Advantages Some interesting sights and attractive buildings
Disadvantages Terrible customer service, still little tourist information
|Value for Money|
|Ease of getting around|
I would never have even heard of the Ukrainian city of Vinnitsa had I read my Lonely Planet Guide to Moldova properly. It was not until we were making plans to leave Ukraine by way of Odesa that we learned that you can only enter Moldova through Romania if you haven't bought a visa in advance. The only option was to travel north and enter Romania through its northern border with Ukraine, a long journey that would be made more difficult by the fact that Ukrainian bus travel throws up lots of challenges.The other problem was that the journey would entail overnight stops in towns and cities that were not deemed interesting enough to make the guidebook. Going "off plan" is never a problem for us; in fact we've often found brilliant places by chance without using a guidebook at all. The problem on this occasion was that we needed to know that there would be a reasonably priced hotel in the towns we planned to overnight in. There was no point arriving in a town and having to stay miles from the bus station when we wanted to be on the first bus out the next morning.
A quick look at Wiki tells me that Vinnitsa is situated some 160 miles from the capital, Kiev and approximately 229 miles east of Lviv. Wiki also says that the city is twinned with Peterborough and Birmingham, amongst others. Let that say what you will...We arrived late afternoon and on the way in we spotted a monstrous building - a typical Soviet era hunk of concrete - that announced itself as a hotel. It was cheap enough although we did have one room change as we had been put in a room where the television had been neatly divided into front and back - the front stood on a chest of drawers and the back stood on the floor beside it. There were suspect stains on the pillow cases and top sheet and although I deemed a satisfactory amount of starch had been employed, I preferred my bed linen stainless. We "upgraded" to a room with cheap laminate flooring and floaty lilac curtains. Unrenovated rooms are fun but the upgraded version rarely costs much more.
Our receptionist recommended the museum of the Afghan War and so the Museum of the Afghan War it was. It wasn't like we were spoiled for choice and there didn't appear to be much of a city centre. The museum is in the Slavic War Memorial Park and is housed in a former water tower. This terrific red brick building was not at all what I was expecting and raised my expectations of the museum. I remember from childhood how the news was often dominated by reports from Russia's occupation of Afghanistan so I was hoping to learn more about it. Unfortunately the museum's take is very narrow and relates almost entirely to the experiences of young men from Vinnitsa sent to fight there. It wasn't that it wasn't interesting but it was a bit too narrow. However, having met people in Georgia and Russia earlier on our trip who had relatives who had fought in Afghanistan, there was some interest in the letters and memoirs displayed in the museum. Elsewhere in the nicely laid out park there are three statues of soldiers and the obligatory eternal flame dedicated to those who perished during the Great Patriotic War (the Second World War to you and I).Back in town we decided on a drink before dinner. We weren't exactly spoiled for choice but we opted for a medium sized place that resembled a marquee. As soon as the waitress discovered we weren't Ukrainian her demeanour changed. As I can speak enough Russian to get by as well as German and French we could easily have ordered and paid for drinks without any drama but the waitress took fright, immediately believing this was going to be an ordeal for her. We ordered two beers and when they were done tried for two more. We had suddenly become invisible and whatever we did the waitress ignored us. In the end we decided to pay up - holding out a banknote I tried again to get her attention but still she blanked us. Finally we checked the price list on our table, pooled our small change and stacked it just behind the menu before leaving. Seconds later the waitress was sprinting after us shaking her fist and issuing what I can only imagine is some kind of Ukrainian profanity - I calmly led her back to the table and showed her the money we had left at which point she stopped shouting and resumed ignoring us.
All the dinner options turned out to be fast food joints (if you are ever in Ukraine avoid the jacket potato chain that has a branch in every large town) and so we ate in the outdoor cafe of a snooker hall where we were pleasantly surprised by the excellent service and friendliness of the young waiter. After dinner we had a drink at another bar overlooking a roundabout where the traffic whizzed by a concrete plinth on which stands an old fighter jet. This is in honour of the Soviet pilots who helped to liberate Vinnitsa from the Germans during the Great Patriotic War - however, there has clearly been some licence employed as the Russian didn't use jet fighters during this war!The following morning we made our way to the bus station where we'd arrived the previous evening. We were told there were no buses to our next destination from that bus station and that we should go to the other "vokzal" - all bus stations in Ukraine are called vokzal (it comes from the English "Vauxhall") and pointed vaguely. We took a tram there, squeezed in with our rucksacks among hoardes of Ukrainian pensioners on their way to market. At the station we wandered around looking for information and couldn't find any source of it. Suddenly drama was created when an elderly lady fell as she was getting off a tram. I reached out to help her up but she brushed me off shouting wildly and pointing at something on the ground where she had dropped her "Sainsbury's bag for life" (truthfully). I now believe she was saying something close to "Never mind me, catch those f***ing ducklings I was planning to sell at market" and there waddling around perilously close to the tram rails were half a dozen fluffy yellow ducklings which we scrambled to catch, carefully putting them back in their deluxe accommodation.
A chance encounter with an English speaker indicated that we should be at Vinnitsa's third bus station. We were shown which tram to take there and by making this rather long journey we learned just how big Vinnitsa is and that if we'd walked a bit further from our hotel we'd have encountered the centre proper which has some wonderfully handsome buildings. The English speaker was heading to the same place and told us what some of the buildings were; several were museums which sounded quite interesting. I loved the "Transfiguration Cathedral" with its two elegant steeples and shining golden domes while the drama theatre with its stately Greek revival portico was among the most attractive buildings I saw in the whole of Ukraine. In fact, once you get past the modern and ugly part of Vinnitsa it really is an attractive city and easily compares with Lviv which is much better known and attracts lots of visitors. Had we known this beforehand we'd probably have stayed another night.I wish I could say more about Vinnitsa but I think I've given a flavour of it here. It looks to be a very charming city with plenty to occupy visitors for at least a couple of days. Alas, I think most foreign visitors who find themselves are in the market for a Ukrainian bride and therefore not too interested in what cultural and historic delights are on offer. Admittedly I wouldn't recommend a special trip to Vinnitsa but I would suggest to backpackers and adventurous tourists who may be in this part of Ukraine that a few days here would be a good choice. I am advised the restaurants in the city centre are much better than where we stayed although decent customer service is still a rarity. Vinnitsa is a military city and although it wasn't as isolated as say Sebastopol, outsiders are still regarded with a degree of suspicion. However, if you can brazen out the stares and put up with the poor service, I'd say open-minded travellers will enjoy this scenic city.
Sorry, no photographs on this occasion
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