Uzhhorod really is multicultural, and there are many languages, apart from Russian, to be heard under those linden trees. The Roma community really is large and present, but it is also visibly marginalised and impoverished. On the other hand, there are several high-end boutiques to be found, such as the Ukrainian chain „Golden Age”, on a stretch of just a few streets of the small commercial centre. Why so many expensive jewellery and clothes shops in such a small town? How many locals can actually afford to shop there? Apart from this, the urban space itself presents contradictions – from bustling pedestrian streets to almost abandoned areas, that are still very much within the city centre. Uzhhorod is picturesque, and yet neglected. It is small and cosy, and yet it kind of tricks you into getting lost. The dissonance is just getting deeper when you want to buy an apple, a banana, a tomato or whatever. Suddenly you realise how hard it is to find in the town centre a shop that would sell fruit and veg. Of course, there are small places that sell newspapers, beer, wine by the litre or even fashionable frozen fruit milkshakes, but you can hardly call them greengrocers. I am sure there is at least one market in Uzhhorod, but having only spent two days there, I did not manage to discover it. The only fruit and veg shop we did find, after a long search, was experiencing a power cut when we got there. The ladies could not sell us anything as both the till and the scales were obviously off. OK, I know the last one was just bad luck, but all of those things led to Transcarpathia’s capital making me feel a little dizzy.
Following advice in our guidebook, we went to the aptly named Cafe Mir (meaning ‘peace’), to restore some tranquillity in us. Cafe Mir really does offer the opportunity to catch your breath for a moment in this slightly chaotic town. The music is perfect for relaxing over a coffee or lemonade, and the staff are lovely and super laid back. This place really proved to be my little oasis.
But Uzhhorod does have many things going for it and, as I’ve already mentioned, it now ranks surprisingly high in my list of most interesting towns. There is a nice castle here, where you can sample local, Carpathian wines. It also serves as a nice viewpoint, from which it is possible to see a panorama of Uzhhorod – surely a bonus point for any town. Apart from this, Uzhhorod has another charming feature – mali pomniki. The name means ‘little statues’, and they are precisely that. They are mostly humorous references to important discoveries, celebrities, things in some way connected with the Carpathians, or to actual, full-size constructions (for example, there is a pocket-sized Eiffel Tower here). The little statues are sprinkled around various corners of the town centre. There is a public map of Uzhhorod in the old town which hints at their approximate location, so that tourists can go on a hunt to find them all. It took us some time to do that and was really a lot of fun.
It was worth to give Uzhhorod a chance. With time, it definitely grew on me (also, in part, because of its inexplicable strangeness). My memories of it are very colourful, if slightly surreal.