I love Ukraine, it’s one of my top 5 favourite European countries. It’s also the biggest in Europe if you exclude the big beast that is Russia. Despite being commonly known as ‘the Ukraine’, when it gained independence the government requested the definite article be dropped as it showed a disregard for its sovereignty.
I’ve wanted to visit Ukraine for years and I was not disappointed, dare I say it surpassed my expectations. For a start, we got to Kiev just before new year, and Christmas was still happening as it finishes on the 7th January here.
Not to disappoint you but I need to say right now that chicken kievs do not come from here, there are actually French and were imported by Russian aristocracy to the city.
Kiev has amazing architecture, an instagramworthy underground, two UNESCO heritage sites and it is close to both Pripyat and Radar Duga in the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone. I told you this place was great.
But it doesn’t stop there as Kiev is actually a ‘Hero City’ as named by the Soviet Union after its resistance to the Nazis during the Battle of Kiev in 1941. It also has one of the world’s first constitutions, namely the Constitution of Pylyp Orlyk which covered the thorny subject of how governmental powers could be divided in a democratic way.
The underground is the world’s deepest and in my opinion one of the most beautiful. The Arsenalna stop is the deepest station at 105.5 metres below the ground.
We took the underground to one of the UNESCO heritage sites, the cave monastery known as the Kyevo-Pecherska Lavra. This many-domed and very religious complex contains Scythian gold and underground corridors lined with mummified monks. There was a service on when we were down there so there wasn’t much space and it gets very cozy. This place attracts many older, religious people who struggle on the steep slopes as the monastery is on the river bank so my boyfriend acted as an arm for some of them which they enjoyed.
As if that wasn’t enough, we then saw the second UNESCO heritage site, St Sophia’s Cathedral which was conveniently close to the square where the NYE celebrations were starting. Just like in Chi?in?u, there were lights, markets and people dressed up as cartoon characters and pandas. Prince Yaroslav built this cathedral to celebrate his victory from when he protected Kiev from the Pechenegs. It was beautiful and I would have loved more time to see it, but it was closing time and NYE so we didn’t linger.
We went around the Christmas markets to buy some snacks, they all had things roasting on flame and you could sit at tables with fires in. Whilst it kept us warm, the open fires and wooden huts were an absolute fire hazard as there were so many people there but more on this later.
Kiev put on a really good show, there was a stage up featuring a range of acts, from classical music, to a French pop star, to ballet. They had a screen across the stage to protect them from the elements in order to play their instruments as it was so darn cold. This highbrow culture was the opposite of new year celebrations in the UK.
Just before the countdown they played a ‘highlights reel’ of what had happened over the year in Ukraine and it was certainly interesting what with mounting tensions with Russia. It’s an entirely different perspective from your own and I did think, wow you’ve had a really shit year but they didn’t shy away from it and I respect that.
We weren’t the only tourists there and there were different people from Europe and the Middle East around us. After we’d been bummed out by the ‘highlights’ video we did the countdown and then the fireworks started. The fireworks were behind a building so everyone lurched forward to see them and we were squashed in behind them.
We were caught up in the people trying to see the fireworks as there weren’t many ways to exit the square. It was anxiety-inducing but we managed to get out, I was scared of the fires getting knocked over and the whole place going up in flames. Ukraine, please get some health and safety regulations. I was slightly shocked by the ordeal but we got back to our apartment and fell asleep whilst listening to a couple have an argument.
On new year’s day, we went on the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone tour, but that deserves its own post.
The next day we visited the Great Patriotic War Museum which was recommended to us by my dad, as he loves war and museums. The museum itself seems like an antique but it was only built in the 80s to honour WW2. Ukraine got well and truly fucked in WW2 which is why it’s so important that this museum exists.
Saying that, it was a bit macabre for an anti-war snowflake like me. There are gloves made from human skin and various implements of death. Downstairs is a canteen straight out of a 1950s film set, why they created such a dated-looking museum is beyond me, unless its a genuine attempt to transport you back to that time.
Rodina Mat, Kiev
Another, less dark monument is the Rodina Mat or motherland monument, a big metal statue of a warrior woman holding a sword. Think over the top Soviet bravado. It was the last ‘mother nation’ monument to be erected in the USSR and apparently mocked as inferior to the one in Russia.
That was enough of that for one day so we made our way back via a park with an eternal flame (of course) and a woodpecker was shouting from a tree.
It’s worth mentioning that Ukraine is very hipster, especially the restaurants. We went to a place that was decorated like the set of Goodbye Lenin and we bloody loved it. It helped that the food, service, and decor was great as well as being really cheap. Did I mention how much I like Ukraine? Nostalgia is practically a way of life here.
We headed down to the main street of Khreshchatyk as we wanted to buy swimming costumes so we could go to the spa. It was unsurprisingly hard to find swimwear on this busy street as it was the middle of winter. The visit wasn’t without trauma, as all life can be found here and I saw two monkeys in human clothes wearing nappies. Not a pleasant sight.
We opted to go underground and find a bikini in the shops there, so we split up and I found a place. It was run by a Russian woman and I didn’t know what size I was so she ‘measured’ me by just putting her hand on my boob. The bikini did fit to be fair, it was still one of the most expensive things I bought there as they are regarded as a luxury item.
We went to a spa in a famous hotel chain, we had Thai massages first and then used the facilities. One Russian couple spent ages in the super hot saunas and she was pregnant so clearly they’re made of stronger stuff than us.
We had booked tickets to see a show at the national opera of Ukraine and we didn’t actually know what show we were going to see, but it turned out to be the Nutcracker. The beauty of this was that language didn’t matter and it was pretty easy to understand. There was a lot of people taking selfies and I’m convinced that Ukrainians must be some of the biggest selfie-takers in Europe.
At the end of the show, a woman had to unlock the box we were in which was yet another safety hazard as if someone closes the door, you’re all locked in. So obviously my boyfriend locked me in for banter. The show was nice as highbrow culture is so big in Eastern Europe and we got pizza afterward so I went to bed happy. Our flight home was the next day and when I got back to work I raved about Ukraine, definitely one to watch as I think it’s popularity with continue to grow.
If you love reading about Europe then check out my book, the European installment of my Backpacker Confessions series. Girl vs Europe: A Tale of 43 Countries is out now.