The natural charms of Ukraine are slowly supplanting the dismal Soviet legacy that has deterred so many visitors in the past. Despite the ominous ruins of Chernobyl (the corroded nuclear reactor there is now a tourist attraction) and the economic hardships that have persisted since the dissolution of the Soviet Union, we've found much to enjoy in Ukraine—from roaming its rolling countryside, where villages are set amid silver birches, to basking in the aging grandeur of Yalta or exploring nightclubs in the sophisticated capital city, Kiev.
Kiev has transformed itself into an outpost of Western Europe amid a sea of Soviet-style cities. The cafe culture has returned, with elegant bars and restaurants vying for trade among foreign visitors, entrepreneurs and local gangsters. Young Ukrainians wear stylish clothes—they're probably the best-dressed young people of any city in the former Soviet Union (except, perhaps, for Moscow).
The countryside west of Kiev is particularly charming. In fields and gardens surrounding green-painted cottages, villagers grow sunflowers, potatoes, apples and corn in the rich black earth that earned Ukraine the title of "breadbasket of the Soviet Union." In these places, simple Ukrainian life seems not to have changed for centuries. On the other side of the country, there is the gorgeous Austro-Hungarian-style city of Lviv, which is more reminiscent of Vienna than Moscow. This city charms like almost no other in Ukraine.
Yet many aspects of Soviet life have lingered in Ukraine. While Ukrainian is the official language, people in the eastern and southern portions of the country, especially Crimea, continue to speak Russian. Many government leaders, including former President Leonid Kuchma, held powerful positions during the Soviet regime. Even current President Viktor Yushchenko was a card-carrying member of the Communist Party.
Tourism development in the country has improved greatly in recent years. Many new hotels and restaurants have been built in major cities such as Kiev, Odessa, Donetsk and Yalta. With them has come a new emphasis on customer service, but anyone going to Ukraine should be aware that glitches and delays are commonplace. The key to enjoying a trip to Ukraine is to be flexible, tolerant and patient. Be prepared to expend a lot of energy just to get through the day. Although your trip might not be relaxing, a glimpse of this colorful part of the world will definitely be worth the effort.
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