Travel 2018 – Kiev, Ukraine, Day 1

Monday, 17th September 2018 – Kiev, Day 1

Finding myself in Kiev for a 2-workshop and meeting session with the rest of the 12-strong team I am part of, the London contingent (two of us) were on the ground and in our hotel about 3 hours ahead of everyone else, so with the dispensation of our lovely manager, we didn’t have anything to do until the others showed up. With that in mind, and arriving on a gloriously sunny afternoon, I persuaded my colleague that we really, really needed to go out and do some sightseeing. It was too good an opportunity to waste. Based in the Park Inn hotel, right next to the Olympic stadium which is now home to Dynamo Kiev, we were well situated to walk to the main attractions of the city centre.

Armed with the Lonely Planet guidebook to Ukraine, and a free Kiev map from reception, I now knew where we should aim for, and so cameras in hand, we walked up towards Taras Shevchenko Park initially, along Velyka Vasylkivska Street and over to Lva Tolstoho Street, admiring the variety of architectural styles which ranged from Stalinist flats to turn of the 19th/20th Century blocks with fabulous decorative features, some of them more “foreign” looking than others.

We also encountered the first of many, many terraces which seem to be attached to every restaurant no matter how basic or how grand. Later some of us would come to think these might not be such a good idea, for a variety of reasons, not least the prevalence of both cigarette smokers, and for that matter, shisha pipe users, mostly young women, who seemed not to care how far and wide the awful perfumed fumes spread from the damn things!

We also found the first of many, many murals, usually beautifully done, and covering the entire end walls of numerous buildings around the city. These apparently sprang up everywhere after the 2014 revolution and the plan is to have at least 200 of these instances of street art. There’s even a map of all of them.

This was also roughly the time we realised that crossing the road can be something of an adventure in Kiev. The traffic is heavy, and despite the crossing lights counting down how long you have to cross, and making it very clear that you are allowed to cross, car drivers still try and come round the corners and carry on regardless. You have to adopt a very determined demeanour and trust you’ll survive! Fortunately for the viability of the local population the really big road junctions have underpasses, complete with doors which I assume are especially necessary in the winter to stop the tunnels filling up with snow. The result is a number of underground spaces, full of ad hoc shops, selling all sorts of stuff you never wanted, or in fact never knew existed.

We survived the crossing to the park, and found quite a few things to amuse us. Temperatures were in the high 20s, so pretty much anyone with nothing better to do was perched on the benches in the cool shade of the trees. And the thing is, the benches themselves came in all manner of shapes that can only be described as playful, with no one bench the same as its neighbour. There were fountains, and flowerbeds full of marigolds, and statues of course, including this rather splendid – if rather gloomy – one of Mr. Shevchenko, the multi-talented national poet himself (which probably beats Austrian nymphs on plinths into a cocked hat).

It’s a very busy place, with all sorts going on, and with cafes and coffee shops and pretty much the entire student body of the university across the road sitting talking, dancing, playing music and generally living life outside. Even late in the evening it remained busy (as we discovered later in the week). We continued up Volodymyrska Street, passing the rather fabulous Taras Shevchenko Ukrainian National Opera House on the way.

The Golden Gates of Kyiv (Золоті ворота) were the main gates of the 11th century fortifications of Kyiv, the capital of Kievan Rus’, and were built between 1017 and 1024 (6545 in the Byzantine calendar) at the same time as The Cathedral of Saint Sophia, which was where I was keen to get us, was built. The whole thing was demolished in the middle ages, and was completely rebuilt by the Soviets in 1982, presumably entirely from their imaginations, because there are no images of the original gates available. The whole rebuilding was extremely controversial, and I did wonder why people were visiting it apart from out of curiosity. Hopefully, they don’t think they’re seeing an historical structure.

It was shortly after this that things started to get weird. Across the square from the gates we found this.

It’s part of the same initiative as the murals. It’s all part of the “ArtUnitedUs” iniative, which is the biggest urban street art project in the world. The hedgehog is a monument to a cartoon, “Hedgehog in Fog”, which was produced in 1975, and it’s the work of the Kyiv Landscape Initiative. The claim is that in 2003 a survey of 140 cinema critics and animators declared it the best cartoon in the history of animation. How true this is, I have no idea, but it seems reasonable. And it certainly wasn’t the only odd art work we encountered. There was a cat made out of white plastic forks (by Constantin Skretutsky)…

KIEV 136

And also, in the grounds of Saint Sophia’s cathedral, a squishy piece of work (by Beata Korn) that has a sign asking visitors not to cuddle it. You can see why because it’s oddly irresistible. This is part of the art-project “3D.Public Art” and if you can read Ukrainian, then you’ll know a lot more about it than I do!

We had enough time to investigate the cathedral, but not the rest of the “territory”, so handing over a very small sum of money, we went in. I wasn’t allowed to take photos, which was a shame, but understandable. To give you a taste, I’ve found this on the Wikipedia page for the cathedral.

The building work started somewhere around 1011, and it was founded by the Grand Prince of Kievan Rus’, Vladimir the Great, and building has 5 naves, 5 apses, and 13 cupolas, which is not normal for Byzantine churches. it has two levels of balconies on three sides and it’s full of the most stunning 11th century mosaics and frescoes. I can only imagine what it must have looked like when the mosaics were new, with gold everywhere, and paintings on pretty much every surface. The Kievan rulers were buried here, and the grave of Yaroslav I the Wise is still there.

It has suffered substantial damage more than once, and the hands of Andrei Bogolyubsky of Vladimir-Suzdal in 1169, then the Mongolian Tatars in 1240. By the time that Poland and Ukraine were trying to unite the Catholic and orthodox churches it had pretty much fallen into ruin. Repair work was finally undertaken in 1633 by the Italian architect Octaviano Mancini in what is known as Ukrainian Baroque, at least on the outside, while still preserving the interior art.

Its fate was in the balance again in the 1920s, when the Soviet government wanted to destroy the building (a fate that did befall St. Michael’s Golden-Domed Monastery on the other side of the massive square from Saint Sophia’s). It ended up being re-classified as an architectural and historical museum, a function that it still fulfills now. In a side area there is currently a display of some of the art that was saved from Saint Michael’s prior to its demolition. There was also an interesting work made out of thousands of Ukrainian pysanky eggs, highly decorated Easter eggs. The work, a depiction of the Virgin Mary in the cathedral, is by Oksana Mas, and is made out of something in the region of 15,000 eggs, all different. It’s really impressive, and it takes the eye a moment or two to realise that it is actually made of individually painted eggs.

Back outside we admired the bell tower, which, like those we saw in Finland, stands separate from the main body of the church. It’s beautiful, and apparently affords some fine views over Kiev. We didn’t think we had time, though. I took a few photographs, and bought a guidebook before we left to head back to the hotel to meet up with our colleagues.

The park was still buzzing, and the roads were as lethal as ever. I did spot another of the rather fine murals as we were walking along, and if/when we get back (there’s a suggestion of a repeat visit in Spring) I want to see how many of the 200 works I can find.

We were back at the hotel by 18:00, after a couple of hours of nosing around, and I know my impression of the city was pretty positive already, though I was slightly startled by the presence of a bagpiper outside the Metro station opposite the hotel. It wasn’t that he was playing an instrument most people assume to be Scottish, because I know enough to know that it’s a very common instrument worldwide (after all, it’s really just a bag with hollow pipes), it’s just that I’ve tended to regard the playing of bagpipes as an act of war! The Ukrainian version is called a volynka, and originates in the Carpathians.

It remained to be seen what else we might find, as we were due to be taken on a short tour by our Ukrainian colleagues at 18:30. Sadly, the Danes had fallen victim to a taxi driver who had misunderstood his instructions, and they were now on a misguided tour of the city as he tried to find his way through the rush hour gridlock back to the Park Inn from the Holiday Inn. By the time they finally made it in the door, it was dark outside, and the place we were headed for was close to closing. At least the two of us had seen something of the city.

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