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

Author: Lesley Williamson
Date of Trip: October 2015

Text and photography by Lesley Williamson

Kiev, the capital of Ukraine and centre of Slavic culture 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 one square kilometer city center that staged Ukraine’s revolutionary demonstrations and ultimate protest against foreign rule awakens to a colorful, beautiful and serene existence. Just over a year and a half after the political turmoil that shook the country 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.

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 with an annual record breaking 23 million visitors this particular year. No wonder really. The “Mother of all Slavic cities” is steeped in history, rich in culture and culinary traditions and its people possibly one of the most photogenic ever.

“Babushkas” are my favorite and the best place to interact with them is local markets. The influence of the former “friendship of nations” is particularly obvious in lined- up street food stands held by these hard-working ladies wearing colorful headscarves.

They are called “Babcia” in Ukrainian and are the stronghold of the nation. Their resilience, endurance and wise outlook on life is a great source of inspiration. A local experience that plunges us in an entirely different world.

Podilskiy is an ideal starting point, one of the oldest part of Kiev which used to be a centre for craftsmen and merchants, and is home to the imposing soviet-era structure of the Zhytniy market, teeming with jostling babushkas displaying home-grown vegetables and all sort 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.

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 and taking us around the important sites and landmarks, incredible domed churches and vast squares. 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 of emotionality, 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 uprising in 2014, Natasha begins her tour in front of St. Michael’s Golden-domed Monastery. A showcase exhibition 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. Natasha, like a whole generation of Ukrainians, is not bogged down with political correctness and her inability to take things lightly is reflected in the way she emotionally recalls the significant events and sacrifices of protesters killed by the crushing force of the riot police.

Hundreds of these young men’s portraits are honored with flowers and candles and for Natasha, such a public tribute to the nation’s heroes is poignant evidence that Ukraine is changing and that a newly independent country is emerging from its Russian legacy, timidly establishing itself with its own unique identity.

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.

We later 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 spectacular world of buildings, a museum and treasures of rich mosaics and frescoes, many of which intact almost a millennium later.

Religious devotion is striking throughout the city’s numerous churches and the UNESCO world heritage caves monastery is its spiritual heart. Even though we try to escape from the traditional lists of things to do on this trip, the must -see Kiev-Pechersk Caves Monastery, situated 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 and relics, revealing glimpses of blackened hands and fingers. Headscarves and long skirts for women are compulsory for worshipers and visitors alike.

The views over the city are breathtaking and my photos can’t really do justice to the startling scarlet, purple, gold and orange shades that blaze across Kiev’s three hills and sweep into the valley. Rising from these leafy hills are two architectural 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 traditional Ukrainian food, Natasha takes us to Pervak, a popular restaurant with the locals recreating Kiev’s atmosphere in the early 20th century. She insists that we try one of the cornerstones of Ukrainian cooking. “Borsch” is a slow cooked beetroot soup with typical additions such as dill, potatoes and cabbage. A warming, hearty dish served with sour cream and soft, garlicky buns. Central to Ukrainian food culture, we sample a huge variety of breads including rye, black sourdough and a myriad of pastries. Most restaurants serve the scrumptious Chicken Kiev, staple of Soviet catering, although the exact origins of the dish are not necessarily linked to the city and seem to have been lost somewhere behind the Iron Curtain.

We are introduced to Ukrainian hospitality and the custom of starting a meal with the ritual shot – or two- of vodka. Consumed straight and very pure, shots of Staritsky Levistsky reserve keep appearing throughout the meal, building up our appetite and clearing our palate. An engaging social tradition that loosens up conversations and allows us to dig deeper into a palpable feeling of emerging patriotism and the hope for closer ties to Europe among Ukrainians struggling to come to grips with years of stagnation, corruption and domination.

For Natasha and her relatives, Ukraine is definitely changing for the better. Fear of the authorities has given way to a sense of freedom and willingness to speak up against them. Public disillusion with the system and its inability to implement real anti-corruption laws, perhaps the left-over of communism, seems to be the driving force behind the people, prone to individual initiative and a newly found craving for personal achievement.

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 illustrate features of transitions, to some extent, tourism and the recognition of this fascinating destination to travel to by the international community illustrate the support we can give to societies in transition, aspiring to liberty and peace.

How to get there : Ukraine International
Tours of Kiev : a leading tour operator that will look after transportation, hotel bookings and delivers excellent tours with qualified multilingual guides
Where to stay : Bontiak Hotel Conveniently located close to St Sophia in a quiet street and excellent value for money
Where to eat : Ukrainian specialties and authentic atmosphere: ; Live music and the best steaks in town

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