A few months ago, when I took part in the charity campaign “Buy a date – give a child a holiday”, I did not expect that besides this good act, it would also bring me an interesting conversation (though online only) about the tourism in Transcarpathia and more.
My intriguing interlocutor was Alexander Stemp, a journalist and, so to speak, “tourist writer”. He studied at Cambridge and wanted to become a landscape designer, but the desire to learn and create was stronger.
Now he lives in Budapest, so Transcarpathia is very close to him, figuratively and literally. So, our conversation was about “The Land Close to the Sky”.
– You are a writer, a journalist and traveller. But which do you consider yourself to be the most?
– Thank you. I like to consider myself being all three, as they all enable me to be a free spirit with an audience whom I am most dedicated to. Previously I was a landscape gardener working at Cambridge University before moving to Budapest where I now live.
– You often travel. What attracts you most about travelling?
– The sense of adventure in lesser-known places. It’s too easy visiting destinations which are “popular” or “fashionable”, as all too often they are crowded and not so rewarding. I like my own space and being part of the local scene. Transcarpathia always fulfils.
– When did you first come to Transcarpathia? What impressed/surprised you?
– This is a long story. I first came to your region a little over 10 years ago by means of train and bicycle. At that time, I didn’t really know anything and had no idea what to expect. But I found I loved the general atmosphere and immediately sensed how delightful this region is and the people are. I especially enjoyed the open, panoramic spaces, traditional wooden architecture and folklore bus stops. However, I really could not find much travel information in English, so I had to make do with maps and postcards to show me the way, which was fine. Nowadays there are tourist information bureaus to be found, as well as plenty of online sites available.
My earlier sorties took me to Mukachevo, Veretskyi Per, Synevyr Lake, then on to Mount Hoverla. I really enjoyed seeing it all on my own accord, as well as passing through a variety of other towns and valleys along the way, despite bumpy roads and obvious language barriers. The local cuisine with its renowned borsch soup, dramatic in colour, exciting by flavour, was always easy enough to find; alongside holubtsi stuffed cabbage rolls. This was often rounded off by sweet vareniki dumplings, which were most excellent and saw me through my various times there.
– What are your main attractions in Transcarpathia, 3 main factors?
– Uzhgorod. Mount Hoverla. My favorite bike ride was when I went from Volovets-Mizhhirya-Khust. When I did this there was so very little traffic. It may be different today.
– As a frequent traveller, what do you consider to be the main constraints on the developing of tourism in our region?
– I think the potential for tourism in your area is already there with varying comforts, resources and facilities, which are improving all the time. But the biggest problem is not so much this or continuing to maintain roads, invest in railways and carry on general restoration work, as this will all eventually come, rather it’s the need to simply attract more visitors.
With the war east of the country and certain negative stereotypes still prevailing, it is these factors that are most damaging, as they not only hinder the economy but also stop outsiders wanting to visit Ukraine. Many people I know often sense this nation as being “dangerous” and won’t think in this direction, regardless of my views, until these matters pass.
To overcome this, what is needed, preferably when free from war, is not just introducing festivals but other worthy promotions. As an example, when Prince Charles, who is a renowned environmentalist, visited neighbouring Transylvania, this bought a new spotlight on the region and Transylvania subsequently excelled as a desirable tourist destination. He apparently returns there often. I would say he needs an invitation to Transcarpathia too, as I once wrote to him about this some time ago.
– Moving onto global tourism, how do you see this development over the next few years?
– I could not honestly say. But I don’t think mass global infrastructural tourism will dawn upon Transcarpathia too soon, and probably not within our lifetime. However, I sense western tourism is now a far bigger industry and more commercial than ever before, especially with the “fashionable” parts of Europe such as London, Venice, the French Riviera and so forth.The desire to satisfy bigger demand continues but often at a cost to everything else, so while such “progress” is obviously good for business it is bad for the environment as traffic and congestion grow. This takes its toll on the local people, the infrastructure and the surrounding areas. The ironies are many as often enough my Ukrainian friends often complain about how undeveloped their country is. On the other hand, I often profess how stretched, crowded and over-developed England has become. It would be great to find a compromise between the two.
– You wrote a book where you mentioned Mukachevo. Why Mukachevo? Also, what creative plans do you have for the future?
– At that time, Mukachevo and its Palanok Castle were most important as my first real sightseeing in the area, also becoming my main transit and orientation spot for the hills and valleys, and an important resting base near the border.
Yes, I wrote a light travel guide called “The Ukraine Carpathians: Europe’s Last Great Wilderness”, as I sensed this would be one of the first guides of its kind dedicated to this region. This pocketsized travel “diary”, filled with pictures, personal notes and information, obviously mentions Mukachevo.
Vynohradiv is also included, as I had a brief time resting by the enchanting Ascension of the Lord Roman Catholic Cathedral with a Kvas drink and sandwich in hand, while cycling from Mukachevo to Khust. I remember the occasion well as it was summer. I had left behind the cool and calm of the shady green valleys the day before, and was then cycling in full sunshine through the high heat and dust of the day. This took me over the vast, contrasting flatlands, similar to the Hungarian Puszta region. As much as I enjoyed this too, it was a sudden and dramatic change of scenery and situation that I then had to acclimatize to.
The reason for writing about my impressions and time there was because I wanted to give something back to this region, so to speak. And it is great to see my photos published for posterity, rather than sitting mostly unseen in some album at home.
This was then published and I dedicated this “memento” to my family as well as to the people of Transcarpathia, in the hope they may remember something about me in time to come. Who knows, perhaps there will be a new, updated version in 20 years time?
Since its release in 2011, the guide has sold several hundred copies and brought me back to Transcarpathia, mainly to Uzhgorod and Lviv, where various book presentations took place as well as media interest, which continues today.
As for the future, I will continue with my Ukrainian endeavours, which I really enjoy. Recently I have been involved with various projects relating to bears. This will continue as I want to support these wonderful and misunderstood creatures as well as the natural environment as much as possible. But this is another story for another time.