The story of this small social initiative in Transcarpathian region is inspiring and provides impetus. This is the story that could happen in many villages and towns. Plenty of initiatives of modern Ukraine imply creating something new in place of obsolete and outdated things, whereas this one concerns transformation – the transformation of an old building into the new endeavour that can unite fellow villagers, and of the ancient traditions into the profitable tourists’ attraction. In Ukraine, the number of successful transformations is rather small. We are waiting for the old to decay to build something new in its place, without any historical foundation.
Alisa Smyrna and her husband Vitalii, who was absent during our visit, had been engaged in bicycles dealership in Carpathians for some time, and later they came up with an idea to make their own place to take in guests. They owned an old warehouse of the former collective farm of Dubrynychi village in Perechynshchyna of Transcarpathian region. On the first storey, there is a huge hall for banquets, traditional weddings or small breakfasts that those who stay on the second storey can enjoy. There is a comfortable hostel with a huge room. Also, there is an outdoor shower. Now, this place is called Velosadyba “Dobra nuch”, originating from the village name, or “Bed&Bike”.
On our way there, we did not expect to see anything extraordinary in the inconspicuous Transcarpathian village. We were greeted by Alisa and a small dog.
– It is Irokez, he just barks. He loves audience, except for kids. He doesn’t like kids. He sees them as competitors. On the other hand, he likes bearded men.
From May till October, this place welcomes tourists that come back from the mountains muddy and exhausted, as well as backpackers who tend to cut down on accomodation and who are not usually welcome in the traditional hotels. Alisa doesn’t take in everyone; there is a census, or rather a face control. She says the place is only for special people. The priority is given to foreigners and those who understand they are not going to stay in the all-inclusive hotel.
– Where should I begin? This is a former granary of a former collective farm, which was given to five families as a salary at times when no one would get paid. Those people had no idea what to do with it. They wanted to break it down to pieces to sell bricks. Some time after that, people became interested in that granary. They wanted to turn it into a sawmill. However, taking into account that the granary bordered with my granny’s house, I didn’t want her living near the sawmill.
There are plenty of sawmills in Transcarpathian region. It is a lucrative business, and this building was perfect for another warehouse for storing mostly semi-legal raw material. Illegal deforestation has been thriving here for years.
The neighbours were shocked: How can you buy a place with rats and invite tourists?
– Back then, I got into tourism, and my German colleagues told me it was a perfect place for a museum of the farming implements and the international meetings centre. At first, I didn’t believe that it was possible to do something like that. Still, the idea appealed to me for some reason. However, it appealed to me only. The neighbours and relatives didn’t really like it. To be precise, they were just shocked. They said, “How can you buy a place with rats and invite tourists?” For two or three years, we were fighting against the stereotype that you can do something worthy in the village. No one understood that. They said I simply showed the negative side of Ukraine. Things reached absurd lengths – someone cut the wheels of our foreign tourists’ bicycles.
Often, when traveling in Ukraine, one can hear astonishing stories about the local people who resist any changes, even private on a private territory, needless to mention some state developments. People blaim the government, the lack of money and attention, and at the same time they opress any initiatives, even private ones. Fortunately, Alisa and her husband were strong enough to withstand their fellow villagers’ pressure and managed to prove that tourism is beneficial for the village.
– It’s been ten years of granary functioning as a tourists’ centre when the local residents started to offer us their help to make some money. For instance, these are music bands and simple women who offer different services, like cleaning or cooking. It’s a pitty that young generation doesn’t apply for the job of promoting Velosadyba, or at least for reception. We always invite local people whenever we host a wedding so that they can see it and we also invite local folk band. One can engage all levels of village tourism here. In other words, the local folk band sings here, neighbours and relatives cook food using local products, girls serve the food, clean and so on. I buy local producs from my neighbours so that they would calm down and start to think that it’s not that bad to have tourists coming.
– When I was six years old, I earned my first money here. When I was a child, I worked at this granary under the Soviet rule. They would deliver grain from the collective farm, the grain was everywhere. Then, a combain would lift it on the second and third storey. It dried there. The new story of this place began approximately in 2003. At first, it was a long story of buying land property, because we could easily get the house – all five families agreed to sell it – but there was a problem with the land. Now, fortunately, we have documented everything. We tried to keep everything the way it was, except that we made some new walls on the second storey. Not long ago, it smelled like grain here.
Environmentally safe Velosadyba maintains the Transcarpathian traditions and fascinates the foreigners, who even celebrate the mountain weddings here with the corresponding Carpathian certificate. Alisa has equipped a small “Insektenhotel” – a hotel for insects. Now, it is just a box, but soon it will accomodate few ant families. Also, the owners picked up an injured owl and looked after it until it was ready to go back to forest. There is still its house, which looks like a nesting box, under the roof.
– We were renovating this building for quite some time. It took much time because I am busy doing many things at the same time. I need a doctor to help me get rid of my restlessness, then I will setlle down in Velosadyba and run this place. During the renovation, we equipped the roof with the plastic steel windows. Then it hit me that it made bats disappear. I started reading on how to get them back. Though these animals scare me, I don’t want to upset the ecological balance. So, we had to break out panes on the roof and let bats live there again. There are no rats, because there is no food. However, there are mice. In autumn, a marten comes from down there and steals chickens from neighbours, and they get mad at me. There are plenty of cobwebs, spiders, all kinds of insects. We take them out. We have made an insect hotel. Here everything is made for nature, because first there was nature and we came after that. That is why we are trying not to interfere. Here we have a reception centre for international meetings. In Austria, for instance, people turn such buildings, farm houses, into weekend inns. And here we offer Transcarpathian festivities, we have up to 50 people and organize Lemko weddings. The tourist groups arrive, we choose a couple and marry them here, in national clothes, according to the traditions.
Alisa tells that Ukrainians seldom visit this place. To be honest, she is a bit afraid of the Ukrainian tourists. Velosadyba is being run in different languages: people speak fluent English and German. One can rent a bike (they call it “bicihli”) and have a ride enjoying the picturesque Transcarpathian landscape.
– I had my wedding here. And yes, people got used to it. They ask to come here. We host different celebrations, including birthdays. There was a two-weeks language camp. The pictures on the walls show Luzhanska Valley as seen by my Austrian and German tourists. They won a photo contest in Bavaria and Austria, that is why I hanged the pictures here. Talking about Ukrainian tourists, I am a bit afraid of them. I’ve had much bad experience. You can leave the keys to foreigners and not worry about a thing. With our tourists, you have to keep an eye on them. Of course, there are exceptions, but I am relying on my experience. Say, I am afraid they will burn something here. That is why Ukrainian tourists aren’t my target audience. I am also afraid of how they would react to our matresses on the floor.
Some people still think it is a crazy idea. Alisa’s Velosadyba is on the second storey. On the first storey, they host weddings and meetings. Alisa and her husband Vitalii, who came back from ATO not so long ago, escort biking tours, biking groups, mostly German-speaking. In Velosadyba, one can dry one’s clothes, make one’s repairs. They speak four languages and dream that bike tourists feel comfortable here.
– What you are going to see upstairs is called “matratzenlager” in German. We chose matrasses intentionally, because you can move them, take some of them away or add more. Now the room has capacity of 16 beds. We also throw parties here. People from Poland, Chech Republic, Germany, Austria like it here very much. Once, we were asked to escort the bike tour. Back then, we didn’t know much about bikes. It was 6 or 7 years ago. Ever since, we’ve been crazy about it. It awaikened something inside me that had been sleeping. My husband has become a velofreak. He can’t go by a bike without studying it meticulously. He continues working as a safeguard here, but he mostly works as a bicycle mechanic in summer. We bring bikes from abroad. My husband assembles whatever turns up out of them. No one gives us bikes “Ukraina” because people still use them in villages. This metalware is built to last a lifetime.
Alisa and Vitalii work for several tour operators in Germany, Austria and Ukraine. You can get there through “booking” service. The cleverest tourists can get a free overnight accomodation through the Couchsurfing and Warmshowers networks. By the way, Warmshowers is a less known group of travelers, where not only bicyclists look for each other.
– I don’t remember when and how I registered there, but I instantly received dozens of messages. We welcome everyone, feed them and give accomodation for no matter how long. In return, we get gripping stories, experience and photos. Once, a guy from Costa Rica came to us on the 90-th day of his bike-travel through Europe. He had lost much weight and was exhausted. We gave him food, and he was so grateful as to give salsa classes for girls in Dubrynychi. He was teaching us dancing. Another remarkable traveler was from Switzerland. He quit the job, sold everything, bought an expensive bike, equipment and set off. He came by our place on his way to Turkey. He managed! Covered in snow, with 25 kg-bags on his bike. Such stories inspire us. They make us wanna move on, without fear. Everyone has a great potential, but not all of us are aware of that.
In fact, Velosadyba is a great example that shows how perseverance and confidence help to overcome despair of the people around. Instead of another granary, warehouse or sawmill, a social initiative occured, which employs the village residents and is a significant place where all travelers are welcome – either with money or without.