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Friday, 30 September 2011

Introduction

If you want to discover the hidden world Hutsulshchyna in pictures just scroll down, otherwise please read on.

I've not written a great deal but the story is worth a quick read .The last section is only accessible via older post or via the navigation.
If you have any Hutsulshchyna experiences you wish to share, drop me a line and we can add your experiences to this account.
chris.wills@rufusleonard.com
After many years of travelling around Eastern Europe with my family, much of it on horseback, I thought it was now time to hang up the jodhpurs and chaps and muck in with other travelers. My wife Melissa was pining for creature comforts by the sea but this time her ambitions of languid afternoons by the pool, drinking fine wines accompanied by the odd gastronomic adventure were to be put on hold for yet another year.

It all started when Melissa gave me William Blacker’s book 'Along the Enchanted Way' for Christmas. He talked eloquently about his experiences nearly 20 years ago in northern Romania, living in the small rural community of Breb in Maramures and marrying a gypsy in a village further south. Blacker's Maramures depicted an extraordinary world held in aspic, where traditional dress was worn everyday and rural life hadn’t changed for hundreds of years. As a family we had travelled close to this magical region in the summer of 2004 and had an idea of what his experiences might have been 15 years earlier and had always vowed to return.

Blacker’s account of Maramures got me thinking about what is now southern Ukraine but before the war was Romania and Maramures country. I worked hard to find accounts of the region, which I soon learned is called Hutsulshchyna, cradled in the western Carpathian Mountains. In a short space of time I was determined to discover more about this mountainous area where I believed Melissa and I might be able to touch a world hidden from tourism and the preying eyes of the west.

I started to hatch a new plan and fly to Kiev and travel south by overnight train to Ivano-Frankivsk where I thought Melissa and I could travel south by road to the heart of traditional Hutsulshchyna in the small town of Verkhovyna. From here I presumed we would find horses to ride south through the mountains towards the Romanian border and with luck discover somewhere special, untouched by mass tourism.

Amazingly Melissa agreed to put any idea of a comfortable holiday on hold, pack her waterproofs and jodhpurs and pick up reins just one more time. After four months of searching and negotiating on the web I found an interpreter Andriy who agreed to accompany Melissa and I on our adventures and find horses, horsemen and accommodation. All very simple so long everything went to plan.

This account illustrates our little adventure in Hutsulshchyna and stands testament that adventures are still to be had and the world has all manner of secrets still to be discovered.

Thursday, 29 September 2011

Bound for Hutsal country

We discovered this magnificent church while in Kiev at the museum of folk architecture and life, which undoubtedly has the finest collection of traditional buildings in Eastern Europe.

After traveling from Kiev to Ivano-Frankivsk by sleeper we continued our journey in Andriy fathers car and arrived in Verkhovyna. Our journey to Verkhovyna from Kiev had been eventful, after nearly missing our train by a matter of seconds; we swiftly learned Andriy was new to the game of guide and interpreter. He was also a complete novice to riding and had no idea what he was letting himself in for.

We arrived in Verkhovyna where, after numerous calls to our horsemen, we discovered the dirt track to the outskirts of the town. The track took us to a very different world where small farmsteads could be seen scattered across the gentle rolling hills at the foot of the mountains.



After only a few hours riding on our Hutsal horses we found ourselves high in the mountains overlooking transhumant farmsteads. The weather did not look kind but the landscape was magical and far off in the distance we could see the Romanian border and the region of Blacker s Maramures which we were later to discover on the second leg of our journey but that's another story.

Wednesday, 28 September 2011

Discovering the Wild West in Hutsulshchyna

We arrived at our first destination, a dairy farm with over 50 head of cattle, no electricity or running water, only that from a spring. This smallholding was something from the Wild West; managed by an old man and lads from the village they milk the cows by hand and made cheese during the day. A tough life.

Not all the cattle were theirs, villages from the valley below would provide their dairy cows in exchange for some of the cheese made. The dairymen therefore were paid by the owners of the cows with a proportion of the milk which they turned into cheese and sold on the open market.

The old man of the farm had built an extension to cater for hunters who came from the city to hunt wild bore and other game. They were used to visitors but never English and we soon realised we were possibly the first English to visit this region since before the war.

Life on this remote farmstead is exceptionally hard work for the lads on the farm. Our horsemen Vasyl and Andriy told us that one only took a job on such farms if you had no choice or you were trying to get away from something. I kept wondering what had made these lads take the decision.


The dairymen were used to visitors but never English and we soon realised we were possibly the first Brits to visit this region since before the war.

These lads most likely came from a difficult situation back home. The dairy farm was possibly the option of last resort, these chaps were obviously on hard times.

The following pictures illustrate the process of making cheese on the farm. We were lucky enough to spend a couple of days here and therefore able to observe the whole process in action.
















The irony of this trip was we had planned to stay with shepherds, which has always been a long held ambition of mine. The idea of staying with shepherds was also appealing to my wife Melissa due to her allergy for dairy milk. Sheep and goats cheese is the only cheese she can eat, hence our bewilderment when we arrived at the farm without a single sheep in sight. Well you can imagine our surprise at so many cattle.

Trips of this kind often throw up all kinds of confusion but this was a classic. We tried to explain to Andriy our interpreter that the word Shepherd i.e. 'Sheep herder' does conjure up a sheep and help to set expectations. It turned out the horsemen didn’t see the difference but again I guess Andriy our lad from the city was hardly going to understand the difference either.

Tuesday, 27 September 2011

Hutsulshchyna alpine heaven

On our second day we spent an idyllic day riding around the valleys and woods surrounding the farm and discovered some amazing rock outcrops. The wild flowers were truly wonderful and possibly the best we have ever seen but I always say that until we find another Alpine heaven.






This thought provoking cross depicts the place of a murder where a local traveler was jumped upon by someone who did not have his interests at heart. We were later informed the murderer was found and hanged for his grim deed. This interesting historical fact did not help us warm to the idea of traveling through the mountains accompanied by two unknown horsemen who were perpetually on their mobile phones to their girlfriends. After a while Melissa pointed out Vasyl was very good looking with a movie star smile and perfectly harmless. His accomplice Andriy, not to be confused with our interpreter, was equally charming and a touch shy. During the days ride we started to relax and lunch over a fire with toasted pigs fat, bread and other fine morsels sealed our friendship.





Melissa and I have travelled to many Alpine heavens in Eastern Europe and the wild flowers in Hutsulshchyna take some beating. This is me taking a rest and soaking up the sheer beauty of the mountains. Just think if this perfection was shattered by a 4X4 or quadbike, it doesn't bare thinking about but some idiot will be thinking how to make a fast buck at the cost of nature?

Monday, 26 September 2011

Lost horses and wet weather

Our third riding day was not as much fun. Our horsemen spent the whole day looking for the horses in the rain, which was careless of them. When we did start out it was late in the afternoon. Allegedly we had a long ride in front of us and the weather was cold and wet with the odd outbreak of sunshine. The ride, although longish, was very easy going and it became apparent our horsemen were used to fair-weather travelers and not battle worn diehards like Melissa and myself. Well I like to think we are quite experience in this matters. I just hope they don't think all travellers from England are as determined as us. Willing to get wet, tired and uncomfortable, all in the name of a holiday.


Melissa and I sporting a fine example of the hat under the mac style, a new fashion style not to be sneezed at. It keeps the drips away from your face, which given the chance have a habit of finding their way down your neck, making your underclothes unsuitably wet and soggy.





We had ridden up through the dense pine forest where one could imagine wolves were following our every move. My imagination was obviously getting the better of me but we had seen a paw print the size of a plate, which our horsemen Andriy was convinced had been left by a wolf. The rain had been persistent but never dampened our resolve. I just felt fortunate to be a middle aged arthritic father of two from London, lucky enough to be in contact with the wild. I’m not sure Melissa felt as romantic as I did but she did discover a cunning way of wearing her hat under her waterproof hood, which kept the rain off her face.




As with all great trips there often comes the 'Oh my God 'moment when after a grueling day heaven is revealed. It might simply be a hot shower with a warm fire and a great meal at the end of a hard day. On other occasions heaven genuinely appears and never in the shape ,form or colour you expect. On this occasion it took the form of an idyllic wooden house overlooking a gorgeous view, just 30 kilometers north of the Romanian border. Before we arrived we were met by a very happy man, a little tipsy, who it transpired was our host Vasyl. The most delightful of men and also one of the most generous I have ever met. I think he was an Angel in disguise.



Sunday, 25 September 2011

Perfection

Vasyl's simple wooden house was about 30 years old and made from timber taken from the surrounding forest. Here he is with his son Taras.

The building was built in around a week with his friends and as with the earlier dairy farm, this family also led a transhumant life living in the high pastures from May until late Sept. Vasyl was accompanied by his son Taras who was in his early 20's and his beautiful girlfriend Lyubyn. Together they kept around 33 cows with absolutely no mechanisation, just a generator for electric light


On this occasion the horses were kept tethered while our foal, who accompanied us along the journey, kept close to her mother. A very wild and energetic stallion was kept at bay in case he upset the mares.

The view from the cottage was staggering. In the nearby valley below, Vasyl's blind father lived all the year round. At 86 he must have been a tough man, we heard that the Russians had insisted he leave his farm but he refused. This act defiance cost him 11 years in Siberia.


After a sumptuous supper Melissa took this shot. The grinning faces are typical of such an after supper picture. What is incongruous is the buxom blond posing on the poster in the background but again I'm not from Hutsulshchyna I'm sure there is a deeper significance, well I hope so. Cheers guys.


The house was built to be practical with a chainsaw sitting alongside the cooking pots. We all slept together in one room, which made for a very cozy night and proved to Melissa I’m not the only man who snores a great deal after a drinking vodka.


Lyubyn was a little angle and Taras (her boyfriend) is a lucky man. I wonder if she realises how important her role is. The next generation of Transhumant dairy farmers I got the feeling she has the strength and commitment to make it happen.





Once the cheese has been made some of it goes up into the loft to be smoked, which we were lucky enough to be given a vast slab for our return journey. The beams blackened by years of smoke had a perfume of their own.



Come morning no one wanted to get up to do the milking. I always thought dairymen were diligent and got up at the crack of dawn but our dairymen preferred their bed. I can only imagine it was my how brew 'Au de Vie' which gave us all a goodnights sleep.


The family dog was kept on a leash most of the time but was let off once a day for a quick sniff and parade around the house. His job was to act as the alarm should a bear get too near to the cattle.


If you find this entry and want to visit Vasyl and his family let me know and I will try to put you in touch. They like visitors especially the paying type , they need every help to keep the farm going. God bless you guys.


video

If you want to hear the magic of milking time try this quick clip.It's like a symphony of bells and for captures the magic of Hutsulshchyna.