Kiev – Borderland between Europe and Central Asia
With the dropping of visa requirements by the Ukrainian government for all EU passport holders at the beginning of the summer, Kiev, with a flight time of less than one and a half hours, has become an ideal weekend break destination. Ukraine has always been a crossroads between Europe and Central Asia (its name means “borderland”), and in its cosmopolitan, vibrant capital with its 4 million inhabitants, this story is told.
After a late arrival and a short sleep we leave our apartment on Saturday at 10am and are greeted by sunshine and a sea-like breeze. The air is fresh and the streets are quiet. What is immediately noticeable as we walk towards Kiev’s centre on Vulitsya Chervonoarmmiskaya is the European feel the city has. The architecture is Middle European, the sand coloured apartments lining the street elegant and with wrought-iron balconies. The boulevards are clean, lined with chestnut trees and paved with cobbles that car tyres whirr over.
St. Sophia’s Cathedral
Vulitsya Khreshchatyk is Kiev’s main commercial street, that is pedestrianised every weekend between midday and 9pm. Each lamppost has a small speaker attached to it emitting slightly sickly pop music. The pavements are lined with chestnuts in full bloom, underneath which benches are colonised by old people reading newspapers. The green leaves are iridescent in the sunlight, but underneath all is in shade.
The side of the pavement is lined with cafes populated by beer and coffee drinkers. A man stands nearby with an owl on his arm, waiting for customers to have their photograph taken with it, while an old woman sitting on a stool is fussing over her little cigarette stand. The Mango shop opposite is advertising a sale, and is heaving with young women. Judging by the window display and what people are wearing, orange is a popular choice of colour.
Towards the end of Vulitsya Khreshchatyk we walk into Maydan Nezalezhnosti, otherwise known as Independence Square. It feels strange to be in such an historic place, and it is strange to notice that I can find no connection between the events of last November and what I find today. I sit in front of the colonnaded Tchaikovsky State Conservatory and watch children play in the small fountains that spring from tiered steps. One girl gingerly puts her toes in a fountain, while her friend runs round and round another. A small girl in an orange dress and white hat cups her hands and splashes her face with the water she collects. The snow has melted and come again, the tents have gone, but this part of Kiev belongs firmly to the people.
After crossing the circular Ploshcha Evropeiskaya, we arrive at Rainbow Arch, built on a promontory to commemorate the 1654 unification of Russia and Ukraine. It is a huge chrome parabola, glinting in the sun, and framed against the deep blue sky. Several yellow and blue tents provide refreshments for the tourists and locals who have come to this spot. A hundred or so people are standing in front of the monument gazing out across the view of the River Dneper. To the left lies the port of Podil and the grid streets of its traditional mercantile and trading quarter. Opposite, the Dneper’s eastern bank is densely wooded. Miniature people make their way across the large iron footbridge below towards an afternoon in the sun. Behind us a newlywed couple arrive and have their photos taken, while bored bumper car ride attendants sit in their cars looking on, waiting for business.
Branding the Orange Revolution
We wind our way down through the woods towards Podil, arriving at vulitsaya Petra Sahaydachnoho, another street pedestrianised at the weekend. Rebuilt after a devastating fire in 1811, this historic district survived the ravages of the Second World War better than the rest of the city, and feels more intimate and relaxed. The buildings are generally no more than three stories high, ornate, and have a faded charm to them; crumbling yellows, blues, whites, pinks and peach colours give Podil an almost colonial Spanish atmosphere.
Andriyivsky Uzviz, Kiev’s artistic hub and most well-known and beautiful street, snakes its way up from Podil to the magnificence of St Andrew’s church. The narrow cobbled street is lined with bohemian shops and market stalls, and is a mini Izmailovsky. Stalls covered in maps, dolls, paintings, cameras, stamps, coins, icons, badges, old postcards from bygone eras, traditional Ukrainian clothes and giant framed butterflies line one side of the street and vie for the attentions of the passersby.
We stop at a terraced restaurant halfway up Andriyivsky Uzviz. Four friends in their thirties are laughing heartily and drinking Mojitos. We order the same, as well as two portions of Vareniki (traditional Ukrainian dumplings) – one cherry and the other mushroom, which come with sour cream and are delicious.
Fortified by our food and rum, we continue up to At Andrews, designed by Rastrelli, the Italian architect responsible for many of St Petersburg’s finest buildings. Green and gold domes sit regally on blue, white and gold columns and walls. Several wedding parties are waiting at the bottom of the steps. We nip up before them. Inside, a christening is taking place beneath an incredibly ornate red and gold altar that is inlaid with oil paintings of angels and biblical scenes. Outside, a middle age priest with long swept-back hair in a black gown stands quietly looking down at the market stalls and a pair of newlyweds drinking champagne at the foot of the stairs to his church. He turns and sees me looking at him. He smiles shyly, revealing gold teeth.
We go in search of the Chernobyl Museum, stopping to listen to a violinist called Alexander, who plays an
up-tempo Jewish piece while beaming smiles and arching his back to the rhythms. We cannot find the right building, so we ask a man on the street. He smiles and gives us directions before adding sincerely; “It is better not to go.” We find the museum, but it has just closed for the day, so head for the funicular that links Podil with the Upper Town, passing a group of Hari Krishnas dancing down the road. Democracy it seems has arrived.
|The tents have gone, but this part of Kiev belongs firmly to the people |
Having paid 50 kopeks ($0.10), we trundle up the wooded slope and come out into a small park in front of the UNESCO world heritage listed St Sophia Cathedral – a giant white, blue and gold wedding cake affair that is breathtaking in the early evening sunshine. Priests in black gowns walk their rounds as children sit by a wishing well, their parents chatting on benches in the shade. The atmosphere is quiet and meditative. Inside the cathedral a priest in a gold gown with a red embroidered sash recites verses while another swings an incense holder. As the choir starts to sing an old lady in a green mackintosh and Wellington boots prostrates herself on the floor, weeping.
By early evening, Kiev’s many parks and outdoor cafes and restaurants are full of people of all ages. The city feels happy and alive. On Vulitsya Khreshchatyk we join the thousands of people being entertained by bands, buskers, jugglers and breakdancers.
After a late sushi dinner, we take a cab to Opium Beach Club, on the other side of the river in the Hydropark. Everywhere there are people – in restaurants, bars and on the street. We leave the holiday atmosphere and bump down a dark track for another five minutes before arriving at an overflowing car park. The distant thud of beats takes me back to the raves I used to go to in the early nineties in the UK.
At the turnstiles there are two suited bouncers who look me up and down, before enquiring politely: “How can we help you?” I turn to my friend who speaks Ukrainian and ask her what they want in English. This has a miraculous effect as one of the heavies says in English, “Please, ticket”, while ushering us to the ticket booth with a bow.
The sunken dancefloor of Opium Beach Club sits under a giant open-sided circus tent on a beach. There is a gallery all around the dancefloor and on either side are two bars. We drink Margaritas and chat with a girl called Carmen, while the DJ plays a mix of dirty house music and pumping techno. There are perhaps a thousand people in this friendly and unpretentious club, all of whom appear to love to dance; even those not on the dancefloor are moving. It could almost be Ibiza.
On Sunday morning we take a 50 kopeks Metro ride from Respublikansky Stadion to Arsenalna to visit the
Caves Monastery. Kiev’s Metro is a scaled down version of the Moscow Metro; the platforms are not as long and the stations not as ornate or imperial, but it has its own flavour. The carriages are the same as in Moscow, but are painted in the national colours of blue and yellow. Inside the carriages there are handles for people to hold onto hanging from the rails, as well as TV screens that show the news, adverts, the metro map and the next station. The atmosphere is more genial than in Moscow and there is a distinct lack of document checking police.
|‘This land of ours that is not our own’ – Taras Shevchenko |
Founded in 1051, the Caves Monastery grew over the centuries into a dazzling array of gold domed churches spread across wooded hills, which were the inspiration of Russia’s Golden Ring. We enter through the main gate into a wide plaza, passing living quarters on the left, a huge 96.5 metre belfry and the magnificently restored gold glittering Dormition Cathedral (which had been mined by the Red Army). A large crowd pours from the church doors after a service as we make our way down through the complex to the original caves.
It is warm, dank and rather claustrophobic down in the caves. The whitewashed walls flicker with the candlelight of the many pilgrims we jostle against. Some press their heads against the icons, others kiss them. In the niches of the different recesses lie mummified monks, many of whom are saints, wrapped in green embroidered material inside glass-topped coffins. One of the monks’ shrivelled brown gnarled hands has managed somehow to break from of its bindings, curling at an odd angle. The place and the people are creepy and we leave as quickly as we can.
We make for something wholly different, but still part of the Caves Monastery – The Museum of Microminiature, perhaps the bizarrest and most wonderful exhibition of work I have ever seen, by the Ukrainian artist Mykola Syadristy. All of the exhibits have to be viewed through a microscope and include the world’s smallest chess set placed on a pin head, the world’s smallest book (0.6sq mm) containing twelve pages of poetry by Ukraine’s most famous poet, Taras Shevchenko, and a watercolour portrait of Ernest Hemmingway painted with a brush onto a pear seed. The detail, scale and originality of Syadristy’s work is truly astounding.
At the Defence of the Motherland Monument we are brought back from Syadristy’s reality. A 72-metre high metallic statue of a woman brandishing a sword and a shield looks out over the city. Underneath, large Social Realistic sculptures of World War Two soldiers in battle are complimented by recorded songs of the era from speakers on lampposts, giving the monument a flavour of authenticity. Ukraine’s history has been shaped by war and conquest, which lead the poet Taras Shevchenko to describe his country as “This land of ours that is not our own”. And yet, Ukraine’s culture and traditions have been fortified by its history, and it is fitting that traditional Ukrainian folk songs waft across the hills from a nearby folk festival as we make to leave.
After a ten-minute taxi ride and a walk across the Dnipro footbridge, we feel the sand of Kiev’s beaches between our toes. We opt for the smaller and quieter beach to the right of the bridge, change, find a place next to a Cuban lady smoking a cigar and fending off the attention of thong-clad men, before taking a dip. The water is rust brown, warm, and the current is strong. As I sit drying in the late afternoon sun, I cannot help myself from wishing that my friends and work in Moscow could be transported to this charming, friendly and relaxed city.
We return to Podil for our last night on a quest – to eat Chicken Kiev. We try several restaurants, but it seems that none have it on their menu. The waitress at the last restaurant we find on Andriyivsky Uzviz tells us they have Pork Kiev. We settle into a wooden balcony lit with candles and wait. When it comes, the Kiev is visually a bit of a disappointment: no breadcrumbs, no garlic. Instead it has been fried in an omelette. It tastes, however, divine.
As we speed towards the airport in a taxi on Monday morning and the first warm rays of light catch the suburban high-rises, I realise how Kiev has captured my imagination. I expected a Russified post- Soviet city and have been surprised to find a beautiful, cultured, and diverse city, ideal for wandering around and full of friendly people.