#8 Ukraine: Church hopping in Kiev

One can find time for everything if one is never in a hurry.

Mikhail Bulgakov, The Master and Margarita

On my first night in Kiev it pelted noisily with rain and I was woken by baying dogs, possibly the pack I’d seen the evening before, nestled round a homeless woman with a collection of over-stuffed plastic bags. The morning dawned fresh and clean and from the pretty balcony of my rented apartment in the district of Podil, in Ukraine’s capital, I could see the lumbering trams creak into action at the station opposite. I could also see the beautiful domes of St Andrew’s church pushing up through the city skyline like onions through soil.

This was 2012 and the first time I’d used Airbnb to find a place to stay when travelling: so far I felt pretty chuffed with the results of my experiment. It was Easter weekend, a friend and I had hankered after a slightly different destination for a short city break and had settled on Kiev. When family issues kept her at home, I decided to come anyway.

Having seen St Andrew’s from my window, now I wanted to go there, so I climbed up the shiny cobbles of Andriyivsky uzviz (St Andrew’s Descent), detouring at number 13 to visit the Bulgakov Museum for a glimpse into the surreal – and, since everything, including the plants, was painted white, faintly clinical – world of the creator of The Master and Margarita (I have read the book but didn’t really take to it). An alternative route (which I also tried) is via the cute funicular that runs between the upper and lower levels of the city. I stood behind the driver’s box, watching our diminutive female driver, who wore a neatly buttoned cream crimplene suit, with the tiny scallops of a cream frilled collar visible at the neck, and cream sandals. In her cream hair a narrow red Alice band, a pink plastic clip and a yellow slide added flecks of colour like sprinklings on a cupcake. Her cream face was immaculately powdered and she had a thin slick of pale pink lipstick. Newspaper in hand, she looked as though she’d been doing this job all her life.

Outside, St Andrew’s is a pale but bright turquoise with five gold-trimmed, cross-topped domes. Inside it’s surprisingly small and laden with a delicate floral incense and a riot of ornate gilt-framed paintings, echoing the jumble of paintings arrayed outside on Artists’ Alley. As I approached the nearby St Michael’s Church, the golden onions on top of the delicate powder blue walls glittered against a leaden grey sky, looking as though they’d just been shined with a firmly-wielded polishing cloth. The hush of the church’s peaceful courtyard was broken only by the intermittent tinkling of a bell and the scurried patter of visitors’ footsteps. Amongst the flurry of gold inside, a shaft of holy-looking light skated through a window and a young priest glided silently past. St Michael’s is very much a working church and monastery: from behind a lavishly gilded screen decorated with icons and religious paintings, I could hear the busy hum of a hoover. The present building is a late 20th century reconstruction as the original church was destroyed by the Soviets in 1937. At the other end of Volodymyrsky street is St Sofia’s Cathedral. Its bell tower stands like a tall wedding cake strung with white doileys, but the white church with green cupolas is almost plain in comparison with the exuberant St Michaels. The interior though is beautiful, painted with 11th century frescos and still cheerily colourful.

For Orthodox churches, it’s hard to beat Ukraine’s holiest site, the lavra (monastery of the caves). Roman, my extremely helpful weekend landlord, told me that due to the imminence of Euro 2012, English signs had been added to the Cyrillic ones in the metro two weeks before my visit. This made navigating the super-efficient metro system a breeze, so on Pentecost Sunday I emerged from the grand depths of Arsenale station and walked along to the lavra. A holiday mass was in progress outside the Dormition Cathedral, with worshippers pressing their foreheads to the floor and crooning ecstatically. Processions of black-clad monks with block-shaped hats paraded around the monastery complex, looking serious and sober against the giddy gold domes and frivolous white clouds scudding across the blue skies overhead. Underneath lie the underground chapels and cave tombs of mummified saints. Quavering tapers in hand, my new friend John (an American working in Moscow) and I inched through the narrow tunnels behind scores of Ukrainians respectfully kissing the glass cases of the coffins. The saints rested in caskets padded with embroidered cushions; occasionally a tiny shrunken brown hand was visible outside their swaddling.

Kiev isn’t all about the churches. In the run up to the Euro 2012 football tournament, historic Independence Square (Maydan Nezalezhnosti) was packed with flags, mega-screens and temporary beer tents. Well-dressed pedestrians sauntered up and down Khreshcatyk, the city’s equivalent of London’s Oxford Street or Paris’s Champs Elysee, eating ice creams and enjoying the weekend sunshine. Babushkas in headscarves sold fragrant herbs, fresh flowers and juicy fruit at the edge of thrummingly busy roads. Every hint of a square seemed to be taken over by a bar, where the locals drank beer and munched on pig fat, the national delicacy. I passed on the pig fat and instead ate varenyky (dumplings), tasted horseradish vodka (it packs a punch!) and drank strong coffee sold from the back of dinky pickups parked on busy streets.

Just along the road from the sacred lavra, the Museum of the Great Patriotic War throws up a startling contrast. A perfect example of old-style Soviet architecture, it’s approached by wide, sweeping roads that I could easily imagine carrying thousands of goose-stepping soldiers and fleets of sullen tanks. It’s flanked by dark sculptures of soldiers and workers and topped by a 62m metal statue of a stern female warrior holding a sword, officially called Rodina Mat, or ‘Nation’s Mother’, but apparently nicknamed ‘the chick with the stick’ by locals. The exhibition is harrowing, giving a real sense of the mindless destruction, horror and loss of war. More recent devastation is commemorated by the Chernobyl Museum, a stark depiction of the disaster’s impact on both people and the environment. Despite these reminders of some of the tragic episodes in Ukraine’s history, and the debate over some of its current problems, I found Kiev a fascinating, enticing and welcoming city to visit. Just don’t go there in search of chicken Kiev, as it didn’t seem to appear on any menus!

HIGHLIGHTS

Cultural highlights: all the churches mentioned above (and there are many more!) – St Andrew’s, St Michael’s, St Sofia’s Cathedral, the lavra monastery of the caves. The Museum of the Great Patriotic War (and sometimes you can climb up the inside of the Rodina Mat statue and come out on top for a panoramic view of the city, which would be amazing).

Food & drink highlights: no doubt new places are springing up all the time, so check out recent guides, like those I’ve listed below. Worth trying pepper vodka (but unless you’re a massive fan, don’t be tempted to buy a bottle to bring home, as it doesn’t see to have quite the same appeal outside the country …). Pig fat (salo) if you feel adventurous, like your lard and want to eat like a local. And see this Guardian article. Try the coffee from the little pop-up coffee trucks all over the city centre.

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