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Kiev, the capital of the Ukraine, pictured in autumn, blends numerous cultures – including Cossack, Slavic, Russian, Polish, Turkish and Mongol – in a city that is full of charm that is at odds with its Eastern Bloc history. artJazz / iStockphoto.com
Kiev, the capital of the Ukraine, pictured in autumn, blends numerous cultures – including Cossack, Slavic, Russian, Polish, Turkish and Mongol – in a city that is full of charm that is at odds with its Eastern Bloc history. artJazz / iStockphoto.com
The Golden Gate metro station in Kiev. Sergei Supinsky / AFP
The Golden Gate metro station in Kiev. Sergei Supinsky / AFP

Ukraine is full of Eastern surprises

With daily flights now available from Dubai to Kiev and a new route to the Black Sea resort of Odessa, Ismat Abidi finds that Ukraine is far more colourful than outdated stereotypes of post-Soviet gloom.

“Dmitri, is that an abaya?” Wandering through the courtyard of Kiev’s Pecherska Lavra, a huge monastery containing caves, catacombs and saints’ relics, I noticed several women wearing headscarves or full-length black abayas. Dmitri, my local guide, had no idea what an abaya was but explained that some of the women adopted customs from old Slavic mythology or the Eastern Orthodox church practices. Moments like this continued to greet me over a long weekend in Ukraine. It is a culture full of unexpected curiosities and my predisposition that the infrastructure would be a sea of grey leftovers from the partial Soviet-era destruction was overwhelmingly proved wrong by the variety of historical and regenerated architecture, each with an unique century-specific story.

My taxi ride from Kiev’s newest airport, Zhulyany International Airport, was the only car journey that was necessary over my two days in the city. Armed with Dmitri and a map, I headed straight out on foot from the Radisson Blu (from Dh700 per night including Wi-Fi) in Kiev’s Podil area, a bustling district of trade and commerce manageable on foot and within walking distance of some of Ukraine’s most impressive architectural structures. Within five minutes of Podil’s centre, I reached the foot of St. Andrew’s (Andriyivskyy) descent. A cobbled incline filled with cafes, restaurants, and punters selling souvenirs and vintage relics from the most tumultuous eras of Ukraine’s history, from World War II to the old Russian empire. I stumbled across a few post-War 1948 Olympic edition vintage Leica cameras with prices starting in the $300 (Dh1,100) range, but did not stick around long enough to be able to prove whether they were authentic. The peak upon which St. Andrews Church rests provided a panoramic view of Kiev’s hill and valley terrain and unlike other buildings I had walked past so far, St. Andrews presented an image of grandeur and wealth, exaggerated by the structure’s Taj-Mahal-eque love story origin. Built by Francesco Bartolomeo Rastrelli, the same Russian-Italian architect behind Russia’s renowned Winter palace, the spires of St. Andrews glimmered in majestic aqua and gold.

While on the road, I have a tendency to succumb to the exhaustion of temple or church overkill when trying to squeeze in visits to as many landmarks as possible within a few days. Fortunately, Kiev is a place where I was not restricted to religious sites. The different centuries and stories spanning the city’s architectural landscape kept me interested. The city also hosts the impressively grand National Opera House and the Golden Gate which defined Kiev’s city limits in 1307, but has since been restored. I didn’t manage to catch a ride on the cable car which connects the upper and lower part of Kiev, but a local recommended a journey on the funicular that connects the lower city from Podil to the upper city in Mykhailvska Ploscha (30 fils per person).

Kiev has had years of constant upheaval from wars since the Mongol invasion in 1240, but despite the 1930s Soviet regime destroying many structures, Ukraine’s attitude illustrates a resilience and the city is clearly proud of demonstrating how it has fought back. When Dmitri asked me to hazard a guess at the age of an ancient looking building, I estimated at least 500 years. It was actually constructed in 2003 using the original plans from the 10th century to bring back some of the old and magnificent Kiev. This was one of many examples of how Kiev has attempted to regenerate without forgetting its roots. The most impressive structure in Kiev was Saint Sophia church, taking over ten years to build by Old Russian and Byzantine art masters. Partially destructed during the Soviet rule, the regenerated section has been built around the remains without tainting the original Baroque architecture, including 13 gleaming golden domes, which would make even the most unenthused tourist stop and stare. Saint Sophia’s bell tower next door didn’t look like an appealing climb, having just paced the grounds of the cathedral for two hours. 12 flights of stairs later, I was glad to learn the burn in my thigh muscles was worth it. I caught my breath at the top while exploring the bird’s-eye view over Saint Sophia’s domes across the green hill areas of Kiev, that cocoon the lower part of the city.

Countries in Eastern Europe occasionally have the reputation of having an unfriendly or cold culture. In Ukraine’s case, this generalisation is a rather unfair one. While there are no smiles for the sake of smiling, all the locals I met and spoke to were very warm individuals. The local cuisine is equally warm and inviting. Tsarske Selo (www.tsarske.kiev.ua/en; $10 [Dh37] to $15 [Dh55] per person) is a good place for a long lunch between sightseeing, serving local cuisine of borscht (vegetable soup), Varenyky (dumplings) and the addictive pyrizhky addictive potato pancakes served with sour cream. Of course, on every menu I came across in Ukraine, chicken kiev was a staple option but I learnt from a local that its origins likely lie in Russia or France.

English is not widely spoken in Ukraine. Booking in a local guide (cost can range from $40 [Dh147] to $70 [Dh257] per day) for a walking tour on your first day is a good idea for an orientation of the city and an introduction to key local words to help navigate around the street signs and food menus. Moving between Kiev’s districts can be done via the city’s extensive metro system. From the impressively grand designs of the metro system, I’d never had guessed that city has had such a disrupted past. The grand scale follows a standard Soviet layout, intersecting with stations built deep underground to be able to double as bomb shelters. I tested the metro from the deepest metro station in the world (105.5 metres) at Arsenalna, back to my hotel in Podil. A large part of the city’s three million-strong population must be in the metro, or at least that is what the rush and chaos felt like. Within minutes of being underground, I learnt that being quick and nimble on this metro system was favourable. While the trains arrive every few minutes, blink and you might miss the train doors open, and close.

After two days exploring the best of Kiev’s 1400-year history but barely touching the surface, I headed south on a one-hour domestic flight to Odessa with Ukraine International Airlines. 400km away from Kiev, the country’s southern city of Odessa rests on the North Western tip of the Black Sea’s coastline. Constructed by a Dutchman, invaded by the Ottoman and Russian empires and a place of ex-Turkish settlement, the clash of culture and architecture is wonderfully haphazard but manages to remain distinctly Ukrainian in its combination of designs. Odessa has a strikingly different culture, feel and climate from Kiev, leaning more towards Mediterranean than Eastern European. Ukrainians visit Odessa as a holiday destination because, as a local explains, “it feels like a different country”. While Kiev’s pace is steady but sure, the energy from walking around Odessa is frantic.

A younger city than Kiev, Odessa’s streets are based on a grid system, the overwhelming majority of which has free public Wi-Fi, so navigation on foot is the simplest and best way to explore the city. Within a 25 minute walk of each other is the Opera House (tickets for shows start at $15), the Potemkin Steps descending into the Black Sea’s port, the City Garden surrounded by cafes and Primorksy Boulevard: the trinket shopper’s and art gallery-phile’s ideal haven. Similar to Kiev, the architecture spans many centuries. Odessa however, has more pastel coloured, venetian style architecture, contributing to its seaside holiday atmosphere. The culture struck me as more laid back and even the local fashion more diverse. Aside from the port area, the rest of Odessa’s cost is clear-water beach, a 15-minute drive from the centre and accessible all year-round but probably most enjoyable for relaxing or watersports between May and September.

Unlike its neighbouring cities, English is more widely spoken in Odessa, which made navigating through a food menu much easier, but chipped away at the fun element of surprise when the dishes arrived at the table. My most memorable meal in Ukraine was a 10 minute drive outside of the city’s centre. An mid-20th century Soviet cottage and garden restaurant, Dacha www.dacha.com.ua/en) serves a full variety of local delicacies such as dumplings, steaks, locally grown vegetables, condiments, take home preserves and the relaxing garden venue with 50s-style decor makes diners compelled to take time over a meal, rather than rush through. The Odessa Museum of Arts contains a huge collection of Russian and Ukrainian arts from the 19th and 20th century, contained in a palace presented to the city by an art-loving patron. Aside from the two floors of art above ground, there two floors of softly-illuminated underground grottos below the palace which can only be accessed with a guide. Following the short spiral footpath into the palace’s underground, the guide explained how the grottos, that stayed a constant temperature all year round, were frequented for secret meetings, hushed high-society fateful passions and 19th century winter parties. Central Odessa has a full range of hotels, hostels and bed and breakfasts. During the summer months, I would recommended booking into a coastal hotel. For autumn and winter, any hotel with the pedestrian-friendly centre of Odessa is within a 15 minute walk of the city’s most impressive landmarks.

Before visiting Ukraine, I assumed that every city would look the same and Kiev in particular, would be a place still trying to shake off the grey cloud that years of war, Communism and invasion had left. I was pleasantly surprised to discover the country has instead used the unstable years to its advantage by constantly regenerating to illustrate the colourful variety of Ukraine’s roots combining Cossak, Slavic, Russian, Polish, Turkish and Mongol influences. Five days was enough time to enjoy the best of Ukraine’s landmarks, leaving me with an appetite to learn more about its history and explore more of Eastern Europe, with the convenient knowledge that a Mediterranean-style beach holiday is only five hours away in Odessa. Expectations aside, my first-hand experience of Ukrainian’s hospitality, generosity, insatiable passion for karaoke and enthusiasm to learn about different cultures taught me that when you see a smile in Ukraine, they most certainly mean it.

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