In the late 1700’s, Count Stanisław Szczęsny Potocki, a Polish noble, fell in love with Zofia Potocka, a Greek slave and prostitute. He bought her from her husband for two million złoty, married her, and began construction on what is now one of Ukraine’s greatest wonders: a 150-hectare park complete with grottoes, lakes, waterfalls, fountains, pavilions, and 500 species of trees imported from all across Europe.
It’s been described as “Ukraine’s answer to Versailles” – the Count’s gift to his new wife, and a monument to her physical perfection. By the time construction was finished in 1802 it had cost him roughly 15 million złoty.
What a gift, ‘eh?
Although I’m usually not that big on gardens and parks, it just so happens that Sofiyivka Park is located in Uman, a major transit hub right between Odesa and Kiev – the perfect way to split up a long 7-hour journey and tick one more item off this sprawling country’s “must-see” list. So after checking out of Hotel Zirka at noon, hopping on yet another impossibly rickety minibus, and sleeping off all those shots of Ukrainian vodka from the night prior, we disembarked in our first Ukrainian “small town.”
It was around 6pm by the time we arrived and checked our bags at the bus station. And although we had only a couple hours to spare until the last bus onward to Kiev, I had to make just one quick stop before heading into the park itself: a small music shop right next door. For the few minutes we spent sorting ourselves out at the bus station it had been blasting some really fantastic tunes, so for the low-low price of about one euro I convinced the owner to let me copy his demo playlist onto my laptop.
Optical drives maybe outdated, but they do still come in handy from time to time 😉
Then we headed into the park – which was conveniently located right across the street from the bus terminal.
While Sofiyivka Park was indeed magnificent, to me the most striking aspect of the day wasn’t the natural beauty – it was the people. There was an immediately obvious difference in the vibe between these small-town residents and those of bustling Odesa.
As I’m sure you gathered from my previous post, although I did have loads of fun in Odesa, I didn’t really leave with the most positive impression – especially considering how much it had been built up by friends and contacts who’d visited in the past. The nightlife was top notch, the beaches fun, and the women stunning – just as everyone said – but on a whole I just didn’t find it to be all that friendly. Take yesterday for example, when Peder and I were trying to find Marshrutka 84 to get to the catacombs. Sure, the language barrier was part of the problem – but many of the people we asked for help were also quite rude, refusing to even acknowledge us or make any effort to understand what we were looking for. By the time our last day in Odesa had rolled around, what had initially started as innocent curiosity about an interesting new city had turned to constant suspicion, thoughts of “Are they mafia and dangerous to talk to?” “Is she a prostitute?” “Are those cops coming over to shake us down?” So despite all the positives it was a bit difficult to enjoy ourselves when we never felt like we could quite let our guards down.
Yet the people here in Uman were completely different. Although their English may’ve been no better than in Odesa, the cold stonefaced stares were replaced by inquisitive smiles and handshakes as soon as they overheard us speaking something other than Russian. It felt more like Asia, where being a foreigner is an asset instead of a liability. Children would chirp out with the few phrases they knew and young men would come up to say “Hi! Where country?!” If we stopped to ask a woman for directions she’d try to help with a smile rather than shove her nose in the air and ignore us completely – not surprising I suppose, because here she probably isn’t approached by drunken mafia or starry-eyed tourists day in and day out. In general, the people of Uman just had a noticeably more innocent and friendly vibe. There wasn’t a hint of that brash Odesa feel – never did we feel suspicious of someone else’s intentions. It was like a huge weight had been lifted from our shoulders.
Perhaps the funniest and most memorable encounter of the day was a young guy who overheard us chatting in the park. The moment he noticed we were speaking English he froze in his tracks, spun around, his eyes lit up, and he shouted with a smile, “Oh! Hello! I Sergei! I… I… I… Umm… Goodbye!”
Then he turned and scurried away. I guess it took him a moment to remember that he didn’t speak our language 😆
It’s really too bad we don’t speak a bit more Russian (er, any Russian). In a party environment it’s easy to convey your vibe by giving high fives, taking photos, buying rounds of drinks, and just being fun – but during the day in somewhere like a park, there’s only so far you can get without the ability to hold a genuine conversation.
We spent a total of about two hours roaming around Uman’s sprawling monument to beauty and nature, before emerging – by accident – on the far side from the bus station. But we figured a brisk walk through town would offer a nice last-minute peek at the small-town side of the country, so we decided to circle the park’s border before catching the onward bus to Kiev.
…The bus we almost missed, when the route around the park turned out to be substantially longer than we’d anticipated. At one point, when it looked like we may not make it back in time, Peder actually suggested the possibility of spending a night in Uman – an idea inspired by his positive impression of the friendly locals – but I figured it’d be better to press on. In the end, we made it with 10 minutes to spare.
…Just enough time to pop into the music shop once more and copy yet another great compilation the owner was now blasting out the window 🙂
Then, we climbed aboard the minibus and begin our requisite transport trouble of the day.
This time, the problem was luggage…