UPDATE 2022: With Russia’s horrific invasion of Ukraine, tourism is understandably not a thought for the country right now. But, when Ukraine is liberated and the time comes for travellers to return and support the country, I’ll be certain to return for much more than one day – my original article remains below for a reminder.
A soothing melody floated in the summer heat. Tall townhouses in pinks, yellows and bubble gum blue set the stage for the open-fronted piano, which was enthralling a small crowd snacking on candy floss.
The man played with smooth strokes, and the sun illuminated the surrounding gold church domes. A little breeze gently forced a rose garden to sway, and the bold pillars of a soviet building stood hulking on my peripheral vision.
The city of Kyiv in front of me was as far removed from the images that flooded across the world’s TV channels in 2014 as it could be.
The protests that took place just moments from here on Independence Square and the subsequent actions which followed were a defining moment for Ukraine, but don’t let this put you off visiting as a tourist; this capital city is a captivating place and a fantastic city break.
My trip to Kyiv was only to be 36 hours, and I quickly realised that was a mistake. On this lazy Sunday afternoon, there was no rushed spirit like my usual city breaks, and I joined in the slow-paced strolling vibe of the capital rather than dashing from one tourist spot to the next.
Everyone was lounging around in parks, of which they are many; Kyiv is a surprisingly green city or chilling out at the beaches where comedy clubs and bars entertained patrons.
Ice creams were everywhere, candy floss added colour to the landscape, and music and art finished the picture.
Flanked by St Peters Church, a bright green-domed beauty categorising the religious architecture across the city, were rows and rows of artists exhibiting their work.
Hiding in the shade of their own paintings and stretching along the whole boardwalk were countless impressions of people, architecture and the abstract. Kyiv’s creativity was evident throughout the city, broken up by Soviet architecture, which provided a stark contrast.
You could easily spend a full day, and then some, exploring the gold-domed churches and cathedrals of Kyiv. A predominantly orthodox nation, there are countless houses of worship scattered across the city.
Long before Ukraine was the country we know now, and the history of this decade we are all mostly familiar with, the long past of this city has defied many other border changes; in fact, the city dates back some 1400 years.
Following the wooden footpath with viewing platforms out to the Dnieper River, I arrived at the glass walking platform, which floated high above the highway below. Here, you can see the Friendship Monument, dedicated to friendship with neighbouring nations and currently decorated with a painted crack to signify the current strain in certain relationships.
I walked around in a happy dazy, lost in the laid-back Sunday vibe, and loving it.
All was going well until I tried to find traditional cuisine, though.
I’d done something wrong that I could tell, but what, I had no idea. With a scowling look, the salad bowl was snatched out of my hand, a single slice of aubergine was removed, and it landed back on my tray with a clank.
Sampling Ukrainian cuisine at a self-serve style restaurant was already turning into a confusing chore, a far cry from how friendly and helpful everyone else I had met in Kyiv had been, even with the occasional (ok, regular) language struggle.
I pointed at some things, which brought more tutting, and then settled in to chow down on what now was an overflowing tray of different local dishes. Luckily, with one less piece of aubergine to eat, I didn’t have to worry about breaking my Tajikistan hiking training diet.
Most dishes were delicious, one was awful, what anything was I couldn’t tell you – and this is why I’ll never be a food writer.
By far, the best meal I had in Kyiv, though, was Georgian, of which there are multiple restaurants throughout the city catering cuisine from the caucus country.
Criminally this was the first time I was eating Georgian cuisine, and from the pomegranate tea to the cheese breadstuff Kachuliara, it all was a treat.
After a quick coffee and cake stop, which both seem popular local pastimes, I continued on my quest to find more gold domes.
Two of the most famous sights for spotting these sit close by each other; St Sophia’s Cathedral and St Michaels, the latter being free to visit.
In the ground, or territory as it’s referred to, of St Sophia’s, an opera singer was warming up for a concert in the garden that night while another piano was being played in the courtyard. A somewhat confusing set of ticket prices will define what you can and can’t enter here, and sadly my choice didn’t include entry into the actual cathedral, but the views from atop the bell tower are fantastic.
Across the vast square, strangely devoid of tourists in the August heat, St Michaels allows entry into its gold-domed, blue-painted cathedral. Inside, the intricate art reminded me of the cathedrals of St Petersburg, without perhaps the excess showing of wealth.
The road took me back down to Independence Square, past my hotel, Kozatskiy, which had a prime position and views for a bargain price, although the interior felt more soviet office block than check-in and relaxation.
As the sun was starting to set, bands were playing at the far end of the square under the Independence Monument, and closer to me, the music fountains enthralled the crowds.
I took a coffee from a lady behind a tiny window and settled in to watch the show as children giggled under the light spray of the water.
The fountains shot far into the sky, eclipsing the Golden Arches advertising Mcdonald’s and the signs of the proCredit bank.
Dancing in time to the amplified music, the many fountains set the stage for a square of harmony and laughter, with friends and families enjoying the last hours of the weekend.
I thought back to when I had seen this square on TV five years ago and just how removed my media image of this city was from the current reality.
The next morning with just hours to spare before my flight to Kazakhstan, I stepped out to find a dedicated team of street cleaners finishing their work and the square in a pristine state.
Jumping on a metro, something you must do in Kyiv to appreciate the individual stations’ impressive decoration, I headed out to the Motherland Monument, an imposing and towering statue well known in the city.
Residing myself to the fact I wouldn’t see everything I wanted to in Kyiv and already knowing that was ok as I planned to return, I headed back to my office block hotel, grabbed my bags, and thought I’d treat myself to an Uber to the airport, given the rather friendly prices compared to Portugal.
Goodbye, calm and relaxed Kyiv, and hello to everything I’ve ever read about driving in Ukraine.
‘I’m not in a rush’, I offered in English, but I think the word rush was the only one not lost in (literally no) translation.
Dutifully we pulled out of our lane and barrelled down the other side of the road, honking at a parking bus as if it was somehow in the wrong.
My mum would want to give him a lecture; I decided he was getting a tip.
The traffic broke, and white tower blocks stood in unison on the side of the motorway, slowly fading into grey and browns the further from the city we got.
I liked Kyiv; I liked it a lot, I thought, as a car with its back held together with cellophane somehow overtook us.
We pull up at the airport, and both sigh in relief, and I can’t tell if the look is pride in getting me there in time or annoyance I’ve made him make the journey. I feign I’m in a rush and dash into the terminal to make all his hard work seem worthwhile, even breaking a little jog, before being first at the still-yet-to-open check-in desk.
My adventure to Central Asia was only just beginning, and I feel it will be one of those trips you will never forget.
Until next time Kyiv, of which you can be sure they’ll be one, drive safe!