a worthwhile trip: Kiev

So.

Having just sat through a session working on my mother’s tax returns (trickier this year because she sold a house and her sense of maniacal fear of an audit has exponentially increased in the past year) I started thinking about if I could take a vacation where would I go. It’s been a couple of years since I took a trip vacation so this was a good mental exercise. And having written about Paris (almost wearing my russian navy hatalways my number one choice initially) around Christmas time I thought I would settle down and explain my typical second choice/option when thinking of going away. And yes. It may seem an unusual one. It’s Kiev in Ukraine.

Kyiv (also spelled Kiev) is the beautiful and interesting capital of the Ukraine.  Sure. A Long flight but it’s worth it. My first trip to Kiev began auspiciously. Okay.  Hilariously.

Despite the fact I had a couple people there I knew they hesitated to tell me a specific hotel but suggested choosing one of three (I have since stayed at Premiere Palace every time after the initial trip and I highly recommend although expensive). Anyway. Not really knowing where to stay, I chose one and it ended up part of my visit coincided with one of those “males seeking eastern European brides” conventions or whatever they call them. A bunch of goofy looking guys wandering around the lobby and into this ballroom place where hundreds of women and girls decked out in their best clothes trying to communicate with guys who just wanted to get in their pants. And I truly mean hundreds of girls and maybe 25 to 30 guys. I should have taken pictures.

What made it even more surreal were the “ladies of the night” hanging out in the bar day and night sipping tea and watching the comings and goings. Anyway. I had hired a translator (a delightful graduate student studying diplomatic studies at the university) who laughed her ass off at me, and my naiveté, when she came to meet me at the hotel the first time.Inside_the_Kiev_Passage where my fav coffee shop

About the city itself. Founded more than 1,500 years ago, the city of Kyiv was destroyed in 1240 by Mongol-Tatar invaders. In past history Ukraine was always a powerful force on the European scene because of its size, population and huge agricultural output but Ukraine’s fate in modern history for the most part, has been defined by foreign occupation (Russia most notably). Kyiv suffered severely during World War II, and many architectural and art treasures were destroyed. Earlier in the 1930’s the Soviet authorities (mainly under Stalin) systematically destroyed many churches and other places of worship. Even so, Kiev is one of the historically richest cities in Eastern Europe and many amazing churches and structures remain. If you’re into medieval onion domed Orthodox cathedrals, you find an endless choice to discover and explore. Don’t miss St. Vladimir’s Cathedral, St. Sophia’s Cathedral and St. Michael’s Golden-Domed Monastery as well as the amazing Cave Monastery and the awesome murals inside the Trinity Gate Church. If you have time for only one It must be the Ukrainian Baroque style St. Sofia’s Cathedral founded in the 11th century and rebuilt in the 17-18th centuries which is on top of a hill with a beautiful cobblestone pavilion.

Anyway. Kiev. It is located along the banks of the Dnipro River (actually split by the river in some sections) but the bulk of the city is one side (the hilly side). It has authentic Eastern European charm while yet in sections there is a Soviet flavor in the architecture and boulevards with dark stoic buildings. It is easily a walking city (although the hills can make it a good work out) and easy to explore. With its shining golden domed Orthodox churches and ancient monasteries and museums and underground shopping centers (because of the winters they have several full shopping centers built under the streets of the city which you can wander almost endlessly and never go outside) there are a variety of things to do and see. For those who want to seek out aspects from the Soviet era, such as the typical Stalinist colonnaded subway stations, massive bronze monuments, giant statues of Lenin and others, and elegant but thick sturdy dominant 20th century buildings, you won’t be disappointed in Kiev.

Getting around is very easy (although if you don’t read Cyrillic you are kind of screwed in reading street signs and stuff like that). The underground train (subway, metro, whatever) is efficient, extensive, and with some creative guessing, you will arrive at your destination (and the underground station is REALLY underground … like way underground … the escalators to the stations are often very steep and long). Some people suggest you avoid “taxis” (and I use this term loosely).

Well. They don’t have taxis. What you do is stand on the side of the street and stick your hand out and some normal everyday person (typically driving some car that has seen its better days) suddenly pulls over and you lean in tell them where you want to go and negotiate a price. Sometimes they are alone. Sometimes they have family. But they are always friendly. Frankly, even if you don’t negotiate a good price it just doesn’t cost much. You can hand over about 20 grivna (about 4 bucks) and get almost anywhere.

Plus. The whole “waving down a family car” thing is fun. Okay. The first time seems weird. The first time I was in Kiev I asked my translator what she wanted to do that she had never had an opportunity to do and she wanted to go bowling (go figure). The only bowling alley was outside the city. I say sure. She steps out. Waves her hand. A gray pre World War II Lada putters up the road and pulls over (I am pretty sure it still had the same clutch it originally came with). She starts arguing with the driver. Next thing I know we are in the back seat chatting away with the driver. Awesome experience (oh. She hated bowling). It is the way to get around the city. It is fun. You meet locals. You get to here whatever is playing on their radio.

kiev7Walking the alleys and boulevards in Kiev is very reminiscent of Russian cities such as Moscow and St. Petersburg (and unlike anywhere in the United States).

But. The absolute best is slowly strolling down Kiev’s main boulevard, Khreshchatyk Street, day or night. This broad avenue is lined with giant trees and huge forbidding Stalinist gray brick/concrete buildings. It is just “big.”

Khreshchatyk is often off-limits to car traffic on weekends at which time it becomes lined with local artists and street sellers of trinkets and clothing and whatever. Plus. It becomes a place for those who want to see and be seen. The boulevard closing on a weekend is worth the trip. Throughout the city there are narrow cobblestone walkways and you should head for the Andriivsky Descent which is this narrow winding street, one of the oldest in Kiev, and home to many art galleries, artists at work, street art markets, and cafes (very reminiscent of some narrow streets in say San Francisco but with incredible architecture and looming buildings on each side).

I got really lucky on my first trip. Between my translator (who brought me to the coolest nightclubs and introduced me to her college friends who called me “Leon” – from the movie The Professional – because of how much older I was from everyone in the group and how I my translator and I interacted and the pizza places with awesome draft beer and pool tables) and my friends who already lived/worked there (who brought me to the English speaking bars – Canadian, Irish and British – and the rare coffee shops .. because most Ukrainians drink tea) I had an incredible first experience which set me up for future visits of being on my own if I needed to.

Oh. I know I am talking a lot about walking.

And because I do people always ask me about the weather. I have been there at Christmas time and they haven’t had snow yet (but it got a very crisp cold at night). I have been there in May and walked around in short sleeves. I have been there in July and it was warm. It won’t be as cold as you think (the city is further south in Europe than you think). Odessa in the south of Ukraine is a hot beach city. Go north of Kiev and you can freeze your ass off (just go ahead and visit St. Petersburg at Christmas and you will find that out pronto).

Okay. The people. I have never met a single rude or unfriendly person in my 6 or so visits. The language barrier is not well managed by older people who often may shrug you off rather than to make any effort to communicate but approach a young person and I can almost guarantee they will speak some English. In fact many want to practice it with you. The locals enjoy their lives whole heartedly. They are some of the most incredibly pleasant and helpful people, not to mention some of whom must be amongst the most beautiful people in the world (I admit I was surprised by how many taller thin red headed women there were). While household incomes are generally low the locals spend a great amount of money on their appearance and wear fashionable clothes. You will feel like you are I the middle of a fashion show walking down some of the main streets especially on the weekends on the main boulevard. The women dress in heels and dresses and look impeccable at all times. The men wear suits but it is the women who truly dress up. Oh. The women also have this truly charming habit of walking arm in arm wherever they go (and they laugh a lot). It is really charming.

There are rarely signs of poverty on the streets. Be prepared to see many people walking the streets with a bottle of beer in the hand or liquor (particularly Vodka). Awesome. Note. Best vodka I have EVER drank was Ukrainian and one of the least expensive vodkas I have ever purchased.

The locals speak Ukrainian or Russian (there are some differences). Your only hope of communication in English is with the younger generation. Most, if not all, of the street signs are in Cyrillic characters so it is helpful to learn some basics (or bring a pocket dictionary) before arriving.

As for the food. Several restaurants serve up traditional Ukrainian meals with typical Russian and Ukrainian dishes. But surprisingly there are not that many truly unique dishes. Their food is … well … food. But. Make sure not to miss the borsch (cold beet soup) and the varenyky dumplings with cabbage, potatoes or meat. But the best is the Vodka. Served chilled at meals it should be your friend. It isbogdan the green man inexpensive and better than any vodka you can buy in the states.

Getting there. You may be surprised to know that no visa is required for Americans (who stay for less than 90 days). Flights are long but easy. You can actually fly direct from Kennedy in NYC. But most flights connect thru De Gaulle (Paris) or Amsterdam. Keep in mind. Flying from Paris to Kiev is like flying from Los Angeles to New York City (about same distance). Not knowing that on my first trip I ignorantly thought as I caught my connecting flight “I am almost there”. Yeah. Not so fast.

It is a great city. And very very different from American cities as well as western European cities. If you are interested, Chernobyl (the nuclear reactor which exploded in April 1986) which is just over 100km north of Kyiv has a good museum in Kiev (sad, frightening and eye opening). I believe if you are adventuresome there are some approved trips out to Chernobyl.

Anyway. Kiev. My second favorite city in the world. Anyway. A great trip if you take it.

Written by Bruce