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The International Writers Magazine: Hacktreks Travel

How to See Kiev in Three Hours
• Miriam Matejova

In my mind, Kiev has always been a golden city, but today - on my first visit to the Ukrainian capital - everyone is wearing orange. I have not yet found a Ukrainian who could explain the colour selection, which seems to have nothing in common with any of Ukraine’s national symbols. They are yellow and blue. The Soviet ones were red. It is May 9, the Victory Day in Ukraine, and the roads of Kiev are clogged with traffic and pedestrians carrying bouquets of flowers. Most of them are beautiful women with typical Eastern European features – slanted eyes, round noses, defined cheekbones and striking lips. They wear short skirts, high heels and that characteristic look of confidence that says ‘I am beautiful. Worship me.’


I am sitting in a taxi with three other women, my companions for the day – an Italian, a Bulgarian and a Ukrainian. The taxi is not moving due to crowds of people in their orange attire who are nonchalantly walking on the roads, holding hands, carrying flowers, chatting, spanking disobeying children, and overall ignoring the traffic. Since we only have three hours to see the city, we have decided to visit three of Kiev’s most beautiful landmarks – Vladimirsky Sobor (St. Vladimir’s Cathedral), Sofisky Sobor (Saint Sophia’s Cathedral), and Kyievo-Pecherska Lavra (The Kiev Monastery of the Caves). Being stuck in Kiev’s traffic does not fit the plan.

Our taxi is not a taxi in the Western sense. It is the driver’s own vehicle – a white rusted Skoda Favorit with no taxi sign, no taximeter and no seatbelts in the back seats. No one seems to be bothered by these facts. Our driver, Nikolai, is not wearing a seatbelt even though his seat is equipped with one. My worries, reinforced by Canadian safety standards, mix with flashes of memories from my childhood in Bratislava, Slovakia. Sitting in a Skoda Favorit in the streets of Kiev, with blocks and blocks of concrete apartment buildings in sight turns the clock twenty years back. Within seconds, the safety bells in my head are replaced with nostalgia.

“This one’s my favourite,” Olga interrupts my childhood flashbacks. Her round kind face turns towards me as she twists her body in the front passenger seat. She seems like she is smiling even though the corners of her mouth remain in a straight line. Apparently, while I was floating in my past, Nikolai managed to get us to our first stop - Vladimirsky Sobor. “I come here every time I am in Kiev,” Olga continues, her voice singing in the Ukrainian accent. Just like Russian, Ukrainian is a beautiful language in which each spoken sentence sounds like it is part of a song. The soft sounds of consonants and rising end of sentences make the language especially melodic.
Vlad Sobor I get out of the taxi and look for the cathedral, fixing my eyes on the small church across the street. It has yellow walls, arched windows with white pillars, and two blue cupolas with golden stars (there are actually seven of them but you can’t see them from the road). A neo-Byzantine style, all right, but disappointingly tiny.

Vladimirsky Sobor is the kind of a sight at which you glance at first and then keep looking for it. You check your map, wondering whether you are at the right place. Then you realize you are and try to remember the promotional tourist materials and photos of the church you have seen before, comparing the mental images with what is actually in front of you. You feel a hint of disappointment. You sigh and put your map away. And then you enter.

There is a large sign with a crossed-out camera picture at the entrance to the cathedral. I assume the place is too holy for picture taking, but then I see another sign that lists the photography fees. "Holy" may be relative.

The cathedral’s interior is breath-taking. It is illuminated by hundreds of slim white candles fixed in golden chandeliers and small candlesticks situated on round tables that have been placed in apparently random locations. Most of them stand in front of numerous Orthodox Icons but many are simply just placed around. If the alcove had any kind of order, the candle stands would be obstructing the walkways. But the holy space seems to have no order at all. Paintings of the Saints, golden crosses, colourful ornaments and short Cyrillic verses cover every centimeter of the walls and ceiling. Numerous pillars not only support the structure but also divide it into small departments, now full with praying people. There are no benches and no obvious centre as it is customary in the Catholic churches. A small mixed choir is standing to the right of the altar apse. The beauty of the Ukrainian harmonies is mesmerizing.

After about fifteen minutes, Olga has to drag us outside. Nikolai’s Favorit is still parked at the same spot across the street. As we all get in, we see the driver engaged in a heated conversation. He is pressing a cell phone against his right ear, looking for something in one of the car’s compartments, while managing to throw around his left hand in exasperated gestures. My meagre knowledge of Ukrainian allows me to understand that Nikolai is talking to his dispatcher who seems to be a frustrated female.
Nikolai: Vony khochut?, shchob vidvezty ´kh do sobor Svyato´ Sofi´ i Lavru.” (They want me to take them to Saint Sophia Cathedral and Lavra).
Dispatcher: “No ne pryy?may?te ´kh! ” (Don’t take them!)
Nikolai: Ale vony vzhe v mashyni! Shcho meni robyty?” (But they are in the car. What am I to do? )
Dispatcher: “Tak kyn?te ´kh. ” (Then throw them out.)

The dispatcher then lets out a flow of words, fast enough for me not to understand any of them. Nikolai glances at us and runs his fingers through his short brown hair. Ralitsa, my Bulgarian companion sitting in the back seat next to me, is meaningfully counting a pile of colourful Ukrainian currency she has managed to buy earlier. Her fingers deliberately hold every bill for a brief moment before she moves to the next one. Green, brown, brown, purple, green, yellow, green…The bills, although not worth much, are nice to look at. Undoubtedly, Nikolai must have the same thought as he resolutely interrupts the angry female voice attacking his ear. Had I not known that type of verbal exchange is common and even considered normal in this part of the world, I would be horrified.

Nikolai: Ale ya vtrachu zarobitku! Prosto skazhy meni, skil?ky ya povynen zapytaty!” (But I will lose my earnings. Just tell me how much I should ask for).
Dispatcher: “I 100 hryvni.” (Well, 100 grivna then).

At last, he takes us to Saint Sophia’s Cathedral and agrees to be our chauffeur for the rest of the trip. The cathedral is exactly the type of construction that you see on promotional pictures of Kiev as well as other Ukrainian and Russian cities. White walls, golden and green cupolas, tall towers, stone statues of Saints. Having refused to pay the outrageous fee to see the cathedral’s interior, I can only say that Sofisky Sobor is beautiful from the outside.
St Sophia's

Its almost 1,000-year old foundations don’t show any signs of aging. I wonder whether this building is really a thousand years old or whether it has suffered the fate of so many religious and historical sites of the former Soviet Union that the Communists destroyed but later changed their minds and built exact replicas on the exact same spots.

Our last stop is Kiyevo-Pecherska Lavra. It’s No.2 on the list of Ukrainian “Seven Wonders.” Lavra is a beautiful active monastery with vast grounds and a considerable number of visitors (most of them wearing orange and carrying bouquets of flowers). The traditional Orthodox style of the buildings, complemented with outdoor frescos, is beautiful in its detailed simplicity. With roughly 0.2 km² of towers, cathedrals and fortification walls, Lavra takes some time to explore on foot.

Since each of us has a different idea of what constitutes “exploring,” the four of us split up when we reach the outskirts of the vast grounds. Ralitsa walks into one of numerous souvenir shops that sell mostly replicas of Orthodox Icons. She claims Lavra is the holiest place in Ukraine, and buys 20 holy Icons-replicas for her Bulgarian friends back at home. I, on the other hand, walk towards a street vendor where I buy a honey cake, a liter of carbonated water, and two tablets of 70% dark chocolate. “Holy” is relative.

Lavra Caves “There are lots of caves here,” Ralitsa remarks before I head over to one of the fortification walls that offers a view of Dnepr. “Caves! I love caves!” I exclaim, excited about a prospect for potential adventure. Ralitsa gives me an “are you serious” look, raising her left eyebrow. “It’s not the kind of caves you are thinking. I saw them a few years ago and have no interest in going again.”

She waves me away, gladly letting me go on an adventure by myself. Daniela, the Italian member of our group, catches up with me by one of the numerous cave entrances scattered across the monastery grounds. Together we enter.

Ralitsa was right. The caves are not the kind you usually take your kids to for an educational or fun experience. Pecherska Lavra caves are a confusing, maze-like system of claustrophobic underground tunnels (about 1.5 m wide and barely 2 m high, with some parts much lower and narrower than that), interrupted by underground churches, cells and many, many long-dead monks. The caverns were their home, their entertainment, their place of work and their grave. Especially their grave. I should have clued in when I saw that large fresco at the cave entrance. It depicts angels of all sizes, demons that certainly outnumber the angels, and classically portrayed skeleton-Death standing by people’s deathbeds.

Apparently, some of Lavra’s caves may take up to an hour to get through. Our adventure lasts about ten to fifteen minutes. We buy head scarves (required for women) and a couple of thin white candles, and follow a large crowd of people. Then get stuck in a narrow maze, bumping into pilgrims at every step – people praying, some crying, some kissing the cases containing the imperishable relics of the Saints. The mummified bodies are fully covered with embroidered fabric, but every now and then I see a skeletal hand or foot sticking out.

The deeper into the cave we descend, the more tunnels open up in front of us. My gratitude for spending a few grivna on the tiny candle grows proportionate to the increasing amount of stale air and narrowing stone corridors. At one point, the crowd turns very silent as people get consumed by silent prayers, their own thoughts and – judging by the expressions on the faces of some obvious tourists – claustrophobic regrets of ever entering that place.

Eventually, we leave Lavra, we leave Kiev in a white rusted Skoda Favorit, and we leave Nikolai positively happy with a chunk of colourful Ukrainian cash. Happy him, as it is more than what he usually makes per day, and happy us, since in Western Europe, 30 Euros are unlikely to cover even a one-way ride...well, pretty much anywhere.

© Miriam Matejova August 2012
Miriam is an economist from Canada

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