From boxing champs to bowls of borsch, Kiev's quirky attractions make it one of the highlights of the former Soviet bloc
Ukraine never got much of a write-up in the aftermath of the USSR. While Russia grabbed the resources and the money and the Baltics jumped onto the EU fast track, Kiev was left with an image problem. Heavy industrialisation had taken its toll - disastrously at Chernobyl - and the cliched images of totalitarian smokestacks belching across grey, snowy steppes, was all too vivid.
Which is a shame, because Kiev itself is a charming, green city. Proud residents boast that you can walk from one end to the other without leaving the shade of the leafy chestnut trees that line almost every road. The gentle hills overlooking the Dniepr river are home to parks, ranging from the formal home of the friendship arch - an aluminium rainbow commemorating the ties between Ukraine and her bigger Slavic neighbour - to the gargantuan war memorial. In between lies the eerie Pechory Lavra (Cave Monastery), the perfect starting point to explore the city’s past.
For anyone enchanted by the golden domes of Moscow’s Kremlin, yet wary of the red tape involved in visiting Russia, this gleaming complex of churches represents a visa-free chance to experience some Slavic mysticism. Indeed, one workshop on site will even sell you a dome of your own - if your baggage allowance will cope with the strain. But beneath the glittering towers lies a different world of wonders: amid a network of underground passages lie the undecayed bodies of many of Ukraine’s holiest figures. It’s a creepy experience, following a candlelit crowd of pious, head-scarved babushkas mixed with curious tourists - a spiritual take on the Parisian catacombs.
Further up the hill, it’s impossible to miss the Motherland monument - 62m of shining steel, wielding a sword and shield embossed with the Soviet crest, it marks Kiev’s status as a ‘Hero City’ in World War ll and forms the centrepiece of the national war museum and a sculpture park of bold, socialist realist depictions of noble soldiers. The militaristic note beloved of the Soviets has been gently subverted, though, by the pair of brightly-coloured flower power tanks at the foot of the Motherland - weapons of war transformed into children’s climbing frames.
Heading back into town, the Mariinsky Park is a good place to enjoy those shady chestnut trees and take the nation’s political pulse. During the frequent crises that beset Ukraine’s perpetually divided parliament, the park becomes an impromptu campsite for supporters of different factions heading to the capital to rally and demonstrate. Yet while the differences of opinion are all too real, and the protests in Independence Square can get alarmingly intense, the ambience in the park is more of a holiday camp than a political battleground.
Away from politics, St Andrew’s Hill (Andrivsky Spusk) links the Bulgakov Museum, based in the writer’s childhood home, with the square near St Sophia’s Cathedral, passing the glorious wedding cake that is St Andrew’s Church. But better even than the views is the street market, with stalls selling everything from Soviet knick-knacks to striking contemporary art, via a good dose of touristy tat. It’s the perfect place to pick up a braided Cossack outfit, a blood-red Lenin flag or KGB hip-flask, or pick out your favourites from the city’s lively painting and drawing scene.
For entertainment, Kiev loves its boxing. The Klitschko brothers, both world champions, are national heroes - and given the size of them, nobody is going to argue. If you’re in town for one of their bouts, expect every bar to packed and every TV to be showing the action - hopefully followed by a big party as another belt is lifted. Music is another highlight, with Ruslana’s high-energy techno-folk bringing Eurovision to the country and inspiring an ongoing revival of old music in a new style. Among the more alternative crowd, long-running ska-folkers Vopli Vidoplyasova are the ones to listen out for. Even if there are no big events in town, an evening’s stroll along Khrestschatyk has a similar ambience to an Italian passeggiata.
As for dining, Ukraine’s traditionally hearty cuisine is supplemented by most international dishes, with sushi being hugely popular. But the famous chicken Kiev is far from ubiquitous: the dish has little local connection. Instead, look for the dark red beetroot soup, borsch. Everyone’s granny has her own special recipe, and debating the relative merits of these can be a matter of family honour. For vegetarian visitors the key distinction is likely to be ordering ‘bez myassa’ (without meat).
Vodka, and especially fiery pepper vodka known as ‘gorilka’, is popular, while Crimean wine is highly-regarded locally, if not in the rest of the world. But the greatest surprise is the local beer - Obolon. Unlike the regional trend towards pale, gassy lagers, they specialise in a black lager, which is easier to drink than its complex flavour would suggest. Their lighter ruby beer is also worth seeking out, though sadly the brewery in the city is not open for public tours.
British Airways runs direct flights from London to Kiev. National carrier Aerosvit has links to much of eastern Europe and the former USSR.
Where to stay
Kiev's best accommodation bargains are its short-stay apartments: I stayed in air-conditioned comfort two minutes from the main square, from around US$50 per night. Just off that square, the Khreschatyk offers reasonable three-star rooms and has been known to put you in touch with apartment rentals when they are full. At the end of the pedestrianised street, the sleek Radisson SAS offers five-star service for five-star fees.
The thrill of hosting Eurovision in 2005 persuaded the Ukrainian government to change its tune and introduce harmonious visa-free requirements for tourists from EU countries.
The English-language weekly paper Kyiv Post has some useful listings information about entertainment in town. Kiev city centre is compact enough to explore on foot or using the metro.