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Published: September 25th 2013
Expectation is an unwelcome friend on any travel. Appearing at first to be an ally, it can undermine enjoyment of a destination, especially if expectation is too high. It is very rare to visit anywhere without any sense of expectation – but this did duly occur with my travel to Ukraine. Since my visit was organised and paid for courtesy of flydubai
I did not need to research sightseeing, accommodation or flight options. Thus, my prior knowledge of Ukraine was confined to the musings of JonathanCampion
. So it was with much anticipation about the lack of expectation that my four day tour of both Kiev and Odessa commenced.
The first and foremost memory of time in Kiev was the extraordinary beauty of its buildings. Streets upon streets of classical facades, many in pastel colours of blue, red, and yellow that is reminiscent of the great boulevards and squares of Madrid. It had been five years since my travels had taken me to Europe and it was pleasing to again admire such a sumptuous array of architecture. Most satisfying was that Kiev had escaped the ravages of dreary Soviet architecture on display within certain parts of its former empire in Central
That afternoon our small group of six were introduced to our guide, Dimitri. He proved to be an incredible host – combining his immense knowledge with a genuine enthusiasm for Kiev. By the time we parted the following afternoon, I came to admire him greatly both as a person and for his professionalism, and he would rank as one of the finest guides I have yet encountered.
The major site of the first day was the ascent of St Andrew’s Descent (or Andriivsky Descent), which led to the unsurprisingly named St Andrew’s Church. The winding cobblestone road was host to streets stalls, classical architecture and the occasional statuesque Ukrainian woman with dizzying high heels adroitly navigating the cobblestoned street. The heavily clouded day turned to a light rain at dusk, but it did not prevent me from watching St Andrews’ distinctive spires darken with the approaching night. Afterwards, I returned to the restaurant where the others were already eating, and for my first dinner in Kiev, I ate the obvious choice of meal – Chicken Kiev. The meal was extremely tasty and of high quality, something common to all the meals I consumed in Ukraine.
next day under sunny skies we boarded our minibus and Dmitri led us to the incredible St Sophia Cathedral. Spared from the church destroying antics of Stalin, this is one of the most remarkable places of worship you are likely to see. The 13 domes of this church were glorious, and inside was a breathtaking collection of colourful icons and frescoes framed by fuscous walls and arches. We had to farewell Dimitri in favour of a St Sophia guide, and she did a remarkable job in turning one of the most spectacular cathedrals in the world into a boring piece of architecture due to her monotonous monologue. Thankfully, she departed and Dmitri rejoined us for a tour of the upper levels and with his passionate commentary, the vibrancy and spirit of the church once again came alive.
We journeyed to our lunch destination and whilst others were eating (though my stomach did succumb to the offer of some delicious potato pancakes) I explored the nearby Great Patriotic War Museum. This museum and park was overseen by the towering Rodina Mat (Motherland) statue resplendent with an intense gaze, gigantic sword in one hand ready to smite enemies, and the hammer
and sickle symbol of the Soviet Union in the other. Stirring music from the Second World War played through regularly placed loudspeakers so it gave that feeling of briefly being in the Soviet Era even though Ukraine has truly discarded the yoke of that burden.
The final stop in Kiev was the expansive Kiev-Percherskaya Lavra with buildings so numerous that one could easily spend a whole day exploring. It was possible to attend an Orthodox Church service and though they are difficult to follow for the uninitiated, are still fascinating to watch. We concluded the day with a ride in probably the deepest underground metro in the world. I thought that the Pyongyang metro was deep, but that looked positively shallow after experiencing its Kiev counterpart.
The weather the following morning was rainy and dark, and after a brief impromptu rendition of ”How Deep Is Your Love
by the BeeGees whilst heading to the airport and the usual check-in rigmarole we boarded the plane toward Odessa. We were greeted by sunshine and another guide, the delightful Laura, who gradually warmed to our boisterous and irreverent group, and was soon as laughing as much as we were. Odessa had
a more relaxed and intimate feel with a lovely vibe that we warmed to immediately. It was more diverse than Kiev due to its location as an important trading port on the Black Sea, and it was a city rightly proud of its history.
Our walking tour of Odessa again took us past more impressive architecture, but for me, I was particularly excited to finally visit the Potemkin Stairs, the location for one of the most famous scenes in movie history, the massacre from Battleship Potemkin
. There used to be 200 steps, that that was reduced to 192 due to the construction of the road, but the steps appeared largely the same as they did in the movie which I first viewed 20 years ago. From the summit, it provided a vista over the Odessa Port and the Black Sea beyond, but the stairs looked more impressive when gazing upwards from its base. Laura seemed impressed that I owned the DVD of Battleship Potemkin
and even more so that I purchased it from a store in Brisbane, Australia, thus confirming that this classic film still holds its appeal across the other side of the planet almost 90 years after its
However, the most impressive building in the city was easily the Odessa National Academic Theater of Opera and Ballet
, or the Opera House for short. It is ranked as one of the greatest in the whole of Europe, and it was easy to understand why for it dominated the street with its grandeur. I visited the Opera House at dawn, dusk and during the day and at all times it was difficult to draw my gaze from this enchanting edifice.
When I finally managed to do so, it was for a very important reason – to visit a chocolatier. Lviv Handmade Chocolate provided a tempting array of truffles and sculptured chocolate – including high-heel shoes, hearts and bears. I was tempted to purchase the gun-shaped chocolate but thought that it could create some uncomfortable moments at the airport, so decided upon one milk and one white chocolate Volkswagen instead.
Very early on a crisp final morning I walked along the hushed empty streets, save for the rumbling of a car along the wet cobblestones that glistened in the dull light of dawn. Local residents with very large and pampered dogs walked under trees whose leaves showed the first blush of autumn. Everything was
mostly silent, so one could remain still and quietly absorb the energy that flowed from this cosmopolitan and comfortable city.
Perhaps the reason Odessa felt comfortable was because my mother’s maternal grandfather was born here. I have much mixed blood in my family. On my father’s side it is Australian, English and French, whereas on my mother’s side it is German, Russian and Ukrainian. Perhaps this is why Odessa felt like home. Actually, it partly explains why the entire world feels like my home.
Though Ukraine was a destination where I arrived with no expectations, I departed with admiration and awe at beautiful cities filled with breathtaking buildings, delicious food and a strong cultural heritage. Thus, my initial foray into a style of travel characterised by no expectation nor planning has proved a most rewarding experience.
There are always countries that I seek to return, but rarely has that desire being stronger than my wish to again visit Ukraine. Could this be caused by the family connection perhaps? Maybe, but there was something deeper and richer to explore here than my brief visit allowed, something that still makes me smile when reminiscing about my time uncovering one
of Europe’s most gorgeous gems.
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