I intend to go overland from Latvia to Georgia, to feel the vibes of the places in between and stretch my traveller muscles. The road to Ukraine will be roughly the first third of the journey.
I make a start with the night bus from Riga to Warsaw, which offers hot meals to passengers and is most comfortable. Just as well, since this is a 12-hour ride.
We roll into Warsaw shortly after 5 a.m. I have been to Warsaw before, but I marvel afresh at the hum and modernity of this thrusting city, at the monumental scale of reconstruction. In 1945 this was one of two national capitals destroyed by war, the other being Manila. What work the Poles have done.
Within minutes I am heading south on a train to Kraków, capital of Poland from 1038 to 1569 and by any measure one of Europe’s architectural jewels. I have been here too in the past and again I am struck on arrival by the sheer energy of the place.
I check into a hostel in the city’s former Jewish district Kazimierz, dotted with a multitude of bars, restaurants and clubs. Looking about me I decide that Kraków must be competing for the title of party capital of Europe.
South of Kraków lie the Tatra mountains and the trick is to choose a public transport option that gets me to Slovakia on the other side of the range. I start with bus to Katowice, where I spot a working coal mine, the first I have seen in years.
Then a train from Katowice to the Slovakian town of Žilina where I change trains for Košice.
From Žilina to Košice is a lovely ride, with the snow-capped Tatras now in sight to the north.
We pass a succession of picturesque towns and villages with many wooden houses. Slovakia looks very cosy.
I read a love story by Chekhov, “The Lady with a Dog”, and feel that this is the life.
I arrive in Košice, Slovakia’s second city, on a Monday evening and it is a shock after Kraków, Košice is deadly quiet. The only person out on the streets near the city’s 14th century Gothic cathedral turns out to be a statue.
Košice is a city of substance with a long history. The Bradt Travel Guide says it was the first in Europe to be awarded a municipal coat of arms, in 1369.
On arrival at a hostel the receptionist kindly offers me a free vegan dinner, as part of the deal for guests. Having just dined I demur and negotiate two free beers instead.
The next stage of the journey is to Uzhhorod in western Ukraine. I travel by bus with a midwife from Seattle of Welsh extraction, whom I met at the hostel. We are the only Western tourists heading into Ukraine on this particular vehicle.
The border formalities to leave Slovakia and enter Ukraine take an hour. The female Ukrainian border guard who comes onto the bus to collect our passports is dressed in military fatigues.
At Uzhhorod’s taxi rank we look for a cab to go to the hotel where my travelling companion, Lynn Hughes, has made a booking. We give the name and address of the hostelry to a driver who tells us in forthright terms that there is no such hotel. We approach a second driver who takes the same line with some vigour. Have you ever felt that you are being cast into the role of stupid foreigner?
Because Lynn has a booking with a reputable agency, we insist on going to the address. The second driver sullenly climbs into his jalopy, which in a gesture to humour he calls a Russian Mercedes, and we bump our way through the town. We reach the address, 22 Kapitulna Street, and there stands the boutique hotel Primavera, where Lynn has a booking.
Uzhhorod’s taxi drivers are not on the wavelength of tourism. Of course with fighting in eastern Ukraine making world headlines for the past year and claiming more than 6,000 lives, they can scarcely be blamed. The tourists are staying away.
Uzhhorod is not prospering. It feels as if time has stood still here for a generation. Some of the street signage, like an Intourist sign for a hotel, appears to go back to Soviet times. Walking down one central street I pass a woman with a beaten-up old pram scavenging in rubbish bins. A few metres further on, another woman is selling modest quantities of radishes, spring onions and other vegetables laid out on the pavement.
The town, once part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, has its charms, in particular a magnificent medieval castle ruled for centuries by counts of Franco-Italian origin. In a happier land, the trippers would be checking it out.
In the evening, Lynn and I take a stroll and discover that the beating heart of Uzhhorod’s nightlife is by the Uzh River. At one of the cafes along the riverbank we have a dessert, coffee and a nightcap. The cafe offers blankets to customers feeling the chill of the night and the young waitress who serves us is the very soul of friendliness.
“Where are you from?” she asks, with genuine curiosity shining on her face. We talk a bit and she says that she is a student.
“What are you studying?” I ask.
“Tourism,” she says, giving us a smile to melt the heart.