Kiev brought us another imposing Soviet station and an early start, so we sat a while in the massive station canteen, sipping our compot and cottage cheese pancakes. One of the metro lines is decorated Moscow-style and takes us to the studio apartment we’d booked – about £55pn.
The idea was that since it was Sunday there might be some activities going on at the architecture and folk museum in the southern suburbs. Getting there was a little tricky; going to end of the metro and finding the right minibus. But there was enough English being spoken to get us pushed onto the correct bus. And the GPS worked so we were ready to jump out if it took a wrong turning.
The National Museum of Ukrainian Architecture and Culture claims to be the biggest open air museum in Europe. 320 acres of entire villages, churches, school rooms set in rolling fields and woodland. In the more accessible areas there were stalls selling folk art or demonstrating crafts. But even in the remoter parts of the park, babushkas were working away in pretty cottage gardens, giving the illusion that the villages were still occupied. There was a vast collection of windmills and even a village of buildings from the 60s and 70s.
On the second day we tackled Kiev’s main sight, the Kiev Pechersk Lavra (cave monastery). We walked along the green ridge that over-looks the Dnieper river with its flat islands and (empty) sandy beaches. Long views eastwards – very flat. Past the WW2 memorial to the unknown soldier and then past a rather more recent memorial to the 3.5m victims of Stalin’s famines.
The upper Lavra is the sacred monastery of the Ukrainian orthodox church. There’s a bell tower and a couple of churches, but much had been destroyed in the war. The old refectory had a great collection of folk art: ceramics, rugs, glass, embroidery, costumes and carvings. But no photos and no useful guidebooks.
We then visited the caves. These were where the first (11th century) monks lived, and where the bodies of the major figures involved in the monastery have been preserved ever since. It’s a surprising survival through many invasions, the years of Stalin and the last war. We bought thin beeswax candles, Kim scarfed-up and we tried to look reverent. A burly monk blocked the door to the longer ‘prayer-only’ route which included St Anthony’s tomb. We got a much shorter tour.
Narrow whitewashed passages were sparingly lit but crowded with genuine pilgrims. Along these walls were many niches with glass-topped coffins containing the mummified bodies of important monks. The bodies were dressed in the ornate gowns and fabric crowns of their office, and their faces covered by a fabric shield. Mummified hands poked through the gowns in gestures of benediction. The clothes looked new and the bodies were presumably re-dressed. Next to each coffin was a painting and a name. People were pressing small personal icons over the coffins, praying and crying.
We reached the second set of caves by walking through a long wooden loggia. These caves were far deeper and we were much bolder in ignoring various prayer-only signs and clambered down the narrow stairs. More twisting passages and coffin niches but there were very few people here. Occasionally there were larger tombs decorated with polished metal, carvings and mosaics.
The Motherland statue
We walked further along the ridge above the Dnieper past the museum of old military equipment to the 102m high Motherland statue. It was opened by Brezhnev; the rumours are that it’s structurally unsafe. While nowhere near as dramatic as the one in Volgograd (ex-Stalingrad), it is slightly taller and is the world’s 6th highest statue. You can reach a viewing platform in the raised hand for a price similar to visiting the Shard. Instead we admired some massive bronze socialist realist statues of war scenes.
Stalin and the Byzantines
Last day in Kiev. Took the metro to the lower town and a view of the Russian-Ukrainian friendship arch; alternatively called the yoke by the Ukrainians. We walked past St Michael’s monastery, a Byzantine complex blown up by Stalin in the 30s and only just rebuilt. Facing it is St Sophia cathedral, another whitewashed complex with a wall, and white and green building topped by golden onion domes. But Stalin let this one go and it became Kiev’s first UNESCO heritage site. Once you enter the cathedral you immediately realise that you’re within a Byzantine building, modelled on Hagia Sophia in Istanbul. The exterior is a remodelling; the interior is all 11th century frescos and mosaics.
Round the corner is a high baroque church designed by Catherine the Great’s Italian architect. He also designed the summer palace in St Petersburg. An attractive curvy street leads down to the lower city. The buildings have been preserved here including the home of Mikhail Bulgakov. This was the Bohemian quarter and the favoured residence of artists.
Exiting the metro on the way home I found what I was looking for. A babashka was selling mushrooms (ceps) and an old woman next to her was selling walnuts. I’m still not sure whether I was allowed to import mushrooms, though the sniffer dogs that surrounded us at Gatwick didn’t seem to be looking for them. The only thing I could find online was a EU warning about radio-caesium levels in mushrooms due to Chernobyl. Chernobyl is just 90km up the road from Kiev.