Ukraine

Kiev is a great place to roam around – or at least, it was in late spring, when I visited; might be a different proposition in midwinter! But I’m sure it would look amazing as a snowscape – the golden domes of those churches against a white backdrop would be incredible. The Cyrillic alphabet and the language can make it a little tricky to get around, so consider taking a phrase book and a guide book/map which shows Cyrillic letters as well so that you can decipher street signs and point to places you want to go when asking for directions. Thanks to Euro 2012, there are now English signs on the metro, making it very easy to use and an efficient – and extremely cheap! – way to get around. Taxis are good value, though you’ll generally need to call them. You can hail them in the street but prepare to be overcharged!

What to do

The Lavra (metro stop Arsenale) or monastery is Kiev’s major attraction, for both tourists and Orthodox pilgrims, and it’s easy to see why. The church and monastery complex is spectacular: lots of those burnished onion domes! I went on a religious holiday (Pentecost) and there was a service being held outside the church, with a devout crowd gathered round and, later on, processions of singing monks and priests. Very atmospheric. And talking of atmospheric, make sure you go into the pecherska or caves, where you wind through the narrow passages of subterranean churches clutching a taper and seeing the mummified remains of monks. Look closely and you’ll see the occasional withered brown hand poking out from the robes. Guidebooks suggest you need to hire a guide or join a tour group but in fact it’s not necessary so if you prefer to visit on your own you can.

For maximum contrast between the ultra-religious (the lavra is the holiest site in the Ukraine) and the secular Soviet, go straight from the lavra to the Museum of the Great Patriotic War just a little further down the road. The Rodina Mat (a 62m high statue of a ‘chick with a stick’ as apparently she is known amongst some locals) perches impressively on top of the museum and sets the style for the museum and its grounds: massive, imposing, slightly sinister. The exhibit is innovatively displayed and there are English cards in each room. You can go up to the top of the statue but it is steeply priced at around 20USD.

Great views can also be had from the belltower of St Sophia cathedral. You can go up the tower and wander around the grounds for 10 uah, but it’s well worth buying the extra to go inside the cathedral as it’s very beautiful – covered in well-preserved frescoes and mosaics, some dating back to the 11th century. This extra ticket also gets you entry to other museums in the grounds, though for me, these were less interesting.

Across the huge square in front of St Sophia and down Volodymyrsky Street is the equally beautiful St Michael’s Gold-Domed Monastery. It looks impossibly new and it is: the original was destroyed by the Soviets in 1937 so this is a reconstruction (built in 2001).

Kiev is packed with churches. St Andrews Church is another you’re likely to at least pass by, because it perches at the top of Andriyivsky uzviz (Andrew’s Descent), a charming cobbled street that is the city’s main souvenir highway and leads down to the bustling Podil district. You can also take the funicular up/down, which is quite fun (and costs about the same as the metro, ie not much). On Andriyivsky uzviz (about halfway up, at number 13) is the Bulgakov Museum, the early home of the author. I enjoyed my visit, though it was a little surreal to be guided around in Ukrainian. everything is painted white, including the plants. Worth popping your head in if you’re in the area and have an interest in Russian/Ukrainian literature.

The Chornobyl Museum (metro Kontraktova pl.) was a little frustrating. Without an English guide (and I’m not sure there are any available – though there may be audio guides for rent) or a knowledge of Russian you’ll struggle to learn anything new though it is quite moving just as a memorial display. You can also go on ‘tours’ to the site itself, although I didn’t do this.

The Pinchuk Art Centre (metro Lva Tolstoho or Teatralna and just opposite one of the entrances of the Bessarabsky Rynok (Market) – a characterful place to buy your vodka or caviar – or your raw pig fat if you really want to get into the local delicacies!) is interesting and very modern. Sponspored by billionaire Viktor Pinchuk it’s free to visit and hosts temporary exhibitions (Anish Kapoor was on when I was there). You might have to queue to get it. Has the trendy SkyArtCafe on the top floor – lots of minimalist white and apparently does innovative vegetarian cuisine.

Inspired by the Venice Biennale, the old military Arsenal is currently (May 24 – July 31 2012) hosting Arsenale 2012. The building is astonishing – think a dusty, unfinished, ragged round the edges Tate Modern – the art is … Well, go see for yourself. There are some interesting pieces (I liked those by Louise Bourgeois and Ai Weiwei) but what summed it up for me was when I saw a sweeping brush and dustpan propped against an iron sculpture and wasn’t sure whether or not it was part of the display until I spotted the cleaner a few metres off talking into her mobile phone.

I can’t not mention Maydan Nezalezhnosti (Independence Square), both because it’s the city’s most popular meeting place and because of its historical significance (at the end of 2004 it was the centre of Ukraine’s Orange Revolution). However I was a bit underwhelmed as it was cluttered with Euro 2012 paraphernalia and seemed a bit tacky. Strolling down Kiev’s main street, vul Khreshcatyk, which is just off the square is pleasant at the weekend, when it’s pedestrianised (take note, Oxford Street!) and it’s good for people watching.

Where to stay

I stayed in an apartment in lively the lively Podil district which is near the river and the foot of Andrew’s descent. I booked direct from the owner through Airbnb (it’s the first time I’ve used this site, though I’ve used Owners Direct, and I’ll cerainly be using it again. It was recommended to me by Marianne Cantwell, who certainly has more cause to use it than most people!) and was very happy with my apartment and my host, Roman Siderenko.

For an upmarket hotel break, I’ve heard the breakfast at the Hyatt is unbeatable and the location, right by St Sophia Cathedral, would take some beating too!

Apparently there is a decent backpacker hostel scene too, for those on a budget/looking to meet other travellers.

Where to eat and drink

Varenichnaya #1 (vul Esplanadna 28, metro Palats Sportu). Highly recommended place to try varenyky (Ukrainian dumplings). Traditional decor, but not overdone, helpful staff, good hearty food. And make sure to try the horseradish vodka!

O’Panas blyny stand (Shevchenko Park, Metro Pl Lva Tolstoho) – great place to try blinies, they have plenty of choice of fillings, both sweet and savoury, veggie and meat. A tasty snack or quick lunch break.

For fast food, Ukrainian style, try the cheep and cheerful self-service Puzata Hata. Several branches, I tried my Podil ‘local’ in a prime ocation at vul Sahaydachenko 24 (metro Kontraktova pl).

Tarantino Grill and Wine Bar – stylish place with excellent food and wine, live music and attentive staff. Was recommended to me by my ‘landlord’ and I wasn’t disappointed.

Osteria Pantagruel (vul Lysenka 1, metro Zoloti Vorota). Delicious Italian food right across from the landmark Zoloti Vorota (museum built around some remains of the old city wall: you can visit, though I didn’t). Worth reserving, especially if you want a table on the terrace.

Sunduk bar (vul Leontovycha 7, metro Zoloti Vorota). OK for a beer.

For coffee stops, Kaffa has at least two branches, one just off Independence Square (prov Tarasa Shevchenko 3, metro Maydan Nezalezhnosti), the other in Podil around the corner from the Chornobyl Museum (vul Grygoriya Skovorody 5, metro Kontratova pl.). Expensive in local terms but friendly an with a peaceful atmosphere.

But the best coffee (and I’m adding this because I shamefully forgot, but fortunately was reminded by a new friend I made while visiting the lavra) is available, citywide, from the back of little pickup vans. This isn’t gut-churning stuff from flasks but real coffee from proper coffee machines – cappucinno, esperesso, latte – take your pick and enjoy the caffeine boost!

Cafe de Paris on Andriyivsky (near St Andrews Church) has a small terrace good for sipping a coffee or a beer while people watching.

What to read

Andrey Kurkev (2001)  Death And The Penguin (Panther) At once funny, touching and bizarre. Just the right length for reading on a city break.

Mikhail Bulgakov (first published 1926)  The White Guard (Vintage Classics) Bulgakov’s first full-length novel, predecessor to his more famous The Master And Margarita (Penguin Classics) (I have to confess I never really liked the latter, but am willing to give the former a go).

Nikolay Gogol (first published 1842) Dead Souls (Penguin Classics) I’ve read this and remember enjoying it; other than that I have scant memory! The blurb describes it as ‘Russia’s first major novel, is one of the most unusual works of nineteenth-century fiction and a devastating satire on social hypocrisy’.

Nikolay Gogol (first published 1835) Diary of a Madman, The Government Inspector, & Selected Stories (Penguin Classics) Short stories and a play – a good way to leap in and sample some Ukraine-based literature.

If you liked this …

You might like my post and travel tips on Riga, Latvia

And this Telegraph review of Arsenale 2012 by a critic who liked it more than I did

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