May 19-23, 2005
We doubt that Kyiv (you may know it as Kiev), the capitol of Ukraine, is on many of your short lists of places to visit, but perhaps it should be. We were intrigued enough to go there by a single line in a newspaper article which speculated that, as a tourist destination, Kyiv may soon become the next Prague.
We visited Prague for the first time only a couple of summers ago, after it had recovered from 40 years of communist neglect and become a place whose gleaming architecture and myriad tourist attractions gave it a kind of theme-park atmosphere. We missed the dark, brooding Kafkaesque city it had been at the end of the regime and before the cleanup. Now, we wondered, would Kyiv be more like the old Prague or the new?
The answer is: neither. What we found, after a short one-and-a-half-hour flight (and a world away from Istanbul) was a large, proud, vibrant city with wide avenues and sidewalks, orderly traffic, splendid architecture, well-maintained historic sites, good food and drink, and low prices.
This took us by surprise, in part, because our expectations were so unformed. In planning our trip, we had tried unsuccessfully to find a Ukraine guidebook. Even in Kyiv’s central downtown bookstores we found only one, poorly-written, English-language guide. Could this jewel of a city on the Dneiper really be so “undiscovered” by the West that there wasn’t even a single, well-designed guidebook for sale?
One of the beauties of discovery travel is that there is no well-developed tourism industry to manipulate you. On the other hand, there is no well-developed tourism industry to help you either. This fact, as it applies to language, had some mildly unfortunate consequences for us as we toured Kyiv. Although some of its letters vary from the Russian, Ukrainian uses the Cyrillic alphabet. Of course, this fact didn’t matter to us as we know neither.
We’re sure we missed a lot, especially in Kyiv’s museums where all the displays are in Ukrainian only. The same is true for almost all other signs in the city.
Thank goodness for the city’s wonderful subway system (the Soviets were master subway builders) which was how we got around when we weren’t walking. Our approach was to locate the subway station nearest our destination on the map then show it to someone in the station who would direct us to the right platform.
This system worked pretty well and even led to a chance meeting with a semi-retired Ukrainian scientist who, in the past, had worked with the Atomic Energy Commission in the U.S. and elsewhere and who spoke beautiful English.
He tipped us off to the fact that on the day in question, Kyiv was celebratingTaras Shevshenko Day and that Shevshenko Park was close to the apartment where we were staying. In fact, we had already discovered the park (one of the prettiest in a city of pretty parks) and the statue of a 19th century man in a frock coat prominently placed in the center of it. Just that morning we’d seen a number of well-dressed people leaving flowers at the base of the statue and wondered who the man might have been.
A good guide book would have explained that Shevshenko was a 19th century poet who helped rescue the Ukrainian language from oblivion after centuries of Czarist suppression and whom the Ukrainian people revere the way Americans do George Washington. Imagine: The Father of their country was not a general but a poet.
I’ve mentioned that we stayed in an apartment. This was due to the fact that the weekend of our visit coincided with the 2005 Eurovision song contest whose participants and supporters from 38 countries had booked every hotel room in town and other forms of lodging as well. We didn’t know about Eurovision when we bought our visas and plane tickets. We didn’t know that lodging would be an almost insurmountable problem. Istanbul travel agents threw up their hands, and it was thanks only to our teaching colleague, Inna, who knew someone who knew someone in Kyiv that we had any place to stay at all. As it was, we paid an egregious sum for a spacious, poorly furnished apartment in an historic building splendidly located in the city center on Tolstoy Square in front of a metro station. It’s true we were overcharged for the apartment (the concept of supply and demand having caught on quickly after communism if, in fact, it was ever absent), but otherwise Kyiv prices are very low indeed. It costs one thin dime to ride the subway and four bits to drink a beer on a lovely café terrace. We ate most of our meals in a cafeteria setting (just point and it was served with a smile) that offered delicious, authentic, abundant Ukrainian food at very modest prices.
Low prices also ruled at the arts-and-crafts market on Andreyevsky Spusk, a picturesque cobblestone street lined with excellent 19th and early 20th century apartment buildings that winds down a long hillside to the river flats of Podil, once the home of the workers who supported the gentry on the hill above. The entire length of this street is one big market for old and new things, some tacky, some sublime. Naturally, we couldn’t resist buying a few things, including a large etching that we really love.
Architecturally speaking, we didn’t see much evidence of the ugly Soviet-era buildings that we feared we might find. If they exist, they’re probably in outlying residential areas that we didn’t visit. Instead, we found streets lined with attractive ornate facades belonging to buildings constructed prior to 1918, including theatres, academies and a grand opera house from the belle époque where they were presenting a production of Swan Lake. We were fortunate that our visit coincided with both the lilac and chestnut tree blossom time – truly spectacular.
In the context of Ukrainian architecture, we can’t neglect to mention the many Eastern Orthodox Church buildings of which there are some notable examples. The baroque era in this part of Europe showed even less restraint than elsewhere. These churches are vividly painted, with cerulean being a predominant color. Inside, every inch of wall and ceiling is decorated with biblical scenes and geometric patterns with the murals sometimes extending to the outside walls. It was sometimes difficult to decide if the exterior architectural ornament had been actually constructed in three dimensions or whether it was trompe l’oeil.
These churches all have onion-shaped domes that are usually bright gold. In addition, the cathedrals, of which there are at least two, and the other important churches have free-standing bell towers that rise higher even than the church domes. We have to report that the overall effect is as fantastic as anything we’ve ever seen. In and around the churches people expressed their devotion freely, crossing themselves often and kissing the many icons within the sanctuaries. Their behavior seemed of a piece with the architecture.
Although we didn’t attend any of the official Eurovision concerts, the fact of so many foreign visitors inspired other performance activity that took place on open stages in different parts of the city and in the street. There were demonstrations also: Hare Krishnas chanted, and a group that we took to be members of the Falun Gong marched in costume with drums and banners.
There was also some kind of peaceful Ukrainian political demonstration, seemingly against the government.
Although we were aware of the recent dramatic events that the press has dubbed the Orange Revolution, we didn’t witness any political tension at all. The weekend’s events seemed to unroll quite peacefully.
All in all, our three days in the Ukraine were as intense a period of sightseeing and discovery as we’ve had in a while. Kyiv was a gas.