Ukraine and Moldova 2016
Text and Photos: Tony Steurer
Central Station, Kiev
Arrived with Ukraine Air at Kiev Borispol. My second visit after 2008. Airport bus to the city, about 35 km.
Kiev is more than 1,000 years old and has more than 2.9 million inhabitants, making it the 7th biggest European city. Crossing the mighty Dnepr along the way, about 800 meters wide. Another superlative: the third longest river on the continent; 2,200 km in total, 1,700 of which passable for ships. In the city, along its sandy shores are dense forests and 16 developed beaches suitable for swimming. Apartment tower blocks line the road for miles, mostly 10-20 stories high. Lots of lakes and ponds as well. And bridges. Lots of them: Kiev has nine of those spanning the Dnepr.
Heavy destruction in WWII, Nazi occupation from 1941-43. In the battle of Kiev 600,000 Russian soldiers were killed or captured. About 100,000 Jews were murdered. Numerous war monuments and memorial sites in town. During Soviet times, Kiev was the third biggest city (after Moscow and Leningrad). Since 1991, the capital of newly independent Ukraine. Western style luxury tower blocks and modern hotels arrived only after the turn of the millennium.
Today, the city houses an interesting mix of diverse architectural styles, lots of Stalinist structures, art nouveau buildings, modern steel, and glass towers; in total over a thousand high rises up to 170 metres high, with more construction ongoing. Orthodox churches which carry golden roofs here. Some huge hotels from old Soviet days as well. I am staying in one of those darkish concrete monsters to add a feel of authenticity. Only western cars, large SUVs being very popular.
Maidan Square, Kiev
The main axis Khreschatyk leads up to the Maidan and while walking around I always have the feeling of being in a large metropolis. There are widely ramified underground shopping passages with up to three levels, with daylight often being provided by glass cupolas.
The metro currently encompasses 52 stations, the network is 67 km long. This is a historic system with deep underground stations, in fact Arsenalna is one of the world’s deepest stations at 105 metres below ground. The moving staircases are fast and have wooden panels. Each station is spacious and features individual designs in Soviet style with column-flanked colonnades left and right that separate the tracks. The waggons are more than 40 years old; everything appears well-used but is kept clean. Single journeys (with jetons) cost around 0.14 Euro, a single journey bus ride costs 0.11 Euro.
Market Hall, Beassarabska
Lots of open air restaurants in prime locations like the Maidan. Georgian Hachapuri (a sort of filled pizza with chicken, mushrooms, and cheese) which together with a half-litre of local draft beer comes in at around 5 Euro. Draft beer is everywhere, costing just a little over one Euro.
Chebureks, dough flat cake from the Krim peninsula, filled with mushrooms, meat or cheese is another popular dish. It is difficult to spend much more than the equivalent of 5 Euro for an evening meal. Even in the best French restaurant ‘Comme il faut’ located in Intercontinental Hotel the priciest dish is only 15 Euro. A coffee lovers’ place as countless cafes serve Illy or Austrian Meinl coffee. Plenty of places, run by young people, offering 20+ different coffee choices. You can get a cappuccino for 0.70 Euro, unheard of in western Europe.
Historic market hall Beassarabska, stalls with plenty of fruit, vegetable, fish, caviar, nuts, meat.
Pechersk Lavra (UNESCO site) is an orthodox monastery complex with various churches and two underground monasteries. Founded in 1051 in a splendid location high in the hills above the Dnepr. This is the religious heart of the country. Other highlights include the 16th century Dormition cathedral. The Nazis blew it up, but it was reconstructed in great detail in 2005. The cathedral sparkles like new and the sheer number of shining cupolas, the colourful ceiling paintings and the towering, golden altar are a spectacular sight. The cupolas are covered by hundreds of kilos of leaf gold.
Next stands the 96 meter high Great Lavra belltower from the 17th century, the highest of its kind
Monastery Pechersk Lavra
Walking downhill through long covered wooden walkways: When entering the cave monasteries a candle is needed inside the narrow and numerous alleys. Glass coffins with mummified monks and tucked away in corners; an experience not for the claustrophobic type.
Nearby, the military museum houses infamous rocket launchers, tanks and planes, all open air. The 62 metre high, monumental homeland statue of a woman is visible from afar, in stainless steel on a hill. Unflatteringly referred to a ‘tin tits’ by the locals…
In the centre of town is the Saint Sophia Cathedral (another UNESCO site), the name derived from its resemblance to the Hagia Sophia in Istanbul. About 1000 years old, a dozen cupolas, lots of gold inside.
Saint Andrews Cathedral
Up on a steep hill the Saint Andrews Cathedral with blue and gold roof coverings. You can get to it by using a funicular, built between 1902 and 1905, or by walking the steep Andriyis’kyi street. A big opera house (which currently plays Don Quixote) and the reconstructed Golden Gate, the historic entrance to the old town. Plus an array of museums, palaces, and yet more cathedrals. Very lively scene around the central, historic Vokzal’na train station.
The Fort, Kamianets-Podilskyi
I am taking a sleeper train to Kamianets-Podilskyi (around 8 hours, 7.50 Euro, fresh linen, and wake-up service inclusive). The place has the feel of a small town in the middle of nowhere. The main attraction is a fairy tale-like fort with 7 towers from the 14th century, perched very scenically on top of a reef surrounded by a canyon formed by the river Smotrych. The old town with colourful houses sits on a separate reef.
The fort originally had 12 towers; the remaining ones get illuminated in red at night. The roofs are covered with wooden shingles making the whole structure look like the seven dwarfs with a red jellybag cap; just amazing.
Inside the fort are dungeons, deep wells, stables, and completely enclosed wooden ways hidden inside the fortification walls. The bridge between fort and town is considered a medieval masterpiece, being 88 metres long and 27 m high. The Turkish sultan Osman II. Failed in his attempt to conquer the fort in 1621.
On to neighbouring Moldova: After a one hour bus ride over bumpy roads arrival at the border where formalities take around 90 minutes. Bags are opened, no suitcase or car boot left uninspected here!
Moldovia consists mainly of long-stretched, flattened mountains slopes. Lots of sunflowers growing, hardly any villages. Very verdant soil with black earth. Fairly dry area so quite a contrast to green Ukraine. Noticeably not a wealthy country but everywhere I find fast and reliable internet. The roads are getting better after a while, thanks to generous EU funds. Cars here are western or Japanese.
The capital Chisinau (770, 000 inhabitants) sits in the centre of the country. Soviet-style apartment blocks dominate the outskirts. Broken pavements almost everywhere. Only the government district is in better shape. I can easily walk up to the entrance doors of the parliament or the different ministries. Lots of billboards advising against corruption. Clearly one wants to be a good European here!
The ministry of finance is completely covered by poison ivy, EU flags are everywhere, although the country is not even an official EU candidate yet.
Ministry of Finance, Chisinau
In 1940, a strong earthquake, measuring 7.3 on the Richter scale, destroyed the city. Nazi and Romanian bombardments finished off the rest in 1941. Like everywhere in eastern Europe Jews were deported, with 10, 000 were being murdered on site. The Russians liberated in 1944, after that Moldova became a part of the USSR known as Bessarabia.
Interestingly the city has some Italian flair with lots of coffeehouses and carabinieris. Countless money changers! The main boulevard is named after Stephen the Great, the most important ruler from the 15th century. All currency notes carry his portrait.
Pretty parks, numerous flea markets where honey is offered, next to textiles and folkloristic stuff.
Good accommodation/ available here at a very low price. Public transport is incredibly cheap: A ride in a modern electric trolleybus costs just 0.10 Euro. The 12 km ride to the airport is about 1 Euro.
Day tour to Orheuil Vechi, about 50 km away; the most important historical place in the country.
In a deserted canyon up on a ridge, with the river Rout on two sides, is a cave monastery dating from the 13th century. A lone monk lives here on a stone platform above the abyss. Inside is a prayer room with altar and a dozen cubicles carved out from the rock. Nearby a new built church in splendid location.
Below in the canyon the village Butuceni with open air museum, traditional farmhouses, a pretty eco-resort, and lots of silence.