I come up from the subway and a sky as heavy as slate hangs over the city, reflecting in the river below, in the puddles along the brick street I’m crossing. I’ve already become anxious at the sight of old men with turned down faces, as if their relaxed expressions are permanently carved into frowns. I’m beginning to think all the movie stereotypes of former USSR countries must hold some amount of truth when I turn the corner and see an impossible color sitting atop the city in places spread out like sentries throughout the old European-style buildings. It’s gold, as warm as the absent sun, and as defiant of the sky as the people trudging through the streets beneath it, I’m about to find out.
Kiev’s old buildings have a hint of Prague’s personality to them, and despite the years and the heavy history, the city feels young and exciting once you get into it. This is a country that had to resurrect its identity, though much of the capital city still speaks Russian. I start my exploration with the city’s most famous historical sites.
All That Glitters Is a Church
The Orthodox churches defy the gravity of gray and the golden domes are a marvel no matter what light falls upon them. The most famous of them is the 11th century Saint Sophia, named in honor of the magnificent church of the same name in the former Constantinople. Originally a cathedral, Kiev’s Church of the Holy Wisdom has changed hands over the years and has passed from the Ukrainian Greek Catholic and the Moldavian Orthodox churches and on to the Soviets who nearly destroyed it in anti-religion campaigns. UNESCO designates it as a World Heritage Site and despite bickering among various religious factions that want to call it their own, it remains a museum.
Inside are mosaics and frescoes in the Byzantine style, a marvelous display of centuries old religious art that you can learn about from an English-speaking guide (when she is available). The bell tower overlooks it all and offers a view onto St. Sophia Square right outside the front doors. From that vantage point looking east you can’t miss the golden domes of St. Michael’s Monastery and Cathedral. The complex was founded in the Middle Ages but what we see today is a reconstruction: unlike Saint Sophia, St. Michael’s didn’t escape the religious razing of the Soviets.
Come With an Open Mind – and Mouth
I visit Shevchenko Park – named for Taras Shevchenko, the poet and artist who is highly revered for his contributions to the Ukrainian identity (his face graces the 100 hryvnia banknote). In one corner of the park is O’Panas Restaurant, a tourist eatery for sure, a roundhouse with high ceilings and exposed wood around a central tree trunk, all decked out in traditional Ukrainian folk art. An accordion band plays folk songs and I see even a few youngsters who seem to know the words. It’s a show and I’d expect tour packages parking out front. Perhaps they come sometime during the day, but the clientele tonight are the locals. Maybe they like to celebrate the culture a bit or maybe it’s just because the food is so good and affordable.
A menu in English is a serious help and I pore through it wanting to try everything I can. I’ve seen Chinese menus, so I know the comedy of errors that lies in food translation, but this doesn’t seemed plagued by Google Translate mismatches. So I must pause when I see “Fat and a Garlic.” Fat? Just fat? (No, Kevin, “and a garlic.”) The waiter assures me this is a very popular local dish. I’m game and I order a plate along with a shot of local honey pepper vodka and a plate of pickles (cucumber, cabbage and tomato). What arrives raises eyebrows of the uninitiated. Imagine the cheapest package of bacon at the supermarket – the one where through the plastic window that shows the marbling you see nothing but the white of a blizzard – and then imagine that whatever pink is actually in that packet has been carefully removed. This is salo. Across the top were thin slivers of a fresh garlic clove and next to it a dollop of horseradish.
Appalling. Certainly deadly in a slow-death sort of way. And it is a sort of health ethics that makes me leave the very last tiny bit on the plate so I can say I didn’t eat ALL of it.
I devour the dumplings, pelmeni (Russian) and varenyky (Ukrainian), with all sorts of fillings: potatoes, meat, cottage cheese, kraut, cherries — and a dollop of sour cream.
On a Sunday I venture with my friend Dave up the river a bit to see another of Kiev’s important attractions, Lavra Monastery, sometimes referred to as the “cave monastery” for a system of hillside catacombs. Despite its distance from St. Sophia, it is part of the same UNESCO designation as one site.
When I enter it is packed with the faithful, gathering for services, stopping the black-clad bearded priests as they cross the courtyard to speak of what? To present them with Christian moral questions? To make a brief confession? I will never know but the priest invariably nodded a bit and spoke as teacher continuing to amble but more slowly.
This is the shoulder season. Winter, which had shown its muscle by dipping below zero well into double digits just about a month before, had mostly packed up and moved out for the year, stopping by for short spells to pick up those last few boxes. In the short two hours I wander Lavra I see warm sunshine, a spit of spring rain, a sudden snow flurry, and sunshine once again. All that is lacking to complete the Vivaldi moment are some leaves changing colors. On the plus side I can say with one visit that Lavra is stunning in all seasons.
While the two main churches and bell tower show magnificent architecture and icons inside, the quirky attraction here is the system of tunnels. Deep into the earth I descend with a candle to light my way in between a few strategic light bulbs and more candles. All along the close, whitewashed passageway – a must-miss for claustrophobics – are niches with glass coffins. Inside wrapped in death shrouds are the remains of prominent monks. What strikes the visitor first is just how short these men were. I measured using my forearm (a cubit, right?) and later calculated that most of them were less than 5 feet tall.
The withered, mummified hands of a few protrude from the shrouds in case one has doubts of the contents. Dave and I are possibly the only tourists among the pilgrims. All visitors stop at every glass coffin and every portrait and mumble a prayer and bend to press their lips against the glass. The devotion adds to the eeriness of the place while also making the walk through to the other staircase back up to the land of the living a bit slower.
Back to the Dinner Table
Not all borsch is created equal. I loathe beets and was delighted to find that some of the typical purple soup wasn’t quite so “beety” as I’d expected, and that green borsch had no beets in it at all. Soups came served in bread bowls and I opted for a cabbage and millet variety to warm up from the walk… in case the vodka shot didn’t quite accomplish that.
My final eating adventure is in a little corner restaurant that starts just below the sidewalk and rises up a floor. Sheepskins upholster the chairs, faces are carved into woodwork and the central tree trunk in the first-level coffee shop. Kult Ra is not like any of the other local-cuisine establishments I’d seen.
The hostess gave me an enthusiastic tour, as if the whole thing was her artistic creation and she was proud to show it off. Other staff exhibited the same sense of ownership. This was Ruthenian, the original Ukrainian food, pre-Christian, I was told. The designs on the walls and even the specially made glazed plates came from a Neolithic culture that once occupied this region north of the Black Sea. The organic menu wasn’t just local in the sense of farm-to-table; its origins were also historically local, meaning no tomatoes, corn, or potatoes from the New World.
I’d call it the best meal I had. I drank a milk that had been left to sour naturally, with a mild effervescence that tickled my tongue. Sprinkled with local herbs, kyslyak came with a note in the menu: you will never grow old while drinking it. I suppose that guarantee was void as soon I left the building, but all the more reason to spend more time here. Pancakes, salmon, apples marinated in oak barrels, fresh baked bread, natural cold drinks, and varieties of teas and pastries. My favorite was the sichenyky hrybni, a sort of fritter made of oyster mushrooms, champignons, onion, sour cream, eggs, and greens.
In the evenings, we stayed up listening to live jazz at a Belgian-themed pub, or tipped back the brew at a microbrewery down on Khreshchatyk Street, or danced to a rockin’ accordion band playing unexpected tunes from Ukrainian and Russian tunes to “Billie Jean” and the “ugh”-inducing “Macarena.” And on my final night we descended into the uber-cool brick-walled subterranean Art Club 44 and found a band doing exceptional classic rock covers that everyone in the (decidedly local) crowd knew the English words to. Who can’t appreciate the irony of a drunken room of dancing Ukrainians bellowing “Back in the U.S.S.R.” at the top of their cigarette-smoke-filled lungs?
I do know how lucky I am. And I hope to have the good fortune to get back here again soon.
Kiev is the site of the UEFA Euro 2012 football (soccer) championship, and in expectation of that, the city is getting a lot of fine-tuning and facelifts. Be aware that also being lifted are the hotel prices during that period (mid-June to July 1). Unless you are a soccer fanatic, it will be best to avoid Kiev during this time.