I set off on the 3 hr flight to Kiev (Kyiv) the capital of Ukraine (what a joy living in the UK again, albeit briefly, to be able to take trips like this in just a weekend.) Unfortunately, the trip did not start too well as the transfer I had booked did not show up and waiting for it for 20 minutes meant all the official taxis were gone!! (A quick side note, the country used to the called “the Ukraine” but dropped the “the” after independence.)
It was late and cold, and I had no intention of hanging around any longer, so I got in what I could only describe as a dodgy ‘taxi’. I was on edge the whole trip, we were going over 130km/hour (which turns out to be the speed limit on the highway but it seemed very fast) and I was messaging back and forward with my partner back in NZ so someone knew where I was lol!! I also used the wonders of modern technology to follow along the route we were taking on my maps.me app (a godsend when you don’t have internet coverage on your phone) to ensure we were going in the right direction – which thankfully we were. I was probably completely ripped off but it was less than I was going to pay for the transfer that did not turn up (which thankfully I had not paid for in advance) and I made it in to the city in one piece.
Next challenge was the dodgy alleyway leading to a dodgy looking hostel I had booked! Thankfully they had sent me photos showing how to get in, otherwise I would not have been so bold as to walk down the dark alley into the dark courtyard!! The hostel was nice enough inside and very quiet, probably because it was very small – just 4 rooms off a small main entrance area where you clearly hear everyone coming and going. Thankfully it was not busy at this time of year, so it was ok.
I had an early start on my first day for my day trip to Chernobyl, but that is a whole other blog post (it was all going to be in this one but it was just going to be too long)!
Back in Kiev late afternoon and had a quick walk around my hostel to find somewhere to eat. Despite its dodgy appearance, the hostel was pretty central, just of the main street of Khreshchaty, which was great as I did not have much energy so settled on somewhere close to my hostel for Chicken Kiev (it has to be done – didn’t it?) and it was delicious. For dessert I kept it local with cottage cheese pancakes with sour cream and berry sauce 👍🏻. All well deserved after such a busy day.
Day two and my last morning (the problem with such short trips), I could have a more relaxing start before packing up and heading out for another busy day. I had enjoyed the cottage cheese pancakes so much the night before (they are way better than they sound) I went back to the same place again for breakfast – this time I had them with banana and toffee sauce! Highly recommended.
Ready for a history lesson? Ukraine is located in Eastern Europe, bordering Russia, Belarus, Poland, Slovakia, Hungary, Romania and Moldova. Today it has a population of approximately 42 million and shares the same history as many of its neighbours’ including the Polish-Lithuanian commonwealth, Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman Empires and of course the Russian Empire and the Soviet Union. It had independence briefly between 1917 and WWII as the Ukrainian People’s Republic and then again in 1991 after the collapse of the Soviet Union.
As with other former Soviet states, it has had its problems since independence. Ukraine declared itself a neutral state, trying to establish relationships with Russia and NATO, however in 2013 the President tired to align more closely with Russia rather the European Union which resulted in escalating demonstrations and the 2014 Ukrainian revolution. The President tried to end the protesting with violence, backed by Russia, whilst the EU and USA backed the protesters.
My first walking tour of the day was an Ancient Kiev walking tour which met in Independence square, otherwise know as Maidan Square in the heart of Kiev. It has been part of the landscape of the city since the 10th century. It has also been the site of all major revolutions, including the 2014 Ukrainian or Maidan Revolution which resulted in around 130 deaths in clashes between protests, riot police and sharp shooters positioned in overlooking buildings. The revolution ultimately lead the removal of President Yanukovych who fled the country for exile in Russia before being sentenced in absentia to 13 years in prison for treason.
This all lead in a round about way to Russia invading Crimea (then part of Ukraine) and the shooting down Malaysian Airlines flight 17 in July 17 2014 – but that is a whole other story!
Towering over Independence Square is the Independence Monument or Glory to Ukraine momument.– a victory column commerating the Independece of Ukraine, built on the 10th anniversary of independence in 2001. It’s 61 m tall and is topped by a figurine of Berehynia (a Slavic goddess) holdings a guelder rose branch in her arms.
We crossed the road to the other side of the square, to admire the reconstruction (built in 2001) of Lach Gate, topped with archangel Michael the spiritual patron of the city and who was believed to fight of evil and witches! The gate was original located in the Polish quarter on the east side of the city and was one of three main gates of medieval Kiev – we will see one of the others (the Golden gate) later in the day.
As we left the square we passed a number of interesting art installations– “Street Lamp Lovers”, apparently if you meet here, your love will last for ever, and “tree with chairs”. It turned out these would be the first of many quirky art works we would see around the city.
A short walk later we arrived at the beautiful St Michael’s Golden Domed Cathedral, a working Ukrainian orthodox church originally built in the 11 century. After multiple Mongol attacks, the church rose from the ashes and it was repaired in the 15th century. In the 18th century, the exterior of the building was refurbished in baroque style, while the interior remained Byzantine. Despite the beauty of the church, it was destroyed in the 1930s by the Soviets who opposed religion, so what we see today is a reconstruction based on old photos and the original foundations, built in the 15 +/- years after independence and is now one of the most impressive architectural monuments in the city.
Being Sunday, there was a service going on so we could not take photos inside, so you will just have to take my word that the interior was as beautiful as the exterior! Worth noting that there are no seats in an orthodox church, the parishioners have to stand for the 2-3 hour service!
Not far from St Michaels was the columned Ministry of Foreign Affairs building, built in 1934 by the Soviets when the capital was moved to Kiev. Despite it standard, imposing Russian design, it is built in a semi circle. Apparently it is easier to protect from attack as bullets can’t shoot around corners!!
It was originally the Ukrainian Communist Party headquarters so it is adorned with a hammer and sickle but now proudly flies the independent Ukrainian flag – blue for sky and gold for fields of wheat.
Next was another beautiful baroque style church, sitting on a hill above the street – St Andrews. Apparently, St Andrew the Apostle came to Kiev and walked to the top of the hill and proclaimed that “on the mountains of Kyiv, the grace of God will shine, a great city will grow, and God will put up many churches.”
St Andrew’s was built in the 18th century by an Italian architect and is sometimes referred to as a cathedral. Interesting the church has no bells, legend has it, their noise would cause flooding!
The church towers over the historic district of “Andriyivsky Spusk” or “Andrew’s Descent” which it lent its name to. It’s a 700m paved street dating back to 1711, running from the old part of the city to the more modern, lower part. It is sometimes referred to as the Ukrainian Monmarte, after the area in Paris as it is normal filled with artesian stalls selling their arts and crafts.
Also just below St Andrew’s, is another quirky sculpture called “Chasing Two Hares”. It is based on characters from a famous Soviet film, part of which was filmed in the area. According to the story, the lead character was going to marry a rich, but ugly women but he loves a beautiful girl who doesn’t like him – the moral of the story being that if you chase after two ‘hares’, you will not catch any! Apparently depending on where you touch the statue, you will find money, or love … or both??
We continued on to Sofiyskaya or Sophia Square, a beautiful square surrounded by beautiful buildings, including the 11th century St Sophia Cathedral which was inspired by the Hagia Sophia in Istanbul. It was one of the city’s best know landmarks and the first site in Ukraine to be included in the UNESCO World Heritage site.
In the centre of the square there is a large statue of Bodhan Khmelnytsky, known as the leader of the Cossacks. In December 1648 he lead his Cossack’s regiments in to the square, through the Golden Gate after they had defeated the Polish Army. Interestingly the square was dominated by a large banner on one of the surrounding buildings #FREEMARKIV. Our guide explained that it was protesting the imprisonment of Vitalii Markiv, a former Ukrainian solider who is in an Italian prison for allegedly be responsible for the death of a Russian and an Italian journalist in during the 2014 Ukrainian revolution. Many believe the conviction was unfounded and based on false testimony and are still fighting for his release.
On the way to our final sight for the walk we passed yet another quirky art work, and one of the city’s favourites – “Hedgehog in the Fog”, from a famous Soviet cartoon in the 1970s. Apparently, it is dressed up depending on the seasons, so in November it was adorned with a ‘necklace’ of autumn leaves.
Finally we reached the Golden Gate, which has been referred to a few times during the walking tour. Another key landmark of the city and a reminder of its medieval past, dating back to the 11th century. It was original built by Kievan Prince Yaroslav the Wise, upon his victorious return from battle. It was named the Golden Gate after the golden domes of the church on top on top of the gate.
As with so many places I have seen this year, the gate was destroyed by the Mongols in the 13th century and subsequent builds were reduced to dust until the 18th century when the ruins were excavated. Full reconstruction took until 1970 though there is no real evidence that the current Golden Gate is the same or even similar to the original one!
Next to the Golden Gate is a statue of it’s founder – Yaroslav the Wise. In his hands is the Sofia cathedral (which he was also responsible for building)– or is it? Some say it is actually a statue of a waiter, holding a Kiev cake???
Just when I thought it was all over, there was yet another interesting statue – this time a cat, in a small park. The cat, named Pantyusha, lived in a nearby Italian restaurant and was popular with all its customers. One night in 1997 there was a fire in the restaurant and legend has it the cat saved the family before dying itself. It was buried in the park and staff and customers donated money to erect the statue. Apparently, it is lucky to touch his ears or tail.
I said goodbye to the guide and small group (only 5 of us) and walked back down towards Indepdence Square to get something to eat. I had heard about a ‘hidden’ restaurant called Ostannya Barykada, or the “Last Barricade”. It is fair to say, if you did not know it existed, you would not find it!
In the shopping centre under the square, there is a hidden level in the elevator. Once you have found the floor, you head down what looks like a dead end, but when you utter the password (it would be cheating to tell you what it is), a secret door opens and you gain entrance to a corridor with a wall of hands, signifying the years Ukraine spent under Russian rule, before another door opens in to a huge cafe/restaurant!
The restaurant is dedicated to the revolutions – the Student Revolution in 1990, the Orange Revolution in 2004 and the Maidan revolution in 2014. That’s a lot of revolutions in a relatively short period of time! The restaurant only serves Ukrainian food and while it is relatively expensive by Ukrainian standards it is totally worth it (and still cheap compared to similar places in central Paris for example).
For the last proper meal in Kiev, it was great to have such a selection of local food and drinks and after a discussion with the waitress I chose to have a Baked Cheese and a local sausage dish. To accompany it I had a Sea buckthorn and ginger drink – sour but quite tasty. I rounded it all off with a Kiev cake (layers of meringue with hazelnuts, butter cream and chocolate glaze) – just like the one Yaroslav the Wise is holding. I had asked if having both the cheese and suasage dishes was too much (considering I also wanted cake) and the waitress had said no – she was wrong – they were both huge!
But never fear, I got through it all and it was all delicious but I was glad that I had plenty of time to eat them and that I was doing another walking tour in the afternoon.
The next tour was called a “modern Kiev” tour and again it started in Independence Square at 3pm.
We left the square by a different route, and our first stop was to see some street art – a small painting commemorating those who died in the 2014 revolution, known communally as Heaven’s Hundreds, and the one of the many art works in one of the pedestrian tunnels under the road.
It is always interesting when you have different guides on these tours in the same area, as you often get slightly different stories – this guide told us that the almost everything we were seeing in the city centre rebuilt after World War II as the Russian army destroyed it as they retreated so the approaching Nazis could not prosper from it!
Another one of the main symbols of the city is the People’s Friendship arch. It was built in 1982 to commerorate the 60th anniversary of the USSR and more importantly the 1,500th anniversary of the city of Kiev, as a gift to the city from Moscow. Its 50m in diameter, made of titanium with a bronze statue beneath it showing a Ukrainan and Russian (the burlier of the two) with their arms raised in solidarity! Given Russian/Ukraine relationships this days, it is a surprise that it is still standing! That said, in 2018 someone added a sticker that looks like a crack in the middle of the arch! Oddly no one has tried to remove it.
As we continued our walk through Kreshchatiy Park, the sun started to set and the temperature dropped, it was getting so cold it was hard to stand in one place for too long so we quicken our pace! This part held yet more quirky statues – the Tree of Wishes. A forged iron tree where you dreams can come true if you leave a note in the hollow. The sign says “Dream, and your life will be full of miracles!”. And secondly the Monument to the Frog, also know as the Money Toad – a 6 tonne bronze sculpture with faces in its mouth! As with many of the other sculptures, this too can bring you luck or fortune by rubbing its nose, or throwing a coin into the slot in his mouth.
Further on in the park is the Bridge of Lovers, in contrast it is also known as Bridge of Suicides! I think you can probably guess the reasons for both names. People who invested money to build the bridge could write whatever they wanted on the planks, apparently one of the sections says “I love soup”! Now that is some commitment to soup lol.
The sunset from here was also beautiful over the city and the government buildings (built in 1936-39) – half circle again (so you can’t be shot from a corner)!
Through the park, we came to Mariyinsky Palace, built in 1744 by Russian Empress Elizaveta Petrovna. Unfortunately she was dead before it was finished, and it was subsequently used by Empress Catherine II (you may know her as Catherine the Great), and has been the residences for numerous Governor Generals.
By 1870 it was in ruins after a series of fires, and Alexander II of Russia commissioned the reconstruction of it, using old drawings as a guide – it was then renamed after Empress Maria Alexandrovna and it was used by visiting members of the Imperial family until the Russian revolution in 1917. Damaged again in WWII it has been restored a number of times since then. Today it is used by the Ukrainian President and visiting head’s of states
By the time we reached our final stop it was well below zero degrees and dark and I must admit my interest was waning – my note taking was definitely suffering as I could not type on my phone with my gloves on lol! Our final stop was the “House with Chimaeras” or “Horodecki House”, an art nouveau building in the historic district of Lypky. Built by a Polish architect in 1901 as an apartment for himself – it even had the first elevator in the Russian empire (apparently).
The architect was a fan of safari hunting so the building was decorated with images of exotic animals and hunting scenes – hence the name, the “House of Chimaeras” – chimaera being an architecture style which has animal figures as decoration.
The architect fell on hard financial times (some say due to all the money he spent on hunting) and the house was rented out room by room and changed hands multiple times before being occupied by the Communist Party until the early 2000s. Today it is used as a presidential residence for official and diplomatic ceremonies as it is just across the street from the Presidents office.
It had been a long and interesting day, but I was definitely ready to head home – although the Metro was cheap and really easy to use, I was far to exhausted to catch the metro and train to the airport – Uber it was!!!