It was not long after dawn and a slim bank of cloud ran through the valley like a trail of quicksilver. I had awoken in a wooden cottage deep in the Carpathian Mountains of western Ukraine and was peering out from the bedroom window. Dark, majestic peaks rose above the morning mist, framed by pine forest and rounded haystacks.
At first, the hazy alpine pasture seemed totally silent. Listening closer, I heard the gentle knell of a cowbell drifted across the fields, wagtails chattered in the nearby woodland and a dog’s occasional bark echoed up the slopes. My hosts—talking in an obscure dialect that even my Ukrainian friends struggled to decipher—were already outside preparing for a full day’s work. The farm, after all, was not going to run itself. There were vegetable patches to tend, cows and chickens to feed, apples to harvest. For them, this vista was nothing remarkable. For me, it was a window onto old-world Europe. A lost age.
I had spent the previous month reporting around the front line that cleaves the country’s industrial Donbas region, more than 600 miles to the east. Two-and-a-half years have passed since armed conflict between government forces and Russian-backed separatists erupted there. Despite two formal ceasefires and numerous attempted truces, the fighting grinds on, adding almost daily casualties to a total death toll of over 10,000.
Not to put too fine a point on it, I was ready for a break. The peaceful west was beckoning and nowhere in Ukraine, surely, could be further from the war than these serene, far-flung mountains.
The view over the valley from Pani Maria’s cottage down to the village of Dzembronya. Photo by: Yevgeniy Pankratov
A journalist friend in Kiev had heard of an elderly woman called Maria Illyuk—better known as Pani (Mrs.) Maria—who ran a bed-and-breakfast from her cottage on the slopes high above the tiny, bucolic village of Dzembronya. This was not the kind of guesthouse to be found in a guidebook or by the mere click of a button on Airbnb. Word-of-mouth was its sole publicity and contact could only be made if her daughter happened to have phone signal at the time of calling. We struck lucky. A voice answered at the other end of the line. There was room at the inn.
The following evening, our night train pulled out of Kiev’s main station as golden light flooded past the capital’s grey, concrete blocks and into our cabin. The day passed to dusk, and then to darkness. Shots of cognac were poured, salty snacks were nibbled, and it was soon time to sleep. At sunrise, an entirely new landscape greeted us. Rugged peaks and rural homesteads appeared on either side of the track as the locomotive chugged through a valley of breathtaking beauty.
We arrived at Vorokhta, a pleasant but somewhat touristy town, and proceeded to squeeze onto a crammed, Soviet-era bus, rumble down a bumpy road past meadows and woodland, jump off at a small junction, flag down another, even more overcrowded bus, and bounce down a potholed dirt track just yards from the rushing Black Cheremosh River, deeper into the mountains.
The Carpathian Mountains hold a special place in the country’s collective, cultural consciousness. These are the rustic heartlands of the Ukrainian national spirit, where an untamed, soaring landscape stands apart from the broad, rolling steppe and a vivid folklore points to an era far more ancient than the Soviet empire that once encompassed the region.