Ukraine has several other big cities besides Kyiv. In the east of the country are the old and decaying centers of heavy industry and coal and iron ore mining as well as the republic’s former capital Kharkiv. In the south, on the Black Sea coast, lies the famous cosmopolitan port city of Odessa, while the historic center of western Ukraine is the city of Lviv.
Over a third of the country’s people live in the countryside, mostly in large villages of 1,000 to 5,000 inhabitants. Rich black soil and a mild climate with adequate rainfall provide excellent conditions for agriculture, compensating to some extent for the effects of communism and economic stagnation.
The south is open and flat, watered by many streams that empty into the badly polluted Black Sea. Further north the terrain becomes hilly and wooded, except for marshlands in the northwest. In the far west of Ukraine the land rises to the wooded heights of the Carpathian Mountains.
The beautiful Crimean peninsula, in the south, juts out into the Black Sea. Crimea is known for its health spas and ancient ruins, for its wines and garlic — and for the world’s longest trolley bus route (from the capital of Simferopol to the resort of Yalta). Rocky mountains provide the backdrop for the palm-lined beaches that used to serve as the Soviet Union’s playground.
Ukrainian cooking is famous for its dumplings. Varenyky are dough pockets filled with potato, cheese, blueberries, cherries or prunes, often served with onions and sour cream, while vushka are boiled dumplings filled with chopped mushroom and onion. There are various kinds of sausage, like the smoked ham kovbasa and kyshka, which is made from buckwheat and blood. Other popular dishes are borshch (beet soup), nalysnyky (crepes), and holubtsi — baked cabbage-leaf rolls made in the shape of doves, stuffed with rice and covered with tomato sauce. Two specialties traditionally served on Christmas Eve are “God’s food” or kutia, a cold dish of boiled wheat mixed with poppy seeds and honey, and “God’s drink” or uzvar, a mixture of 12 different stewed fruits. Linked to the celebration of Christmas and Easter are many old customs going back to pagan times.