Kiev - statues, art, protests and giant Disney characters

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August 17th 2015
Published: May 7th 2016
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We're trying to get back into the blogging thing, so here is a blog from last year. Expect at least one more about Ukraine before we start on our new/old country.

A shameless plug for Kiev- go on, visit, it's lovely

Living in Ukraine for about eighteen months, I've visited Kiev several times. However, almost all of these have been work related, so I've become pretty familiar with the inside of London School of English buildings, and the inside of the British council. We also both flew into Kiev at Christmas and stayed overnight before getting the bus back to Odessa, and then saw some dark, snowy streets and the inside of a couple of bars. This kinda gave the idea of Kiev as a typical ex-soviet city of concrete tower blocks under a grey, cold sky.A long summer holiday with return flights from Kiev gave us the opportunity to change this for the better. During our three nights there we experienced a vibrant, artistic city with incredible gold domed churches, wide boulevards and cheap cask ale bars.

We travelled from Odessa on the overnight train, where we splashed out on a first class sleeper carriage so we didn't have to share it and could spread out, crack open a bottle of wine and settle back to watch The Who at Glastonbury on the iPad. Ukrainian trains are not the smoothest, so the overnight ride is rather shaky, jolting you out of your slumber whenever it leaves a station, but you get plenty of space. Oddly, Odessa to Kiev is quicker by bus, and the VIP buses have wifi, loads of leg room and a bar service (once I got the bus at 6 am and a bloke near me ordered a bottle of beer). It only takes 6 hours compared to over 8 by train, but the overnight bus is not that great - unless you sleep well with someone with their chair reclined so much they are lying in your lap, and with a small girl vomiting on your shoes (our journey at Christmas). Bottom line - travelling by day - take the VIP bus, travelling by night - take the train.

Whenever I stay in Kiev, I go to the Dream House hostel. It happened to be convenient for a course I was once on, and it's near the top on Tripadvisor and was voted top big hostel in Europe one year. It's reputation is deserved. There are double rooms with bathrooms or without, as well as dorms and huge shared bathrooms - all of which are spotlessly clean. The staff speak perfect English and are very helpful and there's a cafe bar downstairs for breakfast, dinner and drinks. It's full of games to play, has free wifi throughout and computers to use - almost everything a traveller could need. So we dropped our bags off there (they kept our bags and let us have a shower and freshen up), and then headed out into the city. The hostel is at the foot of Andriyivskyy Descent, a long and quite steep cobbled hill, at the top of which sits St Andrew's church. The way up the hill is lined with stalls selling crafts and souvenirs, with a big art market around the foot of the church. It reminded us somewhat of areas of Granada in Spain. From the church you get great views over the whole city. From St Andrew's, it's an easy walk to St Michael's and St Sophia's churches, both with beautiful gold roofs shining in the sun and bright white and green/blue painted walls.

A bit of recent political history.....

We walked in to Maidan square, the site of months of protest, some violent, before the revolution in February 2014, when then President Yanukovytch was ousted over his refusal to sign an association agreement with the EU. Of course, this was not the only reason, but the culmination of people getting annoyed with the constant corruption within the country and not wanting to give further support to Russia after the fall of the Soviet Union. This was followed by the annexation of the Crimean peninsular by Russia, and then to war in the eastern region of Donbass. I can't begin to understand the politics in the country, even after living here for two years, but I will say that the BBC and western media's accounts of the problems are often flawed or oversimplified. A lot of reports state that the conflict is between Ukrainian speakers who want to be part of Europe, and Russian speakers who want to be part of Russia again, but coming from Russian speaking Odessa, I can say that it's not at all true. There are speakers of both languages who think that life under the Soviet Union was more stable and supportive, and alternatively many that believe that Ukraine should be independent. It's very complicated.

Anyway, back to Maidan. I actually visited just after the revolution in April of the same year, when there were still tents pitched all over the square, people dressed in army uniforms walking around, displays of various weapons used in the fighting and banners from the various political groups including a large presence from the far right Pravy Sector. This has now all been cleared away and replaced with vans selling ice creams and snacks, people dressed as minions, Goofy and random Disney characters offering to have their picture taken with you for a fee and restaurant terraces with people sat enjoying an afternoon coffee or beer. It's hard to believe it's the same place. There are memorials around the square to people who died in the protest, particularly to the 'Heavenly Hundred' who were killed by snipers around the square on the 20th February, shortly before the actual revolution. There are photos of the fallen and candles, as well as information boards telling people about what happened. However, in general, while sad and thought-provoking at times, the square, and the whole city is very peaceful. The worst thing that will happen to you is you get accosted by Kung Fu Panda or the zebra from Madagascar who will insist on having many photos taken with you in return for a small fee (like happened to Kris - unfortunately those photos are on another camera). Don't let anything you see on the media put you off visiting, as you'll miss out!

Shameless promoting of a Free Tour

As we've said in another blog, we like the free tours that you get all around Europe, where a local or long term expat takes you for a walk and shows you the sites and you give a tip of whatever you think it was worth/you can afford. At Maidan square we found a small woman with a massive flag who was to give the first tour of the day for Free Walks Kiev. There is one at 12 and one at 4 every day and they take you to different areas of the city - 4 o'clock being more modern architecture and 12 being more historic. Our guide took us around the historic areas of the city, to the three main cathedrals, telling us tales of the Kings and Queens of old and also showing us lots of interesting street art. Landscape Alley in Podil is made up of lots of quirky sculptures, many of which you can pose for photos in. As I said at the beginning, Kiev is a surprisingly artistic city. Like Berlin, there are huge murals painted on the side of buildings, and statues of ancient kings and queens are side by side with statues of cartoon style cats. Anyway, the tour was excellent and we'd totally recommend it.

Kiev's bar culture - or where to go to get cheap craft beer.

Other than walking around the city and catching up with a friend who lives in Kiev, we explored part of Kiev's bar culture. Ukraine, like everywhere, seems to be lapping up the craft beer scene and Kiev had many pubs and bars selling their own brews,and others selling a multitude of beers from around the world. Some are underground pubs with wooden bars, tables and chairs and stone floors, reminiscent of a Medieval feasting hall, while others are all shiny aluminium and faux graffiti walls. Some have large terraces onto the street where you can enjoy your beer in the sunshine of a Kiev summer's day. All are cheap. Kiev is cheap. In fact, all of Ukraine is cheap these days. For the above mentioned reasons, and probably for other economic reasons I don't understand, Ukraine's currency, the Hvrivnia (oddly pronounced Greevna. 'H' is Cyrillic is pronounced more like a 'G', renaming the character 'Garry Potter') crashed shortly after we arrived, going from 9 Hyrivnia to the Pound to 35ish. This meant that on the negative side, imported products got really expensive, but local products were incredibly cheap, especially if you were coming from outside Ukraine. A pint of beer starts at about 15 UAH. You can get a pint of Stella for 25 UAH. My Dad reckons that's the cheapest pint of Stella he's ever had. And he's been to a lot of places. And probably drunk Stella there. The craft beer we have been discussing costs about a Pound a pint. Student prices. Seriously, when we went back to the UK to one of the many craft-beer places that have sprung up lately, we found it very difficult to get a pint for less than four quid. Go to Kiev. You can get four for that price. If you drink enough you will make back the price of your flight.

All in all we had a lovely few days exploring just a few of the things Kiev has to offer. And very nice it was too. I hope this is coming through in the writing. Not to cheat on our lovely Odessa, where we spent two great years and more of which I'll tell you in the next blog, but Kiev is a really cool city and you shouldn't let the troubles put you off going there.

But visit Odessa too.

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7th May 2016
St Michael's cathedral

Good to see you blogging again
It's been far too long since you published. Kiev has been on our list but we'll have to move it up the list a bit. Thanks for a good read.
7th May 2016

Wonderful to hear from you with this latest report. We wonder in Oz how it is for Kris & Kate in the Ukraine so take this blog as good news. Kiev looks and sounds great. Thanks for the update.

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