23 November 2009

Kiev - Hidden Gem

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The City

Ukraine’s vibrant capital city, in 2004 Kiev played host to perhaps the most significant event in an emerging democracy during the Orange Revolution. People camped in Independence Square demanding a fair and free election and in the end, they won. Politics is a near constant topic of conversation for Ukrainians as they take their role as vote very seriously. Combined with perhaps one of the most interesting histories in Europe, Kiev offers a fascinating glimpse at both rise and fall of a once major Empire. Fortunately, the grand avenues and exquisite buildings have survived the generations, making it one of the most beautiful cities in the world.

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The Lay of the Land

Kiev is situated near the meeting point of Ukraine’s two main rivers. A majority of the city is west of the water, with Independence Square marking its epicenter. The main churches, shopping and “scene” are north and west of the square, while the monastery lines the hills along the river.

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The Must-Sees and Must-Dos

Take in the unmatched architectural wonder of this world capital. Don’t miss House with Hymers (Bankova 10) with it’s intricately detailed carvings making it one of the most beautiful buildings in the world. Independence Square (Maidan Nezalezhnosti in Ukrainian), The National Opera House and Mariinskyi Palace are also must-sees.

“Chuch-hop” from St. Sophia’s Cathedral to St. Alexander’s Church and on up the hill to St. Andrew’s Church. They’re all spectacular.

Stroll the cobblestoned streets of Andrew’s Descent. A daily market of clothes, food, bric-a-brac and tourist “necessities” line the cobblestoned lanes from St. Andrews Church at the highest point and down the street to the north.

Instead of exploring Kiev’s cave monastery, opt for a day-trip to Chernihiv (mini-buses leave whenever they’re full from the Lisova metro station at the end of the red line, $4). A larger monastery and more extensive caves make for a very unique life experience. Chernihiv offers half a dozen other churches as well as a stunning World War II memorial and ancient Cossack “hill cemetery.” The bigger the hill, the more important the man.

Plan an organized trip to Chernobyl. Yes it’s the site of the world’s greatest nuclear disaster but the Atomic Energy Association says it’s now clear to visit and the experience is out of this world. Get within 700 feet of reactor number four then wander the once vibrant streets of Pripyat town. Once home to more than 60,000 people, the city was deserted nearly overnight following the incident, leaving everything still intact. From lessons half-written on the chalkboards to an amusement park that never opened, it’s a chilling reminder of what human being can both create and destroy.

Eat Chicken Kiev, Borsch soup and fried potatoes. It’s not necessarily the most delicious meal, but it will get you in the Ukrainian “mood.”

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The Tips and Tricks

Half of Ukraine speaks Russian and half of Ukraine speaks Ukrainian. You’ll probably speak neither. Both, however, use the cyrillic alphabet so take a few hours to learn to read it before you arrive. It will make your visit quite a bit easier to be able to pronounce where you’d like to go.

Petty crime and obsessive alcoholism remain problems in the city center. Watch your bags and avoid projectile beer bottles.

Upon arrival, fill out both the arrival side and departure side of the immigration form. Otherwise, you’ll be sent to the back of the line just like in fifth grade. Not fun.

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