Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Kyiv, the Capital of Ukraine: A Beauty not for the Weaklings!

Wednesday, October 23, 2013
I spent a few days in Ukraine's capital city Kyiv, which you may know by a more-widespread spelling of Kiev. It was my first time taking a budget flight with Wizzair company and I must say that I am very satisfied with them. I used their special offer and booked a return flight for only about 40 EUR (yes, forty Euro only) and that included one checked-in suitcase and one carry-on bag. If you are flying by Ukrainian planes, the first checked-in suitcase on Wizzair is always free- a useful fact to keep in mind. I stayed at The Hub hostel, which is pretty centrally located and it is near the shops and a metro stop. I allocated 440 EUR for this trip and I returned with some spare cash in hand even though I stayed in a single room, ate out and bought plenty of souvenirs. I used the metro to get to places-it was extraordinary cheap, clean, fast and safe.

On the first day I saw several of Kyiv's top places of sightseeing.

Golden Gates.
Golden Gates of Kyiv used to be the main entrance to the city in its city wall built by Yaroslav the Wise in way back in the XIth century. There was a small church on the top of the gates and it had a golden dome, which gave the name to the gates.

Coffee snail.
Kyiv is a coffee city. Coffee in all shapes and forms is sold from basically any place that has a window. There are many pink snails that are actually take away coffee points.

St. Sophia's church. 
Kyiv is known for its sacred complexes. These include a church, a monastery, a bakery, several houses, and other relevant buildings, all encircled with a wall. St. Sophia is one of Kyiv's landmarks, world-famous for the largest compilation of  the XIth century frescoes and mosaics in the world. I really enjoyed walking inside this church. Taking photos is prohibited but right next to the ticket office there is a small hidden bookshop where you can buy a small book guide about this place, including relevant information about frescoes and mosaics you will see. Women are kindly asked to cover their heads but this is not obligatory since this is a museum rather than a church. There's a small cafe on the grounds and you can have a coffee with a view to St. Sophia's church. What I found very peculiar is that all such complexes have benches and small parks and people come to spend time here.

The Golden-domed Church of St. Michael. 
The church complex of St. Michael (the Archangel) is opposite the one of St. Sophia. This used to be the original resting place for the relics of St. Barbara. The Soviet authorities decided that this is the right place for one of their new buildings and in 1937 the church was demolished. The new building never saw light of day and the church was restored in 1997-2000. To be honest, I liked this church far better than St. Sophia.

There's a funicular (I had to use the stairs as the funicular was under repairs) that gets you to/from one of the streets that lead to the famous Andrew's Descent. What Kyiv is bad for is that most of it is 45 degrees up and you need to climb the steepness of it. As one Ukrainian girl told me, Kyiv is not for the weaklings.

St. Andrew's Church and Me.
The landmark that crowns Andrew's Descent is St. Andrew's church. The leading architect was the famous Rastrelli, the man behind many buildings in St. Petersburg and Rundale Palace in Latvia. Among the many stalls of artists and sellers there was a lady who offered to take photos of people wearing traditional Ukrainian head decorations for ladies. She charged a small fee for that but it was so affordable.

Hot Chocolate. 
At the foot of Andrew's Descent there is a chocolate place. It's always full and there's a reason why-they've got absolutely delicious hot chocolate. There is a small shop too.

On the second day I met a lovely lady in my hostel kitchen at breakfast and we went to Pechersk Lavra together.

Pechersk Lavra. View from Dnipro.  
Roses in Pechersk Lavra. 

Pechersk Lavra is a huge complex of buildings, as you can see in the photo, so it's worthwhile spending a full day there. You should do your own research to prioritize what exactly you want to see because there's plenty of walking. My new friend was a real treasure-she already had an objective. She cleverly led me away from the main entrance gates where tourists were charged entrance fees to a further-located entrance that led directly to the yard with the paths to the gardens and the caves. We booked a tour to the Far Caves for 25 UAH per person and waited for 15 minutes until the guide came. Each of us had a candle that we held between fingers so as not to set each other on fire in the caves. The Far Caves are narrow and dark labyrinths with 124 burials of monks that religious people pay respects to. We got down as deep as 20 meters below the surface level and soon it was dark, hot and stuffy. I saw a man being escorted out because he felt ill. Women are required to cover their heads and wear skirts but in case you don't have your own you will be loaned some clothes (unless wearing clothes worn by others is your idea of hygiene, by all means do bring your own scarf and skirt when travelling to Russian Orthodox countries). But you don't need a guide to see the caves, just buy a candle to light your way.

On the third day I did the sightseeing of monuments. I could cram many of them in a day as they don't have opening hours and don't charge entrance fees.

We are trying to break away from the Communist architecture and art that was imposed on us and many of such statues like Lenin are now in a special open-air museum in Lithuania. I was surprised to see Lenin's monument still up in the independent Ukraine. By the way, they say in 1939 it was voted as world's best monument at the International Exhibition in New York.

Stalinist Architecture. 
The street called Kreschatnyk is famous for Stalinist architecture. In the evening this street is illuminated, people flock in, a carousel and other forms of entertainment are on, including different scam-artists. The best way to behave with your wallet in Kyiv is to keep small notes in your pockets and avoid opening your bag in public, if you can help it. Then you just can say that it's all you have and the loss is minimal.

The House with Chimeras.
The house with chimeras is probably the most photographed building in Kyiv. A talented architect built it because he placed  a bet that he would build a house on an impossibly steep location and he won it. He was an avid hunter and so the house was decorated with animals. It was such an oddity that soon legends were born-as if the architect had built a house in memory of his drowned daughter (this legend was fueled by mermaids on the building and in Ukrainian folklore drowned girls turn into mermaids). 

The Legendary Founders of kyiv and Me.
I fell for a photo trick. Oh, well. 

Duke Volodymyr, the Christener of Rus. 
Duke Volodymyr decided to adopt a monotheistic religion instead of pagan practices and so he invited the representatives of Islam, Judaism, Roman Catholicism and Russian Orthodoxism to come and talk to him. At first he was glad to hear that Islam allows many wives as he himself had, they say, 800 women in his harem but, unfortunately, ban on alcohol was out of question in Rus. The Jewish priest said that his nation was scattered all over the world for their sins and that did not appeal to the Duke. What was wrong with Roman Catholicism is unknown but the Duke chose Russian Orthodoxism as the new religion. His emissaries visited Hagia Sophia and said they had never seen anything more beautiful in their lives. Then Volodymyr raised an army and went to a Byzantine city in present-day Crimea. Threatening a long siege, he took the city and told Byzantine Emperors that he was ready to convert to a new faith and also take their sister Anne to be his wife. After it was so, he built a church in the city he made surrender, returned to Kyiv where he christened his 12 sons and also the inhabitants of Kyiv in Anno Domini 980.

Rodina Mat. Motherland.
There's an impressive statue of Motherland not far from Pechersk Lavra. It's a huge statue of a woman with a sword and a shield that depicts a coat of arms of the former USSR. The park and military complex nearby are frequented by visitors, many of them war veterans with jingling medals on uniforms. 

This is hardly everything I saw that day, but I'd like to finish with the sweetest thing I saw today- a view to Vidubtsky monastery that opens from Central Botanical Gardens. It must be very beautiful in spring when lilacs bloom. 

Vidubitsky Monastery.
On the fourth day I visited an open-air museum of rural life in Pirogov village. The best way to get there is to get to metro station Vistovachny Tsentr, go up and catch a microbus number 172 (3 UAH, pay the driver, have small notes). The museum is the last stop for this bus.

One needs a good half-a-day to take in the sights. A good idea is to bring waterproof boots as mostly you will be walking on grass which might be wet from dew in the morning. There will be a restaurant area for your lunch or bring your own food and consume it in a specially designated area. It's also a good place to buy souvenirs- I got myself a clay jug and a Christmas tree decoration made from an egg's shell. Things like that are sold by artists who made them, so this is a really added value.

I was a bit worried if it'll fit my airplane carry-on. It did.
That day I also had a ticket to the opera. I arrived too early, so I had time to explore the surrounding area. Remember Duke Volodymyr, the Christener of Rus?

St. Vladimir's Church.
Well, when an idea for a monument to him was approved, the church people were very sad. They said that the person who fought idols is going to be turned into an idol himself. They were more lenient to the monument idea when a church in the honour to Volodymyr was projected. The church itself isn't anything to write home about if looking at its exterior alone but this is, in fact, a hidden gem of Kyiv- the interior of it simply blew my mind. Even religious people took photos of themselves inside, which is generally a big no-no in places of worship. When in Kyiv, make it a point to go and see it.

The Opera and Ballet Theatre.
There are three floors in the building, and the higher the floor, the shabbier it is. I was surprised at certain things I saw in ladies rooms and the buffet but I guess it's cultural differences. However, the singers from Italy performed "Aida"and, would you believe, the audience applauded after every single aria. I thought I died and was taken to musical heaven. A tip: when checking in your coat, do rent binoculars-this is your ticket to being served without waiting in the line after the performance.

On the fifth day I hurried to put some finishing touches.

Magdeburg Rights Column. 
I was looking for Magdeburg Rights Colum (first granted in the XVth century when Ukraine was part of Grand Duchy of Lithuania) and the city was thick with fog.

Then I visited two adjacent museums: Museum of Russian Art and Museum of Bogdan and Varvara Khanenko. They both are well-worth visiting.

Afterwards, I took the metro to Andrew's Descent to do the shopping. Among the souvenirs to bring home from Kyiv are wooden lacquer boxes, scarves with floral patterns, chocolate, lavender from Crimea (at the price that would make those having shopped for it in Provence cry), small wooden icons sold in church shops, cognac 5 * "Shabo".

My New Jewelry Family Member. :-)

Having Mulled Wine in A Terrace at Andrew's Descent. 
A Monument to Mikhail Bulgakov. 

When I was waiting for a bus back from Pirogov, a girl was handing out fliers with information about a cruise on Dnipro. I took one, it lasted 1 hour. These cruises depart from a place near metro station "Dnipro" every hour or upon being full.

Aboard the Boat.

For this trip I allocated a budget of 435 EUR. 100 UAH equal approximately to 9 EUR or 12 USD. This is a rough breakdown of my expenses:

Flights (discounted): 40 EUR
Accommodation (single room, plus city tax): 104 EUR
Transport (metro, taxis both in Kyiv and home): 28 EUR
Food (includes eating out): 88 EUR
Sightseeing (includes buying books about Kyiv): 45 EUR
Opera ticket: 8 EUR
Objects of religious nature: 8 EUR
Scam artists: 11 EUR
Souvenirs: 63 EUR
Trip preparation: 15 EUR
Others: 3 EUR

Total: 413 EUR
Spare cash: 22 EUR

I really recommend buying a guidebook about Kyiv in English at this website or in many of the tourist information booths in Kyiv. I got it in Kyiv for 115 UAH.

I'd be glad to help you answering any questions you may have. Or have you already been to Kyiv?

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