Ukraine: A Three-Day Adventure in Sunny Kiev
Even if you have only three days for an adventure to squeeze in between your trips, jobs, deadlines, family problems, don’t hesitate -- venture. No matter how unlikely it looks from where you are now, it may be that right thing to do to get your mind off problems and let enough energy into your system to feel the lust for life again.
A three-day getaway with a friend to a place which would smoothly combine new and ancient, beautiful and odd, interesting and familiar, busy and relaxing, distant and close, brief, yet having a lasting aftertaste.
To stop it sounding like a riddle from some old Slavic fairytales, let’s put it straight. As we had only three days, our ideal destination would be some foreign country which was not very far off; we could cope with several hours by train.
Having just returned from a week trip to Sevastopol, the Crimea peninsula, I had three days left till getting back to work. My initial intention was to waste them away on the sofa, when I received a phone call from my friend in Moscow, suggesting us going somewhere nice to see the summer off.
The weather forecast resolved our doubts between St. Petersburg and Kiev: +18° C (64° F) versus 32°C (90° F), the city we already visited many times against a brand new travel experience.
Kiev (Kyiv), the capital of Ukraine.
Brief Historical and Geographical Outline:
Ukraine is a former USSR Republic; now an independent state, situated in southeastern Europe. Its capital, Kiev is one of the oldest (founded in the 5th century) and most significant cities of this region with a very rich and fascinating history.
Kiev is located on both sides of the beautiful Dnepr River, which flows into the Black Sea. By the way, if you want to see how black the Black Sea really is, you can easily get to Odessa from Kiev, for example, by bus, train or car.
We had such a temptation but Kiev was too beautiful to want more during those three days. From Kiev it is also possible to make a non-stop voyage to the Mediterranean and to the Atlantic Ocean.
How We Started:
At home we made a Google search and found a nice one-room apartment on kiev-rentapartments.com. We decided in favor of a very cozy studio apartment in the quiet spot within 10 minutes of walking distance from the metro station “Klovska.”
Our train arrived late at night and it was very convenient to have such a service as a man meeting us at the station and driving us to the apartment we selected online. We lived on Pecherskiy Spusk (spusk is translated as descent,) which we later felt was rather an uphill.
The official currency in Ukraine is hryvna (or Grivna). One US dollar is about 7-8 Ukraine hryvna. It was a tricky task to find a favorable rate of exchange: the rates differed a lot from place to place and it pays to walk around and compare.
Don’t trust people offering profitable rates in the street and resist exchanging money at the station. The exchange offices with decent rates are likely to be in the city center.
Kiev still speaks Russian, though the current politics tends to enforce Ukrainian in all spheres of life. You will hear Ukrainian in the announcements and see it on the signs and ads on the streets.
There are a lot of foreign tourists in the city and you are unlikely to experience any problems explaining yourself. Many people know basic English; at least they are willing to help. But try not to make it too obvious that you are a foreigner, as it may tempt some people to triple the price.
Every nation finds special pleasure in making jokes about their neighbor. Let me take my favorite, Spain, as an example. Residents of Valencia, for instance, would make fun of Castilians, Castilians enjoy anecdotes about Andalusians, and all of them would make jokes about Catalans.
In the same way, Ukrainians are popular characters of anecdotes for their ingenuity, business-like nature, sense of humor and tremendous charisma. They will always get their share of the cake, if not the whole cake. In other words, smile back but remember that they are not as simple as it may seem.
We used the metro (underground) when we needed to get to another part of the city. It’s rather convenient and was cheap in summer: 0.5 hryvnas. Now the price is 2 hryvnas, and it’s the same regardless of destination.
Besides metro, the city transport includes buses, cars, cable cars or funicular and taxis, as the last resort. There’s also a railroad junction and a river port on the Dnepr River.
Other than that, we just walked. Make sure you have a pair of very comfortable light shoes and a couple of water bottles as you set out for a sightseeing walk in the morning. I had to include shoe stores in our walking route as I was footsore after the first day of our walking excursions.
Yummy! Some people go to Ukraine just to try the famous Ukrainian borsch with garlic (beet-based soup of about 20 ingredients) with pampushky (Ukrainian doughnuts), salo (salted pork fat eaten with garlic, onion, bread and pickles) and vareniky (tasty dumplings made from boiled or fried dough filled with potatoes, or sour cherries or sweetened cottage cheese, served with butter or sour cream.)
Ukrainian national cuisine is considered the richest and the most diverse among Slavic cuisines. We couldn’t resist trying their gorgeous borsch even though the hot weather didn’t favor eating hot soups.
We ate borsch at O’Panas, a nice wooden hut-restaurant on Tereshenkovskaya Street, located in a beautiful park in the center of the city. Rather expensive -- a good dinner of Ukrainian dishes won’t be less than 35 dollars.
Kievsky Tort is one more local specialty, a much newer invention compared to the dishes mentioned above. This is a layer cake made of crumbly raised wafers, hazelnuts, and something else extremely tasty.
We had to give up the idea of buying a couple of green boxes of this famous dessert as a present for our families because of the heat. But a lot of people could not be stopped in this desire and we saw them carry their melting cakes on our voyage home.
As for drinks, I’d recommend kvas, a slightly sweet beverage with a wheat-like taste. It was sold from huge tanks on wheels throughout the city. On hot days as we had there, kvas quenched the thirst even better than water.
If you want to stick to other cuisines in Kiev, it won’t be a problem. There is a nice Italian place Napule on Mechnikova, 9, where we had excellent pizza and Italian wine. There’s an interesting place in Moroccan style Marrakesh on Sagaydachny street in Podolsky region.
For the Beatles fans, I’d recommend “the Cavern” on Pushkinskaya: good food, well-known music and nice atmosphere.
We were after the local character and peculiarities and wanted to see one of the Kiev’s landmarks - Bessarabsky market (Bessarabka.) Bessarabsky market is certainly an essential Kiev experience. This is an indoor market located in the center of the city, on Bessarabsky Square.
We admired the endless fruit stands and bought some fresh fruit and vegetables. This is the place to practice bargaining as prices are normally rather high.
The City of Chestnuts:
Parks and gardens cover over the half of the city’s area. Kiev is called one of the greenest cities in the world. And it’s true: Kiev impressed me as the city of trees and flowers. We were told that one of the city symbols is chestnuts in bloom.
That would be nice, to return to Kiev in May to see those innumerable tall trees blooming. We didn’t have time for two botanical gardens, the pride of the city, but we breathed in the sweet air of Kiev’s large and small parks.
Krestchatik is the main street of Kiev and Maidan Nezalezhnosti (Independence Square) is the central square of Kiev. This central square is not only the center of the city, but the center of the whole country too. It serves as a place of public entertainment both for residents and tourists.
During weekends and public holidays the wide road is closed for traffic and reserved for pedestrians who can stroll about the road securely. Having seen the busy road at the day-time, this feels very unusual.
If you are lucky enough to be in Kiev for some holiday, you’ll see many musicians and performers on Kreschatyk and Maidan Nezalezhnosti.
On the way to the square you’ll see a big arch (the People’s Friendship Arch.) It was constructed in dedication to the unification of Russia and Ukraine. There’s a viewing point near it, which has a great view on the Dnepr River.
I can’t help smiling as I’m writing about this particular spot as my friend was attacked by wasps there and was running and waving his arms like mad to get rid of them. He had to give up the idea of cool kvas and threw out his glass having had taken just a single sip.
One of the three days we devoted to churches and cathedrals. Kiev Pechersk Lavra (the Kiev Monastery of the Caves) is a must. It is a famous historic Orthodox Christian monastery in Kiev. This is literally the city within the city and may take you hours to see and admire this huge architectural complex with a number of museums, cave monasteries with remains of Saints.
This monastery is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The complex is situated in the Yanvarskogo Vosstaniya Street. When you exit Arsenalnaya metro station, turn left and then walk about 10 minutes.
The Saint-Sophia Cathedral on Bohdan Khmelnytsky Square is also inscribed on the World Heritage List. St. Sophia Cathedral is the world famous historical and architectural monument dating back to the 11th century. It’s breathtakingly beautiful and its splendor made a deep impression on me.
Andreevsky Spusk (Descent) is a museum street, one of the major tourist attractions in Kiev. It is sometimes called Kiev’s Montmartre. We saw a lot of artists displaying their works: decorations, glassware, ceramic foodware, medals, wooden toys, ancient coins, and a lot more interesting stuff.
In the buildings along the street there are a number of art galleries, exhibitions, theatres and workshops. There’s an interesting market of souvenirs and art works.
Andreevsky Spusk is also famous as the historical spot where many men of science, writers, musicians, artists and sculptors lived and worked. For example, those who like Mikhail Bulgakov, will have an opportunity to learn that this outstanding writer was born and lived on Andreevsky Spusk.
Andreevsky Descent leads to beautiful St. Andrew’s Church, one of the most fascinating churches of the city, designed in baroque style. The church is located on the right riverbank of Dnepr. It is very colorful and seen from a distance.
The Golden Gate of Kiev (Zoloti Vorota) is one more very interesting sites we visited. This is a historic gateway in the ancient city walls, constructed by Yaroslav the Wise, Prince of Kiev, in the 11th century. I found the fact that many churches, buildings and objects in Kiev are so old and so symbolic -- amazing. They have a very powerful aura you sense physically and emotionally.
The sites of Kiev are innumerable: world-famous heritage and local places of interest. We saw splendid St. Michael’s Golden-Domed Monastery, located on the Western side of the Dnepr. And we rubbed cute Panteleymon cat’s head in the park near Golden Gates, on Yaroslavov Val and Lysenko streets crossing.
A Blot on the Landscape:
Ukraine is notorious as one of the popular destinations in Eastern Europe for sex tourists. I didn’t know it was getting anywhere near a major issue until we learned from the newspapers on our trip that Ukrainian activists, mostly girls, arranged a demonstration on Kiev’s main square. They protested against sex tourism starting to flow into their country.
The girls carried posters with “Ukraine is not a brothel”, and wanted a no-entry list for known sex tourists and more serious punishment for those dealing with pimping and people trafficking.
In the short time that we had, we managed to see and do a great variety of things. Every time we saw something interesting in Kiev but couldn’t devote more time to it, we planned to come back and catch up.
I could compare Kiev to a beautiful Ukrainian girl who is not always treated with all the proper respect which she deserves. This is definitely a city to fall in love and have long-term relationships with. And we’re thinking of going there again this coming summer.
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