Start in Kiev

By | Category: Travel destinations

St Sophia Cathedral

Did you know that Ukraine is one of the top twenty holiday destinations in the world? No, nor did I but that is according to the UN World Tourism Organization. Last year 23 million tourists visited Ukraine.

So what is the attraction of a country that little of us know other than as the co-host last year’s Euro 2012?

My best man who has been travelling there regularly for the last few years thinks that it is one of the prettiest places he has been to. I have to admit that he may be biased as his girlfriend is Ukrainian. He finds that, although most other visitors from are the old eastern-bloc countries, English is spoken in the main hotels and he has little trouble bargaining in the markets or travelling around.

One attraction is that once you get there is that accommodation, food and travel is cheap. That doesn’t necessarily apply to the Ukrainian capital, Kiev, (twinned with Edinburgh) but it does apply to other regions. Even in Kiev, though, lunch should leave you with change from a tenner and a night in a hotel shouldn’t cost much more than £50. Outside the capital, expect to pay just over half of these sums.

Mariinsky Palace

The attraction to him (other than his girlfriend) is the landscape and the grandeur of the churches and the architecture. As a Russian orthodox nation, there are plenty of churches to see but just staying in Kiev for example, there are plenty of buildings that he recommends but two that should not be missed are the St Sophia Cathedral and the Mariinsky Palace.

In the middle of Kiev you’ll find the eleventh century St Sophia Cathedral with 260 square metres of mosaics and 3,000 square metres of frescoes. It is rare to find so many in one place and that alone justifies a visit. Surprisingly little has changed over the centuries even to the extent that outside the cathedral is still surrounded by monastic buildings dating from 400m years ago. Nearby is the Kiev Monastery of the Caves which, with St Sophia’s a UNESCO world heritage site. There are underground cave systems said to stretch for miles but the name is deceptive for there is a bell tower above the ground as well as other buildings.

The Mariinsky Palace is much younger but some consider it even more striking. It was the residence of the governors of the Kiev area under the days of the tsars and is now used ceremoniously by the president. Built on the instructions of the Empress Elizabeth, it might appear to be mid-eighteenth century but it has been destroyed twice and the building you see partially dates from the 1940’s and the rest from the 1980’s. If plans and drawings had not existed, the building might have been consigned to history. Check to see, before you go, whether you can go in because it is undergoing yet more restoration work.

From Poshtova Square which is down by the River Dnieper you can catch a vehicular railway which, in just a three minute ride, will take you up to Mykhailivska Square. Apart from the view, in the square is another stunning building, St Michael’s Monastery. But again, it is not what it seems. It was demolished over seventy years ago by the Soviets but has been reconstructed so the clock you see, for example, is electronically run rather by a traditional mechanism. Nonetheless, because the original monastery was destroyed it allowed archaeologists to minutely examine the site and find artifacts to place in it. You would be hard pressed when looking and walking inside to realise that this monastery is still not 15 years old!

Golden Gate

He also suggests that you stop by the thousand year old Golden Gate which was the main gate into the city. This is one of many UNESCO World Heritage Sites in the country and given the turbulent history of the city, (it was sacked by the Mongols in the thirteenth century) it is a bit of a surprise that so much has survived. But then it did serve as part of the defence of the city so there is a large fighting platform and high ramparts to keep the inhabitants safe (apart from the Mongols!).

Kiev is close enough and well-served by flights to consider it as for a weekend break and that would be his recommendation. See Kiev first and then explore the country using it as a base for a longer holiday. British Airways flies to Kiev from Heathrow and Ukraine International links Kiev with Gatwick.

For more information about Kiev, click here

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