Day 1: Join trip in Ukraine's capital Kiev
Our 16 day adventure through two fascinating countries begins in Kiev, Ukraine's capital city, which is situated on the banks of the Dnieper River. The city has been inhabited for almost 2000 years and was once the capital of the Kievan Rus State, from which all later Russian states were descended. Although Ukrainian nationalism is stronger than ever, you will still hear Russian spoken widely here today.
The city is filled with attractive architecture, wide shopping boulevards with coffee stands every few metres, parks where the locals stop to feed the squirrels and play chess, and a mix of high-end department stores and a warren of underground malls selling everything from hot corn on the cob to traditional ceramics. Kreshchatyk is the capital's main street and stretches from the traditional food market of Besarabsky to Maidan Square, where the 2014 revolution took place, which resulted in the country's president Viktor Yanukovych being overthrown and fleeing to Russia.
You'll find a selection of good restaurants and bars to choose from this evening. Ukraine is well known for its dumplings, called varenyky that come with a range of different fillings such as mutton, cabbage or sweeter varieties like cherry. You should also try nastoyanka, which is a Ukrainian liqueur made from honey and herbs and comes in a selection of fruit flavours and even horseradish! Potential dining spots include Spotykach Restaurant, which is a retro Soviet style canteen cellar or for something quicker you could try the local fast food at Kyivska Perepichka, which specialises in fried dough encased sausages.
Day 2: Kiev guided tour and exploring the Museum of the Great Patriotic War
We have a busy day today, as we aim to discover a selection of Kiev's many historic sights and to get a feel for this great city. A local guide will show us the highlights including the Golden Gate which was once the main entrance to the city, Saint Andrews Baroque church and the onion domed exterior of Santa Sophia Cathedral. The cathedral is the city's oldest remaining religious building and inside we'll have the chance to see mosaics and frescoes that date back to 1017.
This afternoon we take the metro to Arsenalna, which is the deepest station in the world. We continue from here to the Museum of the Great Patriotic War, which is one of the largest museums in Ukraine and tells the story of the German-Soviet War in iconic and Brutalist style. It has over 300,000 items on display and the memorials are spread over 25 acres. We will be able to see the huge Mother Motherland statue, which is 100 metres high and was built to honour the heroes of the Soviet Union.
Day 3: Drive to Odessa and visit a Strategic Missile Base en route
We make an early start this morning (normally around 7.30am) and begin our drive to Odessa on the Black Sea coast. We'll pass by a variety of interesting scenery and towns along the way, have the chance to grab lunch in a local restaurant, and break our journey with a stop at the extraordinary Strategic Missile Force Museum at Pervomaysk. In total today the drive will take us around seven hours and we won't reach our hotel until dinner time this evening.
We have a guided tour of the Strategic Missile Force Museum, which before being decommissioned was an actual nuclear weapon launch site. We will see the most powerful Cold War Soviet missile - the R-36M2 'Governor' bomb which was nicknamed 'Satan' by the Americans. We also descend down in a small lift to the original control room - the Unified Command Post (UCP), which is three metres below the surface and part of 150 metre long tunnel complex.
We arrive into Odessa this evening. Odessa is a character filled port city with tree lined streets and colourful buildings. Although it's on the Black Sea coast, the city has an almost Mediterranean feel to it, as in years gone by thousands of immigrants from all over Europe were invited to make the city their home and brought their own architectural styles with them, including Neo-Classical, Renaissance and Art Nouveau.
We'll have a three course dinner at Kumanets Restaurant (or similar). Kumanets is known as grandma's house and is decorated with traditional Ukrainian furniture and colourful trinkets. The food is hearty, with dishes such as rings of homemade sausages, herring with onions and real Ukrainian borsch soup with donuts and salo.
Day 4: Odessa walking tour; chance to see the world's largest catacombs
We set off this morning with our local guide on a walking tour of Odessa. We will wander down the tree-lined Primorsky Boulevard, see the many steps of the Potemkin Stairs leading down to the seafront, the beautiful Opera House and Palace of Count Vorontsov, and a few of the more unusual highlights like the Mother-in-Law Bridge, Devil's House and Monument to the Orange Tree. The Devil's House is an especially interesting building; when times were hard the owners of the land didn't have enough money to build a house with four walls, so they built it with three. When looking at the house it creates the optical illusion that the house only has a front wall and like it shouldn't be able to remain standing, which has given it the nickname Devil's House.
After our walk this afternoon is free for you to continue your own explorations. You may choose to take a trip with a local guide down to the world's largest network of underground catacombs and learn of their fascinating history through the ages.
Day 5: Free day in Odessa with the chance to visit Dniester National Park
Today is free for you to enjoy the city and to relax on one of its popular sandy beaches. Alternatively there are a number of different excursions that you might like to join.
You could visit Coastal Defence Number 411, which is now an open air museum and a Memorial for the Heroic Defence of Odessa during World War II. Here you can see an armoured train, artillery guns, an Odessa tank (armoured tractor) and a post-war submarine.
You may like to join a day trip to Dniester National Park, which is around 50 kilometres drive from the city. During the days of the Soviet Union the Dnieper River was in a poor state. It was over fished, used for irrigation and hydropower, dredged for sand and in 1983 it suffered one of the worst environmental disasters in recent history when a liquid-waste reservoir collapsed and over 4.5 million cubic meters of toxic brine was released into the river - killing wildlife and polluted drinking water. It took years to recover, but now the river estuary is protected. You can enjoy a bird watching boat trip across the wetlands to see some of the 1,500 species of flora and fauna found in the delta. The national park is best known for its birdlife with 254 species found here, including 11 on the endangered list. You may spot pelicans, spoonbills, egrets and glossy ibises amongst others.
For food lovers and bargain hunters you could enjoy a trip to three of Odessa's most famous markets. The Flea Market selling many old Soviet items; Privoz the bustling food market best known for its fresh fish and the Seventh Kilometre Market, which is Europe's largest outdoor market and built out of a maze of shipping containers, which sell everything you could possibly imagine from wedding dresses to leather goods and from ceramics to telescopes.
Day 6: Visit a breakaway state and Chisinau, the capital of Moldova
We depart this morning at around 8am on our drive to Chisinau, the capital of neighbouring Moldova. Along the way though we'll get to experience one of the most unique places in Europe - Tiraspol, the capital of the breakaway state of Trans-Dniester. It will be quite a long drive and the border crossing can take time. In total the journey will take us about seven to eight hours and we won't reach our hotel until dinner time this evening.
Unlike the rest of Moldova Trans-Dniester hadn't wanted to separate from the Soviet Union, so back in 1992 after a short conflict they declared their independence. However, it's not recognised by any of the United Nations as an independent state even though it has its own government, military, postal service, currency, flag and national anthem. On arrival we have time for lunch before going to the Kvint Brandy Factory for a tour and tasting. Kvint is considered by the locals to be a national symbol of Trans-Dniester and even appears on one of their banknotes. It was founded in 1897, making it the oldest operating commercial enterprise in the region and as well as brandy the factory produces wine and vodka. Next we'll go on a guided walking tour of this fascinating city to view the numerous war memorials including those commemorating the 1992 Civil War and Trans-Dniester War, and the Supreme Court, Statue of Lenin, De Voln Park and Arch of Bendery.
We'll have a little free time to look around Tiraspol before we drive on to Chisinau and check-in to our hotel for the next two nights. Located in the very heart of Moldova, the city has a chequered history, which dates back to 1420. However, most of it was destroyed during World War II and an earthquake in 1940, so the architecture is mainly in 1950s striking Soviet style, but there are also two large parks, which give the city a much greener feel. You will find the Moldovans to be some of the friendliest people in Europe and nowhere is that more obvious than in Chisinau.
This evening we'll have a three course dinner at the Propaganda Restaurant (or similar). Propaganda is designed to resemble a Soviet era apartment and the food consists of traditional Moldovan dishes with a modern twist.
Day 7: Chisinau walking tour; visit the ancient churches at Orheiul Vechi
We begin by exploring Chisinau on foot with a local guide including the Orthodox Cathedral of Christ's Nativity, Presidential Palace, Parliament building and the Holy Gates, which are known as Moldova's 'Arc de Triomphe'. We also visit the local bazaar and Stephen the Great Park and Monument. Stephen the Great was the Prince of Moldavia who reigned in the 15th century and gained popularity for successfully defending the country from the Hungarians, Polish and Ottoman Empire. We'll join the locals promenading down the Avenue of the Classics of Moldavian Literature, lined with statues and busts of Romanian and Moldovan authors and social figures.
We will have the opportunity to visit the emotive Army Museum in the Centre of Culture and Military History. The exhibits here document Soviet-era repression and the crimes perpetrated by Lenin and Stalin. They tell the story of mass deportation, gulag labour camps, manmade famines and other harrowing tales.
This afternoon we leave the city and drive into rural Moldova to Orheiul Vechi. The site is of great historical and archaeological importance and is home to one of the most unusual church complexes in Eastern Europe. Set in a ruggedly beautiful valley gorge, shaped by the Raut River, there are several ancient monuments amongst and carved into the huge limestone outcrops that date from 10 century BC up to 14 century AD. The Cave Monastery was dug into the cliff by Orthodox monks. Before returning to the city we will enjoy a traditional Moldovan dinner of dishes such as zeama - a tasty chicken soup and mamaliga - a type of polenta with fried meat and fresh seasonal vegetables washed down with homemade wine. During dinner we have the chance to see and join in with traditional folk songs and dancing.
Day 8: Drive back into Ukraine to Chernivtsi and take a walking tour
Today we leave early (between 7-8am) as we bid farewell to Moldova and begin our drive back into Ukraine and our explorations of the west of the country starting in the characterful and often overlooked city of Chernivtsi. The drive today will take about six hours including time at the border crossing.
Chernivtsi is a lively and ramshackle city with a mix of renovated and partially ruined buildings and different architectural styles including grand old Austro-Hungarian houses, which reflect the decadence of days gone by. The city is six centuries old and used to be part of old Moldavia (now Moldova) and was known then as Bukovyna (Beech Tree Land), it was later in the Habsburg Empire and for a brief time after World War I it belonged to Romania.
After time for lunch we will take a walking tour accompanied by a local guide to Ringplatz Square, Theatrical Square, the Palace of Culture, Philharmonic Square, the Square of a Turkish Well and probably the cities most impressive attraction - Chernivtsi National University. The UNESCO-Listed red bricked buildings are a wonderful mix of Byzantine, Moorish and Hanseatic wings. It was constructed in 1882 for the Orthodox Church leaders as their official residence and became a university in Soviet times.
This evening we'll have a three course dinner at the traditional Ukrainian restaurant in our hotel.
Day 9: Free day in Chernivtsi; option to visit Verkhovyna in the mountains
You are free today to relax and enjoy wandering around the scenic streets of Chernivtsi or perhaps you'd like to join a full day excursion to the town of Verkhovyna in the Carpathian Mountains. On arrival you will visit a local farming family to learn about how they make traditional Carpathian Mountain cheese such as brynza, vurda and budz and of course to sample some of them. Next you'll be met by a local guide who will take you on a short hike and will explain the history of the region along the way. The hike is moderate difficulty with a few steep ascents and descents; it'll take around 1.5 hours and cover about two kilometres. You'll then visit a privately owned museum dedicated to the Hutsul life. Hutsul's are a local indigenous people who have their own unique culture and customs, which can be seen in their colourful and intricate craftsmanship including clothing, metal work and wooden furniture, and traditional songs and dances. You will get to hear a song played with a Ukrainian national instrument - the trembita, which is a type of long wooden horn. Lastly you will go to a local kolyba, a Hutsul restaurant before returning back to Chernivtsi later this evening.
Alternatively you might like to take a full day trip to visit three of the Caves of Ternopil - Crystal Cave, Verteba Cave and Monastyrok Cave. The labyrinth of over 100 caves and tunnels found in Ternopil stretch for over 600 kilometres underground and are known as 'the kingdom of eternal darkness'. Each of the caves has its own characteristics and the three we visit are very different to one another. At Crystal Cave you can see uncut gems covering the walls, in Verteba Cave there is a museum with sculptures and ceramics on display, and lastly in Monastyrok - Monastery Rock Cave you'll see an Orthodox church built into this natural grotto.
Day 10: Walking tour and castle visit in Kamianets-Podilskyi
This morning we drive to Kamianets-Podilskyi and on arrival we will take a guided walking tour of this pretty city. The architecture and culture here has Ukrainian, Polish, Russian and Armenian influences. We'll get to see both Alexander Nevsky and Saint Peter and Paul's Cathedrals, the Town Hall, Muslim minaret and more besides. As well as visiting the city's most famous monument, the stunning Old Castle of Kamianets-Podilskyi that dominates the skyline. Ukrainian poet Lesya Ukrainka described the medieval fort as 'a flower on stone' due to graceful appearance. Set on river loop this powerful defensive complex has protected the city for centuries before becoming military quarters and then later a prison. Today much of the fortress remains intact and is part of the National Historic and Architectural Reserve and exhibits explain its history through the ages.
We have time to stop for lunch in a local restaurant near to Khotyn Fortress before visiting this more compact 10th century fort with our guide. This castle is also very well preserved due to its excellent defensive position beside the Dniester River along with its eight-metre thick walls and five lookout towers.
We return to Kamianets-Podilskyi where we spend the night and you have the evening free to have dinner.
Day 11: Drive to the elegant city of Lviv with a walking tour on arrival
We leave Kamianets-Podilskyi this morning and head towards the beautiful city of Lviv. Along the way we stop at the small town of Rohatyn to visit one of the oldest wooden churches in Ukraine, the Church of the Holy Spirit.
On arrival in Lviv we discover the history and stunning architecture of the old quarter on a guided walking tour. Along the way we will see the old market square of Ploshcha Rynok, the ornately carved exterior of Boyim Chapel, the Dominican Church and Monastery and the Citadel Inn. The inn was originally built in 1850 as a circular red fort that during World War II became a Nazi concentration camp and was known as the 'Tower of Death', but today it has remarkably been turned into a five star hotel! We also see the Old Rus Quarter of the city and the High Castle, which affords great views over the city below. Lviv is home to not just one, but three different cathedrals; there's the Latin Cathedral, Armenian Cathedral and Saint George's Cathedral and they all vary greatly in style.
This evening is free for you to have dinner and Lviv is the perfect spot for relaxing. In amongst the cobbled streets with their pretty red roofed buildings and tucked away courtyards you will find a variety of good cafes, bars and restaurants. One dining option is the Dim Legend Restaurant that is spread over seven small floors and a roof terrace and each floor is decorated with a different theme telling the city's history through the ages.
Day 12: Free day in Lviv; overnight train to Kiev
Today is free in Lviv for you to further discover the city. Lviv is well known for both its beer and chocolate, so you may choose to visit the Brewery Museum or join a chocolate making masterclass.
The Brewery Museum takes you on a journey through Ukraine and the World's beer making history and explains the differences. There will of course be the chance to try an assortment of locally brewed beers too. Next to the museum is the Robert Doms Beer House, which is a large medieval style beer hall and restaurant where you can sample more of the local brew and perhaps their speciality dish of pork ribs in beer marinade.
At the chocolate making masterclass you can learn all about how chocolate is made and try your hand at making your own chocolate master pieces with advice from a professional chocolatier. Apparently chocolate has been produced in the city since the Middle Ages and in the 19th century it was exported to aristocracy throughout Europe. Today there is a huge variety of different flavoured chocolates, ice cream, milkshakes, cakes and more to tempt you.
Alternatively you might like to visit Lychakiv Cemetery. This burial ground is a protected historical monument and believe it or not is one of the most popular attractions in the city. Established in 1786 by the Austro-Hungarians, there are grave markers here written in Ukrainian, Russian, German, Polish, Armenian and Latin, which show how the city's rulers have changed throughout its history. In amongst the elaborately carved tombs there are also communal graves for soldiers and freedom fighters and simple communist graves. Sadly during the Soviet era the graveyard was used as a dumping ground and only reopened in 2005 after being restored.
You could join the Tour of One Street which takes in three of the city's sights, starting at the Neo-Baroque palace which we built in 1867 by the architect Adolph Kuhn as the home of Prince Leon Sapieha who was part of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania dynasty. During Soviet rule the mansion was turned into a school and it was later restored in the 1990s. Next we see the Memorial Museum dedicated to the victims of occupational regimes on Lontskoho Street. We can learn about the punishments and conditions dished out by three occupational powers: Poland, the Soviet Union, and Germany to the political prisoners that were held here. Lastly the tour will also show you Lviv's Citadel building.
Later this evening after we've had time for dinner we go to the train station to board our overnight train to Kiev (departing at around 11pm). We will use sleeper carriages with four bunk beds (two beds on floor level and two above) per compartment. Bedding will be provided and there is a shared toilet and wash basin in each carriage.
Day 13: Arrive in Kiev; chance to visit the opulent Mezhyhirya Residence
Early this morning our train arrives in Kiev (at around 6.45am) and we will have breakfast in a local restaurant near the station. After this we'll take our bags to our hotel to store in their luggage room, as we won't be able to check-in until later this afternoon.
After a chance to freshen up in our group shared day rooms we'll go to visit the Chernobyl Museum with exhibits that are designed to teach us the scope of the nuclear disaster and to ensure that the lessons learnt from this terrible accident aren't forgotten. It'll help to provide us with some of the background information ahead of us visiting the Exclusion Zone tomorrow.
The rest of the day is free for you to further explore the city or you might like to join an excursion to the Mezhyhirya Residence Museum, which is the lavish property where Ukraine's controversial former president Yanukovych resided before the 2014 uprising. Or perhaps you'd prefer to visit the Pyrohiv Open Air Museum, which exhibits a range of historic wooden buildings that demonstrate traditional Ukrainian architecture and what life would have been like in bygone times.
Alternatively you may choose to visit the Lavra Historical and Cultural Reserve to see the remarkable 'Monastery of the Caves' founded in AD 1051, where the labyrinths provide all the natural conditions needed for mummification. When the monks first dug into the ground they discovered the soil was rich in silver and so this helped the monastic complex to grow in size and today we can see the huge number of ornately decorated buildings that were created.
Day 14: Excursion into the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone
This morning we set off on our exciting explorations to the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone, which is about two hours' drive from the city and close to the Belarusian border. Back on the 26th April 1986 the Number 4 nuclear reactor at Chernobyl exploded with catastrophic consequences. Since then an Exclusion Zone has been in place around the plant and nature has reclaimed the towns and vehicles left within this. The accident was the result of a flawed Soviet reactor, operated by inadequately trained staff that had been ordered to carry out a poorly planned test.
There were four reactors and a further two being constructed when Reactor 4 exploded twice, killing two workers and releasing at least 5% of its radioactive core into the atmosphere. A further 28 fire fighters died of radiation poisoning following the accident. At the time this was the largest uncontrolled radioactive release recorded.
The city of Pripyat was built three kilometres from the site to house the plant's workers and their families and, at the time, it had 49,000 inhabitants. Within a 30 kilometre radius of the power plant, there was a population of up to 135,000 people. All were evacuated after the accident and most of these towns and villages including Pripyat are now ghost towns.
Surprisingly after the accident the other reactors at Chernobyl were restarted. Their safety was improved but due to energy shortages the last reactor wasn't turned off until December 2000. In 2011 Chernobyl was declared safe enough to be recognised as a tourist attraction.
Reactor 4 was enclosed in a large concrete shelter which was erected quickly after the incident and contained around 200 tonnes of highly radioactive material. The old shelter only had a shelf life of 30 years and at the end of 2016 a huge 'New Safe Confinement' structure was built on the site and moved into place over the old shelter. It is the world's largest movable structure and inside a team of robotic cranes is taking the old shelter and radioactive core apart in an effort to make the area safe again.
On our first day of discovery with a local guide we will explore Pripyat including the fairground, hospital, hotel, bus station, fire station, football stadium, sports centre, elementary school, kindergarten, police station, Palace of Culture, church and the 'bridge of death'. We'll also see the Red Forest and the structure around Reactor 4. The attractions seen in the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone may vary depending on local conditions and restrictions, but we'll see the most possible during our two days spent here.
This evening we will have the unique experience of staying within the Exclusion Zone in a small hotel within the town of Chernobyl. The bedrooms are simply decorated and there are three bathrooms shared between every five bedrooms. There is a restaurant and bar where we will enjoy a traditional Ukrainian meal this evening.
Please note that it is essential that you provide Explore with the correct passport information at the time of booking and that you check this is accurate on your booking confirmation/the online customer information gateway, as this will be required in order to request the permissions needed to enter the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone. Corrections and amendments may incur additional charges at your own expense or result in you being denied entrance to the Exclusion Zone. If you intend to renew your passport please let Explore know at the point of booking and ensure that you have your new passport no later than 10 weeks prior to travel.
Day 15: Further explorations of the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone
Today we will most likely see Pripyat's swimming pool, grammar school and music school and visit the secret Soviet Duga Radar Facility. The radar military base was named Chernobyl 2 and didn't appear on any civilian maps and the trees were strategically planted to block the view from the neighbouring towns. There are two radars here that were constructed as part of a Soviet early missile detection system. The bigger of the two is almost 500 metres long and around 150 metres high. Also on the site are an abandoned fire station, small power plant, hospital and apartment buildings where the military personnel stationed here and their families would have lived.
We will also hopefully get the chance today to speak with people still living within the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone, who are known as self-settlers. A year after the accident over one thousand people returned to their homes and despite efforts from the authorities they kept returning until eventually being allowed to stay and they have been living off grid ever since. Many of the people who choose to return were retired at the time and since it has been over 30 years since the disaster many of these people have sadly now passed away, so many of the towns and villages in the Exclusion Zone now only have one or two people living there. We should be able to meet with a couple of the self-settlers to hear their stories of what their lives were like before, during and after the explosion.
Late this afternoon we drive back to Kiev for our final free evening in the city.
Day 16: Trip ends in Kiev
The trip ends after breakfast at our hotel in Kiev.