I’ve always been morbidly fascinated by end of the world scenarios, even going as far as writing a book based on the subject. Chernobyl has captivated me for the longest of times, ever since I discovered photographs of the area taken by a biker group many years ago. Of all the places in the world, where else would offer a more genuine glimpse at life after the apocalypse? When I found a return flight to Kiev for £80 late last year I decided it was an opportunity I couldn’t miss out on, despite the unstable political situation in the country at the time.
As I was a little concerned I kept in regular contact with the hostel I planned to stay at and they did a lot to assuage my fears. Assured by what they told me, I finally plucked up the courage and booked my tickets.
My first full day in Ukraine was spent in Chernobyl which I would recommend to anyone even remotely interested in the events of the 1986 nuclear explosion. My second (and last) day was to be a mad dash to take in all Kiev has to offer. With the assistance of my gracious hosts I planned a busy itinerary and set off for the most distant location on my plan first: Rodina Mat or the Motherland Monument.
A quick note: bar this initial taxi ride I walked to every other landmark I visited which was quite the undertaking, I can tell you! If you don’t fancy following my lead and covering the many, many miles on foot, the Metro system in Kiev is comprehensive and very cheap – fellow travellers at my hostel raved about the service.
Rodina Mat was designed by famous the Soviet sculptor Yevgeny Vuchetich and reworked by Vasyl Borodai after Vuchetich ‘s death. The giant stainless steel structure stands at 62 metres tall and towers like a sentinel above the Dnieper river. Walking round the base of the statue offers some great panoramic views of Kiev. The massive sculpture is surrounded by tanks, planes and other military vehicles commemorating Ukraine’s participation in World War II. People who enjoy studying hardware of this sort will have a field day at this museum – you are even able to climb onto some of the vehicles in order to get a closer look. There are nearby Soviet memorials built in a brutalist style and the Alley of the Hero Cities houses some exquisite carvings filled with none-too-subtle Communist propaganda.
From the plinth of Rodina Mat you can pick out the beautiful golden cupolas of Pechersk Lavra otherwise known as the Monastery of the Caves. I set off through the well-kempt grounds of the museum towards my next destination thinking it would be easy enough to find owing to its massive size and striking obviousness. I still managed to get lost. Twice.
The journey was worth it, however, as these religious buildings are even more impressive up close than they are from a distance. With their pristine white coats and glittering peaks they truly are a sight not to be missed even if, like me, you are not in the slightest bit religious. Entry to the caves themselves was extremely pricey by Kiev’s standard ($25) so I neglected to go inside. That said, I would still highly recommend checking the place out as there are a number of beautiful buildings that can be viewed without your having to pay. Taking photos is prohibited unless you pay for a pass but, as English signs are in short supply, sorting one out is easier said than done. If you are caught taking pictures you will be thoroughly chastised – even if you have a pass! The site is vast and has a great many steep declines so pilgrims who are out of shape or elderly might well struggle to get around.
Just a short walk from the Lavra is Arsenalna Metro station which is currently the deepest station in the world. The people at my hostel recommended that I pay it a visit but I stupidly walked straight past it and forgot to check it out. It might be worth a look if you fancy riding an everlasting escalator or want to tell all your friends about the time you were 105 metres below ground in an elaborate Eastern European train station!
At this point in my long and arduous trek across the city I got terribly confused by the Cyrillic road signs as I headed for the Olympic Stadium and ended up, once again, hopelessly lost. I spent a good long while meandering aimlessly through some of the most uninspiring and often shady-looking streets I have witnessed on my travels. I breathed a huge sigh of relief when I finally reached my destination feeling incredibly footsore and hours behind schedule.
The 70,000 capacity Olympic Stadium was draped with enormous flags of the key players of Dynamo Kiev when I made my visit. It is large and modern thanks in part to an extensive makeover in 2011 so it could host the final of Euro 2012 which was shared between Ukraine and Poland. I had planned to go and watch Dynamo play their lower league rivals Obolon Brovar in the cup but, much to my ire, I got the dates wrong – the game actually took place the day before! Turns out I dodged a bullet, though, as there were reports of some violent clashes after the match. It takes a while to find entry to the stadium grounds as a fence stretches most of the way around the hulking arena. Once you eventually find your way in you can wander around at your leisure and pick up a few items of Dynamo Kiev memorabilia from the club shop.
Due to my worthless internal navigation system I was in need of some serious refuelling as I was absolutely knackered and still had a long list of landmarks I wanted to see. I called into a local Roshen confectionery store and picked up some quality chocolate to keep me going and to give as presents back home. Prices were ludicrously low; I picked up one delicious offering for less than five English pence! I had heard positive noises about the Slavutych Shato brewery and decided to call in for some proper sustenance. You can read all about it – and the unexpected compliment I received there – in more detail here.
My next stop was Maidan, Kiev’s independence square, which has quite a few points of interest. Numerous statues and ornamental columns are dotted around the area and pretty much all of them are worth a look. Independence Monument is perhaps the most striking with a bronze casting of a woman standing atop a 60 metre pedestal faced in marble. Lach Gate, a large arch topped by a sword-wielding black and gold Archangel Michael, is a similarly impressive structure. My favourite, however, was the fountain sculpture of the supposed founders of Kiev: Kie, Schek, Horiv and their sister Libed. The city is apparently named after the eldest of these brothers. There are a lot of opportunists hovering around the area that you should be wary of. They will stalk you if you look like a tourist and waffle on in unintelligible English even as you try and escape and then hassle you for monetary handouts. If you see them closing in it’s best to make a quick getaway. Below the Maidan is the Globe mall should you wish to do some shopping, grab a cheap snack or pick up some Kiev branded souvenirs.
For me, the absolute must see landmark of Kiev is St. Michael’s Golden-Domed Monastery. The monastery might be a reconstruction (finished in 1999 after the Soviets demolished the original in the ’30s) but that in no way should deter you from seeing it. As I’ve already mentioned, I am in no way, shape or form a religious man but these holy buildings had me standing awestruck and lost for words. Painted in sky blue, white and gold I can honestly say I have never seen such a beautifully maintained set of buildings – they are absolutely spotless and must take a hell of a lot of effort to keep in such perfect condition. Like Pechersk Lavra the towers of the monastery are surmounted with brilliant golden cupolas and crosses that are reminiscent, to me at least, of the rising sun. When you can drag yourself away from the monastery itself – and it might take some doing – it is worth scouring the outer walls of the site for the stunning decorative murals depicting scenes of religious significance.
A short walk leads you to one of the premier tourist destinations in Kiev. Andriyivskyy or Andrew’s Descent offers fantastic views and streets lined with independent vendors and eateries. As I arrived much later than expected many of the street vendors were either packing away or had done so already which was a shame. I still managed to snap a few photos of the Ukrainian architecture that runs along each side of the road although St Andrew’s Church was undergoing renovation at the time and was partially covered which spoiled that opportunity somewhat.
About halfway down this steep street I stopped off at a microbrewery called Solomenska Browarnia for a quick beer and to rest my aching feet. There is a good selection of beers available and the 7% Golden Ale I quaffed made the stop well worth it. The place offers an English menu, free bar snacks with each beer and the interior is modern and trendy. I must admit to feeling a tad out of place in my scruffy travelling gear but no one mentioned anything so perhaps I got away with it!
The final landmark I took in was the Kiev Golden Gate. The original gate was dismantled during the Middle Ages and this huge wooden construction was built by Soviet authorities amid much controversy as no description exists as to the actual appearance of the first design. I arrived after dark and the gate, regardless of its authenticity, looked resplendent amid the bright glow of the surrounding spotlights.
My last act before heading back to my hostel for the night was to call in at the local Billa supermarket for a few last minute gifts. Vodka is, rather unsurprisingly, available in abundance in Kiev. It is extremely cheap and the quality is such that it can quite easily be downed neat. I picked up two half litre bottles for my father and the total cost came in at under £3. Amazing value, I’m sure you’ll agree!