There is something strange about mountains. They expand and compress space so that short distances take forever to travel as the road loops back and forth over a mountain face. Small towns surprise you around a bend in the road, pressing up against a slope or inching out onto a cliff. I love the Carpathian Mountains exactly for this reason — the twisted roads slow down time and reveal the landscape in pieces.
The first time I traversed the Carpathians was by car. We left my aunt’s house before sunrise so as to get a head start on the long road to my grandparents’ town. There were five of us crammed into this tiny little car without air-conditioning jostling against each other with every bump in the road. We passed over the valley, speeding towards the mountains which grew taller and taller in the window until it became impossible to see their tops.
The Carpathians are very green and lush with trees hanging overhead and obscuring the view beyond every turn or dip in the road. Occasionally, as we drove I could see flashes of a river between the gaps in the trees. It ran parallel to the road, rushing past as we climbed higher into the clouds. Even this early in the morning I could see fisherman standing in the water, casting their lines as sunrise broke over the rapids.
Most of the journey passed in a long uninterrupted green haze with short flashes of local colour. Just as the sun was beginning to rise we stopped in a small town to pick up some vegetables from the market. There was still fog clinging to the cobblestone streets but plenty of people were already flocking to the marketplace. A number of tiny crooked streets merged into a small square where stalls were piled high with everything from huge blocks of cheese to crates of newly hatched chicks.
We drove past many such villages, full of colourful houses and tightly crammed orchards and gardens with wooden trellises of winding peas and morning glory. At one point we drove through a village where the road acted as the border between Romania and Ukraine — a division that I’m sure mattered little to those that lived there.
By midday we came to a heavy iron bridge that crossed over the river we had been travelling alongside. This open unassuming spot served as the site of an important marker. During the Soviet era this point was declared the geographic center of Europe and a monument was erected on the spot. Although there are several such contested ‘centers of Europe’ it was still an interesting discovery deep in the Carpathians wilderness.
What goes up must eventually come down and so about halfway through our trip we reached the mountain pass known as Yablonovskiy Pereval. From the top of the mountain pass the panoramic vista made for a stunning sight. This stretch of road is a great place to take a break, enjoy the view and stock up on souvenirs. Stalls are set up alongside the road heaped with all sorts of traditional wares such as embroidered clothing, beadwork and jewellery, wooden figurines, toys and ceramics. Most of the work is local but there are plenty of cast-offs from China so it pays to be attentive to the craftsmanship. Also, if you’ve got a knack for it, haggling for a lower price is well within the norm.
Once the land began to level out, turning into gentle hills rather than towering peaks, the small secluded villages became bigger and more frequent. We drove past large swathes of fields, farmers burning away dry debris and weeds in carefully controlled fires. Next to gas stations we often saw women sitting on the road shoulder selling baskets of fruit and vegetables to passing motorists. In one place we even stopped at a large fish market stretched out along the road. They had almost every fish imaginable there, whether fresh or preserved, salted or smoked. Dry salted fish is a popular snack in Ukraine and most people like to have it with beer.
Roadside restaurants are also a very common sight in Ukraine. They are not like how you would imagine a fast-food joint alongside the highway in North America but more like a complete dining experience. We stopped in a restaurant that had outdoor tables in little wooden gazebos under the shade of a thick forest canopy. These types of places serve some amazing home cooked dishes and near the end of our long journey it felt nice to just sit down and enjoy a warm meal.
I don’t really remember the last leg of our trip but the road through the Carpathian Mountains left a lasting impression on me. Since then, I have harbored a love for high places, crooked roads and tiny mountainside villages.