Monday, September 25, 2006

Kiev In Six Hours

And with time to spare...

I bounded out of the Metro stop onto a Kiev street, and was met by a live polka band and a Saturday farmer's market. Turning right, I immediately noticed that, for the capital of one of the flattest countries on Earth, Kiev was pretty hilly.

A few minutes along I started realizing that Kiev was sort of a Russian version of Philadelphia: pleasant enough on a nice day, but certainly lacking in the zing! department.

Within about a half mile I came upon Kiev's signature tourist destination, St Sophia's church, named after the colossus in Constantinople. From the outside it really failed to measure up, looking dinkier than any number of the Moscow churches I had been seeing.

On the inside it looked a little better, what with its ancient faded wall to ceiling paintings. And I suppose that if you were only going to be seeing one eleventh century Russian Orthodox church, you wouldn't be disappointed, but...

So I headed back out and down the half mile to the much bigger and newer St Michael's monastery, but didn't go in. Instead I walked around to its side and looked from the hilltop over the riverbank trees and the river itself. Pleasant enough on a festive Saturday afternoon.

I then walked down the steep cobblestoned ulitsa that is Kiev's 'Arbat'. The 'craftsman's stalls', however, were card tables at best. Indeed, for product and presentation, you'd find better stuff at the flea market in Dumbass, Tennessee. Pretty disappointing.

When I got to the bottom of the hill, that was about it for Downtown Tourism Kiev. I went into a coffee shop (only $3 a cup here), and then found another Metro station. Getting out a couple of stops later, I hopped on a matrushka (minibus) and took it a mile to THE Kiev attraction--The Heart And Soul Of The Ukraine, in fact--the Caves Monastery.

I'm sorry to report that the Ukraine doesn't seem to have much heart or soul. Once inside the grounds there were ATMs off to the side and absolutely no sense of devotion among the tourist crowd. Indeed, there was one girl dressed up like a Russian whore, complete with 5 inch heels and 6 inch miniskirt. It is a nice location overlooking the trees and the river, but the buildings are all 18th century or later.

So I walked all the way down the cobblestoned hill, hoping against hope that the Caves would be worth the long walk back up. They didn't fail to disappoint. First off, they are not caves but cellar like archways 2 and a half feet wide and six feet high. Next they are so hot that I would have fallen over had it not been for the packed line of 'pilgrims' holding me up. And then the main sight is a few little glass topped coffins with shrouded bodies inside.

I am not easily given to claustrophobia, but I almost didn't make it back out. And then it was that long walk back uphill.

I got back to the subway and got out again a few stops later, this time emerging onto Kiev's main square. It was kind of impressive in a Thirties kind of way: On one side the giant Stalinesque Hotel Ukraine, and then arrayed around it in a semi-circle a bunch of huge Bund type buildings.

The main drag was closed to traffic on the weekend, and there were thousands of pedestrian Kievians taking advantage of Saturday evening to the fullest. Although not nearly as much wealth was on display as in Moscow, but no one seemed to have anything to complain about.

And neither really did I. There's nothing BAD about Kiev, but then again just because we want a world capital to have tourist sights worth seeing doesn't make it so.

In other words: If you thought that the Ukraine was just polkas and pierogies, well, then, you just about nailed it.

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