ilkovo – the Ukrainian Venice, with canals instead of streets and boats instead of cars

After All: ‘Ukrainian Venice’, whose lifestyle must not be disturbed

Image credit: Getty Images

From the coast of Suffolk, our columnist sends a love letter to the country of his birth, now under attack.

“How I wish I could find myself in Vilkovo

There are canals, there are gondolas, gondoliers.

To search out myself, to neglect, to laugh off sorrows...”

Bulat Okudzhava

When the world is staring down the barrel of a gun, even the most habitual and placid things start looking sinister.

My native country – Ukraine – has been brutally invaded. It is not common knowledge, however, that the invasion did not begin in February when Russian tanks rolled into Donbas. It started eight years earlier when Putin staged ‘local’ conflict in Eastern Ukraine, followed by the annexation of the Crimea and the massive escalation of recent weeks that has rightly generated fears of an all-out war; the first major war in Europe since 1945 and, possibly, a Third World War too.

Far from a military strategist, I don’t want to delve into the details of Putin’s treacherous campaign but will only say how bitterly I regret being too old and not well enough to fight for my country. One thing I can do, however, is to write about it in my books, features and columns (including this one) thus making it more familiar to my Western readers.

To get away from the stream of depressing news, made even more gruesome by my own inability to help directly, my wife and I drove to the Suffolk Coast and – in rare intervals between storms and rains – walked its magnificent beaches.

As we walked, I was unable to take my gaze off the tennis-ball-shaped Sizewell B nuclear reactor, visible from almost everywhere we went. It was an eyesore indeed, yet – surprisingly – not an unpleasant one in its design. I knew the construction of another similar reactor – Sizewell C – was underway nearby, next to the famous Minsmere bird reserve, and being the son of a particle physicist and a proponent of nuclear power stations (if not nuclear weapons), could not help uneasy thoughts about those peaceful structures turning into lucrative targets and therefore extreme hazards in case of the looming international military conflict.

We stayed in the coastal town of Dunwich – formerly a busy seaport of about 3,000 people, and now a sleepy village of fewer than 180, with most of the old town buried beneath the waves. All of Dunwich’s 52 churches were gradually submerged by the sea, and a local legend still asserts – rather chillingly – that the tolling of their bells can sometimes be heard from under the water during storms. No wonder the cliches like 'lost Atlantis' or 'Saxon Camelot' can often be heard here.

By association, Dunwich made me think of another town in my native Ukraine – all but submerged in water, yet not semi-dead but very much alive. I am talking about Vilkovo in the Odessa region in the south-west of Ukraine – one of the areas targeted by Putin’s armoured fist. Situated in the Danube Delta, where the river splits into three branches before entering the Black Sea, Vilkovo (population 8,000) is a unique urban settlement. Known as ‘Ukraine’s Venice’, it is built on 72 islands in the Danube Delta marshlands, with canals instead of streets and roads.

My main memory of Vilkovo is a botched fishing expedition when, at the age of 15 and on holiday there with my mum, I was reluctantly allowed to join a couple of local boys going fishing. In a boat, of course. And, as it turned out, an old and leaky one, which duly overturned in the middle of a canal before we even had a chance to get our fishing rods ready.

Luckily, I was already a strong swimmer then (as for the Vilkovo boys, they learn to swim before starting to walk) and we all had some fun splashing in the opaque tepid water before stepping onto the bank, like a bunch of young Neptunes, in our soaked water-dripping clothes. My mother – unsurprisingly – did not share our fun mood and I was banned from further fishing until the holiday's end, and therefore had plenty of time to admire the beauties of Vilkovo and to familiarise myself with the town’s history, of which technology and civil engineering had always been essential parts.

Vilkovo was founded by the so-called ‘Old Believers’, who fled Central Russia after the ‘Great Schism’ of the 1650s, and was declared a town in 1775. Because waterways occupied much of Vilkovo’s territory, boats were always the primary form of transport, and each home had (and still has) at least one moored at its doorstep. Most of them were built to resemble the distinctive Cossack ‘seagull’ boats, constructed centuries ago, although these days they are known as ‘herring’ boats and are mostly used for catching herring.

Besides the Danube herring, sought after by restaurants throughout Europe, proper anglers, not prone to boating accidents (unlike myself), can catch wild carp and catfish in Vilkovo’s canals.

The houses in Vilkovo are all built on islets of the river sediment (silt). They are high-maintenance homes, for each year a trench must be dug around the house to bring in new sediment, to allow boats access, and to prevent flooding. Without that, they would sink back into the marsh. The sediment is fertile, and the gardens in Vilkovo are all lush and magnificent.

The islets are linked by a series of wooden walkways, as well as some skilfully engineered bridges, making Vilkovo the ideal town for long walks with fabulous views of the sea. In the past, the waterways, known as ‘yeriks’, were used for drinking-water supplies, washing, cooking and transportation.

Vilkovo lies in a wetland that is home to over 950 plant species and almost 260 species of birds, including pelicans. I remember taking a boat tour of the Danube Delta and admiring the landscape, with my mum pointing out countless reed beds and lily-coated lakes. Unlike my previous boat expedition, that one went without incident.

Human life in Vilkovo has always been defined by the natural rhythms of the seasons, weather and water flows. That eternal life-cycle will never be disturbed by invaders’ tanks. 

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