x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

House of chimeras

Luke Kummer finds Kiev is best enjoyed by going below the surface, sometimes literally.

The domes of the Vydubyichi Monastery are seen through lilac trees in Kiev's Central Botanical Garden on the left bank of Dnieper River. Early summer is the best time to view the profusion of blooms in the city.
The domes of the Vydubyichi Monastery are seen through lilac trees in Kiev's Central Botanical Garden on the left bank of Dnieper River. Early summer is the best time to view the profusion of blooms in the city.

The Ukrainia Hotel is a hulking, Soviet-built slab of concrete hoisted at the top of Kiev's Independence Square. I stood at the frosty window of my 14th-floor room, looking down on the paved expanse below. Five years earlier, thousands of Ukrainians camped out in the square for weeks in the cold during the Orange Revolution, rallying against elections they said were rigged. In the end, the results were overturned, would-be president Viktor Yanukovych was panned as Russia's puppet and a thug, and Viktor Yushchenko vaulted into office as a pro-West reformer instead.

About a week before I arrived in Kiev this year, however, there was another election. This time Yanukovych - the once-vilified ex-convict - resurfaced as Ukraine's next leader. Murmurs about new protests circled, but all I could see in the square below were ice skaters going round on a rink to the tune of blaring Russian pop. Kiev can be quick to contradict itself.I wandered a couple of blocks uphill on Bankova Street to where stands the colonnaded neo-classical presidential palace that would soon change hands. Beside it, however, is perhaps a better visual metaphor for Ukraine and its capital - a mysterious grey three-storey art nouveau building from which grows a stone menagerie of rhinos, pythons, raptors, elephants, mermaids and monsters. Known as the "House of Chimeras", this structure was once the home of the famed Ukrainian architect Vladislav Gorodetsky. Now it's a presidential office. Indeed, Kiev itself can resemble a chimerical hodge-podge shaped by a history of dramatic events, strange bed partners and even monsters.

Jarring incongruence abounds in this city of almost three million people that is a sophisticated European capital in one of the continent's poorest countries. Its streets juxtapose sterile structures dating from the Khrushchev era with ornate baroque masterpieces from a hundred years earlier. During more than half a century of Communist control, Kiev somehow survived as a seat of the Eastern Orthodox Church.

Known as the bread basket of Europe, Ukraine suffered a terrible famine under Stalin. And - an irony that is a source of much pride here - though Russians pejoratively refer to Ukrainians as "little Russians", it was the Kyivan-Rus, the original Slavic empire, who founded this city a millennium ago as their first capital. In total, Kiev offers an attractively complicated enigma for visitors to try to unravel. And, besides, it's cheap and the food is good.

In the city's centre I walked past one of the kiosks dotting its avenues and down a stairway into a metro station where dozens of little shops sell flowers, extra layers of clothes and litres of vodka. After paying about US$0.20 (Dh0.75) to pass through the turnstile, I descended on an escalator ride that literally lasted over two minutes as I was conveyed into what seemed like Jules Verne's centre of the earth. From there I rode the underground train two stops to the Dnieper station and disembarked to visit Pechersk Lavra, one of the largest religious complexes in the world. Also known as the Monastery of the Caves, in addition to dozens of churches, galleries, museums and bell towers on 28 hectares bordering the Dnieper River are miles of tunnels housing tombs, dormitories and hidden chapels.

Beyond an imposing set of gates, I walked into a world apart from the suburban-like neighbourhood I had been traipsing through. With snow still on the ground and the sky draped with clouds, the colour scheme of white and grey was only interrupted by the white buildings' green-tiled roofs and gleaming onion domes of gold. Dating from the 11th century, the monastery is considered the holiest site in the Eastern Orthodox Church and attracts pilgrims from around the globe. Unhelpfully to westerners, there are no signs in English, and I stared at the Cyrillic letters on the arrows pointing in different directions, hoping eventually they would make enough sense to lead me to the entrance of one of the dozens of subterranean lairs.

I wandered into a church where worshippers bowed their heads before an altar and stained glass cast eerie red and blue rays onto the floor. From a small doorway in the corner of the room - as if made for a race of little people - emerged a white-bearded monk in a black robe and fez-like hat. Women charged to kiss his hands. I entered the passage in his wake and followed the narrow way a few metres until I was surrounded by nearly complete darkness and air thick with incense. I inched ahead to where I could make out the glint of candlelight illuminating an old woman's shape. When I got closer I saw she was bent before the mummified remains of a saint interred in an oblong hollow in the stone wall, her eyes closed and her mouth parting and shutting to the rhythm of some silent verse.

As I wended further through this foxhole I heard chanting, which I followed to a shrine where a dozen pilgrims of all ages repeatedly motioned the sign of the cross and sang in monotone. One man was on his knees kissing the ground. The Lavra, I came to find, offers a good rite of initiation for the tourist visiting Kiev in that it teaches one that the best the city has to offer is frequently situated physically or figuratively underground.

As I walked outside again, I saw that daylight was just about gone. Beyond the monastery buildings, past the leafless trees, I spotted in the distance a pale aura radiating from a giant statue that in contrast to the underground shrines was not easily missed. The floodlit Rodina-Mat, or Mother Motherland, is a 530-tonne titanium matriarch whose extended sword towers more than 100 metres above the ground - higher than the Statue of Liberty's torch - while she clutches in her left hand a shield bearing the Soviet Union's hammer-and-sickle emblem. Wearing an expression more Lady Macbeth than Mona Lisa, she stands guard over the Museum of the Great Patriotic War, and, no doubt, was an intentional counterpoint on the banks of the Dnieper to the religious epicentre of Pechersk Lavra.

I found a path leading through the trees towards where she stood. On my way there I was confronted with what looked like a boneyard of Soviet-era fighter planes, tanks, subs and artillery. The museum - one of a half-dozen military museums in Ukraine, which had proudly been a main producer of arms in the USSR - was already closed when I arrived. A grey-moustached guard, who in his thick officer's coat looked like he himself had fought back the invading Germans, guided me, however, to step over the chain barrier and have a stroll. Staring into the barrel of a cannon with a more than 15cm-wide bore, I thought of how each of these weapons had targeted the West throughout my childhood and how I was now viewing them, neutered of their firepower, as a sightseer. Times, I was reminded, do change.

Such perplexities, it seemed, could best be pondered over a steaming bowl of borscht at Tsarske Selo (www.tsarske.kiev.ua; 00 380 44 288 9775), a nearby restaurant that serves knockout traditional fare - the building previously served as a gunpowder storehouse - amid rustic decor befitting a 17th-century Ukrainian village home. Waitresses clad in billowy embroidered dresses and with flowers in their hair served me tender slices of roast stacked next to piles of potatoes and cabbage, cured fish, baked ox tongue and other delicacies, including, of course, perfectly rich and tangy borscht.

Properly sated, that evening I looked for entertainment beyond the Ukrainian folk music at Tsarske Salo and headed back into the city centre. I stumbled around on the slick sidewalks for what felt like ages, looking for a spot that had been recommended to me by a former journalist as a top gathering place but that seemed fit only for clandestine meetings. To say that Baraban, or the Drum, (00 380 44 279 2355) is difficult to find is a dramatic understatement. To say it is impossible to find is barely untrue.

Even if you happen upon the car park beyond a nondescript archway 100m up Prorizna Street from the Khreschatyk Metro station, supernatural intuition would have to guide you to the unmarked awning and staircase there that leads down to this hideaway's door. On any given night, however, if you are so lucky as to happen upon it, you can enjoy at Baraban reasonably priced pub fare in comfortable quarters with the likes of Ukrainian newshounds, musicians, artistes and intellectuals.

When I finally sidled up to the counter to place my order, I found that I was soon invited to join a happy gaggle at one of the nearby tables. For the next few hours we discussed the election, Ukrainian history, the art scene and the stupefying properties of the nation's hearty cuisine. Perhaps because of and not in spite of the cold winters and Kiev's tumultuous past, its denizens, I found, are warm and welcoming. Especially when food and drink are around.

The next morning I woke early and made my way to Kiev's most famous street - Andreyevsky Uzviz. One of the city's oldest paths, for many visitors Andreyevsky, leading from where the spires of St Andrew's Church rise above the horizon like a multi-pronged sceptre and down a steep incline to the waterfront area of Podol, is the defining image of Kiev. The 19th-century houses that line its steep way are occupied by cosy cafes and art and antique galleries, while the pavement is filled with street vendors selling souvenirs ranging from matryoshka dolls painted with smaller and smaller Elvises to space-agey helmets worn by MiG fighter pilots.

In the wintertime the street is paved with ice like a toboggan shoot and the window ledges are the bases of frozen stalactites. But it is in May and June when the blooming lilacs fill the air with a scent that becomes so strongly identified with Kiev in visitors' minds that years later its presence recalls that odd but beautiful place that need not be understood to be adored.