Kiev, Ukraine, is an off-beat destination, invoking images of Cossack song and dance, repressive communist grime and the catastrophic nuclear accident at the nearby Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant. But, just as those who have lived a veiled life under the Iron Curtain are discovering, we foreigners are not "all spies with cameras in their buttons, radio transmitters in the heels of their shoes and pockets full of Colorado beetles," as contemporary Soviet poet Yevgeny Alexandrovich Yevtushenko said. As such, Westerners preconceived ideas are also changing.
We half expected to find a city in which we could still feel the frosty breath of the Cold War on our face. Instead, we found a bustling, modern metropolis, Paris Hilton-types click clicking along cobblestone streets in five-inch stilettos and designer fashion. Range Rovers, Hummers and Bentleys honk and pound their way through the city's heart, and mile-high video boards hype the latest technology.
Yet beneath the skin of modern-day consumerism lies onion-like layers of history and tradition. Shiny office blocks mix with medieval statues, onion-domed churches and concrete-slab in a Brezhnev-era architecture.
After touching down at Boryspil International Airport and checking into the Premier Palace Hotel, we headed straight for Khreshchatyk, Kiev's Champs Elysees-like main thoroughfare and the most fashionable part of the city. It's lined with sweet-smelling chestnut trees, high-end shops, outdoor cafes, coffee wagons and ice-cream stands. During the week, traffic sits gridlocked along its plumb-line straight expanse through the city. But it takes on an entirely different atmosphere on weekends, when it's closed to traffic and becomes a thronged pedestrian precinct with live bands. Jugglers, in-line skaters and stilt-walkers weave through the crowds creating a carnival-like atmosphere; children skip through fountains; and young and old alike, in sophisticated fashion, hit the shops and strut their stuff.
The first two full days, we took a couple of free and inexpensive tours to get the lay of the land, visit some of the main tourist attractions and learn a bit about Kiev's 1,500 year-old checkered history. We walked from landmark to landmark, starting in Independence Square, located at one end of Khreshchatyk. It was here that, in 2004, hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians, dressed in orange, demonstrated for weeks in harsh, winter conditions against political corruption and a rigged election.
Today, Independence Square is the city's social hub, where concerts, festivals and parades take place, along with plenty of late-night drinking and people-watching. Underneath the square is the "Metrograd," a vast, high-end shopping center, just one of many subterranean shopping centers throughout the city.
At the opposite end of Khreshchatyk, in front of the only statue of Lenin remaining in the city, is the Bessarabsky Market, a rotunda dating to 1912, where women in babushkas sell colorful spices, vegetables and flowers, fish, meat, sausage and Russian caviar.
At the top of the list of Kiev's tourist attractions is Pechersk Lavra, the caves monastery, a vast complex of churches and museums, dating to the 11th century. This UNESCO World Heritage site is the most well-known Ukrainian symbol of Eastern Orthodox Christianity. Of particular interest are two sections of caves where dozens of monks once lived but were mummified after they died and are now on display in glass coffins. The religious pass by and, with tears in their eyes, bend to kiss the glass.
Along the hill, overlooking the caves and the picturesque Dnieper River, stands the Mother Homeland. A massive titanium statue erected during Soviet times, she raises a sword to the skies in her right hand, and with her left she holds a shield emblazoned with a hammer and sickle.
Equally as impressive is the nearby National Museum of the Great Patriotic War, where Brutalist Soviet-style sculptures depict the devoted work of the Soviet sons and daughters on the home-front, the courageous defense of the Soviet border from the 1941 German invasion, terrors of the Nazi occupation, and partisan struggle, all to the piped sounds of rousing military music.
Other historic sites to see include St. Sophia's Cathedral. A UNESCO World Heritage site, with its 13 golden domes, this 11th-century Orthodox Church is one of Kiev's most impressive landmarks. As is St. Michael's Cathedral, which really only masquerades as a contemporary of St. Sophia's but, in fact, was destroyed by the Soviets in 1934 and only recently rebuilt to its original 12th-century splendor.
From St. Sophia's Cathedral, walk or take the funicular up St. Andrew's Descent, a steep, cobblestone street lined with cafes and coffee shops and is the place to buy authentic Ukrainian souvenirs, including matryoshky (colorful, stackable dolls), Christmas ornaments and Russian lacquer boxes, all made of high-quality paper mache and layer upon layer of lacquer. They're delicately hand-painted, oftentimes using a single strand of squirrel hair as a brush.
Of all that Kiev has to offer, Chernobyl is likely the most familiar to Westerners. On April 26, 1986, Reactor No. 4 at the Chernobyl Power Plant, which lies 60 miles north of Kiev, exploded. The largest civil nuclear disaster in history led to mass evacuations and long-term health, agricultural and economic
According to government regulation, we booked a tour with SoloEast Travel 10 working days in advance of our visit. After clearing checkpoints and armed with a Geiger counter, we started our tour at a kindergarten in an abandoned village just outside the town of Chernobyl. Desks, beds and cribs are scattered in disarray, the crunch of glass underfoot the only sound. The shadowy image of frightened and confused children leaving behind their dolls and balls, toy trucks, storybooks and workbooks was palpable.
The town of Pripyat, the ghost town that was created in 1970 to house the workers of the nearby Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant, is eerie and surreal. Completely devoid of people, it is teeming with wildlife, and its shops and homes are fast deteriorating under a tangle of foliage. Graffiti adorn the walls. A graveyard of more than 1,300 Soviet military helicopters, buses, bulldozers, tankers, fire engines and ambulances irradiated during the accident lie in repose. A Ferris wheel and bumper cars stand motionless and rusting. Reactor No. 4 lies derelict, covered by a sarcophagus.
Poised to change outdated perceptions, Kiev will showcase the warmth of its people, the richness of its culture and its shiny, new infrastructure as it gears up to host key matches of the European Football (soccer for us Westerners) Championships in June and July, in addition to the opening of the Mystetsky Arsenal National Art Museum Complex, expected to be one of Europe's largest museums.
When Patti Sills isn't traveling to exotic locales, she lives and stores her suitcase at her home in Eagle-Vail, where she lives with her husband, Bud the St. Bernard and Vinny the cat. Email firstname.lastname@example.org.