Christmas lights still hung above the cloudy streets even in the summer. Among the downtown streets and squares, punctuated by golden domes, people greeted me with a smile as I strolled through Kyiv for the first time. The Ukrainian capital is a city that certainly leaves a favourable impression and one which deserves more than just a flying visit on a 9 hour layover. Back in 2012, Maidan Square and the city centre were places where people went about their daily business, crossing the square getting from A to B or simple enjoying a coffee in a nearby cafe. Few anticipated that the city and the country would change so much in just over a year.
In 2012, I was half asleep on the plane from Georgia, with a long stopover in Kyiv before continuing onto Rome and then Madrid. Instead going to bed early to be up at 5am for my taxi to the airport, I drank Georgian wine on my vine-clad terrace with friends on a balmy night until 2am.
Kyiv was a half-way point. For me, it was a city that floated as if it were a dream in my transit, and one whose memory would contrast with the headlines that in late 2013 about the revolution taking place in Ukraine and the Euromaidan movement. But when I visited, it was a still a place many couldn’t place on the map, and it was also a city I knew I would love at first site.
I didn’t need a visa to enter Ukraine, but since I switched from Aerosvit to Alitalia in Kyiv, I needed my continuing boarding pass they couldn’t issue in Tbilisi. At Boryspil airport, just to make life more complicated, the technical issue at the transfer desk meant I couldn’t get my boarding pass, but the woman was friendly and sympathetic to my needs. She slipped a handwritten piece of paper to me that she promised acted as a “provisional” boarding pass and told me I could use that at the check in desk when I came back. She put me on a bus for passport control to another terminal – which despite her best in intentions wasn’t the right terminal and I was shipped back and forth in the airport until I finally reached a valid passport desk.
A little frazzled, tired and feeling my hangover slowly looming, I handed my passport to an immigrations officer with a blank face. He asked about my reasons for visiting Ukraine, I replied with “tourism”, and he slammed the stamp down on my passport.
A marshrutka ride later, I was in the downtown city, and trying to navigate the metro posed another challenge. Like cattle, people lined up and bought tokens and descended into the bowels of the Kyiv metro system. Adorned with marble arches, Kyiv’s metro was beautiful as it was crowded, but rising up to the surface, the city itself stunned me. Even under the grey clouds which contrasted with the summer heat in Georgia, the colours of houses and churches shone through. Kyiv exerted a contrasting grandeur that was neither fading nor crumbling, as I had become accustomed to after exploring the dilapidated villas and apartment blocks in Tbilisi’s old town and the Mtatsminda neighbourhood. Both cities were beautiful but Kyiv struck me not only with its classic architecture, but it’s cleanliness. People smiled at me in the streets, stopped and kindly pointed me the right way when I asked for directions in my poor Russian.
Time was not on my side and I simply walked around and visually drunk in the gold-domed churches of St. Sophia and St. Michael’s Monastery. The vibrant colours of green and blue in the respective churches and the hues of orange and terracotta of the Golden Gate, with gildings of gold scattered around as an accent in the city provided an architectural kaleidoscope that just added to Kyiv’s beauty.
Kyiv is one of Eastern Europe’s oldest and grandest cities. Many believe its origins date back to the 9th century, when it was founded by Slavic tribe leader Kyi. The name Kyiv originates from his name, meaning “belonging to Kyi”. Medieval monuments lie side-by-side with 19th century grandeur and imposing relics left over from the Soviet Union. The city’s history lies in its streets and houses, and it’s a city that still makes history.
The demonstrations happened in November 2013, erupting in the capital after the Ukrainian government suspended the preparations for signing the Ukrainian-European Union Association Agreement in order to move economically closer to Russia. Clashes between protestors and police began, and tear gas and batons were used. More and more joined its cause, making it the largest pro-European rally in history. The riots and protests became violent. Some died and many were injured. The evens in Kyiv triggered a series of events, including the Ukrainian revolution in 2014, when President Viktor Yanukovych was ousted. The country saw new changes to its sociopolitical system, a new interim government — and Russia’s invasion of the Crimean Peninsula.
Ukraine, as I visited, changed even a just over a year later. It’s still a country I would love to get to know more, and one to which I would anxiously return. I would like to take time to stop on Klovs’kyi Uzviz to pay attention to the details more closely, walk along the banks of the Dneiper River, stroll the grounds at Lavra and go out into the countryside. I would love to talk with locals about life before Euromaidan and hear their stories. Nine hours is enough to see the main sites, try some local food but it’s only enough to sense an impression, if not just a shadow of the city’s full character. One day, I hope Ukraine will host me as a guest in the future – this time for a longer time.
Cover photo by Juanedc.com
Other photos by author.