Forget your stereotypes – Ukraine
Did you know that I am half Ukrainian? My mother’s family comes from Ukraine so I was happy to travel to her motherland and see this hidden country. This country is overshadowed by the massive neighbor (Russia) and is often forgotten by travelers traveling in Eastern Europe, which is a mistake. Though Ukraine may look, smell and often feel like Russia, it is has a ton to offer such as beautiful churches of Kiev, cobble stone streets lining European L’viv and laid-back mentality of Odessa. Those are the three cities we visited.
Though we could immediate tell that we’ve left EU and inching closer to Russia, this little city differs greatly from the rest of Ukraine, which has much to do with its history, as always. It used to be Polish territory until Soviets gobbled it up after WWII. It maintains much of the same charm we saw in Krakow: cobblestone lined streets, buildings in renaissance, baroque and classic styles, as well as multiple sculptures and carvings decorating the city. It’s truly a hidden gem of Eastern Europe and the former USSR.
Kiev is awesome – it felt very large and very small at the same time. It felt like a large and patriotic capital when we went exploring the major sites such as
We were lucky enough to witness services at a couple of them. While to Aaron they resembled a cult ceremony, this is the religion I grew up with. When going into Russian Orthodox churches, you should be respectful, women must cover their heads. I have developed a habit of always bringing my scarf with me in case we decided to venture into any churches or mosques later on our journey. It’s a tradition in Russian Orthodox religion to purchase a church candle, light it, pray for someone and place it near other candles.
Kiev felt small when we took a closer look at the Kiev Pechersk Lavra. While it’s a large, impressive monastery complex, it holds a fully functional community of monks currently living there full-time. Here is one of them trying to hitchhike somewhere – just going about his daily business:
This community also preserves the hidden caves of monastery: miles of tiny pathways deep under surface with passages that hardly fit one person at a time. Aaron being tall had to duck the entire time. Even though the caves were crowded, it seemed like we were the only tourists there with many locals praying and kissing multiple icons and the tombs. The see-through glass tombs hold mummies of various significant Russian Orthodox saints. The whole atmosphere is quite creepy as you walk slowly through small, completely dark pathways of these caves with the only light coming from a single candle I was holding, which lights up the mummies when you walk right by them and you see their brown, fragile hands (the only part of the body that is uncovered). All this while the only thing you hear is whispers (prayers) all around you with occasional sobs and people kissing every inch of the surfaces around you. This seemed to be the most mysterious site on our journey so far. As you might imagine, photography is completely prohibited. This is the only image I was able to find on-line that hardly even comes close to giving you a glimpse into the caves.
Kiev also felt small every time we walked outside of our hostel as it was situated on The Andriyivskyy Descent, which is a quaint, cobblestone street with little traffic but full of people and vendors displaying their handmade crafts and souvenirs. I snagged a cute leather bracelet there for only 20 grivna (about 2.5 dollars).
Oh Odessa, Odessa…This little, beachy city felt like its own little country in Ukraine. Locals love their city with plaques on every block claiming that “Odessa is not a city, it’s God’s smile” and you can’t help but succumb to the Odessa mentality and charm of this city. However, it is not the charm you might immediately envision of European cities, no, Odessa’s charm consists of middle-aged women screaming at you in Russian at Privoz Market, so many rules with no one following them and police demanding bribes from drunks breaking new “rules”, multiple beaches to cure your hangover:
Arcadia party district that South Beach, Miami has nothing on:
Deribasovskaya street – the heart of the city lined with endless cafes, street performers, boutique shops and architecturally significant buildings and reminders of Ostap Bender sprinkled all around the city, who is a character from a famous Russian, classical movie Twelve Chairs, and of course the warm-hearted and fun locals who are ALWAYS ready to party it up in Odessa:
Other impressions of Ukraine:
Night trains – the best way to travel between through the country: you get a bed, sheets and a cup of tea. Before you know it you wake up in a new city. It’s much cheaper here than in Russia and you also save on a hotel. We took overnight trains Moscow to Kiev and Kiev to Odessa.
Euro 2012 – we were in Ukraine during the Euro2012, which sadly hardly any Americans even know about but it’s a HUGE deal in Europe. It’s the annual UEFA European Football Championship (ahem, soccer championship), which was hosted by Poland and Ukraine this year. Poland was only preparing for it when we were there but we were in the heart of the action while in Ukraine. We initially thought that Euro would harm our experience in Ukraine due to influx of tourists and increased prices. On the contrary, it was neat to observe the spirit of Euro, watch Ukraine gussy up and host fans, meet tourists from all over Western Europe who would never typically venture into Ukraine and praise this country. The unique and fun spirit of Euro2012 made up for increased prices and overcrowded restaurants. You did good, Ukraine.