I was sitting in the champagne bar of the hotel when I finally caught the baffling spirit of Kiev. Not that I had had much to drink. I was just thinking about the city and looking forward to a small glass of sparkling wine.
The moment was shortly after I had taken a ride on the funicular, around the corner from the hotel, that connects the ancient, historic part of the city called Uppertown with the newer, near-the-river area of Podil. It’s a short ride, mere minutes. It takes you up the formidably steep incline through Volodymyr Hill Park and you travel from a bustling commercial area by the Dnieper River to the quiet of cobblestone streets and the vast squares that surround St. Michael’s Cathedral.
One moment you’re in the busyness of shops, traffic and restaurants. Then, temporarily, you’re inside a dense green park. When you arrive, you’re in the stillness of an area that was once the religious centre of much of Eastern Europe and has been a place of monasteries, churches and cathedrals since medieval times.
Kiev is about connections. It is a city of layers. To be there and to savour it fully means understanding that this majestic place has many pasts and a dazzling present, and possibly represents Eastern Europe’s future. Connect everything, all those layers, and the city blossoms before you in all its rich, bewildering fluster of images, cues, colours and history.
The capital of Ukraine can seem a little crazy. There’s no doubt about that, even as you land at Boryspil International Airport, which is about 30 minutes from the centre. If you pause at Boryspil to take in the array of flights arriving and departing, you will notice that less than half the flights are from the west and most are from the east. Ukraine and its main city draws visitors from, and does business with, old Western Europe and the many new states that were once part of the Soviet Union. You’re more likely to meet someone from Minsk, Moscow or Tashkent than you are someone from Frankfurt or Paris.
As a city, Kiev is currently in a unique place in its development – bedazzled by both East and West, intuiting its own future, frantically celebrating the present and nourishing the past. That’s what makes it bewildering to some, bewitching to others.
On three visits to Kiev during the recent Euro 2012 soccer tournament, the arrival never ceased to amaze me. As the highway from the airport gives way to the city, there are imposing Soviet-era apartment blocks, now covered in very un-Soviet, colourful advertising and surrounded by bustling street markets. Soon there’s a glimpse of Dnieper, which seems to flow at a languorous pace. Then, as the river is closer, one is startled to see golden, sandy beaches along its banks and on islands. There is the confusing sensation of gazing at tropical beaches while speeding into the heart of a city in the heart of Eastern Europe.
The first time, the cab took me away from river, through the edges of the gorgeous, green Botanical Gardens, then past streets of buildings that looked like snapshots of Paris in the 1920s, art deco-ish visual cues everywhere, then up and up and climaxing at a sudden stop (Kiev taxis drive fast), depositing me at my hotel overlooking the breathtaking Maidan Nezalezhnosti (Independence Square), which is the throbbing heart and central square of Kiev.
The visual impact can overload. The sensuality of the impressions was as strong as the midsummer sun beating down on the crowded streets, the water fountains, the monuments and the confusion of astonishing buildings – a motley assortment of elegant, 18th-century hotels and businesses and imposing Soviet-era creations of starkness alongside stunning contemporary concoctions of glass and steel. Kiev was once Moscow’s equal in power and wealth and that is evident now in the swagger of everyone and everything in and around the Maidan.
The Maidan is but one layer of Kiev. It is the strumpet city – the locals strut there, shopping, drinking in the sidewalk bars, even while lounging in the shade inside dark coffee houses. This Kiev is the city of women on display as they go about. This Kiev is tight dresses and rhinestones, stilettos clicking on the concrete, a Sonia Rykiel boutique tucked in beside a solemnly formal restaurant, a flower seller at a street stall looking as if she is about to breeze into a chic nightclub.
And, fair warning, this is the Kiev that will spook visitors expecting a version of Berlin, Warsaw or Vienna. There is nothing demure about it. Cash is king, strip clubs abound, taxi drivers ask for outrageous amounts to travel a few blocks. This is the Kiev that is thrilling to some and unnerving to others.
On my second visit, I stayed at the new Fairmont Grand Hotel Kyiv in the Podil area, took the funicular up and down the steep hill and arranged a short, private guided tour of the city. The first stop was St. Sophia Cathedral, the 11th-century church (and UNESCO Heritage Site) that is as awe-inspiring and eloquent of ancient religious gravitas as anything in Rome. The fresco-decorated walls and enormous mosaics emphatically anchor Kiev in its solemn past, a place devoted to detailed beauty and august adoration of religious ceremony.
Then I went to the locally famous monument on Andriyivskyy Descent, once the bohemian core of Kiev, which depicts two lovers from the famous play Chasing Two Hares by Mykhailo Starytskyi. The work, the most beloved of Ukrainian stories, is about a man who chases two women, one for love and the other for money. The monument, a sexy bronze work, depicts a man kneeling before a woman and it is, aesthetically and spiritually, the polar opposite of the great churches, monasteries and cathedrals of Kiev. Yet it fits perfectly into the layers of meaning that the city bewilderingly evokes.
Next, on to the Golden Gate (Zoloti Vorota), the remains of old, walled Kiev’s main gate, and the House with Chimeras, the creation of eccentric architect Wladyslaw Horodecki, a fantastical structure, which appears to be three storeys on one side and six on the other. The eavestroughs are elephant trunks, and decorations of antelope, giant frogs and mermaids teem around the structure. It is simultaneously a masterpiece of whimsy and sinister in its surreal play with reality.
On my third visit, which was brief, in and out in 22 hours, I had another sparkling wine at the end of it. And then I left Kiev, still baffled, a bit stunned by this city of strumpet surface and layer upon layer of meaning.
KIEV'S COWBOY ECONOMY
As contemporary as it may seem, some things aren’t easy.
Before you go, arrange with your hotel for transportation from the airport.
Nail down an agreed price in advance. This will save you from dealing with the intimidating drivers offering service at the airport and haggling over the amount, which some expect in advance.
In the city, always agree on a price in advance with a taxi driver.
Some will suggest outrageous amounts for short journeys. Some hotels offer a driver and car service as an alternative to the taxi hassles, but, again, agree on the price beforehand.
Take euros and U.S. dollars.
Some people, such as a privately hired tour guide, will ask to be paid in these currencies.
Tipping first tends to bring better customer service.
At some locations, such as a restaurant or even at a hotel, getting advice or information is best achieved by offering a small payment.
There is little in the way of official tourist information available in Kiev.
Get maps and guidebooks before you go. Use a reliable travel agent if you are unsure of anything. While much can be done online, Ukraine does not promote itself much as a tourist destination in the West and it’s best to avoid surprises.
Use your Ukrainian currency while there.
Currency-exchange outlets at such airports as Frankfurt and London Heathrow will not exchange hryvnia.
While prices in Kiev for luxury goods – designer clothes, perfumes – are relatively cheap, there is a large trade in counterfeit designer-label products in the country.
On his second visit, the writer stayed as a guest of Fairmont Hotels and Resorts.