48 hours in Kiev, Day 2.

Kiev is such a vast City, the day before I had done a good job of walking around a lot of it, but I still had so much more to see. Read about Day 1 in Kiev

I began the day by walking toward Khreschatyk Street, the main street in Kiev, on my way I passed this beautiful old wooden gate called the Golden Gate, it’s a replica of the original gateway built in the 11th century.

The square it’s located in was also really nice, I got a coffee from a vendor to wake up a little and sat watching the world go by while I enjoyed it. I decided to go into the gate, it only cost 50p and it had lots of history info inside, but the views from the top, looking out over the City made it really worth it.

Afterwards I walked over to St Sophia’s Cathedral, an Orthodox church founded in 1037. It’s an absolutely beautiful building with amazing turrets covered in green and gold.

Entry was super cheap and it was just as lovely inside as out, make sure you climb the bell tower! From here you can walk around the cute Sophia Square, make sure you check out the Bohdan Khmelnytsky Monument, dedicated to the man who led a revolt against the Polish-Lithuanian kingdom in 1648.

Directly across the square is another amazing religious building, St Michael’s Golden-Domed Monastery. Originally built between 1108 and 1113 it was demolished by the Soviets in the 1930s but rebuilt in 1999 following Ukrainian independance.

It’s free to go inside, look out for the statue of archangel michael and the refectory. Also just watch out for people trying to dress you up and hold animals for pictures, in the square they were pretty aggressive to some tourists. Just be firm from the get go if you don’t want a picture.

On my way to the next sight, I passed another Monument to the victims of famine in 1933 and a monument to Princess Olga who acted as a regent for her son between 945 and 960ad.

This area was really pretty with some gorgeous looking buildings. I was heading towards the National History Museum of Ukraine but I got a little side tracked at a booze festival in the Arthall D12 building. It was incredible, I had some mulled wine and tried a couple of local beers, it was really interesting wandering around and checking out the different stalls. I even tried these garlicky blue cheese snails!

Feeling a little tipsy I finally headed over to the Museum and learned a bit more about the Crimean annexation by Russia and a little bit more of the history between the two countries.

It was certainly an eye opener and there was also loads of information about Ukraine’s history. There’s a cute little Tithe Church in the same square as the museum and you get some great views of another big orthodox place, St Andrew’s Church.

I honestly don’t think I would get bored of looking at these, the architecture is amazing.

If you want souvenirs then walk down Andriivs’kyi descent, it’s filled with hawkers selling all sorts of local wares, stop for a coffee and enjoy the vibe. I was pretty hungry so I wandered past Kontraktova Square and the Monument Petra Sagaidachnogo and found myself on a street of the same name.

There were loads of restaurants to choose from but I ended up in Star Burger and it was so tasty. I got the bacon cheddar with fries and coleslaw, delicious!

Powered up I went to explore the Ukrainian Chernobyl Museum to learn a little more about the nuclear disaster before heading there myself the next day, you can read all about that adventure here.

There’s a huge monument to Volodymyr the Great who brought christianity to Ukraine and solidified it as an empire by 980ad back past the Star Burger, and you can wander around Volodymyr Hill one of many green spaces in the City. I did a little wandering around before taking the funicular back up the hill.

It was getting towards evening at this point, so I wandered back towards the national museum and checked out the Park Landscape Alley and Peizazhna Alley to look at some random quirky pieces of art, the missile half buried was a particular highlight! I found some cool pieces of street art around this area too, and loads of cool bars.

So I picked one and spent a couple of hours watching the football and chatting to the locals about current events in Kiev which was awesome. They even pushed me to try pigs ear after I told them my horror story of trying it in Lithuania and it was delicious, it was everything I thought it was going to be the first time.

It was getting late now, and I had to be up really early for my Chernobyl tour, so I half walked half staggered back to my hotel, stopping off at Veterano pizza again before going past the Red House on the way through Taras Shevchenko Park.

Kiev has truly been a complete surprise at how much I’ve loved it, there is so much to see and do and such a rich history. The architecture is unreal, the food and drink good and the people are really open and friendly. There is loads more I saw and did that I can’t even fit into the blog posts, so many cool statues and monuments, parks and the underground/tram systems are cool too.

48 hours in Kiev, Day 1.

Ukraine

Kiev is the capital of Ukraine, the 2nd largest country in Europe behind Russia. Located in Eastern Europe, it shares a border with Russia, Belarus, Romania and Poland. I wanted to visit Ukraine so I could enter the Chernobyl exclusion zone, and Kiev is the best place to do this from. I had also found cheap flights from Ryanair, unfortunately they cancelled these so I had to re-book with British Airways. There are some no go areas of Ukraine at the moment due to the annexation of Crimea by the Russians, so check the UK government website for up to date advice.

Kiev

It was founded in the 5th century, has a world heritage site amongst it’s many Orthodox churches, the world’s deepest underground railway line and it is where Stalin, Churchill and Roosevelt met to discuss them organisation of post WWII Europe! Unfortunately and much to my dismay the chicken kiev wasn’t invented here! Communist symbols and street names were outlawed here in 2015 to attempt to move away from Russia and the Soviet Union.

Top Sights of Kiev

I arrived late into Kiev and took the sky bus found in front of terminal D and B to the main station. This took almost an hour, I didn’t see much as it was already dark by the time I got there. There is now a train that runs twice an hour and only takes 40 minutes to the City. I stayed at irisHotel right by the station for a couple of nights, then changed to the Fire Inn for the last two nights. Both were cheap, comfy and clean, the Fire Inn was in an old fire station which was pretty cool.

I started my tour of Kiev by heading to the Ukrainian State Museum of the Great Patriotic War. I had just visited one in Belarus and it was so interesting seeing how the two nations portrayed the war so differently, especially how they perceived Russia/The Soviets.

It’s another really interesting museum even if you don’t have much interest in history or WWII. The most impressive part of the museum is outside where you can view the Motherland Monument.

Standing at 62 metres tall it dominates the skyline above the museum. It was finished in 1981 and has been exempt from the decommunisation law because of it’s WWII significance. It looks like something out of a sci-fi film and it’s one of the grandest statues I’ve ever seen.

There’s also a monument to the UN, the founders of Kiev and a load of cool tanks and a nice park area around the museum. You can walk straight from here past a few cafes and shops to the next big sight, the Pechersk Lavra.

A monastery with a huge cave complex underneath it with several saints and religious figures reported to be buried there, it began in 1051 and the complex now consists of several pretty orthodox churches and you can visit the catacombs for a small fee. You aren’t allowed to take photos in the catacombs but are free to wander around the rest of it and take as many pics as you like. It’s definitely one of the best things to do here.

There are a couple of museums and art galleries nearby but I didn’t visit them, instead heading to the Holodomor Genocide museum, here you can learn more about the famine caused by Stalinist policies such as collectivisation in the early 1930s that killed an estimated 7.5 million Ukrainians.

It’s a harrowing tale, especially the propaganda used such as spreading tales that the peasants were hoarding food for themselves instead of giving to the wider collective of the USSR. Just along from here is a memorial to the Unknown Soldier.

Next up was the Mariyinsky Palace, completed in 1752 it’s the official residence of the president of Ukraine in Kiev and is joined to the parliament of Ukraine. It was built in the baroque style and the first royal figure to stay here was Catherine the Great! It was badly damaged in WWII and has had a couple of major restorations since then.

It’s a beautiful building and the adjacent park is lovely to wander around too. You can check out the old Dynamo Kiev stadium before walking over the park bridge and enjoy amazing views over the river Dnipro and to the East of Kiev.

I followed the walkway past the Museum of Water and stopped for a picture with a big bronze frog, you throw a coin in it’s mouth for good luck.

It was starting to get a bit dark and walking through the parks was so nice as they were all lit up, and if you follow on from the frog you get to the Friendship of Nations Arch.

Another throwback to Soviet rule it was completed in 1982 to commemorate the 60th anniversary of the USSR and 1500th anniversary of Kiev. It’s a huge 50m diameter rainbow shaped arch made of titanium, with a bronze statue of russian and ukrainian workers underneath.

During eurovision it was lit up in rainbow colours and renamed the arch of diversity however after 3 weeks it went back to normal. It was supposed to be removed and replaced with a memorial to soldiers fighting russian rebels in the East of the country, but it still stands as far as I’m aware!

I was starving now as I had only had a cute little hotdog from a place in one of the subway stations, it was delicious but I needed something more substantial. After a quick google I headed to Veterano Pizzeria, I liked the name and I adore pizza!

The decor was so cool inside, with army memorabilia on the walls and table tops made from bullets. The food was really good too and I had a couple of beers to go alongside the pizza and cheesecake.

I spent the rest of the evening wandering down Khreschatyk St, a huge avenue runnning through central Kiev, it was stunning!

All the buildings were lit up and it was almost like Vienna in it’s grandiosity. So far Kiev was nothing like I was expecting, and I was super impressed. I stopped at Independance Square, where there was a huge mural of chains saying ‘freedom is our religion’, an I love Kiev sign and some cute statues.

I had walked so much today in the cold but I had enjoyed every moment. I would have missed a lot of things that I found by mistake if I had taken the underground or taxis/buses. I also thought it was amazing that half of Kiev seemed to be out, drinking coffee from little huts on the pavement all wrapped up. It was very European. On my way back to the hotel I passed this stunning building called Volodymyr’s Cathedral, I couldn’t wait to explore the rest of Kiev!

Caution! Radiation! Dark Tourism at Chernobyl

Today I was doing something that I was wholly unsure of. I was going to visit Chernobyl, the site of a nuclear power station that essentially went into meltdown and caused a huge nuclear explosion. The after effects of which are still felt now, and were felt for thousands of miles as winds blew radiation across Northern Europe.

This all happened in 1986 under Soviet rule in Ukraine but I was assured by various publications and tour sites online that it was now safe for humans to wander through, so I bit the proverbial bullet and went for it. I booked my tour online through Chernobyl-Tour, at first I was totally unsure if it was legit but you paid on the day and apart from handing over your passport it seemed pretty safe.

We met at 07:30am in Kiev, a motley crew of myself, an American family, a Spanish couple, a French guy and an Australian man. Lunch was to be included and we would make a quick stop to grab something for breakfast at a very well put together services on the way. All ready to go and passports checked we were informed there were two more travellers, and we would wait an extra ten minutes for them. At this point I just knew this couple would be trouble, they soon arrived around 11 minutes later, much to my consternation we hadn’t left them behind.

They then went into a big story about how one of them had left their passport at the hostel, to which they were told they wouldn’t be going on the tour without it. This began a whole rigmarole of leaving them behind, but waiting for them at the services while they took a taxi back to their hostel and then out to the services.

Anyway, we were soon on our merry way, making our hellos through gritted teeth at the new arrivals. The journey to the military checkpoint that required our passports and on to our first stop took around 3 hours, the route was scenic and we got a little background on what had happened and the itinerary for the day, we were also all given our own personal geiger counters and maps which was pretty cool and/or terrifying depending on your train of thought.

Once through the soviet era guard post – something that wouldn’t have looked out of place in a Pierce Brosnan era James Bond film, we were officially in the Chernobyl area. The three headed deer and giant glowing wolves that I had imagined in my head failed to materialise, instead we stopped and took a quick look around a small village called Zalissya that had been completely abandoned. It was eerie walking through the woods with glimpses of derelict houses, we explored a few of them, only finding bits that no scavengers would take.

Next on the agenda was another quick stop at the first exclusion workers site, here people live and work around the whole Chernobyl area, testing the radiation levels and performing maintenance. We looked at some of the equipment that had been used through the years to aid in sealing the nuclear towers off and learnt that they mostly hadn’t worked. There was a really endearing statue of origami swans in dedication to people who lost their lives due to the reactor.

The next part of the tour was really cool, and complete KGB/Soviet stuff, we stopped at a gated off area which led to a huge radar antenna which was completely hidden from the West and it was only discovered once people started returning to work in the exclusion zone.

It would have been used to assist in launching ballistic missiles. I thought it was amazing and I could’ve wandered through the bunkers, under the radar and around the abandoned vehicles for ages. This was truly an experience unlike any other. Geiger counters gripped in our hands we closely monitored the radiation levels and found control rooms straight out of films and TV.

Unfortunately time was limited and our next stop was the creepiest yet, the village of Kopachi. In the aftermath of the fallout the government didn’t really know what to do, so in some areas of high radiation the houses were bulldozed and buried.

This only led to the radiation seeping into the ground and water table around the village, making it one of the highest radiation spots we visited. The only building left was the kindergarten, with empty beds left behind and various creepy toys lying around.

It was now time for lunch, and we joined the exclusion zone workers in their cafeteria to enjoy the same food that they eat. I forgot to take pictures of this and I’ve completely forgotten what we ate so it couldn’t have been too memorable. We ate and chatted about the day so far before we were bundled back into our little minibus to view the actual reactor or at least the sarcophagus that now covers it.

They actually discovered that the original containment barrier was leaking radioactive rain into the soil and thus into the environment. So a new containment device was built over this, which allows nuclear waste to be safely removed and the old sarcophagus to be dismantled.

The next part of the trip was really exciting as we visited the nuclear City of Pripyat, this place was built for the huge population of workers that the nuclear station required, reaching a population of nearly 50,000 at the time it was evacuated. It truly represents nature taking back control of something built by humans.

Covered in greenery and buildings slowly crumbling to the ground from rain and plants, it includes the sports stadium, the amusement park with the iconic ferris wheel, which was only ridden on once and the whole park was never opened to the public.

It was actually due to open 5 ays after the disaster. It also includes the azure swimming pool – one of the cleanest and safest places in the exclusion zone, we found out to our horror that it was still in use up to 1996 by the men and women brought in to deal with the crisis!

It was starting to get dark now as dusk fell, and our second to last stop was the police station which was definitely like something out of a horror film with it’s abandoned cells. Our last stop was on our way out and had to be illuminated by the bus….it was the memorial to ‘Those who saved the world’ the firefighters that died putting out the fire at the nuclear power plant and the people who cleaned up the area after the accident. It was a fitting way to end the trip, but the drama had just begun.

Remember the two English lads who had caused a commotion at the beginning of the journey? Well they had started to get bored about halfway through and ceased showing any interest in the surroundings or what the guide was saying. Through the whole trip the one thing that we had been warned not to do was pick up any kind of ‘souvenirs’ from the exclusion zone. So obviously as we went back through the checkpoint and were checked for radiation and decontaminated something as amiss.

Turned out a wrench was left on one of the seats on the bus. Now not to point fingers but it was definitely these two lads. They acted like butter wouldn’t melt at the time and luckily for us the army guys let us go without taking us through questioning to figure out who it was, this was what could have potentially happened. Once the wrench had been returned and we were on our way they soon started joking that it might have been them. It was just so needless and embarassing for everyone after such an incredible trip. As we disembarked the bus back in Kiev they offered me the chance of a beer with them, I politely declined by informing them I’d rather drink the cooling water of the nuclear reactor than have a beer with two arseholes.

I did however head to the pub I knew and had a beer, contemplating the day and what a crazy experience it was. The tour cost around 89 US dollars and it was worth every penny. I’d remenber this for the rest of my life. Bucket list moment? TICK.