Irena proudly presents her engagement ring for the first time. Andrii proposed to her at one of the most romantic places in Ukraine: The Tunnel of Love. While the 18-year-old is still speechlessly admiring her bouquet of roses, the 25-year-old future groom has very clear ideas about their future together and their homeland: “Two or three children, a beautiful apartment, a big car. And peace. We don’t want to send our soldiers to the frontline anymore. We have so little time and it shouldn’t be spent on wars. Better to love, grow, flourish, and have children.”
The war seems far away from this special place in northwestern Ukraine. The idyllic Tunnel of Love, an approximately four-kilometer-long arched canopy between the villages of Klevan and Orzhiv, was created in a collaboration by nature and man.
After a lumbermill was founded in Orzhiv in 1870, a single-track railroad connection was built through the dense forest to Klevan’s main station, where even today timber is reloaded and transported away to different countries. Some of the magnificent parquet flooring in the Winter Palace at the Hermitage Museum in Saint Petersburg originated from wood processed in Orzhiv. Depending on how busy the mill is, a loaded train puffs through the forest at a leisurely pace several times daily, from the lumbermill to the railroad station and back again; often enough to gently force the branches of the trees along the track into an arch shape, rare enough to allow curious strollers to take long walks along the tracks and enjoy nature in an otherwise untouched state. The green canopy opens up in only a few places, revealing swamps, small clearings, and mossy tree stumps. Croaking frogs, chittering squirrels, the humming of insect wings, chirping birds, butterflies, and tiny sapphire-blue dragonflies that emerge and disappear again among the plants – all this creates the impression of a fairytale world.
Although the locals have been coming here for decades, walking through the surrounding forests, picnicking, and exchanging kisses, the tunnel of leaves remained unknown beyond the borders of Klevan for a long time.
Its spectacular Internet ascent from the “most romantic place in Ukraine” to the “most romantic place in Europe” to the “most romantic place in the world” probably began in 2009 with the young photographer Serhii Delidon. He was looking for unusual places in the area to take photographs of newlyweds in romantic poses. Although Serhii lived only two kilometers away from the tunnel, until then he had never been there. His photographer colleagues asked him about the location of these special photos and an increasing number of couples wanted to be immortalized against the backdrop of the green arch. On the Internet his photos became very popular, and it was only a matter of time before a location scout for a Fujifilm commercial discovered the tunnel in 2014. In the years that followed, several film crews traveled to Klevan to shoot romantic dramas in the tunnel. Awareness of the Tunnel of Love has increased tremendously, especially in Asia, and has now reached almost cult status. In China a replica of the tunnel was recently inaugurated, while in the US and England photo wallpaper depicting the tunnel is on sale.
Since then, the locals have been amazed by the Chinese business delegations and mostly very young Japanese bloggers who make the long journey to the Ukrainian village in search of the “most romantic place in the world.” In contrast, young Klevanians are leaving, moving abroad to Poland, Germany, and Italy in the hope of finding work.
Lesia, a vendor with carrot-colored hair, positions a group of young women around a large wooden heart for a photo: “Where did you leave your grooms?” “We’re going to look for them in the tunnel.” “There’s no one there but mosquitoes!” − and the friendly pensioner starts with her sales patter. Lesia spends many hours each day waiting at her small booth in front of the tunnel entrance. For a few hryvnia, she sells magnets with colored pictures of the tunnel that are mass-produced in a factory. Some of the magnets even glow in the dark. “My best customers are schoolchildren,” she says. The additional income helps her to support her grandchildren.
By the end of the summer holidays, it is quiet. The stream of visitors only picks up on weekends, with bridal couples and their friends and photographers, families on excursions, and younger and older couples. Nikolai, a former professional dancer whose body is marked by disease and alcohol, serenades the newlyweds with his worn, off-beat accordion. And there are more vendors on-site: Mania sells Kvass, a fermented drink made from bread; Raia offers straw hats; and Rimma exhibits her self-made hair ornaments. Since the Ukrainian government blocked Russian social media sites, which were the most important distribution channel for many, she has had to look for other sales opportunities.
The foreign tourists are clearly outnumbered. Despite the Internet hype, most of the guests are Ukrainians. So far, the place has no fairytales or stories of its own, but a new ritual has been invented for the superstitious couples – when the lovers walk hand in hand through the tunnel, if their feelings towards each other are true and they kiss and make a wish, then that wish shall come true. As well as having a very special ambience, wedding proposals made in the tunnel supposedly guarantee a particularly long and happy marriage. Given the high divorce rate in Ukraine, any such support is welcome. Therefore, trips to Klevan are already offered as a “romantic travel package” by various Ukrainian travel agencies. Sometimes a huge limousine will even draw up from the capital Kiev, which is 350 kilometers away, necessitating some complicated turning maneuvers under the amused eyes of the vendors. But many visitors only make a short stopover, attaching a colored ribbon somewhere near the entrance and continuing on after taking a few snapshots.
However, if the Klevan village administration gets its way, this will be changing in the near future. The tunnel’s tourism potential has been recognized in recent years. The locals have prevented a tree-felling campaign, collected garbage, and reforested empty areas. An asphalt parking lot has been created, road signs have been erected, toilets built, and garbage bags installed, but all on a small scale.
The Selsoviet, the local administration, has bigger plans. In the spring of 2017, a new project was presented to the public, which is due to be completed by the end of the year. New roofed stands, all in the typical wooden construction style, are planned for the sale of souvenirs. A small wedding pavilion will make on-site ceremonies possible, and even bride-and-groom train rides through the tunnel are being considered. A private investor from Kiev has bought up an abandoned lot near the tunnel and is planning a hotel for celebrations and overnight guests. A restaurant, a playground, and picnic areas will be set up with the aim of encouraging guests to stay for longer. After all, Klevan has more to offer: The ruins of a fifteenth-century castle, a monastery nearby with an ancient scripture mentioned by Umberto Eco in The Name of the Rose, and an idyllic surrounding landscape with rivers, poppies, and gentle hills. It is no coincidence that in 2016 the small town was named “the most attractive tourist village in Ukraine” in an Internet poll. Approximately 700,000 hryvnia (about 23,000 euros) will be invested in tourism − a huge sum for a place like Klevan, with only 8,000 inhabitants.
“Oh, that’s not enough. In order to change anything, you would have to spend on quite a different level,” says businessman and professional musician Yurii Tsipak. He is the owner of the only hotel in Klevan, a very well-maintained complex made up of traditional wooden houses, only a third of which are usually occupied. The restaurant, which has excellent cuisine, is popular for festivities but has hardly any other guests. Tsipak organizes huge music festivals several times a year, with bands from abroad, to bring life to Klevan and to offer local young people some entertainment. “Who cares about a crumbling fortress or an old book? Let’s build an amusement park like Disneyland!” But then, what about love? Would new passions still be able to blossom? Or is it selfish to think only of romance?
Yet even “the most romantic place in the world” cannot keep reality at bay: Deep in the woods, further than most visitors ever go, a siding branches off from the main railroad track. It leads to a hidden Ukrainian military base where defective tanks and weapons are repaired and made ready for use. And this base has also been using the Tunnel of Love for a long time − to protect its freight from prying eyes. Some locals even claim that the tunnel has only been so well-maintained because of the military interests involved. In any case, the installation of a webcam at the entrance of the tunnel was prevented. “Every time the wrecked tanks pass by, it scares me and I get goose bumps,” says Lesia. To decorate her stand, she has sewn a Ukrainian flag with a white dove and the words “Mir” and “Peace”: “All we really need here is peace. And love!”