Things I knew about Ukraine before this trip included: the painstakingly decorated Easter eggs, that the traditional women’s dress is a heavily embroidered white tunic with garlands of flowers (sadly, it occurs to me that I probably know this because of the Olympics), that it is a former Soviet republic and that it is the land of perogies, borscht, vodka and Chicken Kiev.
I had wanted to travel somewhere I had never been this fall. And more than that, I wanted to travel somewhere I didn’t know much about. I had narrowed it down to Japan, India and Israel when Matt proposed another option: Kyiv and Prague. He was going on a business trip and invited me to come along. Obviously, I jumped at the chance.
ARCHITECTURE & CHURCHES
After being in Kyiv for a week I feel like I know a lot more but I’m still not entirely sure where to start. It’s a strange town. Alongside the easter eggs, flowers and Soviet stuff is some incredible architecture. I’ve been going for a run every morning that it’s not been raining and even on the side streets outside of town there are enormous, beautifully decorated and colourful buildings (some recently revived, some in need of repair and some in progress) with printed scaffolding over top to show what the building is meant to look like. Probably there are modern buildings somewhere in the city but I haven’t seen many.
The next thing of note is all the churches. The beautiful golden domes of the Russian Orthodox churches peek out from the colourful buildings at every turn, or at least it seems so from our hotel, which is positioned right between St. Sophia’s cathedral (an almost 1000-year-old cathedral with its wedding-cake bell tower) and St. Michael’s Golden-domed monastery. St. Andrew’s is a short walk away and looks like it should be some giantess’ jewelry box but the inside felt too red and ornate to me and came off looking a bit gaudy. My favourite is St. Volodymyr’s which is a pretty standard-issue Neo-Byzantine cathedral on the outside but inside is all black and gold and candlelight, making it hard not to feel the glow.
Kyiv Pechersk Lavra monastery / Kiev Monastery of the Caves is HQ for Russian Orthodox churches in Ukraine. They believe it is one of four places in the world where the Virgin Mary lives and there are also 73 “imperishable relics” – the bodies of saints who were buried in the caves and who have been deemed uncorrupted. That belongs firmly on the list of things I didn’t know about Ukraine before this week. The top part of the complex is maintained by the church but feels fairly secular – there are many churches but also souvenir stands and a series of museums. I wandered around there for a bit and then went to the lower part, it was obvious that something very different was happening…by now I had noticed that women cover their heads when they’re in the church and so I had been trying to do the same on my visits but here all the women’s heads were covered and everyone bowed and crossed themselves coming through the gate. But there were no tourists, no English words anywhere and I had no idea what was going on, so I went back up to the gate and bought a tour.
First we got dressed to go underground. Women have to have covered arms, a covered head and wear a long skirt and there are wraps to be bought or borrowed for this purpose. My tour guide was lovely and patient with all of my questions but as she explained all the mysteries of the saints to me and how they died and how to pray to them, I couldn’t help but feel awkward. It was unbearably hot in the catacombs with all the people and my jeans / skirt / shirt / wrap / headscarf combo, carrying a candle and trying not to get beeswax all over the place as we all jostled against each other in the narrow corridors. I was the only tourist in a place packed with pilgrims waiting patiently for me to get out of the way so they could access the relics and I felt badly. I’m so glad I went but I will be processing it for a while….what it means to be a tourist and what a privilege it is.
In terms of food, there are PLENTY of perogies, borscht and vodka. Actually, they are not perogies but varenyky (or vareniki) – the difference being that perogies seem to be baked or fried after they’re cooked and varenyky are simply boiled or steamed. They are all over the place, in all kinds of flavours, as well as pelmeni – which are dumplings filled with raw meat and then cooked whole. So far I’ve had mushroom (both pelmeni and varenyky), and cabbage, potato, meat, sour cherry and blueberry varenyky, and you would think that I would be getting tired of them by now but I assure you that I have a very high dumpling threshold. My favourite (by a long shot) is the sour cherry and I want to try the poppyseed ones before we leave but I’ve already had sour cherry three times and I’m not sure I’m going to be able to come away from it.
Borscht, traditional beet soup, is predictably delicious and slightly different everywhere but it always comes with a side of garlic brioche and sour cream. Actually, everything comes with sour cream and you always get a basket of bread with a meal (including with the borscht and brioche).
Chicken Kyiv is apparently a Russian dish in origin but Ukrainians have either adopted it or they share a common love of cutlets because there are plenty of similar items on the menus under different names. All of the fried things I’ve had in Kyiv thus far have just tasted like oil though, so I am not a fan.
And of course, there is vodka. We have had lots of local beer and been happy with it (Stare Misto and Bitburger are the favourites), and there is wine from the area as well, but vodka is everywhere. So far we’ve tried regular and organic, and honey-pepper, cranberry and horseradish flavours. The horseradish smelled like it came out of a barn but on the palate it was beautiful – infused with horseradish for certain, but also honey and raisins and some other things. I’ve been told that no one drinks vodka for the taste but I might have to argue for this one because it was amazing. The honey-pepper was infused with honey and a bird’s eye pepper and is so perfectly balanced between sweet and spicy.
What else? There is so much bread that I’m beside myself – piles for breakfast, along with cold cuts, sausage, cheeses and two kinds of smoked herring. There is also kasha, a mushy Russian granola / porridge which is interesting. For lunch I’ve mostly been having beer and dumplings and in between there are amazing pastries – favourites are raspberry or the new-to-me combination of pineapple and ricotta or cottage cheese.
Almost every restaurant has shashlik – barbecued shish kebabs – cooked over an open fire and salo (lard) shows up on a lot of menus too. Basically, it is just pork fat so that takes some getting used to, but it does help with all the vodka.
The season is turning and the weather is getting a bit cooler, but there has been a beautiful fall breeze rustling the chestnut trees. I’ve been happy to be outside and I’ve spent a lot of time reading and taking it all in. I wish I had had more time to explore farther afield, outside of the city.