Saturday 2 June 2018

Back in Cernauti/Chernivtsi (no longer the USSR) again

I just paid my fifth visit to Cernăuți. This is what I wrote after my third visit, two years ago. The Hotel Bukovyna is as good as ever, a four star hotel with a pool and good restaurant it costs EUR 30 bed and breakfast.

An unmistakable sense of freedom as soon as we arrive in Ukraine. A sense of normal people who think like human beings. A civilised place where people believe in God and love their country. Romania is like that too but is becoming EU-ised.

It took eleven hours to drive from Bucharest to Cernăuți instead of the eight we'd planned on. As happens every summer in Romania there were floods, a road was closed. At the border we waited over an hour. An argument for the European Union. All Romanian borders took half an hour to cross before she joined the EU.

This is my third visit to the Northern Bucovina and Cernăuți or Czernowitz. Cernăuți was its name when it was in Romania from 1919 to 1940. Chernivtsi is its Ukrainian name. Czernowitz was its name in the period of its prosperity, when it was the third city of the Austrian empire, in Austria's equivalent of the Wild West, and Yiddish and German speaking Jews made up much the largest and most influential ethnic group in the city.  

The city was at the same time a centre for Ukrainian, Romanian and Jewish nationalism. Now the streets are named after Ukrainian heroes, the Jews and Romanians are mostly gone and the great synagogue is a cinema - called by wags the Cine-gogue.

The Jews were mostly relocated and then killed by Romanian soldiers during the war, though the Romanian mayor persuaded the Romanian dictator, Marshal Antonescu, to spare twenty thousandThe surviving Jews mostly left for Israel or, recently, Germany. About a thousand remain. That is a small number but a Jew from Cernăuți, Volodymyr Groysman, became Ukrainian Prime Minister in April, belying American suspicions that Ukraine is an anti-Semitic country (though I suspect that it might be).

Ten or fifteen thousand Romanians remain. I met a couple in my short time in the city. One told me there was a school in the town where instruction was in Romanian and both said they faced no discrimination. The Germans were "repatriated" when Stalin invaded in 1940.

Most of the cities of Central and Eastern Europe were built by and for Germans, Jews and a cosmopolitan mix of businessmen, but are now inhabited by descendants of the local peasants. In Western Europe the cities built by the British, French, Dutch and Scandinavians will one day belong to other races, with other religions, from overseas.

I like Cernăuți. It has no sights, which makes it relaxing. Somewhere there is a sixteenth century church but we didn't find it. Other than that it's late nineteenth century architecture, charming but undistinguished, and some very good art nouveau and art deco buildings. (Nothing built after 1837 counts as a sight for me.) It's very pretty and pastel shaded. It resembles Satu Mare and Baia Mare two Hungarian towns built at the same time that, somewhat unfairly, ended up in Romania.

It is almost a dead city because of the unfriendly slow border and this means it is very quiet. Very boring if you are teenager, very calm if you are travelling through. It's full of clean cut good-looking young people who look decent. It feels like I imagine England did in 1953, when men were men, women women, most people smoked and people got married young.

They marry young but, like everywhere else in Europe, they have few children. The county had 1.6 live births per mother in 2013, compared with six in 1913. And very many emigrate. Almost all people in the Northern Bucovina had Romanian grandparents and therefore qualify for Romanian (and thereby EU) citizenship.

I wouldn't recommend spending nine hours each way on the road unless you spend at least two full days in the place and see nearby sights like Kamenets Podolsky. I would recommend Ukraine for an absolutely wonderful and exceptionally cheap holiday. And a refreshing tonic after increasingly globalised and shopping centre-ised Bucharest.


  1. The comment with Baia Mare and Satu Mare is ridiculous, I hope not with ill intent. Otherwise thank you, good writing.

  2. "In Western Europe the cities built by the British, French, Dutch and Scandinavians will one day belong to other races, with other religions, from overseas."

    Which other races and which other religions? Mighty suspicious of you to not name them.

    1. He means Muslims, obviously.

    2. No I didn't - not particularly. Lots of races have colonised London since 1950. Why is it suspicious not to name them?

  3. I wonder if you get paid for your comments .....

  4. A very tender spot, Satu-Mare and Baia-Mare being seen as unfairly Romanian towns. No wonder the comments.
    In all fairness, Romanians in Transylvania did an exceptionally fine job of resisting being displaced by the 'diversity' of the Austro-Hungarian empire. They were chauvinistic, true, but this is the only way. I have many stories to tell from my mom's family, and they all speak of the stubbornness of Romanians to stay Romanian. Marrying a Hungarian was seen as marrying a gypsy by my grandma; totally forbidden.
    Quite extraordinary. But then, this is Romania's story, the stubbornness to not succumb to the sea of 'others' that surrounds it.

  5. "It resembles Satu Mare and Baia Mare two Hungarian towns built at the same time that, somewhat unfairly, ended up in Romania."
    Really? Hungarian towns? Your ignorance about this part of the world is absolutely remarkable.

  6. Visited when it was part of the USSR, even then it was a city lost in time, but with one of the most interesting Jewish cemetery’s anywhere. Michael Einik