It may be hard to imagine the average soccer fan harboring a passion for 11th-century ecclesiastical architecture.
But that's just what Roman Kharchenko hopes will tempt European visitors to take a detour from the Ukrainian host cities of Kyiv, Donetsk, Kharkiv, and Lviv during this summer's European soccer championship in favor of a more tranquil stay in his hometown of Chernihiv, site of the country's oldest church, the Savior Cathedral, built in the 1030s.
"The cities that don't have any matches will probably be chosen last," concedes Kharchenko, a 28-year-old graphic designer who shares a comfortable flat with his girlfriend, Yulia, and a sleek ginger cat named Rudy. "But all the same we hope that Chernihiv will be interesting for someone. We have a very quiet, very green little city compared to Kyiv, which is noisy and filled with enormous buildings. Life here is more measured."
Kharchenko is one of hundreds of Ukrainians flooding online to offer free lodging to Euro 2012 guests looking for an alternative to pricey hotels or a chance to mingle with the locals. The Rooms4Free
website that features Kharchenko's ad is part of Friendly Ukraine, a grassroots initiative organizing everything from personalized tours
to an army of volunteer translators
for the tens of thousands of foreign guests treading gingerly through the Cyrillic alphabet and local customs.
Friendly Ukraine's organizers say the scheme is meant to counter a growing wave of bad publicity washing over Ukraine ahead of the June 8-July 1 tournament, with Western headlines about price gouging, racism
, dog culling
, and political boycotts
dampening what was meant to be a triumphant European debut for the post-Soviet country.
The program has drummed up droves of eager participants in the tournament cities. But it has also seen surprising turnout in more remote pockets of Ukraine, where residents in towns like Lutsk, Kherson, and Kremenchuk are eager to show off their private corner of a country they say is more hospitable and open-minded than many foreigners realize.
Dmytro Grigoryev, a 30-year-old entrepreneur, has received only a handful of offers from Euro tourists to visit his family home in the northern city of Sumy, which is 170 kilometers from the nearest match site and even he admits "is scarcely of any interest to tourists." All the same, he says, he's eager to play host.
"I'd like to travel in Europe some day, and I'd like people to treat me the same way," says Grigoryev, who lists among his city's attractions the fortress where Peter the Great lived in preparation for his 1709 victory over Swedish forces in the battle of Poltava. "For me, it's just a pleasure to spend time with people."
Low Budget, High Impact
For other Ukrainians, the chance to host foreign guests is an appealing break from the everyday. Dnipropetrovsk native Larisa Kozynaya, who already has two sets of guests passing through during the tourney, says she and her husband Dmytro are always eager for company now that their adult daughter has moved to Kyiv.
"For one thing, we love people. We're an open family," says 43-year-old Kozynaya, whose lush backyard and promises of homemade borscht and shashlik could prove a welcome antidote after a night of beery soccer chants. "It's a kind of adventure for us. I don't speak English very well, but on a basic level I think we'll understand each other."
Dnipropetrovsk, an industrial city that sits roughly midway between Donetsk and Kharkiv, has proved a popular hub for soccer fans making the long-haul drive between the two cities. (A recent series of trash-bin explosions
also briefly catapulted it into the headlines as the focus of Euro 2012 terror scares.)
French soccer fan Isabelle Carvalho-Goncalves and her Portuguese husband, Jose, will be staying with Kozynaya during a two-week road trip through Ukraine that involves four soccer matches and five host families, all found on Rooms4Free.
Carvalho-Goncalves, 42, says many of her friends bought tickets for the tournament but later canceled their trips, dismayed by the prospect of paying up to $1,000 a night for a hotel. Punishing price schemes and a threatened EU boycott over jailed ex-Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko may have cooled some Europeans' enthusiasm for Ukraine's Euro games. But Carvalho-Goncalves says it wasn't enough to deter her and her husband from making their first trip to Ukraine.
"I think when you go to the Euro it's for the sports, and you don't pay political matters much mind," she says. "What we want is to see the matches and to speak with the local people. We've already made contacts with some locals, and they're very happy to meet foreigners. It's the best way to get to know a country."
In its tumultuous 700-year history, Vinnytsya has been fought over by Lithuanians, Tatars, Poles, Turks, Cossacks, and Russians, and in World War II served as the site of Hitler's easternmost Werwolf headquarters.
Today, the central Ukrainian city of 300,000 is better known as the birthplace of Nataliya Dobrynska, the heptathlete who won gold at the 2008 Beijing Olympics, as well as the site of Europe's tallest illuminated musical fountain
, located on the banks of the bucolic Southern Buh River.
Vinnytsya native Lena Chernaya, a 23-year-old engineering graduate, is eager to show guests the fountain and other sites in the leafy, low-key city. (She has yet to tempt guests to Vinnytsya, perhaps because the two nearest match sites, Kyiv and Lviv, require drives of three and six hours apiece.)
But at the same time, she acknowledges that her country's future is in many ways as rocky as her city's past. Chernaya was just a toddler when Ukraine declared independence and a teenager when the Orange Revolution briefly raised the prospect of Ukraine becoming a Western-style democracy.
Now, with the country's economy flailing and the state once again in the grip of Moscow's gravitational pull, she says she's hoping to use Euro 2012 as a chance to prove to visitors that "not everything in Ukraine is as terrible and sad as everyone says."
"A lot of what they say about our country now in Europe is true," Chernaya says. "But not all of it. It's like someone wants to sabotage the Euro tournament. It's in somebody's interest to do so."
Ukraine -- uncomfortably wedged between Russia and the European Union, and now sharing hosting rights with its more prosperous EU neighbor, Poland -- has seen its Western overtures repeatedly thwarted.
This has been particularly true since the 2010 election of its Soviet-style leader, Viktor Yanukovych, a period that has been accompanied by a vicious legal crackdown on Tymoshenko, his charismatic rival.
'Real Ukrainians, Real Ukraine'
Tymoshenko's jail term, punctuated by a recent hunger strike and complaints of ill-treatment, were behind the threatened European boycott and are likely to indefinitely stall Kyiv's Western integration.
Add to that the wave of stories over garbage-can bombs, football racism, and unfriendly suggestions about visiting pedophiles and Ukraine, locals say, is facing an image crisis that may be impossible to surmount.
"The problem is that European journalists don't even have to make things up," says Anna Trepalyuk, an NGO worker in the idyllic Black Sea city of Odesa who is offering to house up to three people in a seaside cottage during the tournament month. "It's all right there. Prices have gone up, there was that scandal with the dogs."
But Trepalyuk says there's far more to her country than scandal -- and points as an example to Odesa's summery forecasts, historic neighborhoods, and a beach season already in full swing.
"I wouldn't say that everything has been ruined by the bad publicity, not at all," says Trepalyuk, 31, who adds she's been in e-mail contact with potential visitors from Poland and St. Petersburg. "Maybe some people won't come. But others will come in their place."
Ukraine, which was co-awarded the right to host the Euro tournament in 2007, may no longer be viewing the tournament as an automatic stepping stone to membership in the European community. Despite an estimated $5 billion spent on hotels and infrastructure, Ukrainian authorities have responded churlishly to Western criticism over pricing scandals and the Tymoshenko case.
Even on a public level, enthusiasm for the EU has dwindled, with a poll
in December 2011 indicating that fewer than half of Ukrainians -- most of them in the western half of the country -- still want their country to enter the bloc.
But that doesn't mean they don't want to show their guests a good time. In his Rooms4Free ad, Anton Yevsyushkin, a 29-year-old resident of Mariupol on Ukraine's southeastern Azov Sea coast, offers his potential guests airport or train-station pickup, seaside accommodations, high-speed Wi-Fi, a widescreen plasma TV, and simply "good company."
"Just as they say that Moscow isn't all of Russia, I can say that the host cities aren't all of Ukraine," says Yevsyushkin, who plays down his city as "industrial and young" but praises the spotless Azov coast that stretches beyond the city limits. "And I'd like foreigners to understand that this image they're getting from our government on the one hand and this hysteria in the Western press on the other, about racism and so on -- it's got nothing to do with us.
"Real Ukrainians and real Ukraine are a completely different thing," Yevsyushkin insists. "In our basic values and outlook, we're the same Europeans as the rest of the citizens of the European Union. And not only in western Ukraine, but in eastern Ukraine as well."