Tourist Heaven

Tourist Heaven

Football in rural Chernivtsi

Chernivtsi is a beautiful city found on the edge of the Carpathian Mountains around 40 km north of the Romanian border. It is an incredibly remote region, dotted with beautiful mountain scenery and a historic old town at its heart. We had heard about it from a touristic perspective, but it is also sadly known as a footballing backwater. It was with this curiosity that we border our short evening flight down to the region. Although expensive, it did save 200 km of poor roads after having navigated the rest of the country.

With our game not till Saturday evening, we would have plenty of time to discover the sights of the town. We would then take a short drive out to the suburb where our regional league would happen. As with other cities in Western Ukraine, Chernivtsi has fallen under the influence of many of the neighboring cultures. However, it also takes on a Romanian feel due to its vicinity as well. In certain areas, it feels like you could be wandering around the backstreets of Brasov or another Transylvanian classic. It has many cobbled streets, which are closed off to traffic.

Chernivtsi Tourist Guide 101
Registered as a UNESCO world heritage site, the university on the edge of the old town stands out like a fountain of all things neo-classical. It looked to me like we had entered the wonderful world of Harry Potter instead of Ukraine. The immaculately kept gardens were awash with tourists and wedding parties by the bucket load. I wonder how the brides feel having to dodge other brides in search of the perfect memory. The crowds did not overly impress me. However, the buildings certainly did and were well worth the tour.

The coffee culture is influential down in Chernivtsi, and we did enjoy sampling it. The streets were awash with them, and the tourists were flocking there in abundance. It was enjoyable sitting on the terraces, and the musicians were playing around the streets, bring them alive. We had a lovely time strolling the streets and found some hidden delights. Our hotel’s location gave us many opportunities to explore as it was on the edge of the city. Our route provided one of the highlights of the trip for me – the chance to visit the Bukovyna Sports Complex (home to Bukovyna Chernivtsi).

Bonus Ground for the weekend
The team did not have a game scheduled until Sunday evening, which would have made it impossible to reach home for work on Monday morning. However, being so close was too good to refuse. The ground was that classical Soviet bowl that we have encountered many times in the past. It certainly did show signs of their former historical glories but was in a sad state of affairs now. We have noticed on our travels how the stadium complexes take on a multi-sport format; a legacy of times gone past. It makes sense to assemble a variety of sporting pursuits in one location. In Bukovyna’s case, there was an ice-skating rink and a dance hall all on the same plot of land.

As the main gates to the stadium were open, we took the opportunity to wander inside. Right in front of the main barriers was the fan club café, which was stocking up on supplies before the Sunday match day. A charming old woman was working there and was busy preparing juicy bbq with the spices that would marinate into the pork over the next 24 hours. She took time out from her task to make us some takeaway coffees, and we spoke about how the club had fallen on hard times recently. She recalled some former glories when money was more abundant in the city, and the supporters would flock to the ground. It should be noted that they still drew in higher numbers than some of the Premier League teams.

Inside the ground, it was a classic. As I mentioned, there was an open bowl, with an old-school running track keeping the fans from their heroes. To be honest, it would not have been a problem to enter the field of play on this Saturday morning. Several gym fanatics were using the athletics track for their weekend exercise opportunity. The bowl went around ten rows back, and a media centre stood over one side of the pitch. The floodlights stood over the ground like aliens in that Tom Cruise movie form a few years back – it certainly helped us to find our way on the morning stroll.

Dude – where is the ground?
However, we were focused on the second team from the Chernivtsi region, who have been spending their first season in the top regional league of amateur football. Several conversations across the city showed the lack of enthusiasm that the residents have for the game. Nobody knew about either the team or the stadium where the match would be taking place. We even had to call a few taxi firms, and none of them could help us with directions to the stadium.

As you could imagine, football in the Chernivtsi region appeared low -key away from the top club. We were able to contact the head of the regional football federation on that Saturday afternoon, and even he could not provide directions to the stadium. However, he did offer us other games to watch at parks around the city – we refused (well I did). We arrived in the central area of the suburb where the game was scheduled to take place and began investigating the location. It was a reasonably affluent neighborhood. Fortunately, a few locals were able to direct us quite quickly to the local school where the game would be taking place; yes, a school.

Welcome to the Dentists

With all the problems finding the ground, we got there right on kick-off. It was not a big issue, as there was no crowd. We walked past the substitutes, who were sheltering from the September sun and choose the best bench possible. Every one of the seats was empty at kick-off. We had picked up a few contacts from the club before heading down. Sergi had agreed to talk with us about the club after the game. We noticed him quickly and could easily see his passion for the club. The team was struggling, but there was a lot of emotion in the players and a desire to succeed. This brought more interest from passersby, which built up the crowd over the 90 minutes.

After the players had departed, we had a long chat about football in Chernivtsi with Sergi on the benches that lined one side of the pitch. He explained how there had been a significant restructure of the system over the last 12 months, with clubs being allocated new divisions by the federation. It has resulted in vast discrepancies in team standards. He noted that there were many new players on their team. It was sadly taking time to gel – nevertheless, they were still hopeful of a mid-table finish. The owner of a thriving local dentist in the city formed the club a few years ago. It was curious, as it had been apparent that there was little investment in sport in the region despite this.

We left Sergi with his remaining few players, who were organizing lifts back to the city from this remote location. We naturally had the same problems trying to explain to taxi drivers where we were waiting. We asked Sergi about this issue, and he had told how the club rents from the school for a fixed price, which was more affordable than stadiums closer to the city. When our taxi finally arrived, there was the usual surprise about our project but even more concern that there had been a football match going on. As with many other people in Chernivtsi, they are very proud of their town and its attraction for tourists but sport, supporting seems a long way from vital to them. Our driver spoke at length about different tourist attractions, providing us with a quick detour to visit the vast market down by the river.

The following morning, we left for the airport, having enjoyed our experience in Chernivtsi but slightly disappointed at the lack of enthusiasm shown around the city. However, a bigger worry awaited us on arrival at the airport as we found out that Ukraine International had pushed us onto the standby list. A return to Kyiv on Monday was the offer from the company, but work would certainly not allow this to happen. It always surprises me that companies deliberately sell tickets for seats that do not exist and expect the customers to agree. Fortunately, though, we made the flight as a few people did not show up (luckily) and we made it home with plenty of time in hand.

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