During a brief encounter in a cafe with a Ukrainian professional woman named Christine, we discussed the three major cities of Ukraine which I am in the process of visiting – Kiev, Lviv and Odessa. She commented that Lviv feels a bit like Europe, and Odessa feels a bit like Russia. But when she mentioned Kiev she threw up her hands, rolled her eyes, shook her head and laughed. She was apparently at a loss for words when it came to describing the rich cultural legacy of this enigmatic city.
It was a peaceful, brisk day in Maydan Nazalezhnosti (Independence Square), or “Maidan” as Kiev’s historic central square is popularly called. This peace belies the tragedy which happened here and the surrounding area during Euromaidan in 2014 when radical protests were sparked by the Ukrainian government’s decision to suspend the signing of an association agreement with the European Union.
Since the collapse of the Soviet Union and the start of Ukraine’s independence movement in 1990, the square has been the traditional place for political rallies. Today the only signs of the Euromaidan deadly uprising are the memorials to the 100 dead that line the steep pathway to the massive Intourist hotel, and the towering metal slabs that encircle Independence monument. The slabs relate the story of the uprising in text and photos. Gone are the tents, the protesters, and government troops.
Our *free walking tour started in Maidan at the Founders Monument, which depicts the three legendary founders of Kiev and their sister. The majestic column of Independence monument, recently built to celebrate the 10th year of Ukraine’s independence, dominated the landscape. The old Soviet Intourist hotel, with commanding views of Independence Square, ironically looks out on Independence monument. Stately historic buildings surround the square.
We joined in the buzzing pedestrian traffic as we explored the square. Business men and women were striding with purpose across the wide expanse. Young people were scattered about, buried in their smart phones. Lines gathered at mobile coffee stands. Tourists were taking selfies with Independence monument in the background.
Walking up one of the old streets that fanned out from the square we arrived at the stunning St. Michael’s Golden-Domed Monastery. It was originally built in the Middle Ages, destroyed by the Soviets in the 1930’s, and rebuilt following Ukrainian Independence in 1991. Many protestors during the 2014 Maidan uprising took shelter here, we were told.
It was International Women’s Day that day and Khreshchatyk Street, Kiev’s central street in Old Town which extends from one side of Maidan, had been made into a pedestrian avenue. After our walking tour finished, I joined the masses in the promenade from the main square down Khreshchatyk Street to historic Bessarabsky Rynok (market). Excitement was in the air – buskers entertained with their music, spray-painting artists demonstrated their skills. Most adults had a flower or two in hand.
The lovely, light-filled, Bessarabsky Rynok (central market) was built in 1910. It was built for traders coming to Kiev from Bessarabia, which is mostly part of neighboring modern-day Moldova. Fresh fruit and vegetables, flowers, clothing, souvenirs – it was all there. The packed dining establishments with communal seating in one corner of the market, with trendy vegan and Chinese fast-food stalls, satisfied my hunger. I went back there to eat several times after that. The price was right (around US$5), the food was great, and the young, international clientele interesting.
What a fine day it was of enlightenment and entertainment!
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