After three glorious days in the Lviv area, it was time to travel to the capitol city of Ukraine, Kyiv (pronounced ‘key v’). If you recall any European history (for me it was a looooong time ago!) the spelling was Kiev and pronunciation ‘key ev.’ You might be asking what’s the big diff? Well, it matters to the Ukrainians, especially those who look more to the west, as it symbolizes a break from the east, namely Russia. After the Ukrainian independence from Russia, the government ordered the use of the spelling and pronunciation, Kyiv, as mandatory for all legislative affairs and official acts. In some quarters, this change is still a matter of dispute but in deference to those Ukrainians looking to the west, I’ll use Kyiv and you’ll always hear me say ‘key v’ when talking about the capitol city.
The morning of our departure, we underestimated the amount of time it would take to travel from our Airbnb to the Lviv airport. Our driver picked us up right on time but the traffic in the city was terrible but that was only the beginning of our misadventure after arriving late at the airport. We were booked on Ukrainian International Airlines that we learned is a discount airline and charges for everything. We had to pay for our carryon bag plus two checked bags plus since we didn’t have electronic tickets, we were charged for the airline to print our boarding passes. This more than doubled the price of our “discount” tickets! On top of that insult, the gate agent failed to give us those boarding passes so when we got to security they wouldn’t let us through We had to go back to the airline check in desk for those boarding passes. That’s when I lost my cool due to the incompetence of the gate agent. Finally, we made it through security, we were the last one’s to get on the bus that takes passengers to the plane. Fortunately, this episode was the only hiccup in an otherwise wonderful adventure. I did learn to be very careful and diligent when booking on a discount airline.
Our air time and arrival in Kyiv was uneventful and our driver was waiting for us outside the secure area. We flew into the larger of the two Kyiv airports, Boryspil International Airport that is nearly 20 miles east of Kyiv. Traffic into the city flowed smoothly until we reached the bridge over the Dnieper River. The Dnieper (ne’per) is a 1400 mile river that originates in Russia, flows through Belarus and Ukraine to the Black Sea. It’s critical to the economy of Ukraine as a transportation corridor and for the generation of hydroelectric power. This river also divides the country of Ukraine in two halves, right and left, and acted as a physical barrier to movement in ancient times.
Our driver deposited us near the center of Kyiv at the Sunday Apartments, our lodging for the next week.
After checking in and depositing our luggage, we followed the rumble in our stomachs to the nearby Spotykach restaurant, one of the highest rated in Kyiv by TripAdvisor. Once a Russian themed restaurant, it changed to Ukrainian after the uprising (more on that later) in 2014. We ordered a couple of traditional dishes such as borsch and these varenyky (pierogi) in the colors of the Ukrainian flag. They tasted the same but it was fun to sample this national themed dish.
We did notice this on the menu, a borsch popsicle, I guess for those hot summer days! To us it was beyond weird and our adventuresome spirit only goes so far. We didn’t try it but thought at the time when the Son-In-Law arrived in Kyiv in a few days, he would try it. Well, he didn’t so we are still wondering how it tastes!
Later in the day, we met up with Taya, the English speaking tour guide that would lead us on a two hour walking tour of some of the major sites in central Kyiv.
Just a short block away from our lodging is the Golden Gate of Kyiv (also known as Zoloti varota) an imitation of the Golden Gate of Constantinople. In the 11th century it was considered the main gate into the city of Kyiv. Largely destroyed in the middle ages, it was rebuilt in 1982 and now is a historical museum.
This statue is of Yaroslav the Wise, the Grand Prince of Rus and ruler at the time of the original construction. The locals jokingly refer to the object that he is holding as the Kyiv Cake, the mouthwatering delicacy that is present in the bakeries and restaurants around Kyiv. Note the pigeon sitting on Yaroslav’s head!
On the same square as the Golden Gate is this bronze statue of a cat whose name was Pantyusha that is said to have lived in a restaurant across the street. Apparently, this cat was loved by the restaurant staff and patrons but perished in a fire. The cat was so missed that money was collected and this statue was commissioned. It is said that making a wish while rubbing the tail, ears, or paws brings good luck. It’s become a popular photo stop for visitors to the square just like the girl in the photo below.
As we make our way towards St. Sophia, we pass the Renaissance Hotel whose renovation has been stalled for years. Sad to say there are no occupants of this hotel with it’s beautifully rejuvenated exterior!
Down the street we come to the Cathedral of St. Sophia of the Holy Wisdom, one the most iconic buildings in Kyiv and a World Heritage Site. There is some discrepancy of who founded this church, it was either Volodymyr the Great or his son, the previously referred to Yaroslav the Wise. Likely the Great founded the church and the Wise finished the construction. This cathedral was named after the Hagia Sofia Temple (currently a mosque) in Istanbul. During the Soviet time, it was under the threat of destruction but was saved. Since it was evening, we viewed the elegant bell tower and domes of the church from the street saving a closer look for another day (more on St. Sophia in a later post).
St. Sophia is situated on a large plaza with a few shops, government buildings and apartments. The Sophia Square is now the site of large public gatherings and protests replacing the Independence Square that we will stop at later in our walk.
Also on Sophia Square is the monument of the Cossack Bohdan Khmelnytsky, who entered the Golden Gate in 1648 after defeating the Polish Army. He is generally considered the founder of Ukraine and led the new country to align with the Russian Empire. Now days, not considered the best idea but nevertheless it’s history.
Walking the streets, we passed some beautifully decorated buildings. Don’t know what the inside looked like but the outside was impressive.
The next stop on our walking tour was on the grounds of the National Museum of Ukrainian History. The museum was closed (we would return another day, stay tuned) but Taya showed us the ruins of the Church of the Tithes, a national historic site. It was the first and largest stone church in Kyiv, originally built in the late 900’s.
Nearby is the bluish, green St. Andrew’s Church, a landmark of cultural heritage. For a few hryvnia (the Ukrainian currency) visitors can view the city and Dnieper River from a high point. At this time access to the interior is not allowed. Taya, our guide, told us that it’s beautiful inside, she had her wedding ceremony at this church a few years back. This church was built to honor St. Andrew, considered the apostle of the Ukrainian peoples. St. Andrew is said to have planted a cross on the current location of the church in the 1st century and declared that a great city would arise. It did, so I guess he had good predictive powers!
After spending a few minutes gawking at St. Andrew’s we made our way past the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, similar the US Department of State. This building was constructed by the Soviets in the Stalinist or Brutalist style, lots of concrete and strong geometric lines. At the time, this building was the first to built, the second to match the first was to be built on the grounds that now contain St. Michael’s Golden-Domed Monastery. It would have been two ugly buildings next to each other!
St. Michael’s dates to the early 1700’s and is the present day headquarters of the Ukrainian Orthodox religious order. During the 1930’s, the Soviets demolished the structures on the grounds intending to build the above mentioned second building. The only building remaining was a chapel used to house workers and became an underground church. After the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, St. Michael’s was rebuilt using plans from the original construction. Watch for more photos in a later post.
Just outside the Monastery is a long wall containing photos and names of over 4000 pro-Ukrainian soldiers killed in the war in Donbass in Eastern Ukraine. It’s estimated that over 3000 civilians and 6000 Russian or pro Russian forces have been killed in this war so far. This war weighs heavy on the Ukrainians and it’s economy. While the conflict is mostly contained in the Donbass region, the cost in human lives and the cost of maintaining and supplying a fighting force has an impact on all Ukrainians. For example, tourism is down about 40% due to the fighting and that takes money out of the economy. Anyway, I found this wall similar to the names on the Vietnam War Memorial in Washington, DC and it generates the same reverence and sorrow.
The last stop on our walk with Taya was at the Maidan Nezalezhnosti or Independence Square. This is the central square of Kyiv and was the site of the 2013-2014 Euromaidan, protests against the government for abuse of power, corruption, and violation of human rights. The protests came to a head in January and February with riot police advancing on the unarmed protestors firing rubber and live ammunition. In addition, sharpshooters were stationed on some of the surrounding rooftops. During the skirmishes, over 100 protestors were killed by gunfire and 2500 injured. As a result, President Viktor Yanukovych resigned and fled the country to Russia. He was tried in absentia and convicted of treason. Independence Square has become the place where those killed in the Maidan are honored every evening except Monday with a water and music show. We enjoyed the show and people watching the large crowds that gathered.
On our way back to the Apartment, we walked down Khreschatyk Street, considered the main street of Kyiv. It’s not a long street (1.2 km or .75 miles) but is filled with restaurants, hotels, shops, government buildings, and is the site of concerts and festivals.
After our walk, thanks to Taya, we had a good feeling for the city, some of it’s history and culture. And we had ideas on places where we wanted to spend more time in the following days.
Join me next week for more adventures in Kyiv.
Until then, happy travels!