Kiev, the Capital of Ukraine - Friendly and Efficient
The journey from Minsk, to Ukraine, is amazingly quick. (I'm on a lengthy trip, so I'm only visiting the capital, Kiev.) The plane takes off exactly on 1.30 and I’m in my hotel room in Kiev at 3pm. Astonishing efficiency at Kiev airport where they even manage to bid me ‘Welcome to Ukraine’ in immigration. I’m so early the taxi driver is still scurrying through the door trying to find his Susan Rogers sign. At first glance Kiev looks much more like the down at heel fraying at the edges city I expected from Minsk. But it’s raining and better weather is promised. Let’s see what the sun brings.
The staff on the hotel reception are very friendly and the concierge Ivan quickly sorts me out a private guide for tomorrow. Some of the sights are fairly spread out and a car will be helpful. As he reminds me, I’m only here once. It’s a good if unoriginal line to justify 45 dollars an hour; Ivan’s already famous on trip advisor for his helpfulness. (I’ve decided to pass on visiting Chernobyl. Kiev is quite close enough.) The bell boy has a blue military style jacket and he zooms off, not even expecting a tip. All is well.
At first, it feels as if I’ve landed in the back of beyond, location wise, but once I’ve worked out which way to go (up the hill), I’m soon in the humming part of town and wandering along Kiev’s main thoroughfare, Khreshchatyk Street. It's apparently referred to as the shortest, yet widest,main drag in the world. It is remarkably broad, but not as wide as the streets in Minsk, so I’m unimpressed. It’s closed for traffic today, there are police cars parked at each end, so I can saunter up the middle and admire the brown mock renaissance buildings, towering on each side. (As well as Soviet towers and a GUM department store. there are several street exhibitions, one on the history of Kiev. (the anniversary of the Russian revolution is approaching) and one that has a religious theme.
The Golden Globes of Kiev
Kiev is growing on me. It’s much more European than Minsk; I only see a few statues and very little brutalism (the odd Soviet style statue) with cobbled streets (well brick), tree lined squares and familiar chain stores. There’s an excess of neoclassical pillars too, as well as a multiplicity of gold domed churches and cathedrals, including the eleventh century World Heritage Saint-Sophia Cathedral. It’s an upmarket café culture but there are also more fancified McDonalds. The McDonald’s next to the main train station is claimed to be the third busiest in the world.
My hotel room is nicely furnished, not huge, but big enough, and seems to have everything I require. Molton Brown toiletries. You can eat from the same menu in the main restaurant or the bar (which is very smoky) or the hotel vestibule (very opulent with piano). The menu itself is fun. Potatoes are listed under the heading ‘starches’. The waiter helps me choose local food – bortsch (which turns out to be from Ukraine not Russia) and shuba salad (herring and potato). It’s really good, with lashings more cream. There’s no Chicken Kiev though. They tell me that doesn’t come from Kiev. It is thought to be a nineteenth-century French recipe, brought to the east by Russian aristocracy, fascinated by French cuisine. The national drink is called horilka. It's a clear spirit. While vodka means “little water”, horilka means “burning water”, as the drink is often flavoured with chili pepper.
Kiev, The Cradle of Russian Civilisation
Today, I’m off on a tour of Kiev, with my guide and driver. Both of them are called Alex, so that’s easy to manage. My guide speaks good English, is interesting and doesn’t go on too much, though he is passionate about his city. I’m given to understand in no uncertain terms that Kiev is the cradle of Russian civilisation. It was blessed by Andrew, the apostle, according to legend and, from the the late ninth to the mid-thirteenths century, was the capital of Kyivan Rus. Kiev was said to rival, Athens or Rome, with its own acropolis and was ruled over by the Rurik dynasty, The modern nations of Belarus, Russia, and Ukraine all claim 'Kievan Rus' as their cultural ancestors, with Belarus and Russia deriving their names from it.
I’ve also learned that Vitali Klitschko, the boxer is the current mayor of Kiev. Alex says he only makes very short speeches. That sounds like an advantage to me. He and his brother donated the very bright gilded angel on the top of St Michael’s monastery. The weather today is perversely and wonderfully, gloriously sunny (if brisk). All the golden domes are showcased to their very best advantage, against a clear blue sky, with the faintest suggestion of puffy clouds.
First stop is the Golden Gate in a central square. This 'restored' edifice (it's not golden like the globes) was the main gate in the eleventh century fortifications of the capital of Kyivan Rus. It was named after the Golden Gate of Constantinople. The structure was entirely demolished in the Middle Ages and was rebuilt completely by the Soviets authorities in 1982. There were no pictures of the original so no-one has a clue if this building is a an accurate reconstruction. It's surrounded by plenty of statues.
But visiting Kiev is essentially a tour of churches and monasteries (both Ukrainian and Russian Orthodox - there was yet another schism). Like Rome, Kiev is built on seven hills (give or take a few) with catacombs below. Some of these were utilised by monks and hermits and later developed into monasteries.
The other main tourist attraction is the river walk alongside the River Dnieper, with great views across the water and the city. There are several monuments to the Second World War in the Park of Eternal Glory. It's a relaxing saunter.
Pechersk Lavra Monastery
The 11th-century Kiev Pechersk Lavra (Senior Monastery with caves) and pilgrimage site has more gold domes and candle lit subterranean passages, lined with the tombs of naturally mummified Orthodox monks and saints. You can even see some bones, peeking out of the elaborately embroidered coverings. If you’re a woman, you have to wear a cloth tied over your jeans and a scarf on your head, to see them. If you’re a man, the Russian Orthodox god doesn’t mind. He doesn’t get upset about miniskirts either, just women in jeans.
There’s also a charming bohemian area, up one hill lined with art galleries and little market booths and surmounted by one gilded domed church. Unsurprisingly, it known as the Montmartre of Kiev. This city definitely rewards wandering.
Botanical Garden, Kiev
Alex has told me that I should spend the rest of the afternoon in one of the monastery museums, but I’ve had my fill of churches, so I'm going to be disobedient. The botanical garden is just down the road and I’m off in search off autumn colour. (Though there is the very pretty St Volodymyr's Cathedral (bedecked in the national colours) to be admired on the way).
The garden area is verging on scruffy, relieved by a little faded orange foliage and the park is chock-full of locals enjoying the sun and posing for photographs. I check to make sure I haven’t been teleported to Japan.
Bessarabian Market, Kiev
The Bessarabian market is my last call, in search of a different type of colour. It’s mostly magnificent heaps of fruit and vegetables. The stall holders are happy for me to take pictures, but not happy to be in them. I can see elements of Asia intermingling with Europe here and outside. Many of the people thronging the streets have dark hair and brown eyes and there are huge underground shopping malls, warrens of trinkets and spices. It’s reminiscent of Tashkent.
Ukraine - in a Nutshell
A Brief History of Ukraine
- Ukraine has a long history. The territory of modern Ukraine has been inhabited since 32,000 BC.
- As I've explained above, this area is viewed as the cradle of Russian civilisation, the centre for Slavic expansion. But this powerful nation, of the early Middle Ages, had disintegrated by the mid-12th century. During the 14th and 15th centuries, the present-day Ukrainian territories was conquered in turn by: the Golden Horde, the Crimean Khanate, the Grand Duchy of Lithuania and the Kingdom of Poland. The last two then merged into the Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth.
- Ukraine was then divided between Russia (as a Cossack vassal state) and Poland, in the seventeenth century. No-one seems entirely clear as to the exact rationale or the legality of the various treaties involved, but Cossack rebellions and pressures from the Ottoman Empire contributed.
- The Great Northern War followed (the Cossacks allied with the Swedes). Poland was now partitioned and present day Ukraine was divided between the Russian Empire and Habsburg Austria, for over a hundred years.
- Ukrainian nationalism developed in the 19th century. The Hapsburg dynasty collapsed after the first World War, Ukraine had a civil war, was briefly independent and was promptly swallowed up by the Russian Bolsheviks. Incorporation into the USSR followed.
- In 1932 and 1933, millions of people in Ukraine, starved to death, in a devastating famine, known as the Holodomor.
- After World War II, Ukraine was expanded and Crimea was transferred from Russia.
- Ukraine became independent again when the Soviet Union dissolved in 1991.
- Relations with Russia deteriorated from 2013 onwards, with political frictions over closer ties with Russia. On 20 February, the Russo-Ukrainian War began when Russian forces entered Crimea and annexed the area in 2014. This escalated into full scale war after Russia invaded Ukraine in 2022.
Facts and Factoids
- Ukraine is the poorest country in Europe, alongside Moldova, suffering from a very high poverty rate and severe corruption.
- It's the second largest country in Europe (if you count Russia) and therefore has extensive fertile farmlands; Ukraine is one of the largest grain exporters in the world. It was known as the 'Bread Basket of Europe', but Stalin redesignated it Russia's Bread Basket.
- Ukraine is also the world's largest producer of sunflower seeds, enough gorgeous yellow fields to cover the whole of Slovenia.
- Ukraine maintains the third-largest military in Europe after Russia and France - it has had to, because of ongoing conflicts with Russia, since the pro Russian alliance fell apart in 2014 and Russia annexed Crimea.
- As I've mentioned above, the national dish is not Chicken Kiev. It is actually borscht, a distinctive red soup made from beetroot and beef and often associated with Russia - that doesn't go down too well with the Russians either.
- Decorated Easter Eggs originated in Ukraine.
Borispol Airport, Kiev, Ukraine
I should have known better than to write nice things about air travel in Ukraine. I’ve been misled, by the superb hotel staff, into thinking all Ukrainians are super friendly. My flight to Yerevan goes out of a different Kiev airport, Borispol, some way out of the city. The city traffic is bad and the ground staff begrudging with their barked commands to self-check in. There are only four booths, the queue at the bag drop-off is long and the mechanical check in process duly replicated by the clerk. The airport is dark and the few seats already taken by men in leather jackets who smell of Turkish tobacco and play videos loudly on their phones. I'm on my way to Armenia.