Last month I accompanied an old friend on a last-minute trip to the Ukrainian capital of Kiev. This is a destination that featured high on my wish list a few years back, but admittedly slipped down the pecking order during the recent period of political instability and troubles with neighbouring omnipresent Russia. So, ever the travel-opportunist, I was curious to finally visit this former Soviet nation that I knew so little about.
The largest country in Europe, Ukraine is famed for its beautiful historical cities, unusual-flavoured vodkas and attractive, well-chiselled population. My first impression of the country was that its economy and tourist industry had taken a bit of a bashing in recent years. Despite boasting many characterful streets and quintessentially Orthodox ice-cream-domed churches, many of the buildings were badly crumbling whilst the pavements and roads were reminiscent of those you stumble down in central Naples. On the flip side, however, for the first time in my life I was able to walk around UNESCO designated areas as virtually a sole tourist – quite an extraordinary feat in this era of mass tourism, and certainly something of a luxury when it came to photographing the city’s many cultural sights. This is a destination with a huge amount of somewhat untapped potential and it had the surprising feel of being somewhat off the beaten track when contrasted alongside all the other European capitals I have visited.
Here are some of the shots I took whilst exploring the city.
Saint Sophia’s Cathedral
The complex of buildings including Saint Sophia’s Cathedral is one of two designated UNESCO heritage sites in the city and I had the place almost to myself during my visit. The shot below was taken from the bell tower which gives a lovely overview of the cathedral with its 13 eye-catching mint-green and golden domes. If you don’t make it up there (they hilariously advise anyone over the age of 60 not to attempt to such a feat!) then, fear not, for this extraordinary creation of a church looks stunning from every angle. The cathedral dates back to the 11th century when it was founded by my very distant ancestor Yaroslav the Wise, Grand Price of Kiev (no joke!). Inspired by the Hagia Sophia creation in Constantinople, it was built to assert state power in Kyivan Rus. Kyivan Rus refers to the mostly East Slavic state dominated by the city of Kiev from around 880 C.E. to the mid-12th century. Under Yaroslav’s rule, Rus became one of the most powerful states in Europe and the Kyivan princes were well connected with the ruling families of many countries by dynastic marriage.
The Cathedral is pretty dark inside but has preserved its ancient interiors and the collection of mosaics and frescoes of the 11th century are of particular unique interest.
The image below shows the view looking down on the cathedral complex from the hotel across the road. You can see the lovely bell tower, a 76 metre tall tiered structure built in the Ukrainian baroque style, which offers 360-degree panoramas of the city from the top.
Following his death, Yaroslav the Wise was entombed in a white marble sarcophagus inside the church (pictured below). However, in 2009 when scientists opened the tomb to conduct research, his remains were not found. It is thought that these were sent to the United States during the Nazi occupation of Ukraine during the Second World War, but this remains TBC.
St. Michael’s Golden-Domed Monastery
Just across the square from the Saint Sophia Cathedral, you will find the equally dazzling St Michael’s Golden-Domed Monastery. Lots of austere-looking monks can be spotted hanging out at this sky-blue painted cathedral overlooking the city’s Dnieper river. This is a building chequered with political history; after the original was demolished by the God-denying Soviet authorities back in the 1930s, it was reconstructed and opened in 1999 following Ukrainian independence in 1991. A few decades of communism certainly does not appear to have dampened the religious fervour of the Ukrainian people judging by the attendance at mass.
The monastery went on to provide shelter for persecuted protesters fleeing from the violence of government forces during the 2013 Euromaidan riots. The riots were triggered by the Yanukovych government’s decision to suspend the signing of an association agreement with the EU, instead opting for closer ties with Russia and thus unleashing protests against what many people perceived to be a corrupt government. The protest has been seen as one of largest pro-EU rallies to date, though is considered to have been a stance against wider issues of corruption and the lack of human rights and freedoms within the Ukraine. Inside the monastery, an emergency care centre was set up along with a donation point to treat the wounded. Symbolically, on the night of 10/11 December 2013, the monastery’s 25 year old priest rang the church bells throughout the night in order to warn locals of the presence of the Berkut special police forces who had launched a night attack to break up the protest. Thousands of city residents flocked to the main square in defiance of the city checkpoints to lend their help to the protesters. Over 100 people died and many more were brutally beaten during the protests which eventually, in 2014, brought down the Ukrainian government.
If you’re interested in knowing a bit more about this turbulent period in recent Ukrainian history, check out this short video made during the riots by journalist and activist Yulia Marushevska. The video was made to inform the international community of events in the Ukraine and it quickly went viral after being posted online in February 2014.
My little experience of Ukrainian people was that they are characteristically rather serious and reserved as in other Eastern European countries. Not the kind of people I would expect to vote a comedian into their presidency as they, in fact, did in the weeks following my visit! That said, it was difficult to find anyone that spoke English and, on the political front, it seems that desperate times call for radical measures. I found the young people in the cafes and hotels to be quite friendly and more open than the older generations and, as recent protests demonstrate, there is clearly some considerable appetite among a certain part of the population to form greater ties with the rest of Europe. What really took me back was how many deeply religious people there are in the city, perhaps forgetting that Europe is a large assorted bunch of nations with so many different cultures and making the mistaken assumption that we are predominantly a secular continent. Some of the city churches were packed with throngs of people; heavily-wrinkled old ladies with a lifetime of anguish marked on their faces and church goers queuing patiently to kiss various relics, visibly very moved by their spiritual beliefs. In some of the churches I was instructed by monks to wear a headscarf, which I found quite curious as I’ve only ever had to do this when visiting mosques, and hadn’t appreciated that this was part of Orthodox culture. Beautiful hair is, apparently, a notable distraction from one’s prayers.
St Andrew’s Church
Perched upon a hill at the top of the city’s famous street St Andrew’s Descent (or St Andriyivskyy Descent), this 18th century Baroque church decorated in varying shades turquoise and gold, possesses a large dome and five smaller cupolas, visible from downtown Podil and the surrounding area. The building was closed during my time in Kiev but it’s well worth a visit just for the exterior, and for a stroll along the church platform for panoramic views of the city below. The cathedral was built by the Italian architect Bartolomeo Rastrelli, and is sat upon a two-storey building with a cast-iron staircase featuring stunning Baroque-style lanterns, leading up to the top.
View looking down to St Andrew’s Descent – a historical street connecting Kiev’s Upper Town neighborhood with downtown Podil. The street features many theatres and cafes and is lined with stalls selling tourist items. A bit overcast, as you can see, during my visit in April.
St Volodymyr’s Cathedral
I really loved this cathedral, not least for its night-time domes of navy blue with yellow stars and vivid, striking exterior. Inside, the decor is no less ostentatious and it was absolutely packed with worshippers going about their daily prayers. The cathedral was built between 1862 and 1882 in the Neo-Byantine style and in honour of the 900th anniversary of the Baptism of Kiev. There was a feel community feel inside this church, and it is much brighter inside than the others I visited in the city – so I joined it with the locals, lit a candle and scanned the room looking for the saint I liked the look of the most.
Candles lighting up the church interior
The cathedral is truly stunning inside, as you can see from the images below
Pechersk Lavra Monastery
The city’s other UNESCO heritage site comprises an ensemble of monastic buildings situated on the plateau overlooking the right bank of the Dnieper River known as Pechersk Lavra, or the “Monastery of the Caves”. The monastery was founded in the 11th century by St Anthony the monk and it hosts a number of surface and underground churches with a complex of labyrinthine caves that expands more than 600 metres.
The caves are a truly fascinating place to visit; armed with a candle or two, visitors orientate themselves around the dark, narrow passages, whilst believers congregate around one relic to another, praying and kissing each icon in turn. Nestled within the caves are numerous vaults which contain the mummified bodies of the monks who previously dwelt there. The monastery has huge gravitas in Orthodox circles, and is considered one of the most important, if not one of the most well-known, Christian pilgrimage sites in the world.
The elegant white and gold Cathedral of the Dormition (pictured below) was built in the 11th century. This is the main church of the monastery complex, which was destroyed during the Second World War during the Nazi occupation of Kiev. No attempt was made to restore the church to its former glory during the Communist years, but in 1995, following Ukrainian independence, it was finally reconstructed into the opulent architectural gem of a building that we see today.
Close up of the ornate black and golden doors of the cathedral
The stunning domed frescos in the interior of the cathedral are a spectacular sight.
The Refectory Church, another of the religious buildings making up the Pechersk Lavra complex
The Great Lavra Bell Tower pictured below was built from 1731-45 in the classical style, after the previous one was destroyed by fire. The four-tiered tower, decoratively painted in white and pastel yellow and blues, is purported to be the highest brick building in Eastern Europe. There is an amusing list of far-fetched forbidden activities for visitors wanting to climb up the tower – one must not have a meal at the top, indulge in alcohol or drugs or push a fellow visitor. Makes you wonder about the clientele!
The Bell Tower is well worth climbing for the views over the cathedral complex and river below. Even on a gloomy, overcast day in April, the Cathedral’s golden domes glimmer perpetually.
Another great view of the city can be seen from The Grand Hyatt’s roof top bar, which overlooks the Sofiyskaya Square and the cathedral.
View of Sofiyskaya Square taken from the other side up the Saint Sophia Bell Tower. You can see St Michael’s Golden-Domed Monastery in the background. Behind the monastery is a funicular train that will take you from the upper down to downtown Podil.
A visit to Kiev wouldn’t have been complete without visiting the enormous bronze statue of my esteemed distant ancestor Yaroslav the Wise, Grand Prince of Kiev. The statue is located next to the city’s Golden Gates and he appears to have the Saint Sophia Cathedral in his hands; that or a very large cake!
Ballet is known for being popular in the Ex-Soviet states and that is certainly true of the Ukraine. Whilst I was in town I visited the Royal Opera House for a dazzling production of Le Corsaire. I also came across this cute statue of a ballet dancer along one of the city streets.
Usually when I visit new places, I make the best of efforts to immerse myself in the local culture and cuisine. Admittedly, I was slightly lacking with the latter during my trip to Kiev. I did, however, eat a honey cake a day, which is one of the most popular desserts in Slavic countries.
I also sampled the Spartak cake at the Lviv Handmade Chocolate shop on St Andrew’s Descent – an intoxicating shop-come-cafe filled with more treats than you can possibly sample in one visit.
In keeping with tradition, all my posts must contain at least one cat that I meet on my travels. Incredibly, the one below is the only cat I encountered in Kiev. Still, with a poser this good, one was all that was required. Perched on a little yoga mat, he appeared to be meditating down the side of a busy street, completely oblivious to the hub of people and traffic around him.
My foray to the Ukraine was brief but packed with architectural treasures and cultural sights. I would love to see what lies beyond the capital, so perhaps that’s one for another visit.
Have you been to Ukraine or to Kiev? If so, would love to hear about your experience in the comments below.