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Last July after I was forcibly ejected from the country, I began a frantic and unplanned odyssey through Europe. Nonetheless, there was definitely one place I knew that I wanted to go – Cernauti (chair-na-ootz), the lost jewel in the crown of Romania.
A long, long time ago, when everything was going amazingly well for Romania, and maybe, possibly, 100 thousand people gathered in Alba Iulia to proclaim the unification of all of the majority-Romanian lands, the king must’ve been mighty pleased with his domain. For the first time, the nation had everything it needed to rise and join the ranks of its western brethren.
Among other things, the new kingdom was proud to have five cities with topnotch universities – Bucharest (Wallachia), Iasi (Romanian Moldova), Cluj-Napoca (Hungarian Transylvania), Timisoara (Hungary proper) and Cernauti. These cities, along with their world-class universities, were the engines of prosperity for the newly formed nation.
Unfortunately, the smart king (Ferdinand) died and another stupid king (Carol) arrived on the scene, and many bad choices were made until at the end of World War 2 the nation of Romania was split in half, the western half remaining sovereign while the eastern half becoming the Soviet Republic of Moldova.
But what about Cernauti? This jewel of a city was seized and given to the newly-formed Ukrainian republic, part of the Soviet Union, and it is now called Чернівці́ (Chair-neev-tsee).
Today, the region of Bucovina (also known as “Lower Bucovina”) contains some of the most beautiful areas of modern Romania, including the city of Suceava and the UNESCO World Heritage sites of the painted churches. The northern part of Bucovina (also known as “upper Bucovina”) is part of the independent nation of Ukraine, and now that top tier university is one of Ukraine’s greatest institutions of higher learning.
Even though most of the city is occupied by ethnic Ukrainians today, there is still a strong tradition of remembering their history.
Above, you can see Eminescu Street in Cernauti, named after Romania’s greatest poet. Apparently, Eminescu was fortunate enough to live in Cernauti at a time when it was still part of Romania, and attended a few years of primary school there.
Although my photograph isn’t very good, here you can see the Romanian Cultural Center, which puts on plays, performances and other works of higher art for the community.
My understanding is that most of the city of Cernauti doesn’t speak Romanian, but there are still many villages in Cernauti oblast (“county”) that do. I also know that there are a lot of Romanians (from Romania) who travel to and from this city, as I encountered many of them during my short visit.
And while Ukraine is mainly in the news these days for its problems with intolerance between differing ethnic groups (esp Russian speakers), I saw nothing but acceptance and pride in Cernauti for its Romanian heritage.
But of course Ukraine’s history as part of the Soviet Union is still everywhere. My photograph really didn’t capture the scale of this giant monument to the dead who gave their lives in the Great Patriotic War (WW2).
Likewise, here’s a full-scale military tank still on display near Cernauti’s train station. I’m not sure if people find it inspirational any more or whether it’s just too big and heavy and expensive to dismantle.
And while grand monuments and the like are majestic, I simply cannot stop raving about how nice and beautiful the city of Cernauti is on a personal level. Above you can see one of the domestic chain of fast-food restaurants in Ukraine, a refreshing change from the typical western places like McDonald’s and Pizza Hut that we all know.
This Chicken Hut is located on Olha Kobylianska Street, which is amazingly beautiful. It’s an all-pedestrian zone, which means no cars and plenty of opportunities to stroll around and take in the sights. There are bars and restaurants and street musicians playing in the middle of the street. On a lovely summer evening, such as when I was in Cernauti, there is nothing more delightful than walking around and soaking up the atmosphere.
About the closest equivalent to Kobylianska Street is the all-pedestrian zone in downtown Brasov in Romania. It does make me wonder though why so many other cities, including ones of equivalent size and composition, like Cluj-Napoca, as well as many, many others (Iasi in Romania, Krakow in Poland, Chisinau in RM, etc) do not have an equivalent pedestrian-only zone. Why not? Everyone enjoys them so much.
What’s extra cool is that the street is named after Olha Kobylianska, who isn’t just a local female writer, but a feminist writer who was one of the first people to use the emerging Ukrainian language (distinct from Russian) to create moving and passionate portrayals of the lives of ordinary people.
If you don’t speak Ukrainian well and the old-timey gothic font they’re using here is too difficult to parse (click on photo for full-size), this is a huge mural painted on the side of Cernauti’s downtown square. It is a tribute to Oleksandr Dobrogo, known to Romanians as Alexandru cel Bun (Alexander the Good) or in English as Alexander I of Moldova.
In the year 1408, Alexander took over the city of Cernauti and made it a vital part of his enormous kingdom, that stretched from Akkerman (Romanians call it Cetatea Alba), now part of Ukraine, to Kiev (now the capital of Ukraine) as well as parts of Poland.
Despite the fact that he spoke no Ukrainian, and considered himself Moldovan (Romanian), the people of Cernauti never forgot their heritage and so they put that enormous mural on the side of their town square.
Alexander was one of Moldova’s greatest kings, but he is eclipsed today by the actions of his children, including his grandson Stefan Cel Mare (today his portrait is on all Moldovan money) and his other grandson Vlad “The Impaler” Dracula.
I went to Cernauti because I wanted to explore some new places in the (cultural) Romanian world but I was amazed to discover just how quickly I fell in love with the place. Partly, I think, it is because it reminded me of home (Cluj-Napoca), as it is about the same size (roughly 300k inhabitants), has a large university, and is situated on a steep incline. Once you get used to walking up and down hills, “flat” cities like Chisinau just aren’t as appealing.
But Cernauti is so, so much more. Besides its lovely all-pedestrian zone on Kobylianska Street, there are a lot of beautifully designed buildings that show off the city’s long architectural history (including Polish and German influences). There’s also a huge central park, so large that it hosted a complete amusement park (UK: fun park – Ro: parc de distractie) when I was there, that included a (small) roller coaster and many other fun rides.
And most importantly, everyone was friendly and nice. Between my Romanian (mostly spoken to visiting/traveling Romanians) and limited Russian and a tiny bit of English, I managed to get along quite well during my few days in Cernauti.
I even considered moving there, and bought a copy of the local paper (with advertisements for places to rent), but in the end I realized that my Ukrainian (slash Russian) skills weren’t good enough yet, and I didn’t know if I could handle a longer term stay in the country, so I kept on moving and went down the road (approximately 5 hours travel time) to Chisinau, Moldova, where I now live.
But one day… yes, one day I will definitely return to Cernauti, the beautiful jewel of Bucovina, one of the loveliest cities I have ever been to in my entire life.