Birthday in Solnechnogorskoe

The small village of Solnechnogorskoe is set beautifully by the Black Sea in the Ukraine. Amenities are few, hotels are none, but the hospitality is great. In 2005 I got to celebrate my birthday here.

Lonely Planet, Rough guide and Insight guides – none of the big guidebook companies have so far issued an English guide to the Ukraine. At best the Ukraine is covered as a chapter in an Easter European guidebook. That hardly does justice to a country, which in fact is Europe’s largest, and has a population of 50 million.

Travelling in the Ukraine is easy (at least if you know a minimum of Russian), the country has many beautiful places, and some eerie (eg Chernobyl), is affordable for Western tourists and has a very hospitable population. The only negative thing I can come up with for the entire trip is that the entire country appears to turn off the hot water for the summer season.

Unlike many other single male travellers that come to Ukraine, I did not come to meet my coming Ukrainian wife. My plan was to brush up my Russian language skills and enjoy the sea and the sun. Ukrainian is the main official language in the Ukraine, but in the south and the west of the country Russian is preferred.

I started my travels in Odessa, where I lived with a Ukrainian family and had some private lessons in Russian. Odessa is a lovely city, with endless beaches, and a wild nightlife. The Potemkin stairs however, are overrated.

After that I meet some friends in the capital Kiev. Kiev is big, orderly and has many impressive buildings. It’s location on the bank of Dniper and many parks give Kiev a fresh and green feeling. Shopping in Kiev is good and affordable, and those interested in orthodoxy can have a field day with in all the wonderful churches in this birthplace of orthodox Christianity. Luckily there were some things the Soviet Union did not completely destroy.

Then off to the Krim peninsula. Krim was given as a present to the Ukraine in 1954, to celebrate the 300 year unification between Russian and the Ukraine. Most Russians believe Krushchev was drunk when he did this. But how was he to know that the Soviet Union would collapse?

Krim seems to be for the Russians what Ibiza or the Canaries are to the Europeans, or what Florida is to the Americans. Tacky, touristy, expensive and overcrowded. Especially in the main resort areas like Alushta and Yalta. The overcrowded standing-room only pebble beaches were also a huge disappointment, with all their Russian/Ukrainian sportsmen in their Speedos.

As soon as we realized this, it was good to establish that there still are places that are not ruined by tourism in Krim. A nice cabdriver in Kiev had tipped us about the village Solnechnogorskoe. And off we went. Many people hire out private rooms, and for USD10 pp we got a lovely sea view room, up on a hill just by the beach. A few days were spent reading and relaxing at the beach here, before we went to see another highlight of the trip.

Sevastopol – the disputed, and earlier top secret, Russian naval base was fascinating with its broad orderly streets, colonial style architecture and thousands of huge ships and cranes. It was like stepping into a different world – but is it less than 2 hours away from Yalta. Yalta by the way is famous for the 1945 conference between Churchill, Roosevelt and Stalin.

The Ukraine can be warmly recommended. An exciting country to travel in, with many things to discover. The path is by no means beaten yet. However, a little Russian goes a long way.

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