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Friday, 01 January 2016

Kiev, Ukraine: Golden Domes, Shimmering Spires and Bohemian Spirits of Freedom

Written by Lesley Williamson
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The capital of Ukraine is a surprising destination to be explored in the fall, when the season transforms autumn leaves into striking hues of golden yellow, red and amber. The city center that staged Ukraine’s revolutionary demonstrations and protests awakens to a beautiful and serene existence. After the political turmoil that shook the country in 2014 and affected its entire tourism industry, a visit to its glowing capital is a powerful and overwhelming insight into the wind of change blowing over Ukraine.  

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When you think of a city break away, Kiev doesn’t instantly spring to mind. However, back in 2012, tourists and investors were flocking to the city and Ukraine stood proudly as the 8th most popular tourism destination in Europe welcoming 23 million visitors. No wonder really, the “Mother of all Slavic nations” is steeped in history, rich in culture and culinary delights.

Caves Monastry

 

Meet the Locals  

“Babushkas” are the stronghold of the nation and the best place to interact with them is the local markets. The influence of the former “friendship of nations” is particularly obvious in street food stands held by these hard-working ladies wearing colorful headscarves. Their resilience, endurance and wise outlook on life is an immense source of inspiration, a local experience that plunges us in an entirely different world.

Babushka

Babushkas

Former center for craftsmen and merchants, Podilskiy, one of the oldest parts of Kiev, is an ideal starting point. Home to the imposing soviet-era structure, Zhytniy market, it is a feast for all senses, teeming with jostling babushkas displaying home-grown vegetables and all sorts of pickled, potted or dried berries and nuts. For a country that has been no stranger to famines, it produces in its rich and dark soil some of the most flavorful fruit and vegetables.  

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At the entrance of the covered market, we meet Natasha, our local guide and University Professor of Tourism dedicated to sharing her passion for her city’s history. Although the first impression of austerity on the faces of passersby and the absence of spontaneous smiles is undeniably noticeable, Ukrainian hospitality is sincere and generous. Natasha is a perfect example, she has a carefree and humorous attitude typical of urban Ukrainians.


 

With a strong desire to highlight the monumental political changes that rocked her country after the 2014 uprising, Natasha begins her tour in front of St. Michael’s Golden-domed Monastery. A showcase of the new military equipment handled by young soldiers on the esplanade is a clear hint of cautious optimism hanging in the air of a country embroiled in a military conflict. Like a whole generation of Ukrainians, Natasha is not bogged down with political correctness and her inability to take things lightly is reflected in the way she emotionally recalls the sacrifices of protesters killed by the crushing force of riot police. Hundreds of young men’s portraits,  honored with flowers and candles in a public tribute to the nation’s heroes, stand as poignant evidence that a newly independent country is emerging from its Russian legacy, timidly establishing its own unique identity.

Memorial To The Protesters

We enter the spectacular dazzling blue St. Michael’s Golden-Domed Monastery, built in 1713 by architect Rastrelli, with its soaring domes, mosaics and bright paintings. A fine approach to the smells, sounds and ancient traditions of the Orthodox church. 

Saint Michaels Monastry

We head across the boulevard to Kiev’s oldest standing church, Saint Sophia’s Cathedral, a true masterpiece of art and architecture built in Byzantine style and transformed in the baroque period. Built in 1037 by Prince Yaroslav the Wise and modeled on Hagia Sophia in Istanbul, this majestic 13-cupola sanctuary opens up a magnificent world of buildings, a museum and treasures of rich mosaics and frescoes, almost intact a millennium later. 

St Sohpia

Religious devotion strikes throughout the city’s churches and the UNESCO World Heritage caves monastery is its spiritual heart. Even though we try to escape from the usual things to do on this trip, the must -see Kiev-Pechersk Caves Monastery, perched on the pictorial hills of Dnipro River turns out to be a spiritual, yet spooky experience.  Not recommended for the tall or claustrophobic, we descend with candle light through a network of ancient underground tunnels and chambers connecting coffins of mummified monks’ relics, revealing glimpses of blackened hands and fingers. Headscarves and long skirts for women are compulsory for worshipers and visitors alike. 

View Of Caves Monastry

The views over the city’s startling scarlet, purple, gold and orange shades, blazing across Kiev’s three hills and sweeping into the valley are breathtaking. Rising from these leafy hills are two memorial centerpieces:  a gigantic Brezhnev-era Motherland statue bearing sword and shield, casting her all-encompassing eye over Kiev and the “Friendship of Nations Monument”, a concrete rainbow arch over the Dnipro river. 


 

A Way of Life

To savor cornerstones of Ukrainian cuisine, we sample a hearty “Borsch”, a slow cooked beetroot soup with dill, potatoes and cabbage served with sour cream and soft, garlicky buns. The scrumptious “Chicken Kiev” is a staple of Soviet catering, although its exact origins seem to have been lost somewhere behind the Iron Curtain.  

Chicken Kiev

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To build up appetite and clear the palate, Ukrainian customs involve ritual shots of pure vodka throughout the meal. An engaging social tradition that loosens up conversations around emerging patriotism and hopes for closer ties to Europe among Ukrainians, struggling to come to grips with years of stagnation, corruption and domination. Fear of the authorities has given way to a sense of freedom and willingness to speak up against them. Public disillusion with the system’s inability to implement real anti-corruption laws and employment seems to be the driving force behind people's newly found craving for personal achievement and individual initiative.

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Today in Kiev, the air may still be warm with summer’s breath but the winds of change signal that a new season is arriving. Just like autumn is the quintessential period to  transition, to some extent, tourism and the international community’s recognition of this fascinating travel destination show the support we can give to societies aspiring to prosperity and peace.      

View Over The City    

Getting there :  Ukraine International  www.flyuia.com 

Tours of Ukraine : Leading tour operator for transportation, hotel bookings and excellent tours with qualified multilingual guides  www.arktur.ua 

To stay : Bontiak Hotel http://bontiak.com Conveniently located close to St Sophia and good value for money 

To eat : Ukrainian specialties and authentic atmosphere:  www.pervak.kiev.ua ; Live music and the best steaks in town http://tarantino.kiev.ua 

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Text and photography © Lesley Williamson

 

Last modified on Friday, 01 January 2016