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Volyn: Lakes, Forests, and a Touch of Mystery

Nina Bohush
15 August 2018

Looking for a quiet place to escape the bustle of the city and the summer heat? Pack your bags and head for Shatskiy Lakes. But be warned!

Spectacular views, primeval nature, and stunning sunsets may capture your heart and lead you to be tempted by mermaids. Fact or folklore? What’s On investigates.

Early Start

It’s  07.00, and we’re racing down the Kyiv-Kovel road. Over the next week my husband and I plan to spend time relaxing (read: recharging) on Svitiaz Lake, in Ukraine’s northwest Volyn oblast. Svitiaz is the deepest fresh lake in Ukraine and belongs to Shatskiy National Natural Park. The park features more than 30 additional lakes hidden among the giant pine-trees and bright green meadows.

When I was a kid, my parents used to take me to Svitiaz Lake every summer. For a 13-year-old girl, however, teenage problems were more consuming than the surrounding beauty of this place where the only attraction was nature. Today, these childhood memories about walking in the woods, gathering blueberries, or feeding swans make me nostalgic. Only after all these years am I able to understand that Shatskiy Lakes is a place of a great power, where you can escape big city life and completely digital-detox yourself by watching sunsets with a glass of wine.

A Lasting Relationship

Some 15 years after I first visited, the village of Svitiaz, next to Svitiaz Lake, has changed beyond recognition. Instead of traditional households or khatas, there are modern two and three-storey cottages everywhere. The village boasts new supermarkets, cafés, and various entertainment attractions for both young and old.

For a long time, Shatskiy Lakes was a resort where mainly locals hung out. Many Ukrainians used to associate it as a ramshackle retreat built here in the Soviet 60s. 

The situation changed after the annexation of Crimea in 2014 when people started looking for alternatives to the peninsula. As a result, the number of tourists coming to Svitiaz and all the surrounding lakes increased, as well as the investment shelled out on local infrastructure.

A Heaven in Volyn

The high season at Shatskiy Lakes kicks off after 15 June. Believe it or not, but even when Svitiaz seems overcrowded, you will easily find vacation rentals without an early booking. However, before coming here, decide for yourself, what type of break are you searching for?

Shatskiy Lakes offer a local version of all-inclusive in two recreation centres, the pensions of Shatskiy Ozera on Svitiaz or Lisova Pisnia on Pisochne Lake. A cost of 300 – 1 000 UAH per person will cover a room, meals, and wellness facilities for one day. Pensions attract tourists with their VIP-locations ensuring a marvellous view of the sparkling water and forests.

The Options Continue

The second option is camping. You can both rent a tent or pitch yours at special camping zones. Be mindful of the fact you’ll literally be in the wild in dense forests – which sounds cool, right?

You may also explore the authenticity of Ukraine’s Volyn by staying at a local household. This option comes with natural food like milk, eggs, or freshly-baked doughnuts that locals are glad to deliver to your door every morning (not for free, of course).

We opt for thoroughly-modern wooden cottages lying just a stone’s throw from the beach. It takes half-an-hour to find a cottage with free rooms. A room for two costs 600 UAH per day. We don’t hesitate to try and haggle and shake hands with the host after talking them down to 500 UAH.

Magical Forests and  Stories

The next day I awake to birds singing and decide to start the morning with some meditation. While in the pines on my way to the lakeside, I suddenly freeze with anxiety. In the silence, I hear steps behind me. I look back – nobody is there. Maybe it’s one of the forest spirits described by the 

famous Ukrainian writer Lesia Ukrainka? Charmed with Volyn, Ukrainka wrote Forest Song, a play where the main characters are mysterious creatures from local folklore.

Forest Song tells the story of a beautiful girl called Mavka who lives in the forest and falls in love with a young man named Lukash. Unfortunately, love between creatures of nature and humans is forbidden, so both Lukash and Mavka have to break out of their own worlds to build a new one where they both can be happy.

While chatting with locals, you might hear stories about mermaids who drag fishermen to the lake bed. Young girls also believe in the sacred power of Ivana Kupala, celebrated on 6 June. They float wreaths of flowers on the water with the hope of finding love (and getting married) within the next year.

Shatskiy “Delicacies”

PON-CHY-KY! A cheerful woman in a straw hat loudly invites people to try her homemade baked goods right on the beach. I get out of the water to snap up a hot luscious doughnut with blueberries.

Ponchyky is the No.1 signature dish in the Shatskiy region, and baking is the most popular seasonal business for local women. Filled with blueberries, apricots, peaches, and poppy seeds, the doughnut literally melts in my mouth. You can buy them on every corner here. The over-the-top obsession with this sweet baked good gave rise to the annual food festival named after it.

Don’t leave the resort unless you take in your fair share of lake fare. Look around and find handwritten announcements offering crayfish, both boiled and live. Call the number mentioned on the board (they can be found everywhere on poles and fences) and get your crayfish delivered.

To savour more local specialties head to the market near the Shatskiy Ozera pension. There you will find dried and smoked bream, pike, and perch fished from the surrounding lakes. If you get lucky, you’ll find eel which is not often found in Svitiaz waters anymore.

Take One and Get Thirty as a Bonus

Svitiaz is the most popular vacation spot in the region, but not all tourists know there are more than 30 more lakes in the park.

Spending a few extra days on Pisochne Lake was our family thing. Pisochne differs from Svitiaz. The lake bottom near the shore is deeper, so the water is darker. However, I more enjoyed hours spent on the Black Lake in the town of Shatsk. Hidden among the pine trees, Black Lake is a secret place where local children escape from both the tourists and the heat.

Luckily, both Pisochne and Black Lake are only 20 minutes away from Svitiaz village, so we take our newly-tanned bodies onto a marshrutka with a strong desire to explore as many spots as we can.

Tips for Travellers

1. Take warm clothes and a raincoat with you
The weather on the lakes changes more frequently than your ex’s mood. But this time you’ll be prepared.

2. Take as many mosquito repellents as you can
Mosquitoes are going to attack day and night, but most especially at night. Secure yourself with repellents so as not to let them intrude on your evenings.

3. Come and celebrate Ivana Kupala (6-7 June)
Many years ago our ancestors believed in the great power of ferns. Kupala night is the only time when ferns are supposed to flower and bloom. On 6 June, young men jump over a bonfire symbolising Kupala and then follow unmarried girls who roam in the woods in search of magical herbs. The one who finds a fern flower on this evening will be lucky and healthy all year long.

4. Bring cash with you
Svitiaz village is definitely on its way into the civilized world, but it’s still hard to find an ATM here.

The End

The last evening of our trip we spend on the beach. Before disappearing beyond the horizon, the sun paints the sky with the warmest shades of crimson and red. The sunset is breathtaking, and I already know next year we’ll be back. For sure, we will.

If you’re done with swimming and sunbathing on the beach…
Take a paddle-boat and explore the waters
Rent a boat and some tackle, go fishing
Watch the sunset
Sing with your guitar by the campfire

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