A Ukrainian Summer: where to go, what to do...

Resort town of Truskavets attracts tourists who seek something different

by Roman Woronowycz
Kyiv Press Bureau

TRUSKAVETS, Ukraine - You say you want to travel to Ukraine again, but have had enough of the visits to the villages of your forebears and the cholesterol-laden, vodka-saturated diet that inevitably awaits you there. You also have had your fill of the congested capital city of Kyiv and the dirty beaches and polluted waters of the Black Sea coast.

Well, don't be discouraged. There is also a place in Ukraine for those seeking a clean environment, a slower pace and the absence of crass commercialism. It is found in Truskavets, a small resort town located about an hour by car southwest of Lviv at the foot of the Carpathian Mountains. And, as a bonus, it is dirt-cheap.

This historic resort spa with its Austro-Hungarian wood architecture, beautiful churches, and a park with magnolia and chestnut trees, has everything and more for the tourist who wants tranquility and a degree of seclusion to recuperate and recharge himself in the splendor and solitude of the lower Carpathians. Here you will find almost no billboards, absolutely no nightclubs or bars (just a few good cafes) and barely any Coca Cola or potato chips (found only in several stores).

What you will get are dietetic, low sodium, low cholesterol meals and daily treatments in the form of hydrotherapy, laser therapy, ozocerite (oil slag) therapy and dozens of other medical procedures prescribed by professionals at a spa of your choice for just about anything that ails you.

In the evenings you will be able to attend concerts by some of Ukraine's most popular pop stars and quiet strolls in the beautiful park and surrounding hills.

Visitors can submit to an assortment of 60 treatments and therapies administered by trained personnel to treat various ailments, from rheumatism and arthritis, to diabetes and periodontal disease. But the spas of Truskavets are known mostly for their treatment of kidney and liver ailments, and specifically for the cleansing of sands and stones.

The key to the town's uniqueness is the mineral water that runs below the surface alongside oil deposits deep beneath the earth. During the middle of the 19th century the area around Truskavets was one of the first places in the world to be exploited for its oil reserves. The writer Ivan Franko, who hailed from the area, chronicled the life of the oil workers in his novel "Boryslav Smiyetsia." While today most of the oil is gone, the coal-like, semi-hard slag deposits, called ozocerite, remain.

Artesian springs run alongside the ozocerite deposits, and as the water courses it picks up organic and non-organic microelements, chief among them hydrogen sulfide.

The water, known as naftusia (from "nafta," the word for oil), which has a slightly tar-like taste and smell, is said to help clean the liver and kidneys of sediment and toxins. It also is supposed to stabilize the flora of the intestines, which allows for better absorption of nutrients by the body. People who leave here after either a 12-day or 24-day treatment period claim they have never felt better in their lives.

The ozocerite, mined and then processed with paraffin wax into a plasma-like substance, is applied to many parts of the body as an essential component of many therapies. Placed over the liver or kidneys in a poultice it draws out toxins; over the lungs it helps with respiratory problems; on the spine and bones it helps with painful calcium deposits and spurs; and when applied to joints it soothes arthritic conditions. It is considered a treatment for periodontal disease when placed directly on the gums.

For those who would rather do without the medical wonders that ozocerite offers, there are other more conventional and even state-of-the-art treatments, including laser therapy, which in many cases here is at the forefront of medical innovation, as well as more typical hydrotherapies and massages. There is also cosmetological therapy and the relaxing aromatherapy.

Truskavets is the largest mineral spa complex in Europe and the former Soviet Union with 20 sanitariums and 22 pensions, providing 5,300 rooms for tourists and 4,000 workers to look after them.

The alleged healing power of its naftusia mineral water and the hot ozocerite treatments were widely known already more than 100 years ago during Austro-Hungarian rule, when Poles, Slovaks, Germans and Czechs traveled here for treatments.

The first sanitariums popped up in 1827, but Truskavets became a popular destination for tourists after Teodor Torosevych, a chemist and pharmacist from Lviv, issued a study in 1836 that concluded that the Truskavets waters contain the most varied assortment of healing minerals and microelements in the region.

The area achieved widespread growth after 1911, when Raymond Jarosh, a Polish land magnate in the area, decided to turn it into a full-scale spa and resort area for Europeans and continued to be one of Europe's top draws until World War II.

In the 1970s, during its Soviet heyday, up to 400,000 tourists from all corners of the Soviet empire visited Truskavets annually. That number fell off by more than half during the mid-1990s as the area, like the country, went into an economic tumble.

In January 2000 the town received status from Kyiv as a special economic zone for tourism. Today it is ready for resurgence. Ten of its sanitariums have incorporated into a joint stock venture called "Truskavetskurort," which invested $500,000 in the last year into modernizing its hotels and clinics. It has retained the services of the Lviv Consulting Group, which is run by Richard Shriver, a former official in the U.S. Treasury Department. Recently, the first European hotel, the Geneva, owned by a Swiss-German joint venture, opened its doors after injecting $1 million into renovating an old sanitarium building.

And most importantly, the tourists are starting to return. Last year 123,000 visitors rested and recuperated in Truskavets, 5,500 more than the year before, which is the first gain after a decade long drop in numbers. In the first quarter of this year, even before the summer season had begun, more than 3,000 more tourists had arrived than in 2000.

A day in a Truskavets spa is unlike anything the typical American has encountered on the North American continent. At the Kashtan Sanitarium, for instance, breakfast begins with a grated beet salad in sour cream and a cabbage salad, followed by par-boiled quenelles served with boiled buckwheat. You also get fresh honey and dark coarse bread along with a weak tea to wash it all down.

On another day, you may get a boiled egg, along with the salads and then semolina porridge. It all comes with a minimum of salt, spices and calories. (Note: there are several saltshakers on the tables at all times, if needed). The menu is developed by the individual in conjunction with a dietician, but is very limited as to available options.

After breakfast, the daily round of procedures and treatments begins. Each person is given an individualized routine developed in conjunction with the spa's medical team.

Depending on a person's needs and desires, he may first submit to a speleotherapy, recommended for asthmatics and those who suffer from bronchial infections. Then he may move on to colon-cleansing therapy, which has become popular in the United States in the last few years, or to laser circulation therapy, a treatment in which a laser light applied to a vein in the bend of the arm thins the blood to help circulation. After that he may go on to a turpentine bath, which is recommended to ease muscle pain and improve circulation, or a hydromassage performed by a skilled technician.

Before lunch all the visitors to the various spas descend on one of the two "beauvettes" in the town. These are the buildings in which the wells of the healing artesian waters of Truskavets are found. The tourists/patients either bring their own specially crafted cups or purchase disposable plastic ones at a nearby stand. Utilizing the hundreds of taps found in rows throughout the building, they pour one of the four types of mineral waters found here, the most popular by far being the naftusia. Pushing the appropriate button of the dose prescribed sends the water rushing from the spout. Prescriptions generally range from 100 to 200 milligrams per dose.

Then it is time for lunch, which might include a light brothy soup followed by boiled veal kebabs or chicken served with butterless mashed potatoes, a cooked bean salad, a beet salad and a mixed vegetable consisting of carrots and cabbage, along with kompot, a natural fruit drink.

About an hour after lunch it is time to return to the beauvettes for another round of drinks before going on to more therapy, if that is what is called for in your treatment schedule. Generally most visitors have no more than three to four treatments daily.

Particularly popular at this time of the day is aromatherapy, which is quiet time in a darkened room in which pleasant scents are combined with soothing music for relaxation purposes.

Visitors also can relax by strolling among the magnolias and chestnuts on the main promenade, which joins the main water therapy clinic with one of the beauvettes, take a hike in the woods or simply watch television either in a common viewing room or in their private room.

After dinner, which is of a similar dietetic order as breakfast and lunch, there are cinema offerings, a very interesting heritage museum and a cultural center, which offers appearances by local and national Ukrainian (and Russian) pop stars at nominal prices and in a much more intimate setting than in a major town.

And if you have an uncontrollable urge to quench your cholesterol, salt and sugar addiction, there are a few cafés that offer unusually good Ukrainian and European fare. One such café, the Zhadka, even has such delicacies as frog legs, octopus and shark steak on its menu.

To break up what quickly could become a very droll and regimented vacation, one-day excursions are offered on a daily basis to various points in western Ukraine, including Lviv, historic Kamianets-Podilskyi, Pochaiv, Chernivtsi and Yaremche, home of the Hutsuls. There is also a special trip to Moldova.

Truskavets has a large variety of accommodations in its 42 sanitariums and pensions, which are owned by various Ukrainian government agencies and labor unions. But even the best are cheaper than most U.S. hotels, and the price includes meals and treatments.

The newest hotel, the Geneva, looks most like a hotel an American envisions. Prices there range from $35 for a two-person standard room to $100 a night for a suite. All rooms include a telephone, a television and a mini-bar, along with the standard plastic trappings and neutral color schemes of a typical Western hotel.

For somewhat cheaper, one can choose the Svityzianka villa, owned by the Railroad Workers' Union, a turn-of-the-century Austro-Hungarian architectural triumph, with extensive wooden ornamentation and two exquisite balconies. Inside, the $60 a night luxury suite includes a master bedroom, a sitting room and a large fully appointed kitchen, as well as a giant bathroom featuring a bidet and a jacuzzi. Sliding doors open onto a large balcony and a beautiful view of the Carpathians on the horizon and the city's main park below.

The standard rooms at the other sanitariums resemble what a Westerner would expect to receive when visiting a monastery. Although austere, they are clean, bug free and, unlike other parts of Ukraine, have running hot and cold water daily. They are also cheap, beginning at $370 for a 24-day stay.

Truskavets is not for everyone. First, there is no nightlife currently, although that may change very soon. Plans call for a night club/casino complex to open eventually. There is also U.S. investor interest in a state of the art cinema to show first run films.

Second, many of the sanitariums and pensions - and the two mentioned here do not belong to this group - retain a certain Soviet feel, and if you have ever been to Ukraine you know that means lack of service and hospitality.

And third, although there is comfort, there is not opulence, nor luxury. And because this is a spa resort, much of the daily life is public, so the person who wants a large amount of privacy will not find it here.

But most who have traveled to the spas of Germany and Central Europe say that Truskavets meets the standard of the great European ones in every way. It has the required treatments and procedures of a first rate spa and it has the required mineral water, the prized naftusia. It has one more thing as well, a much more affordable price, which is therapy for the pocket book as well.

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Persons wanting to book a stay in Truskavets should contact: Henrikh Stetsenko, Boryslavska 2, Truskavets 82200, Ukraine; telephone, (03247) 6-83-16; fax, (03247) 6-84-88.

A Ukrainian Summer (main page)

Copyright © The Ukrainian Weekly, May 6, 2001, No. 18, Vol. LXIX

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