2006 - Ukraine

Thursday 30th March 2006

Zoe was staying with us following our trip to Sicily which took place from 26th - 28th March.  We packed our things for this venture during our one intervening day at home and left bright and early on the Thursday to get to Keren's for 7.30 a.m.

Once there, Zo's car was left at the kerbside and Keren very kindly drove the three of us to Terminal 1 for our 9.30 a.m. flight to Kiev.  Zoe was travelling Standby and we had ID80 tickets.  We all got on without difficulty - the plane being typically quite empty. 

We landed at Kiev at around 2.30 p.m. and went by airport shuttle bus - with its wooden walls and sound like a clattering train - into the city.  Although we had texted the landlord of our pre-booked apartment to say that we would be there at about 5.00 p.m., the text had in fact stuck in the Outbox.  However both Igor, the Travel Agent, and the Landlord were waiting at the centrally located apartment.  Approached from the street via a dimly lit and somewhat squalid stone passageway and staircase, we were concerned at what might be awaiting us.  However, we need not have worried as the apartment was clean, well-appointed, and spacious.  Zoe sorted out the practicalities and paperwork with both the Travel Agent Rep (re her ensuing visit with 10 pupils and 3 staff) and with the Landlord.  Then we we left on our own.

After taking a little while to recuperate, we went out for a meal at a nearby restaurant where waiters and waitresses were dressed in Kossak style costumes.  The food was well-presented and tasty even if at tourist prices.

Returning from the restaurant through the fairly cold night air, we visited a local supermarket on our way back to our apartment - buying staple supplies for a fraction of the price we would have paid at home.


Friday 31st March

After a breakfast at the apartment, we left to do some sightseeing and for Zoe to gain information to assist her planning for her May trip.  Our route took us to the    Arch and statues of the Two Brothers high above the city.  We then walked down to the river itself so that Zoe could make enquiries in connection with the boat trip that the children would take.  This was not straightforward as the one operator visible confused May with April and started talking about what would run tomorrow!

We then took the funicular railway up to St Michael's Church and did some sightseeing nearby before stopping briefly back and the apartment and going to the station to catch the airport bus to meet Nathan and Keren.  In the event, despite running, we just missed it!  However, a friendly taxi driver offered us a fairly good deal and this allowed Zoe to practise her Russian all the way there.

We met N & K from their flight - straining to see when they would emerge through the ranks of meeters and greeters who crowded rather intimidatingly around the Arrivals doorway.

We then escorted them back into the city, this time by airport mini bus - with proper walls!  Zoe took them for a brief walk whilst there was still daylight whilst Adrian and I went back to the Apartment.  It was just as well we did as we took a number of calls on the mobile concerning the house sale. (Yesterday we received a call from Browns about the London Professor and his wife having submitted an offer of 630,000 which we rejected.  Today their offers were raised incrementally to 650,000 and we also had interchanges with both Hamptons and Geering and Collier.)  Having recovered from all this, all five of us went out to a nearby Ukrainian fast food restaurant where the dishes are served from behind counters and one chooses one's food by pointing.  On average, it cost us no more than 2.00 each including drinks.


Saturday 1st April

In the morning we took the Metro and then walked to the Caves Monastery, a complex of religious buildings dating back to 1070.  In fact, they are built over caves occupied by a monk twenty years earlier.  The main building (Dormition Cathedral) has been destroyed or damaged on a number of occasions, the most recent destruction being in the late 1930s.  It now presents a white and gilt exterior surmounted by golden domes.  This building was not open but we did see the interior of the neighbouring Refectory Church.  We then visited the Museum of Micro-miniatures comprising the works of a single artist dating from the 1950's.  Our particular favourites were a chessboard on the head of a pin and a galleon.

Lunch presented another opportunity for Zoe to exercise her linguistic skills before we headed off to visit the caves.  This proved a rather odd experience as we crowded down low, narrow passages past two little chapels and the mummified remains of monks resting in stone alcoves in the walls.  Possibly our experience was not enhanced by our failure to take lighted candles as everyone else had done.

We then took a bus (Zoe's first experience of coping with this means of transport in Kiev) back to our original metro station.  We then walked on through parkland overlooking the river Dnipro until we came to the Mariinskye Palace which bore some resemblance to one that we had seen in Warsaw.  The neighbouring football stadium of Dynamo Kyiv might prove of interest to the children on Zoe's impending school trip, but in reality did not have much to detain us.  We headed westwards to see the President's House and a strange edifice (the Chimera) more commonly known as the House of Monsters.  This strange grey building is adorned with numerous representations of animals and birds, some taking the shape of gargoyles.  This walking tour had proved fairly ambitious and by the end we were all ready for a rest (as well as an icecream!)

Having returned to the apartment, our relaxation was rudely terminated by a power cut.  The implications of this only fully dawned on us, when the external door had swung shut behind us and we were outside on the pavement.  Of course, the electronic opening device would not work again until the power was restored - who knew how long that might be and how long we would be trapped outside!

Independence Square and the surrounding streets seemed particularly crowded and to have a festive air.  We later learned that this was due to the French Spring Festival.  We never really figured out why they should be celebrating this since there seems little close connection with western European countries.

We enjoyed a cheap and varied meal from the same canteen type restaurant that we had eaten at last night.  We were relieved to find that the power was restored on our return.  Also a matter for rejoicing was the fact that the loud music that had plagued our previous night seemed absent.


Sunday 2nd April

We had only a couple of hours spare before handing over the keys and taking Nathan and Keren to the bus for the airport.  We used this time to visit Andriiyivski Uzviz (Andrew's Descent) - a cobbled street, crowded with souvenir vendors and with the Church of St Andrew at its summit.

After checking out of the apartment, we all took the metro to the Station where we stored our luggage, had a brief drink, and then waved Nath and Keri off enroute for the airport.  Jill, Adrian and Zoe then had more than eight hours until the overnight train to Lviv. We divided this between the internet, some further walking, and several hours at the train station.  Bored by the hard seats (fairly crowded conditions and incessant announcements) we were pleased to discover a special lounge to which we were able to gain access for about 1.50 each.  This palatial hall offered soft chesterfield sofas with light refreshments on sale.  We also found that the occasional bizarre and deafening broadcasting of military music was somewhat more muted here

Our overnight adventure began with climbing up the steps into the dark train - so similar to that on which we had travelled from St Petersberg to Novgorod a few years earlier.  We had purchased all four berths so as to secure our privacy.  The compartment itself was particularly dingy and offered two plastic covered bench seats with similar benches at head height - these latter fold up against the carriage wall when not in use as beds.

We are not quite sure what we expected, but trying to sleep on these trains is obviously an art that has to be learned!  No soothing rhythm of the tracks, but instead violent shaking and throwing from side to side were the most noticeable features when we were moving.  When we stopped at stations, not only were there loud announcements, but also further military music at several of them.

We got varying amounts of sleep but all of us felt fairly tired when we arrived at our destination at 8.00 a.m. the next morning.


Monday 3rd April

We had planned to take a tram to the city centre.  In Ukraine, really no assistance is given at all to tourists.  Not only is there a virtually complete absence of the Latin alphabet, but also of any tourist information.  Zoe's knowledge of Russian continued to prove invaluable but without knowing where we wanted to go, nor whether we could manage our cases on the very narrow and crowded trams, we decided to take a taxi.  This again helped Zoe's Russian, as she chatted away with the driver. He dropped us in Svobody Prospect, a central square at the head of which is the Opera House.  We found outselves outside the Hotel George.  This offered one of their "first class" rooms for three at around 60.00 a night including breakfast. 

The Lonely Planet Guide had been correct in its description of the faded glory of this turn of the century neo-classical hotel. It was great to have immediate access to both washing and sleeping facilities.

During the day, we visited some of the main landmarks of the city. Lviv is described as "the Florence of the East".  It certainly has an attractive historic centre where the influence of European architects and foreign rulers is evident.  Like many another city, its suburbs are a different story and these include row after row of the soviet high rise flats.

The central square (Place Rynok) has a large town hall in the centre and around forty buildings from the sixteenth to nineteenth centuries.  Like many of the old buildings in the city, some of these look quite uncared for.  The general impression was not helped by the use of heavy machinery lifting the cobbles off two sides of the square.

Our meals were taken in relatively atmospheric little eateries and in each case provided fairly good quality east European dishes.

Like the previous days, we had taken telephone calls relating to the possible sale of our house and the matter was left up in the air for the succeeding 24 hours - with the possible purchaser offering 660,000 to include the tractor, curtains and white goods with a condition that the property should come off the market.  We said that we would accept five thousand more with us also including the carpets throughout - however at his lower offer we would not include any of the extras and we would also be continuing to leave it up for sale.

Exhaustion helped us sleep despite the sale situation.


Tuesday 4th April

A late breakfast (at around 10.00 a.m.) included cheese and meats, a cheese pancake, and  baked apple with meringue.

We then set off to find High Castle.  Passing by Place Rynok, Jill noticed that the removal of the cobbles and foundations had exposed two skulls and all work had come to a halt except for some archeologists who were busy looking in other trenches.  As this was right next to a church, presumably nobody was greatly surprised at the presence of the skulls.

We walked on towards a section of the old city wall.  This was highly reminiscent of what we had seen in Talinn and elsewhere with its timber canopy on the top - no doubt designed to give shelter to the guards.

The previous day, Adrian and Zoe had found a sign to the Tourist Information Office and, after some searching, had discovered an unmarked doorway in a neighbouring building.  This led to a dimly lit entrance hall with signs only in Cyrillic, and a corridor giving access to what we had decided was the Office. The door was locked and despite loud knocking by a helpful lady from a neighbouring room, no response was received.  To-day we repeated this exercise, only to have a lady open the door and respond to Zoe's greeting with a dismissal and closing of the door!  We concluded that Ukraine still has a long way to go before it can consider itself tourist friendly.

When we reached the castle, we discoved it has little remaining wall but affords good views of the city in all directions.  It also seemed to be very popular with young people.

Walking back into the city centre, we had lunch before returning to the hotel in the rain to read for a while.  Zoe and Adrian popped out to buy train tickets to Chernivisti where Larissa lives and where we are going on Thursday.  More queues!


Impressions from/bus/and train

Rural community is very poor and subsistence farmers.  The main r0ads are extremely badly maintained.  The E road from Kiev to Lyviv was for the 50+ miles east of Lyviv almost exclusively 2 way and much of the time speed was reduced to walking speed as the driver sought to avoid the potholes.  When traffic (mainly heavy lorries) came the other way it was sometimes necessary to halt while they sorted out which side would negotiate bertween the potholes.  From the train we saw hamlets served by muddy unsurfaced tracks; small houses (some wooden) with hay stacks, chicken, ducks and geese but no cattle or sheep, outside toilets,and little machinery or cars.  The houses are simple single story buildings with pitched roof and at first floor level a single window under the gable end.

Much of the countryside seemed to be woodland and wild grassland, brown very seldom green.  There was some cultivated land seemingly on a strip system 30-50 feet wide.

At this time of year (early April) it appeared very bleak and had much lying water and a few small patches of snow.  However, there are plenty of hills and trees so it is probably quite beautiful in the summer.

We had also noted an almost complete absence not only of motorbikes but also of bikes. The odd horse drawn cart. Nevertheless, in major cities such as Lyviv (pop. 650,000) there were traffic jams. 

Lyviv has many fine nineteenth century buildings reminiscent of other European cities, but very often neglected.  There are some really beautiful buildings such as the Opera House, various churches and the huge Baroque railway station, all beautifully maintained.



In some ways the stereo type gruff grim people in drab clothes and caps or (women) headscarves are true.  Yet, particularly in cities there are well dressed bright young people.  Winkle picker shoes with stiletto heels are very much this year's fashion for women.  In shops and railway stations the staff interaction seemed also the typical "how can I obstruct you if the system has not already done that?".  Yet in many cases the individual staff proved friendly and helpful.  It may be that language problems prevented further displays of kindness and interest, although Zoe always tried to conduct the whole conversation in Russian and English was seldom resorted to.


                                                       Wednesday 5th April

We took a trip in a minibus with a Belgian (Brian) and his Ukrainian girlfriend whom he had met via the internet.  We were accompanied by a young 20 something teacher/student who was our guide on our tour of 3 castles.  These all dated from the early to mid 17th century although one had origins 200 years earlier. 


We then travelled to Chernivtsi to stay with Zoe's friend Larissa and her husband Andrei. Seemingly we did not keep up the diary during this stay.