Service vs. amenities? The eternal question for a traveler
07/23/2015 - 07/24/2015 90 °F
A painting from the museum of Hutsul couture and art in Kolomyya, Ukraine
The whole point of adding Kolomyya to my itinerary was hiking in the Carpathian Mountains. When I was planning my trip, I wasn't sure I was going to be able to do the hike from Lviv. Even after it was confirmed, I kept Kolomyya in my plans. It was closer to the heart of the mountains, and the owners of On the Corner B&B, where I would stay, sounded like great people. I read through most of their eight pages of glowing review on Trip Advisor. I even adjusted my schedule to include this top when they were booked up on my first choice of days. So, was it worth it? Read this blog, and you be the judge!
Kolomyya also has attractive, Ukrainian architecture
The nearly five hour bus ride (no AC) was not pleasant. I don't know why people insist on closing up all windows on these types of rides, making it an airless oven, but they do. It was that way in Armenia, Georgian, and other non-modern public transit I've taken. The owner of the B&B picked me up at the bus station. We then drove the five minutes or so out of the small town center into a residential neighborhood to the house. It is the home of his aunt and uncle, and On the Corner B&B was originally started by Slavik's cousin, their son. First impressions were mixed. The power was out -- and would be every afternoon -- there was no air conditioning or fan, and there was only one other group of guests, a Ukrainian family with four kids. No other travelers were present, though a Danish couple checked out that afternoon.
Pretty churches are a guarantee in any Ukraining town
In my travel experiences I have occasionally run into the guest house, hostel, or B&B that has crap for amenities, but Lonely Planet and others rave about the owners and "vibe" of the place. Slavik certainly lived up to his rave reviews. He immediately gave me a map of town and made suggestions on what I could do for the rest of the afternoon. He promised to take care of my bus questions for my next destination, and said he would take me on tomorrow's promised hike himself. So, I duly unpacked in the spacious closet, decided against lining up my toiletries on the tiny shelf in the tiny (but clean and Western style) bathroom, and got ready to head off to explore Kolomyya.
An example of Hutsul craftsmanship -- a decorated axe in the Museum I'd Hutsul Culture and Art
Admittedly, there are only two real sights here besides the Carpathians. I enjoyed the first, the Museum of Hutsul Culture and Art. It stretches across two floors of a house likely built in the 1700s, from its look. The Hutsul are the Ukrainian people who inhabit the mountains of this area. They are known for their traditional woodworking, embroidery, metalwork, and other crafts. These were all on display in the museum in fairly well-lit display cases. You could even take pictures as long as you didn't use a flash (though the sign telling you that was halfway through the exhibits). The lower floor had a several paragraph Englis explanation of the exhibits at the entrance to each room. The individual labels were all in Cyrillic, though. Once you got upstairs, the English commentary disappeared, but it really wasn't necessary. It is a small museum, so I was finished in around a half hour.
Yes, the museum is partially housed in a 30' tall Easter egg,
Next, I meandered the streets looking for the next museum, but Slavik's photocopied map wasn't the best, and I had some trouble. You wouldn't think a 30 foot tall, brightly painted Easter egg would be hard to find, but I had to do some looking up and down streets. No biggie, as it was a good primer to Kolomyya's layout. I eventually found the museum of Easter egg painting -- yes, I'm serious. Hollowing out hen eggs and painting them is an artistic tradition here in Hutsul land. They really were cool looking. It was amazing the detail and colors they would put into their artwork. Nothing was in English, which made my transit through the museum even quicker than the Hutsul Culture one. I declined buying any as souvenirs because I was worried they would be fragile as, well, eggs!
What to do next? I wandered the town, which seems fairly wealthy and nice, checking out the local flea market, the main pedestrian street, and some colorful churches. I found a cafe that was praised in my guidebook for its selection of beers, and it became my second home in Kolomyya. I would later discover the wifi in my B&B was useless (when the power was on). Rather than sit in an airless room, or hang out in the equally stuffy common areas, the Djem Cafe would be where I spent my time in Kolomyya when not sightseeing or sleeping. The prices were incredible. My first afternoon I had two beers and an appetizer for less than $3! The chairs were comfy, the wifi was decent, and it was awesomely placed on the main drag where I could watch the world go by. I even returned that evening after dinner, staying later than I should have. It was a bit of a challenge to find my way home on the B&B's mostly unlit residential streets. I had taken the precaution of "dropping a pin" on the Apple maps app on my iPhone, so that helped. Even more helpful was the flashlight on my phone as I made my way down the dark, windy streets. All turned out well, and I found the B&B, making it home safely.
One of the Hutsul homes we passed on our way to Shepherd's Valley
The next morning Slavik and I set off on our hike after a quick stop at the bus station to buy tomorrow morning's ticket. It took us about an hour of driving from Kolomyya's plains to Hutsul hill country. He explained what we were seeing, including the Wedding Arch, which is an artistic weaving of colorful ribbons at the gateway to a home to announce a wedding. It is kept in place for nine months, when it is assumed another celebration to announce a child will take place. The traditional Hutsul homes are essentially log cabins -- think American frontier interlocked logs. This has been supplemented by other styles and building materials as the centuries have progressed. One I found very interesting was a polished tin. Many roofs and walls reflect the sun brightly with this material. If it is used on walls, it is usually decorated with religious themes or geometric art.
The forest or beech trees we hiked through to reach the valley
Tiny shrines line the road, especially next to the entrance of wealthier homes. Slavik explained that Hutsul villages are strung out along roads and tend to be long, thin affairs. People attend the church on Sunday, but build the shrines to visit and pray at every day. I saw Slavik and other Ukrainians cross themselves and pay reverence as they passed churches. He also explained that he and many others in this area are actually a Greek Catholic form of Christianity. It is the third most common form in Ukraine, he said. Ahead of it are Ukrainian and Russian Orthodox.
The valley, with the family's summer hit in the distance
After parking the van, we began our hike up to Shepherd's Valley. This is a tiny hamlet which the villagers take their cows to for summer grazing. Residents of Kolomyya and beyond make the half hour hike to the mountain meadow to sample and buy the cheese that the Hutsul families make there. We saw many families, including grandparents and infants making the hike as we climbed and later descended. So, this was obviously no Mt. Parashka forced march. Slavik made frequent rest breaks. He admitted this was only the second time he has done the hike this year. He usually contracts his father to do them, but he had another group scheduled today. Plus, he apologized, he is still undergoing monthly chemo treatments for Lymphoma cancer. He was happy to get back on the trail again, he said, as he was an avid hiker before the illness.
A vat of milk simmers on the fire, making cheese inside the hut
We found the Hutsul summer cottage atop the hill, and it was fairly busy with two other groups of visitors. We waited our turn to be shown into the uncomfortably hot room where the milk was being boiled to make cheese. We saw the rings of cheese being smoked for flavor and preservation, then quickly retreated to the cooler and breezier outside where the family had benches and a table set up. They brought us out two varieties of cheese to try. Slavik had told me to buy bread, so I unpacked it and we began sampling. The cheese was definitely very fresh and had a cow's milk smell and taste. It wasn't bad, but not something I'd want to make a staple of my diet. It was like you could taste the smell of the cow in the cheese, if that makes sense!
The chapel the shepherds of the valley constructed for their daily worship
After eating, we hiked up a small rise to where the families had constructed a chapel. It was newly-built and its bright, embossed tin sides gleamed in the sun that was just beginning to break out. After I explored the tiny chapel, Slavik apologized that we had to leave. His doctor limits the time he can spend in the sun while he is undergoing treatment. We hiked back down through the Beechwood forest, Slavik filling up his water bottle at a mountain stream. My two liters of water were more than sufficient for this short hike. From there, Slavik drove me on a tour of the countryside. We visited a village's local swimming hole (no dip this time!), and he pulled over every time I asked to take pictures of homes, chapels, and scenic views.
One of the UNESCO World Heritage churches -- check out the tin surface
Next, we visited two UNESCO churches in the area. The first was a wooden one for the 1600s, and the second was a tin-sided and domed one from a century later. Neither were open to go in, but they were quiet and deserted, and we had them to ourselves. I had seen quite a few wooden ones in Lviv, but the tin one was cool to walk around. I couldn't resist touching the metal. Considering the lack of rust (no B-52s song here...), the metal must be coated or some sort of alloy. The stamped designs on the side were interesting, and gave them a much different look than either the dark wooden churches or the Byzantine-style cathedrals of Kiev.
Detail on the tin surface of the church
We pulled back into the B&B around 2:30 pm. Of course, the power was out. Slavik insisted I eat some soup his aunt and mom had just prepared. After that, I showered and stretched out on the bed. I contemplated a nap, but the airless rooms and the Ukrainian couple's shrieking kids convinced me otherwise. There was nothing for it but to get up, pack up my iPad, and head to my favorite cafe. So, we get down to where you get to make your decision. Was On the Corner B&B overrated? The price I paid was identical to the four-star hotels I enjoyed in Kiev and Lviv. No AC, no ventilation, power outages, and nothing in the house or surroundings to do are all negatives. Would I have been better served staying in a hotel in town and just contracting Slavik for tours? Or does Slavik's service and willingness to do anything and everything to make visitor's stay enjoyable make up for it?
I'll let you decide...