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Another day, another breakfast! Today's was remarkably similar to yesterday's, except for the fact that my pancakes were filled with forest fruits rather than cherries. Our flight wasn't until 20.05 this evening, so we had another full day in Kiev. Once we'd checked out of the apartment, we set off to explore a part of the city which we had only seen from a distance yesterday; the Motherland monument. Our route took us along some of the streets we had followed yesterday, passing the war and famine memorials. We also passed the monastery which we had visited yesterday afternoon. Before long we got our first glimpse of the statue which we were walking to see. The statue is part of the national museum of the history of Ukraine in the Second World War, and as we walked towards the statue we passed by all sorts of guns and armoured vehicles. We also had views back towards the golden roofs of the monastery. The closer you get to the statue, the more apparent it becomes how absolutely huge it is. The scale is quite well demonstrated in comparison to this guy mowing the grass! We entered the museum complex and walked past a series of sculptures depicting the defence of the Soviet border from German invasion. Some of them were rather scary! Others showed the peasants assisting with the war effort. When we emerged at the front of the statue, we found another large monument which depicted the Battle of the Dnieper in 1943. From here we had the best view of the statue. The entire structure is over 100 metres tall! Apparently you can climb part of the way to the top, but we decided to give it a miss! Instead we strolled around the park, enjoying the views back towards the monastery.... ...and particularly the views of the bell tower which we had climbed yesterday Afterwards, we decided to retrace our steps from yesterday and walk back into the centre of Kiev. We walked through the shady Mariyinsky Park... ...stopping to admire the palace again. From there we made our way towards the main square, Maidan Nezaleznosti. It was so much quieter here today than it had been yesterday! We had an unobstructed view of this monument to the founders of Kiev. We didn't take any photos, but the square and the surrounding area where full of little stalls selling souvenirs and the most popular souvenir on sale appeared to be a roll of toilet paper with Vladimir Putin's face on it Once we'd finished looking around the square, it was time to find somewhere to have lunch. This probably wasn't the cheapest part of town, but with Ukrainian prices it didn't really matter! I had a huge pizza, with a glass of Georgian wine. I've never tried Georgian wine before and it's main feature seemed to be that it was really, really strong! It smelled more like rakija than wine and Tim couldn't even bring himself to try it, deciding to stick with beer instead Tim had ordered his meal off the basis of a picture we'd seem outside and the menu. When it came (about 20 minutes after my pizza!), it was complete with a rather alarming piece of purple cabbage. Once we'd finished lunch we went back through the square. On the opposite side of the road there was a monument which gave the distances to different cities around the world from Kiev. London was 2 135km away! We walked back in the direction of St Michael's monastery to have a better look. We'd been rushing past here yesterday because we were late, so hadn't taken many photos. From here it wasn't far back to St Andrew's church, which was definitely one of my favourites yesterday. Today we were able to enjoy the views with far fewer people around There was just time for a final view out over Kiev before we needed to head back towards the train station to catch our bus to the airport. It was Kiev's rush hour by this point and the bus took twice as long to get to the airport as it had on Saturday evening. That, combined with the queue at passport control, meant that we ran out of time to finish the blog at the airport. That slight annoyance aside, we had a really great weekend in Kiev It's an exciting place with lots to see and our accommodation definitely made this visit a lot more comfortable an experience than our first trip in 2011
When we checked into the hotel last night, we had to choose our breakfast from a picture menu. The options all looked much of a muchness, the main difference being whether you wanted your eggs scrambled or fried. We made a split second decision and asked if we could have it at 9am, but by the time it got to this morning I wasn't entirely sure what it was we were going to receive. 9am came around and our door bell rang - breakfast was being delivered to us! It looked... interesting. I definitely don't remember there being so much greenery in the photos on the menu! Once my salad was safely in the bin, I was left with some very dry sort of bread, scrambled egg which had a very odd feathery herb through it and what was allegedly sausage, but tasted more like a hot dog. The pancakes were nice; mine were stuffed with cherries and drizzled with chocolate sauce, although one of them was slightly contaminated by the unnecessary slices of orange. At least the coffee was good Once we'd eaten what we could of breakfast, we set out to explore Kiev. Not far from our hotel we found the Mariyinsky Palace, which is the official home of the president of Ukraine. The building with the big dome next to the palace is the Ukrainian parliament. There were armed police on guard outside. When you get closer to the building, you can't see the dome any more. Across the road we found what looked like another large government building. This one caught our attention because it had the EU flag flying outside it as well as the Ukrainian one! From here we began to walk into the centre of the town, towards the main square, Maidan Nezalezhnosti. Unfortunately, when we got here we found it was rather busy! There was some sort of festival going on in Kiev today and it seemed to involve a marathon or something similar. There were thousands of people in the square getting ready to take part in a race. We just about managed to push our way through the square, resolving to come back tomorrow when it would (hopefully!) be emptier and take proper photos then. We walked down what seemed like a main shopping street, before coming to a place which looked familar... but different. This is where the statue of Lenin used to stand before it was toppled in December 2013. This is what it looked like when we were here in 2011. We walked uphill, towards Kiev's university, which is based in this rather striking red building. Behind us was a park and statue dedicated to the Ukrainian poet, Taras Shevchenko. We had come in this direction in search of a church which I remembered from our previous visit. This is St Volodymyr's Cathedral. It's a beautiful yellow building. I particularly love the blue roofs on the little towers We walked all the way around it to get the best views From the cathedral we walked through a square... ...and came to a little road where there were people in national costume, singing. We were now standing outside the Golden Gate. This is the site of the original gate into the 11th century fortifications of Kiev. The gate was dismantled in the Middle Ages and rebuilt in 1982 for the 1500th anniversary of Kiev. The large statue outside the gate is of Yaroslav the Wise. From here it wasn't far to St Sophia's Cathedral. I remembered its beautiful blue bell tower from last time we were here. In the square outside the cathedral, Tim paid 20 hryvnia (60p) to have his photo taken with these rather odd-looking doves. They sat on his shoulders... ...and his head Meanwhile I was on the other side of the square, taking photos of the bell tower The square itself is very pretty... and you can see lots of little domes in the cathedral complex behind the walls. In the other direction, we could also make out St Michael's Golden-Domed monastery. There's certainly no shortage of striking churches in Kiev. We didn't have to walk much further before we found St Andrew's. The church is surrounded by a park, from where we got tantalising glimpses of it through the trees. Nearby we stumbled across a sculpture park, which looked like it wouldn't have been out of place in Barcelona Some of the sculptures were really cute... ...while others were slightly more bizarre! As we left the sculpture park, we had a beautiful view back towards St Andrew's church. We began to follow a path that led downwards... ...giving views of some very impressive buildings, some of which seemed to be embassies. We reached a viewpoint from which we could see out over the city. I really loved these colourful roofs The path then became increasingly busy and it felt like the entire population of Kiev had chosen the same place to have a Sunday walk We managed to push our way through the crowds and eventually emerged at the base of the church again. It was around 2pm now and we were running late, because we were supposed to be meeting our Esperanto friend Kalle, who we last met in Malmo, at 2.30 outside the Arsenalna metro station. We were about a 50-minute walk from there at the moment, so needed to find a metro station if we stood any chance of not being completely late. As we could see from this viewpoint next to the church, Kiev is huge and finding a metro station wasn't necessarily going to be straightforward. Having consulted the map, we decided that the best bet would be head back to Maidan Nezalezhnosti. On the way, we got a better view of St Michael's Monastery. From here it wasn't far to the square, but once we got to the square it took a while to find the metro station because everywhere was still so busy with the festival/marathon thing. The Maidan metro station was on line number 2 and Arsenalna is on line number 1. When we consulted the metro map, we thought we could go one stop on line 2 and then change to line 1, but once we got down to the platforms that turned out not to be the case (as in, the station we wanted to go to wasn't listed as one of the stops), so we were quite confused. In the end we had to go back above ground, walk to a different station on line 1 and take the metro to Arsenalna from there. By the time we arrived we were a good 30 minutes late, although almost 10 minutes of those had been spent on escalators trying to get out of Arsenalna Luckily Kalle had waited for us! We had lunch together in the restaurant of this rather Soviet-looking hotel on the left of the picture. For lunch we had pelmeni, little dumplings filled with minced meat. They tasted a bit like ravioli After lunch, we set off to explore some of the surrounding area. Not far from Arsenalna is a memorial park which commemorates the victims of famine in Ukraine. The obelisk commemorates victims of WW2 and there's an eternal flame burning underneath it. The candle-shaped monument is dedicated to famine victims. Millions of people in Ukraine died of starvation between 1932 - 1933, as a result of Soviet collectivisation policies. We were walking through the memorial park on our way to one of Kiev's most famous sites: the Pechersk Lavra monastery. We bought tickets and passed through the main gate, to be confronted with a large silver egg (no idea what it was for!) and our first glimpse of the Dormition Cathedral. The cathedral was originally built in the 11th century, but destroyed during WW2. It was restored in 1995, following Ukrainian independence. The other striking building inside the monastery was this huge bell tower. We bought tickets to climb to the top. There weren't actually as many steps as I was expecting, and before too long we made it to the first balcony. We were able to look down at the cathedral And we could see for miles out across Kiev... ...including getting a great view of the Motherland statue, which we remembered from our previous visit to Kiev. We climbed a bit higher, to the part of the tower where the bells were. The views were great from here as well. And Kalle took a rare photo of us together Then it was time to climb back down. Underneath the bell tower was the grave of Pyotr Stolypin, the Russian minister who was assassinated in Kiev in 1911. We strolled around the monastery for a bit longer, enjoying the wonderful views. Then there was just time for some coffee and cake, before we went our separate ways By the time we got back to the hotel we were both exhausted. Tim's Fitbit shows we got quite a few steps today!!
As I mentioned in the blog about Cinque Terre, we've really struggled to find cheap flights for bank holidays this year. We struggled in particular with the second May bank holiday, which seemed to be more expensive than the first one; probably because it coincides with school half terms. After a lot of research, the only place to which I managed to find what I would describe as a truly cheap flight was Kiev, from Gatwick with Ukraine International Airlines. Could we go to Kiev for a weekend? It felt like potentially a very long journey for a short trip, but then we are the people who went all the way to Tenerife for a weekend in 2017 More to the point, did we want to go to Kiev for a weekend? We spent a very memorable week in Kiev in 2011 when we attended an international Esperanto youth conference. The event itself was very badly organised and the quality of the accommodation was absolutely dreadful, so Kiev hadn't necessarily been high on our list of places we wanted to return to. But I remembered the city itself as being beautiful, and I figured that if we were able to stay in a proper hotel that had luxuries like power sockets and curtains this time, we might enjoy the experience more. I decided to go ahead and book Our flight today wasn't until around midday, so we had a rather relaxed start to the trip by our normal standards, not leaving home until after 7am. Gatwick wasn't as busy as I thought it might be considering it was school holidays, and by around 10.30 we were sitting in Wetherspoons enjoying a large breakfast. Gate information for our flight was given at 11.30 and it seemed like everything was going to be plain sailing. Until we got to the gate, that is. First of all there seemed to be a delay with boarding. Then when boarding was announced, the staff were trying to get people to board based on row order, but some of the passengers struggled to understand this and chaos ensued, with people queuing up with their boarding passes and then being sent to the back of the queue if they had the wrong row numbers. We made it onto the plane eventually and were pleasantly surprised to find that it was quite spacious and comfortable. Tim even managed to fit his bag in the overhead lockers for a change It's a good job that the plane was comfortable, because it turned out that we were going to be sitting on it for a long time. The cabin crew began to make the usual announcements - firstly in Ukrainian, then repeated in English and Russian - but then the plane just sat on the runway and didn't move. Eventually the pilot made an announcement to say that our departure was going to be delayed by at least an hour because of air traffic congestion over Poland That was rather unexpected! We sat there and we sat there and we sat there. In the end it was around 14.30 before the plane took off, which was over two hours late. How frustrating! It was already a long flight (3 hours) so this meant it was going to be pretty late by the time we finally landed in Kiev, especially taking into account the fact that Ukraine is two hours ahead of the UK. The weather was good for most of the journey, but the view wasn't very exciting as we flew over incredibly flat Polish and Ukrainian countryside. It was only as we began coming in to land around 3 hours later that we got an interesting view of the enormous river Dnieper that runs through Kiev. We could see lots of islands in the middle of the river Once we'd landed we had to get through passport control. This gave us a vision of our post-Brexit future, as we had to join an "All passports" queue and wait in line behind all kinds of nationalities, some of whom seemed to be getting very tough questioning by the Ukrainian border staff. Some people were led off in separate directions to be questioned, while others had to have their fingerprints recorded, so I was slightly apprehensive by the time we got to the front of the queue! Luckily our passports didn't seem to present any problems; the border guard just asked if I'd come from London, stamped my passport and waved me through. Phew! Next step was to acquire some Ukrainian currency. You can't buy hryvnia in the UK, so we had brought Euros with us to change. The arrivals hall was home to some sophisticated looking machines where it looked like you could feed in Euros and get hryvnia in return. We were just in the process of trying to figure out how to use one of these when we got accosted by a random man. To start with we couldn't understand what he was saying, but it transpired that he ran a small stall nearby and said he would give a better exchange rate than the machine. His rate was indeed slightly better, and so we changed 40 Euros. All that remained now was to find our way into central Kiev. You can travel into the city centre by train, but when I researched it the timetable seemed quite infrequent. The other option is to take the airport bus, and we were luckily that we stepped out of the terminal building and saw one waiting right in front of us. The fare was 100 hryvnia (about £3) which seemed quite good value. As we drove out of the airport and along the main road into town, guess what one of the first things I saw was?! The bus took us across the river and towards the main train station. From there, we needed to find the Vokzalna metro station and catch the metro to a station called Arsenalna. The metro in Kiev is an absolute bargain, with a token for a single journey costing 8 hryvnia (24p!!!). We tried to buy tokens at a machine but it didn't work, so we had to go to the ticket desk instead. The lady behind the counter didn't look terribly impressed that we were trying to buy two tokens with a 100 hryvnia note. The metro in Kiev is incredibly deep underground and this means that the escalators are enormous. As in, you get on the escalator and it's so big you can't see the other end of it. Arsenalna, where we were getting off, is the deepest metro station in the world according to our guidebook. It certainly felt like it; we came up one long escalator, assumed we were at the top, then found there was a second equally long one still to go! The aparthotel we are staying in is only a few hundred metres from Arsenalna station. By the time we emerged from the metro, darkness had fallen so it was a little bit harder to find it than I expected, but we got there in the end (and just about managed to check in in Russian!). When we stayed in Kiev in 2011, our room looked like this: Our bedroom this time around is considerably nicer In fact, we have a choice of two bedrooms in case we fall out And we have a little kitchen too It's worked out at about £60/night and that includes breakfast as well, so it feels like pretty good value It's a lovely apartment but overall it's been a rather tiring day of travelling! Let's hope that we get to see more of Kiev tomorrow
We woke up about 7am on Wednesday morning and found ourselves in a bright sunny morning in Lviv. It looked like an interesting city, from the train window at least, with tall church spires and imposing buildings. It seemed less scary and Ukrainian than Chop had done in the early hours of the morning. The rest of Ukraine which we passed through for the remainder of the day was rather flat and uneventful. We didn’t go past many settlements, and the most human habitation we saw were little farmsteads. People seemed to go in for white ducks and geese in a big way, which was nice. There were a few beautiful fields of sunflowers, but otherwise there just seemed to be an awful lot of grass which no one was doing anything very useful with. For hours at a time, the view would be blocked by tall avenues of trees so that we stood no chance of seeing where we actually were. I read in the guide book later than this was partially a deliberate tactic on the part of the USSR, who had wanted to hide anything of potential military importance from train passengers. I am sure that the distance between Lviv and Kiev is substantial, but I am equally sure that the train could have got there sooner if it had gone just a little bit faster. Whenever we passed a road, we were being lapped by even the oldest, most Soviet-looking of vehicles. I don’t know why the train had to go at such a creeping pace, perhaps because the tracks are so old. We were due in to Kiev at 20.02 and about 18.30 I was starting to feel like I’d been on the train for long enough now and would be glad to stretch my legs. Somewhat to my surprise, the conductor suddenly knocked on the door and demanded the bed linen back. I had, admittedly, known he was going to do that, but it seemed a little early when there was still an hour and a half to go…. And then it hit me. Ukraine is an hour ahead of Slovakia and we had forgotten to set our watches forward! There followed a mad scramble during which we frantically repacked our cases and tried to assemble everything into a manageable order for the rest of the journey. We hadn’t drunk all of the water we’d brought, but managed to stuff the remainder into our suitcases. In a way I was glad that we were in a rush because it gave me less time to worry about what was going to happen next. I had been corresponding with one of the congress organisers in advance, you see, and he had told me that it would be too difficult for us to travel from the railway station to the congress venue on our own. He promised that, if I told him the time of the train, someone would come to meet us and show us what to do. It sounded like a good idea and I duly communicated to him the time of our train… but I never heard anything back. So while I was hopeful that we would get off the train and walk right into the smiling face of an Esperantist, I wasn’t 100% convinced that this would actually happen. And I didn’t know what we were going to do if it didn’t. Happily, it turned out to be another instance when I needn’t have worried. Within a couple of minutes of disembarking, we found ourselves being greeted by Oksana, a Ukrainian girl holding a sign saying “Esperanto”. Phew! She and her friend Sergej, who turned out to be two of the nicest people we met all week, not only guided us on the rest of our journey but paid for our tickets when we didn’t have any Ukrainian money and helped me carry my (very heavy) bag. And what a journey it was! It was a tiring, confusing blur of new impressions. We emerged out of the main station into a bustling square and, amusingly, the first thing we saw was McDonalds. We dived down again into a metro station where the crush of people made it feel like the London Underground on speed, and squeezed into a tube for a journey of one stop to Universitet. Traveling up some horrifically long escalators, we emerged into the open air once more and had our first experience of a little yellow marshrutka bus, which bumped and swerved its way across the suburbs of Kiev. In total, it probably took us 90 minutes to travel the 10km to the kongresejo. What awaited us when we arrived there is almost indescribable. First impressions were, admittedly, quite good. We approached a large building, with an attractive banner outside welcoming us to the congress. As we were arriving to the congress a day early, there was no akceptejo set up for us to register, but that seemed fair enough. Instead we were met by a smiling guy called Andrej who greeted us with “Saluton, mi estas komencanto. Do you speak English?” As a result of a truly bizarre decision by the organising team, a volunteer with a limited ability to speak Esperanto had been put in sole charge of the complex business of allocating Esperantists to rooms. We were perfectly happy to communicate with him in English, but participants of other nationalities were obviously less impressed, given that they thought they were attending an Esperanto congress. Strictly speaking, participants had the option to stay in either a four-person or a five-person room for the duration of the congress. The majority of people were expecting to stay in four-person rooms, the five-person variety being a variation which had been introduced as an option relatively lately. Being slightly antisocial and not wanting to share with other people for an entire week, I had negotiated with one of the congress organisers in advance that Tim and I would pay extra in order to have a four-person room to ourselves. I was lucky that Andrej was nice enough to take us on trust when we explained this, and proceeded to sign us into a four-person room. The procedure took somewhat longer than you might expect, mainly due to the fact that he had to translate our names and hometowns into the Cyrillic alphabet for the elderly ladies behind the reception desk. Eventually we were presented with a bundle of rather scratchy bed linen and led to the room that was to be our home from home for the next seven nights. Upon opening the door, we were greeted by something not entirely unlike a prison cell. There were three bare walls, with the majority of the fourth being taken up by a large glass window, inadequately covered by a light net curtain. As we were to discover in subsequent days, the light began to pour into the room before 5am and with temperatures of up to 40 degrees outside, by breakfast the room would already be swelteringly hot. It was possible to open the windows, but we soon learned that it wasn't particularly desirable to do so due to the prevalence of mosquitoes outside. Inside the room were four rather hard beds, a pile of itchy woollen blankets, one chair, a rickety desk and two small bedside cabinets. Sharing the space between two people was just about possible; sharing it between four would have been horrific. Upon arrival I had two main objectives; firstly, to find a powerpoint to charge my phone which had unexpectedly died during the journey from Bratislava, and secondly to locate the bathrooms. The first objective seemed like the easiest to achieve, so I began looking around the room for a socket. I looked and looked and looked. Under the beds, behind the beds, behind the desk and cupboards. I was starting to think I must be going mad when there was a knock at our door and a German friend enquired whether she could use one of the sockets in our room, as she hadn't been able to find any in her own. It wasn't just me then! It later became clear than not a single bedroom in the building was equipped with electric sockets, and I was unable to charge my phone until we returned to Bratislava over a week later. Decidedly unimpressed, I set off to find the bathrooms. Turning left from our bedroom along the corridor I soon came across a room which seemed promising, but there was no sign on the door (in any language) to indicate whether it was supposed to be male or female. Further exploration at the other end of the corridor revealed another bathroom, again with no visible sign. We asked a girl who appeared to be one of the organisers which was which in case there was some sort of Ukrainian system of which we were unaware, but she merely shrugged and asked "Ĉu gravas?" ("Does it matter?") in a tone of voice which suggested this was the most incredibly bourgeois question she had ever had the misfortune to be asked. In the end I gave up and used the first bathroom which I had found. It was quite an experience. First you entered a large room which was kitted out with a row of washbasins but no mirrors, which made applying suncream later in the week rather difficult. This led onto a shower room, which did not feature anything that would be recognised as a shower in the UK. For a start there were no cubicles, and secondly there were no shower fittings, so that essentially there was just a wall with four hosepipes jutting out of it. I got a nasty shock - quite literally- when I turned one of these "showers" on and discovered that there was no hot water. I had admittedly read in my Ukrainian guidebook before setting out that there could be difficulties obtaining warm water in Ukraine during the summer, but organisers of the congress had publicly reassured participants that this would not be the case during the IJK in an internet forum only a few weeks previously. Hmm. As for the toilets... well, there were four cubicles of which one had a functioning light bulb and (a different) one had a locking door. All of them were the Turkish-style toilets which are prevalent throughout Ukraine. For those of us not accustomed to using them, they were rather a struggle. Somewhat disillusioned by our first experience of Kiev, we decided to have an early night and hope that things would seem better in the morning.