Day 1-2: Kyiv Part One, Ukraine

by - August 25, 2012

Day One: Arrival

Possibly the most painless start to a backpacking trip I have ever experienced.  Charlotte, Katie and I got the train down to Gatwick and met Benny and Ollie then whizzed through check-in with Ukrainian International Airways and arrived in Kyiv early despite having a late departure.  I had arranged for a people carrier to meet us at the airport and take us to our hostel in the city centre - the ‘Dream House Hostel’.  Lots of the reviews on the internet said that the hostel is one of the best in Europe and on first glances it seemed very impressive - one of those hostels like the Godzilla Hostel in Moscow that achieve a legendary status amongst backpackers which makes them the only place you would want to stay.  We were staying in a six bed dorm, so had one randomer with us but we barely saw them.  Having arrived at the hostel at 7ish and having had a long day (especially Charlotte who had essentially come straight from Canada) we decided to have a quick explore before our dinner.  I didn’t know if when I booked the trip, but we had actually arrived on Ukrainian Independence Day, so there were lots of families around and fireworks going off.  We ate at a restaurant that was a shrine to Quentin Tarrantino and served all kinds of food (but not Ukrainian - we can start being cultured tomorrow).  After dinner we made the most of our free welcome beer at the hostel before an early night - as I say, a very painless start to the trip.  The excitement begins tomorrow.

Day Two: The City

Kyiv Furnicular Railway Station
Despite having a fair bit of time in Kyiv, the schedule was set to be fairly hectic.  I had designated today as the day where we would do the lion’s share of exploring the city.  The day got off to a bad start as Benny’s alarm clock was too quiet and Charlotte’s alarm was set to British time.  Getting up at a leisurely pace (my least favourite way of getting up) we left the hostel and headed for the furnicular railway that would take us up towards the city centre.  The terrain in Kyiv is very hilly and our hostel is set at the bottom of the city’s favourite street - the bohemian “St Andrew’s Descent”.  We decided that it was better to get the furnicular up the hill and walk down it later as we attempted to do the “Lonely Planet Walking Tour” in order to fit in as much as possible.  The railway was very impressive in itself, following the odd Soviet tradition of making all of their buildings bland and then elaborately decorating public transport terminals.

St Michael’s Golden Domed Cathedral
Our first stop was St Michael’s Golden Domed Cathedral.  This was our introduction to the city’s Orthodox cathedral’s and was a good place to start as the immaculate blue and gold building is a clear landmark on the city’s skyline.  We thought that somehow it was a bit TOO immaculate and when we read a few noticeboards we found out that the original had been destroyed by the communists - as I say, communism is pretty bad for fans of architecture unless you love the inside of train stations.  It was very impressive nonetheless and is very close to another major church, St Sophia’s which is one of the most important buildings in Ukrainian heritage.  This church is the real deal, though the original Byzantine design has been repeatedly redesigned so that now it has a Baroque style with parts of the original design sticking through.  We walked around the grounds to the tranquil sound of an old man playing some kind of home made string instrument.  We were allowed inside the cathedral itself, but were barred from taking any photos which is fair enough as the murals inside are some of the earliest examples of Byzantine fresco work.  The cathedral itself is named after Hagia Sophia in Istanbul. The gate of the Cathedral complex had a large bell tower on the top which me, Ollie and Benny decided to climb up for the sake of an extra 50p on our ticket.  The views from the top over St Sophias and Kyiv were well worth it.

St Sophia’s Cathedral, Kyiv

The last statue of Lenin in Kyiv
We had spent a few hours in and around the two cathedrals and in doing so had only ticked off two of the 24 sites on the walking tour (unfortunately I don’t think this computer is capable of uploading photos of 24 different sites so I am giving you a kind of “best of” collection).  Our next site was the Golden Gate, a recreation of the original entrance to the city that was burned down by the Mongols.  We were hungry so went off and sorted out some lunch.  The three guys headed to the nearest doner kebab van and got an excellent chicken kebab for about 1.50GBP.  The girls showed us up a bit however as they headed to an organic cafe and found themselves a salmon and caviar sandwhich.  In fairness it cost about six times more, but it was pretty impressive.  With plenty more things to see, we got moving and walked past another cathedral, a park, the university and the city’s last remaining Lenin statue (which has a permanent manned tent next to it to prevent the authorities doing away with it).  From there we went over to the main square, where the famous Orange Revolution had taken place.  There seemed to be an awful lot going on in the square and we had no idea what it meant or was celebrating, but it seemed fun.  We were approached by two dodgy looking guys in animal costumes who insisted on having their photos with them and then literally chased us across the square when we refused to pay them anything.  Charlotte and Benny took the brunt of their attack and held up admirably.

Friendship arch between Russia and Ukraine
From here there were STILL another 12 sites to see on the walking tour and the day was getting on a bit, but I wanted to finish up so I promised everybody a juice break at 5 if we could get enough things done.  That was enough of an incentive to power through the other half of Kyiv that we had yet to see - passing through the expensive luxury house district which contained architectural gems like 'the weeping lady’, 'chimera’ and 'chocolate’ houses before we got to the Ukrainian parliament and the surrounding view point over the Dnieper river that the city is based on.  It was here that we stopped and had our promised juice.  There wasn’t a whole lot more to see and we were now on our way back to the hostel.  We passed the Dynamo Kyiv stadium (not one of the Euro 2012 venues - they used the far larger Olympic stadium) and came across the Friendship Arch that was built by the Soviets to symbolise the brotherhood between the Russians and Ukrainians.  The arch was pretty impressive, but it was interesting to note how this monument is located on the edge of town and is fairly deserted while all of the Ukrainian independence monuments are given pride of place in the city centre.

St Andrew’s Descent
We had NOW pretty much finished and ambled back to the hostel to clean up before dinner.  It had been quite an exhausting day as the temperature pushed over 30 degrees and we had walked fairly solidly throughout.  On the plus side, we had seen the majority of the sights in the city and had really got our bearings.  Tomorrow, everybody except Katie is heading out on the Chornobyl tour and we will only have one day left to see the others things in the city.  On our way back to the hostel we walked down the very pretty St Andrew’s descent.  That night we decided to start our 'cultural dining’ experience with a visit to a local Georgian restaurant which was really excellent.  The food was a cross between Middle Eastern and Russian and despite a few strange bits on the menu (I ordered the 'chocolate assortment’ for dessert and got a plate full of chocolate) we were pleasantly impressed.  All in all, a great start to the trip.  We have all taken a real liking to Kyiv - for me it is a lot like St Petersburg, but on a smaller and more intimate scale.  We had been told that the Ukrainians would be far more friendly than the Russians and I have to say that my first impressions tend to agree with that.

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