Thursday, July 19, 2012

Country #91: My Ukrainian Workout

Another summer sojourn in Amsterdam, another opportunity to add to my country count.  Due to a somewhat screwier schedule than usual, this year it was only one country added  ("Only" one- my life, it is so full of hardships, no?)  but it was a good one.

With four days off, I flew to Kiev, expecting a couple of pretty Orthodox churches, lots of varenyky (Ukrainian raviolis stuffed with potato), a profusion of cyrillic and some general seediness.  I found three out of the four.
For a city whose Google search reveals an inordinate number of "mail-order bride" sites, it was surprisingly un-seedy.  As a matter of fact, it was downright cosmopolitan, rivaling most major Western European cities in terms of walkability, open spaces and dining and drinking options (only way cheaper).

I was off to a good start.  I booked a hostel towards the very bottom of Andriyivskyy's Descent, the epicenter of the city's 'funky' district with no shortage of cafes, galleries and outdoor markets.  Only problem is that I never thought the whole thing through to its logical conclusion.  If there is a descent, then the laws of gravity mandate that there must be an ascent.  And this was no ordinary ascent, it was the Mt. Kilimanjaro of hipster streets. 

Every time I wanted to head into town, I had to trudge up this slope, feeling somewhat like the Alpine Climber cartoon on the Price is Right, only much sweatier and more out of breath.  Not that I am complaining about the sweaty part.  I'm just lucky that this was July, during the height of summer.  I can not possibly imagine what happens in the wintertime when it all ices over.  It must be like a hippie luge up in there with people scurrying left and right to get out of the way of tumbling artisens.

Or perhaps, they simply take the funicular, at the end of a restaurant-filled street, the one that I discovered on my last day that goes from the Upper Town to the more industrial Podil neighborhood down below.  That's a possibility.

It is also fortunate that I did not learn of this convenience earlier in my stay for, as hoped, there were little fried varenyky everywhere, just calling out to me, with their smothering of fried onions and sour cream accompaniment.  Had I known that the funicular was an option, I would have surely come home as round as a beer barrel.

Also exceeding expectations were the plentiful gold-domed Orthodox churches.  The nearby St. Michael's was a personal favorite, it's blue color taking on a myriad of hues depending on the presence or absence of the sun's rays.

Across the street, with a handy bell tower suitable for climbing, was its counterpart, St. Sofia's Cathedral, the oldest church in Kiev, dating back to the 11th century.

Continuing further afoot was what appeared to be the heart of the city, Independence Square.  This was where Yuschenko's (the almost fatally-poisoned eventual Ukrainian president) supporters camped during the Orange Revolution.  During my visit, which fell right in between the Eurocup, that had taken place both in the Ukraine and Poland, and the Olympics, the Square was dominated by giant screens and general sports-related excitement.

Going even further afield on my second day, along with two Aussie Serbs from the hostel- who came in quite handy in a town with so much Cyrillic signage- we traversed one of the city's many parks and ended up in the land of monuments and mummified monks.

The more interesting of the two, of course, were the mummy monks.  Come to think of it, few are the things that can rival dead clergy who could come back at any moment and kill us all, so we went there first.  The Pechersk Lavra was originally a wooden monastery built inside of caves overlooking the Dnipro River, founded in the beginning of the 11th century.  As the monastery grew in importance, buildings were added above ground and the caves came to be a burial place, where if I understood correctly, the climate led to the natural mummification of the deceased.

To enter the narrow, windy passageways, you have to first buy a candle to light your way.  This accomplished, you are then herded, along with a mass of tourists, many of them devout Orthodox Christians with a penchant for mummy-kissing, into the labyrinth. The main attractions, if you will- 120 in all- are laid along the hallways in glass coffins.  Their bodies are covered with ceremonial cloths, but every now and then, it is possible to see an errant hand.  You would think that perhaps being confined in a small space with the mummies (and the people who love them), would be the most frightening part of the experience but for me it was something else.  It was the fact that all of us were carrying open flames and personal space was at a minimum.  I was certain I was going to set one of the Serbs afire.

I have genetic cause for this concern.  One of my father's favorite stories was about the time he and my mother attended a candlelit Papal procession in Rome.  My mother, possibly distracted at the sight of a nearby gellato stand, accidentally set fire to the hair of the woman in front of her.  Instead of immediately notifying the woman or aggressively fighting the fire, she opted for simply walking behind the lady and huffing and puffing, ala the big bad wolf trying to blow down a piggy home, until others noticed and intervened.  It is was with this in mind that I stayed closest to the bald Serb.

No photos were allowed within the caves, possibly because the candle/ camera combination might be too much to handle, but the grounds of the Upper Lavra did provide plenty of photo opportunities.

As did the monuments.  Starting off, there were a couple of quiet dignified obelisks.

But walk a bit further and you come across the mother of all Motherland statues.  She is 203 feet tall, weighs 560 tons, likes long walks on the beach and is believed to be dangerously top heavy, making her structurally unsound.  (Note: only one of those facts was made up by me.)

She is surrounded by very Soviet-ish war monuments, including one featuring a statue that appears to be trying to shoot her in the ankle.

I rounded out my visit on my last full day by doing my favorite new city activity.  I took a free walking tour.  I enjoyed it so much, that after a short lunch break, I then took a second one.  The information presented during those six hours over-lapped slightly but the tours covered different areas of the city.  I would be hard-pressed to recommend one tour over the other as both revealed hidden parks, cool public art, stunning architecture and yet more funky neighborhoods.

Best of all, neither tour found it necessary to take us up and down Andriyivskyy's Descent, although after four days of that, I was already feeling somewhat fitter.  Or at least fit enough to get to the next varenyky stand....

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