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In the Land of Poltavshchyna
Natalya OBOLENSKA, a journalist who spent two days traveling with a group of fellow journalists, is now of the opinion that the heart of Ukraine is to be found in the Land of Poltavshchyna.
I found Poltavshchyna to be the land that remembers the glory days of the Cossacks, the land in which you can still see characters that seem to have come straight from the pages of Mykola Hohol’s books (he is better known as Nikolai Gogol, the nineteenth-century writer; many of his poetic and fantastic short and long stories are devoted to Ukraine), the land of amazingly clean lakes and rivers, and of scenic fields and forests, the land of nightingales and of most melodic Ukrainian songs, and the land of wonderful ceramics and of gorgeous embroidered shirts and decorative towels.
Poltavshchyna is a “shchyra, klasychna Ookrayina” — “true, classical Ukraine.” It’s a very hospitable land too, or rather the people of the land who will always generously treat you to the most delicious traditional Ukrainian dishes.
Unfortunately, our tourism-promotion journalistic trip, organized by the National Tourist Organization and the Board of Culture and Tourism at the Poltavska Oblast Administration, lasted only for two days, but in spite of its brevity we saw so much, we learnt so much, we ate so much tasty food, we took part in the Kupalske Pagan Feast celebrations, we took swims, we drank beer, we took horseback rides — or to put it short, we had a great fun.
Mr Volodymyr Hodzenko, head of the Board of Culture, and Ms Larysa Onishchuk, his deputy, were kind enough to find time in their busy schedule to travel with us and make sure we had a red carpet treatment everywhere we went.
It was the first village in the Land of Poltavshchyna we came to after we had crossed the border of Poltavska Oblast. We stopped at a restaurant which doubled as a brewery. The welcoming sign on the restaurant’s roof said, “Come on in for freshly brewed beer.” I took in a spacious parking lot, a manicured lawn, trees with little signs of the names of these trees on them, pheasants in cages, booths with souvenirs and bric-a-brac. Within strolling distance there stood a folk art shop and a sort of an open-air museum. The host of the place, Mykola Vasylenko, regularly organizes folk festivals. He had a replica of a peasant house built, which he plans to rent to the newlyweds for wedding receptions. The house is complete even with an old-style pich, or stove, which the bride would be able to use to cook something that would prove she had good cooking skills.
After we took a good look around, we were invited to try the local “freshly brewed” beer. It was very good indeed. We were also treated to little salty “sticks” made of cheese and dough and cooked in beer. They went so well with the beer!
The restaurant and the brewery (incidentally, the first privately-owned brewery in Ukraine) were built by Ivan Mlyznyuk, first deputy of the Poltavska Oblast Administration. He had a camping and hotel built in the same vicinity, close to the River Uday. He is a tourism promotion enthusiast and, evidently, tourists will be coming in hordes.
Later, we were taken to the place where the local decorative ceramics were made. Then we had a pleasure boat trip on the river, and after that we were taken to a sort of a hunters’ lodge in the forest, which proved to be another restaurant. We saw a wild deer and a boar that came quite near to the house. The pond nearby swarmed with fish, and the steam bath was a few paces away. One can come to that place for a whole day and enjoy both the tranquility of nature, forest air and excellent food too.
We spotted this seventeenth-century monastery from a distance. It stood on a hill, suggesting a stop, a quiet respite from traveling, an hour of prayer — and a message of good luck for the rest of the journey.
The monastery was closed down when the Bolsheviks came to power — but it was not demolished, as so many other churches and monasteries were. In 1993 it was reopened and its buildings restored. The Spaso-Preobrazhensky Church (Church of Christ’s Transfiguration) is an impressive architectural landmark of Ukrainian baroque. Its architectural decor reflects the Ukrainian folk art traditions.
The bell tower that stands above the entrance gate was built in 1837–1844. In the Civil War of 1918–1920, the bells were taken down and melted to make guns. New bells were installed during the restoration, and now the sound of bells travels all the way to the horizon.
There is a small monastery situated in close vicinity with the Annunciation Church (built in 1891) in it, which is worth being mentioned. Also, not far from the Mharsky Monastery one can see a memorial to the Victims of Holodomor — Famine of the 1930s. The memorial — a huge bell topped with a cross — sits on Mount Zazhura. A breathtaking view opens from the top of the hill on the monastery.
The village of Vasylivka, now Hoholeve, is where Hohol’s family used to live. We got there in the evening but still had time to go to Hohol’s museum which is housed in the building where Hohol once lived. The museum boasts furniture of the early nineteenth century and some of Hohol’s personal belongings. Everything looked so authentic that I had a feeling that any minute the writer would walk in and say “Hello”.
It was the day, or rather the night of the ancient Ukrainian feast of Ivana Kupala (which, after the advent of Christianity, was turned into the Feast of St John the Baptist). In recent years, a growing interest in ancient traditions and beliefs has been observed. In Hoholeve we saw young people making wreaths of wild flowers, singing songs, jumping over the bonfires, and taking swims in the lake. Vendors offered souvenirs, food and drinks. It was believed in the times of old that during that night a magic fern would produce a flower, which, if you found it, would make any of your wishes come true. I was tempted to go into the forest in search of it but on second thought decided against it.
This is the village where Hohol was born. Now it has a sort of a “green tourism” hotel. It was where we spent the night. The pillows on the bed of my room were stuffed with real goose down! I fell asleep a few moments after my head hit the pillow.
We had our breakfast at a restaurant in a small wooden house on the bank of the Psel River. It was drizzling and it felt very cozy to be sipping hot tea, eating varenyky stuffed with sour cherries and topped with mounds of sour cream.
Velyki Sorochyntsi also has a Hohol museum which was founded back in the 1920s but it is more of a scholarly type.
The Church of the Christ’s Transfiguration is a local architectural landmark. It was in this church that Hohol was baptized on the second day after his birth in 1809. As a matter of fact, I think that this church is a remarkable creation of the 18th-century Ukrainian architecture and should rank among the best Ukrainian churches of that time. Particularly impressive is its iconostasis carved of wood. Its size alone of 17 meters in height and 22 meters in width makes it a sight worth seeing, and its icons and the general harmonious design qualifies it as a masterpiece.
When we came to the church, a religious service was being held. The choir was singing and I seemed to hear true heavenly music.
Having thus been given a spiritual uplift, we went to the Sorochynsky Fair. It has been regularly held (with some gaps in the soviet times) for more than two centuries now. These days it is a major trade event in Ukraine with buyers and sellers coming from all over Ukraine. It takes the Sorochynsky yarmarok Company, headed by Svitlana Svyshheva, the whole year to get everything done and ready for each next fair which will last for a week.
On the way to Reshetylivka we stopped at a roadside cafe, Ni pukha, ni pera (this name can be translated as :”Happy Hunting! Good Luck!”. It had animals made of wood and stone standing around, probably as a suggestion that you could have wild game dishes served in this place. But we had traditional Ukrainian borsch, home-made sausage and pies stuffed with liver. The traditional stove stood outside the cafe rather than inside and we could watch the cook do his cooking magic right before our eyes!
Reshetylivka is a small town but it boasts an art gallery and a museum. Also, it is a center of rug making and embroidery. The woolen fabric made in Reshetylivka in the times of old was used to make Cossack hats. The breed of sheep that supplied the wool died out long ago and these days colorful rugs and carpets are made in Reshetylivka. The town is also famous for embroidered shirts and embroidered decorative towels made there. “White in white” embroideries are the most difficult to make and are the most expensive — but they are so beautiful!
There are only a few landmarks in Reshetylivka that have come to our day from old times, the old park on the bank of the Hovtva River being one of them.
We stopped at a cafe by the roadside, called Fortetsya, which turned out to be much more than just a cafe. It had several halls, a souvenir shop, several hotel rooms and a stable with wonderful horses. Next door to the cafe was a sty with two wild boars in it.
We could not resist a temptation to go horse riding and though most of us did it for the first time in their lives, everybody thoroughly enjoyed the ride. Anyway, I did!
Later, we were taken to a rest home on the bank of the Psel River. The road to it passed through the scenic countryside — fields, forests and meadows.
The rest home is complete with a small stream bath, a small lake and white lilies in the lake. We took swims, relaxed on the grass and then we were invited to have lunch — fish soup and kulish, a traditional Cossack dish made on the open fire.
It was a great trip. I’ve become fully convinced that the Land of Poltavshchyna has a great tourist potential.
Photos by Oleksandr Zadyraka
On the pagan fest of Ivana Kupala,
A rug in the process of being
At the Kupala pagan feast.
Hohol’s Museum in Velyki Sorochyntsi.
The memorial at Mount Zazhura.
The Spaso-Preobrazhensky Cathedral
The interior of the Spaso-Preobrazhensky Cathedral.