Kyiv, Ukraine 2019
A country that suffered and is still suffering a lot! Our first country which was at war when we visited it!
The main reason we decided to visit Ukraine and specifically Kyiv was our friends, Katya and Zhenya. We met this beautiful couple a year before while they were touring Europe. We had hosted them for two days and found out that we shared a love for hiking and inexhaustible wanderlust! Social media have made it so much easier to keep contact with friends who are far away and when we found that flight from Sofia to Kyiv for just 28€ we rushed to inform that “We are coming! Hooray!”
After a 2-hour flight from Sofia we landed at Kyiv airport at 17.30. Passport control was conducted by military officers and not civil servants reminding us that the country is at war! Their examination was long and thorough because a lot of people try to enter the country with false passports as spies! The soldier at the desk spent at least 2 minutes looking at my face and then back at my passport photo and back at me again, he must have counted my passport pages at least twice to make sure that none was missing and asked a lot of questions regarding my visit to his country in Ukrainian that I could not understand of course! Luckily his colleague could speak some English and my detailed inspection ended successfully! We could now enter Ukraine!
Katya and Zhenya were waiting for us. Our meeting after almost a year was quite touching! How amazingly people’s lives connect! On our 1-hour drive to their home they tried to show us the beautiful side of the city avoiding places that they considered less beautiful! We found out that streets in Kyiv are huge, sometimes without white lines and driving in them is quite insane! The buildings are multi-storeyed block of flats, remnants of the soviet times, which would all look the same if they hadn’t been decorated with gigantic, modern murals! There are no other buildings, nor houses; only huge, impersonal block of flats! In one of them Katya and Zhenya made a cozy home for themselves, tastefully decorated and in striking contrast with the old façade of the building! They generously granted us their master bedroom – with the huge bed and the most comfortable mattress I have ever slept on – for the three nights that we would stay with them and they took the guest room. Katya had prepared Tom Yum, a Thai soup, because she loves Thailand and Thai cuisine. Her delicious soup was exactly what we needed after our afternoon flight! And for dessert, a mouthwatering pie with apples, berries and nuts that Katya had prepared on her own too! Yummy!!!! After some casual chatting around the table, we got on their car again and headed for the city center.
It was already dark when we got off the car and what firstly struck me was the bright lighting of the center! Full of life, full of people and exceptional architecture! First we climbed the hill towards People’s Friendship Arch. This rainbow-shaped, made of titanium arch was constructed in 1982 to commemorate the friendship between Russia and Ukraine, quite ironic considering that the country is currently at war with Russia! Obviously that was why someone had painted a crack on it… Under the arch stand two sculptures: one depicting a Russian and a Ukrainian worker holding the Soviet Order of Friendship of Peoples and the second depicting the participants of the Pereyaslav Council of 1654. A few meters away there is a viewing deck where we admired marvelous night views of the Dnieper and the city! An unexpectedly peaceful city where the signs of war cannot be distinguished. Katya told us that the war is further to the east, almost 900km away from Kyiv. Along the 400km of the “contact line” the fighting continues, while thousands of civilians are trapped in the villages nearby living in what remains of their homes and looking for shelter from 3pm to 11.pm. which is the time of the day for the exchange of mortar shots. You may not be able to see the signs of war in Kyiv but you can certainly see them on people’s eyes; sullen and expressionless as if they felt guilty of any speck of happiness they experience while their fellows are dying at the contact line! No wonder they voted for a comedian to be their new president…
Tired but full of incredible images in our minds and in our cameras we went back home.
Breakfast with Katya and Zhenya is out of this world! Katya woke up earlier than anyone else and prepared crepes with berries and local honey! Zhenya’s favorite and now my favorite too! Their hospitality far exceeded our wildest expectations!
Today we took the tram and then the metro to get off at Arsenalna, the deepest underground station in the world located 105,5m below the surface! We took two seemingly never-ending escalators to the surface on a journey that lasted way too long!
Getting out of the underground station we headed towards the serene Pechersk Hills and the park of Eternal Glory, one of Kiev’s most picturesque and ancient places on the high bank of the Dnieper. Our first stop was at the Monument to Unknown Soldier and then the Famine Victims’ Monument which is also the entrance to the Holodomor Genocide Museum. Holodomor means ‘killing by starvation’. One of the most horrible legacies of the Soviet era was the man-made famine imposed by Stalin in 1932-33, who, in order to eliminate the Ukrainian independence movement, took every ounce of food away from Ukrainian people. More than 6 million people died. Most of them were children. Everything around reminded us that this country has been through a lot and actually has never stopped suffering!
Our next stop was Kyiv Perchersk Lavra, probably the most visited sight of Kyiv. The Lavra is a historic Orthodox Christian monastery, one of the seven wonders of Ukraine! The name of the monastery is also translated as ‘Kiev Cave Monastery’ because of the cave system it includes among other sights. It is a system of narrow underground corridors (about 1-1½ metres wide and 2-2½ metres high), with numerous living quarters and underground chapels. Foreign travellers in the 16th–17th centuries wrote that the catacombs of the Lavra stretched for hundreds of kilometres, reaching as far as Moscow! Visiting the interior of the churches I realized how similar they are to ours with the exception that they have more than one temples! Wandering around the monastery was so peaceful and relaxing but simultaneously exhausting due to the unexpectedly high temperature which was intensified by the fact that I had to cover my head.
Exiting the Lavra we walked towards the magnificent Motherland Monument which is so big (102m tall) that it can be seen from almost everywhere in the city! It is a woman holding a sword in one hand and a shield in the other. An interesting fact is that the sword of the statue was cut to 3m because it was higher than the cross of the Kyiv Pechersk Lavra!
Leaving the place we walked by tanks and war monuments once again towards the Alley of Hero Cities depicting the terror of World War II. Crossing another beautiful and well-kept park we reached splendid Mariyinsky Palace where official delegates from all over the world are hosted.
After so much walking and exploring we were starving! Katya and Zhenya took us to the right place: Puzata Hata! A self-service eatery with a long buffet of local delicacies to choose from! And here we fell in love with the Ukrainian cuisine! The borscht soup I had was one of the best things I have ever tasted! I just didn’t want it to finish! I also had a dish with potatoes and mushrooms (potatoes are very common in Ukrainian cuisine) and Danis had a vegetable dish and a kind of burger made of mushrooms. Everything was exceptionally delicious! And the prices exceptionally low! Generally, Ukraine is a very affordable country. Its currency is the Hryvnia and its value is very low compared to the euro.
On our way back home we stopped at the supermarket to get some Kvass, a traditional Baltic non-alcoholic drink commonly made from rye bread. We spent the evening until late at night in Katya and Zhenya’s home drinking lots of Kvass and chatting like old friends!…
No wonder we overslept! It was past 1a.m. when we went to bed the previous night. Katya and Zhenya wanted to prepare something very special for us today: their favorite Mexican food with beef, spicy sour cream sauce with white cheese and tortillias! Instead of having it at home we decided to pack it and have a picnic at the yard of Saint Sophia’s Cathedral. What a great idea! And what a mouthwatering meal they had prepared for us! Opposite Saint Sophia’s Cathedral and across the huge Sophia Square stands Saint Michael’s Monastery. Katya told us that the church has been used for the treatment of people wounded at war because hospitals were not enough for all of them. Outside the church there is a literally endless wall of remembrance for those fallen for Ukraine in the Russian-Ukrainian war from 2014 on. It consists of names, photographs and background information of each victim. There are no words to describe my feelings when I started reading it and perceiving its length!
Very close to Saint Michael’s Monastery is situated the baroque Saint Andrew’s Church which is part of Andriyivskyy Descent. It is a historic descent connecting Old Kyiv with Podil neighborhood. It is often referred to as the “Montmartre of Kiev”, and is a major tourist attraction of the city, with its own unique character, lined with tourist stands selling typical Ukrainian crafts and souvenirs. Walking down the 720-meter cobble-stoned descend was certainly a piece of cake compared to walking it up afterwards! We were in real need of some energy! And the Ukrainian cinnamon rolls that Katya suggested we tasted were absolutely perfect! Crusty and strong-flavored!
We finished our long day gazing at the sunset from the top of another beautiful hill adorned by modern sculptures and mosaics. It is amazing how peaceful and quiet a country at war can be! I feel deep sympathy with this people and great respect for their inner strength! But most of all I feel great appreciation of Katya and Zhenya’s hospitality! But for them, we wouldn’t have been able to see Ukraine the way we did!