Visiting Bila Tserkva – the one with no water
Bila Tserkva is a town about 50 miles south of Kyiv and so visiting Bila Tserkva is an easy daytrip from Kyiv, but we decided to do it overnight. You know how we like to explore local bars and eateries. It’s not a big place at all, but as it was founded in the 11th century, it has quite a bit of history. Unfortunately, what it didn’t have on our trip was water……If you’re heading there, hopefully it’s come back on by now, so we’ll give a quick rundown of our water-less trip and the things to do in Bila Tserkva.
How to pronounce Bila Tserkva
Ok. I don’t know the answer to this one. When we decided to visit Bila Tserkva for the weekend, we told several Ukrainian colleagues, who looked at us blankly. We repeated it several times, gave a location and then said ‘white church’? Ah……a look of understanding passed over their eyes.
I don’t know what we are saying, but it isn’t right. The first letter is a Cyrillic letter ц, which apparantly is like the zz sound from ‘pizza’ – but try saying it at the start of a word. It’s hard.
It didn’t stop us getting there, largely because we just had to look for minibuses with Бі́ла Це́рква on the front. 48 hours in the place, and we are non the wiser on how to talk about it to anyone from Ukraine.
Read about the unusual things to do in Kharkiv, another city that isn’t pronounced how it’s spelled
How to get to Bila Tserkva from Kyiv
Visiting Bila Tserkva is pretty much like going to any small city or town near Kyiv. It involves finding out where the minibus goes from and jumping on. Minibuses out of Kyiv go from various metro stations at the end of the metro lines, from different bus stations and sometimes just from the side of main roads. Finding the right place can be a challenge. The bus to Zhytomyr conviently goes from outside the Zhytomyrska metro station, but the one to Chernigiv goes from near the Lisova metrostation.
After asking around, we heard that the bus to Bila Tserkva goes from outside Ocean Plaza shopping centre, by Expocentre, and Teremky metro. But which to go from. We couldn’t find a timetable, because generally these minibuses just leave when they fill up. So we chose the closest one to where we live, Ocean Plaza.
The metro station at Ocean Plaza, Lybibska (named after a river that is now under Kyiv), comes out into an underground warren of an underpass. There are tunnels going each way, with stalls and small shops either side, with staircases coming up all over the place. Which stairs to go up? Well, obviously, we went up all the wrong ones. We ended up in the middle of the traffic island, at the totally wrong side of the road and basically in all the wrong places.
After wandering around underground for a while like lost miners, we finally popped up near a row of what looked like minibuses. Perhaps that was where we needed to go. However, upon reaching the row of buses all with Бі́ла Це́рква written on the front, one of the drivers shook his head and pointed back to the other side of the road. This wasn’t where the buses went from. It was were they waited until it was their turn to pick up passengers.
Back underground we went. This time with a ball of wool that we tied to a tree outside before going down, so we could follow it back like Theseus in the Labrynth if we couldn’t find our way out. It’s probably best to mention that Kate has absolutely no sense of direction when she goes underground. She just continuously goes left, round and round in a circle. It’s a bit of an issue in Kyiv where underpasses and underground shopping centres are not uncommon. Anyway.
Luckily, we found our way out to another row of buses with Бі́ла Це́рква in the windscreen, and we headed to the one at the front. We climbed onboard and soon left. Finally on the way to explore all the exciting things to do in Bila Tserkva….
If you are coming to visit Ukraine, you should read our list of Tips for Travel in Ukraine
A little bit about Bila Tserkva and the Great British Bake Off
Bila Tserkva is one of those places in Ukraine that has been part of loads of other countries during its long history. It’s spent time as part of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, the Polish-Lithuanian Commenwealth, Poland, the Russian Empire and now Ukraine. We didn’t see the same sort of cultural crossover as in Uzhgorod when we visited in the summer, but that’s a border city so perhaps that’s why there’s still a lot of evidence of Hungary there. There are signs in Polish script around, and a lot of the history has stories of Polish nobelmen – including the creation of the ‘famous’ dedropark that we’ll talk about later.
As I said, the city is old, like from the 11th century, when it was founded by Yaroslav the Wise. You may recognise Yaroslav the wise from his statues in Kyiv, where he holds a large model of the Golden Gate, one of the ancient gates of the city of Kyiv (‘the Great Gate of Kyiv was a song Kris learned to play on his euphonium when he was a child, long before he had any idea where Kyiv was. I mean, admit it, many of you heard about it first from the chicken kiev, right?).
We always think that the statues of Yaroslav the Wise look like he’s presenting the show stopper in the last round of a Great British Bake Off Episode:
Paul Hollywood “So tell us about your cake, Yaroslav“
Yaroslav the Wise “Well it’s a model of the gates of the city I founded. It’s made with red velvet cake and ganache, and the walls are tweels“
Apart from his appearance on the Great British Bake Off, Yaroslav the Wise is known as the father-in-law of Europe, as his 10 children went on to marry into the royal familes of Europe – France, England, Byzantine and Hungary.
His sarcophagus is on display in St Sophia’s Church in Kyiv. He’s not in it anymore, apparently.
Visiting Yaroslav the Wise’s sarcophagus is one of the unusual things to do in Kyiv.
Yaroslav had chosen the Christian name ‘Yuri’, and he founded four towns during his lifetime. Like you might if you were powerful enough to create towns, he named them all after himself. Bila Tserkva used to be called Yuriiv.
Later, someone decided to change the name to Bila Tserkva, which means ‘White Church’. There are indeed a couple of white churches in the town, but alledgedly the source of the name is no longer there. Perhaps they just continue to paint churches there white to match the name.
Things to do in Bila Tserkva
Visit the arboretum of scandals
The ‘famous’ thing to do in Bila Tserkva is to visit the Oleksandria Arboretum. I mean ‘famous’ is probably only in Ukraine. Unless it’s also famous for aboretum enthusiasts. If that’s why you are going, let us know. It’s a huge dendropark and apparently one of the biggest parks in Eastern Europe. It’s only the second biggest in Ukraine, Ukraine being quite the fan of dendroparks. The biggest and most impressive is Sofiyivka Park in Uman. But that’s another story for later.
Oleksandria Dendropark was founded in the late 18th Century by the wife of a Polish Count, who was given the area by her husband. Alexandra Branitskaya, who in typical Bila Tserkva fashion, named the park after herself, had quite the gossipy story. At the time of her birth there were rumours that she was the illegitimate daughter of Catherine the Great of Russia, and either Gregory Ptomkin (he of the steps in Odessa fame), or Sergey Saltykov.
Since there were later rumours that she was having an affair with Gregory Ptomkin, we’d like to assume that she wasn’t actually his daughter. We think the British Royal family is all scandal……Imagine the Daily Mail back in the days of the Russian Empire.
The park is laid out around lakes with statues all over, pavilions and rotunda. You can hire bikes and cycle around, or just wander and explore. If you visit Bila Tserkva, it’s basically one of the main things to do, if not the only thing to do in Bila Tserkva.
Admire the statues on the way to the Dendropark
To get to the arboretum from the city centre, it’s a 5km walk, largely along Oleksandria Boulevard. It’s a nice walk, with a wide road dotted along with strange statues, apparently from an international sculture festival. It seems an odd place to hold an international sculture festival, but there are indeed sculptures from artists from different countries in the world.
Visit Castle Hill
The original white church that gives Bila Tserkva its name is said to have stood on Castle Hill. As it’s higher than the land around, it makes sense that there would have been a castle there at some point in history. Now there is another white church up there, looking down over the city, which was built to commemorate the city’s namesake.
Walk along the riverfront
Many cities in Ukraine are built on rivers. Riverfronts make up a lot of the things to do in various cities, as well as the things to do in Bila Tserkva. We found a nice walk from the Oleksandriya dendropark, right back to the city next to Castle Hill. We went past huge ornate houses, small local restaurants and past city beaches.
Visit one of the beaches
We visited Bila Tserkva in the autumn, and while it was ok to sit outside with a beer, it wasn’t beach weather. There are big sandy beaches along the riverside though, so it looks like a good place to chill out on a sunbed if you visit Bila Tserkva in summer.
Visit the haunted fairground
As you know if you follow our blog around Ukraine, we are big fans of the Ukrainian fairgrounds that seem to be in parks in most cities. In Shevchenko Park in the centre of Bila Tserkva, there is a terrifying looking big wheel that defintely wouldn’t pass any health and safety test these days, and lots of peeling fairground rides.
For more on our love for Ukraine’s haunted fairgrounds, read our post on Zhytymr and the space museum.
Remember the Heavenly Hundred
In all Ukrainian cities, there’s some sort of memorial to the Heavenly Hundred, the people who were shot during the 2014 revolution. There are usually photos and candles to soldiers who’ve since died in the conflict in the east of the country.
In Bila Tserkva, the memorial is a mirrored ball, which is thought-provoking and artistic.
Have a beer in the Merchant Court
Count Branitsky, whose wife developed the dendropark, built a shopping mall in the centre of Bila Tserkva in the 19th century. The Merchant Court is built around a courtyard, with galleries for the trade premises, and curved archways on each side.
Nowadays it has cafes and bars inside, some with terraces to sit outside. You’re bound to end up there if you visit Bila Tserkva.
The story of Bila Tserkva and the lack of water
On our way to our apartment in Bila Tserkva, we saw a brown tourist sign. In small cities around Ukraine, these can signify the way to something interesting, or just odd – like the sign for the steamroller factory in Vasylkiv. This one pointed our way to ‘the water tower’.
And sure enough, a little ahead, there was a giant water tower. I mean, impressive, but not a reason to visit a city.
When we arrived at our apartment, our landlady told us that the water was off, but she had filled up some water bottles for us for washing. This isn’t unusual in Ukraine, so we thought little of it. It usually comes back on in a few hours.
Outside the apartment, we noticed that there was an old-fashioned water pump, and people were pumping water into containers to take inside. Probably because the whole building had no water.
Walking into the city, we saw a lot of wells. Like on either side of the road. A big water tower, water pumps and wells. This seemed like a city with a good water supply, yet no water to our apartment. Still, we were sure the rest of the city would be well-supplied from the wells and the water tower.
Fast forward a few hours and we are enjoying some beers in local bars. As you do after a couple of pints, we headed to the toilet.
“No” said the barman. “The toilet is closed. No water“.
We quickly left and found another bar where they let us use the toilet. It didn’t have any water though. There was a bucket to fill it to flush.
Next bar. Again, no water so no toilet access. We decided that the best idea was to head back to the apartment, where at least we could use the toilet, even if there was no water.
We tried to stop off at the supermarket on the way back to use the toilet. But even Silpo had the toilets closed.
I mean, in other countries, are you legally allowed to open a bar or a restaurant if there’s no water so no toilets? What do the staff do? We’ve been through many power cuts while living in Ukraine, and had our water turned off many times, not to mention the times with no hot water, but this was the first experience of no water over the whole city centre and nowhere to go for a wee.
Nuts and Bolts
How to get to Bila Tserkva from Kyiv
It turns out that the minibus stops at all the aforementioned stops, so you can get on from different places. It seems to originate at Ocean Plaza, to the right of the shopping centre. It then stops at Teremky on the way out. There are perhaps also buses directly from there. We didn’t try it.There’s also a bus from Voksalna apparently. It probably goes from the bus station there, which is down the hill a bit and to the left if you stand with the main station building behind you.
The bus takes just over an hour depending on the traffic and costs 80 UAH (just over $3).
On the way back, the minibuses leave from the bottom of the city, from the street on the left before Castle Hill.
You can also take the electric train from Kyiv to Bila Tservka from the main railway station. They go less frequently.
How to get around Bila Tserkva
If you aren’t up for the 5km walk to the Oleksandria Arboretum from the city centre, you can get Bus number 1. Taxi apps seemed to work fine there. We used Bolt, as far as I remember.
Where to stay in Bila Tserkva
We stayed in an apartment from Booking.com which was very comfortable and close to the city centre. There are lots available in the area.
Where to eat and drink in Bila Tserkva
This place is in the Merchant’s Court and has a nice terrace and their own light and dark beers, as well as serving beers from Pravda brewery in bottles. They serve nice burgers and steaks. The staff seemed a bit freaked out by us being English-speaking, but once they established that we could do transactions in their language, they chilled out and were nice.
We are big fans of this place because it was one of the only bars that would let us use their toilet. It’s a tiny narrow bar in the Merchant Court with a big American theme. Outside they have a BBQ smoker thing and there is a selection of American style meat on the menu. They had draft Lvivsky 1715 lager for 30 UAH (just over $1) so we were happy. The staff didn’t seem to speak any English but they were friendly and welcoming.
You should go here just for the decor. It’s quite, quite odd. It’s a hookah bar, which we aren’t generally fans of, but the staff were nice and they let us sit at a table despite it being reserved for later.
We are big fans of ‘Drunk Cherry’ bars. They only sell one drink – a cherry wine from Lviv. It’s warming, tasty and also quite strong so you can’t have many. They have bars all over the country and the service is quick and good, and they have outside tables if you don’t want to be inside.
If you are heading to Lviv, download the app. You can earn points and get offers on the various restaurants and bars from the Fest Family.
Two ‘British Underground’ Pubs..?
Oh we love a good British pub and Ukraine is full of them! Union Jacks, red phone boxes, pictures of the Beatles…..We were excited for these two bars in Bila Tserkva, but they aren’t in the city centre and according to Google maps, they don’t open at the weekend. Yes, that seemed odd to us too, but we didn’t want to walk all the way there to find a closed bar.
If you get there, let us know!
For more about places in Ukraine you can visit, check out all of our posts about Ukraine travel