Kiev – Riding the Rails

Getting around Kiev by rail is a great adventure. I have found that using Kiev’s efficient underground Metro system, rather than the trolley or bus, is the best way for me to experience the city without getting lost. Alternately, for the fun of it and for the view, I occasionally take the Kiev Funicular between the waterfront area and the higher ground of Old Town. The price of each of these forms of transportation can’t be beat at 7uah (US$.30) per ride.


Cyrillic script is the basis of alphabets used in languages of Slavic origin, such as Ukrainian. Fortunately for me, the lists of Metro stops on electric signs and on the walls of platforms at Metro stations are written in Latin text in addition to Ukrainian Cyrillic script. Studying these translations while waiting for a train has been helpful to familiarize me with the language while on the go. I understand these translations were added in the Metro stations when the World Cup was held in Kiev in 2012 to help international guests get around the city. Thank you, World Cup!

One day when arriving at a Metro platform, I was confused as to which train to take to get to my next destination (this was not unusual!). A young man who heard me asking for help in English came over to see if he could help. That was the day I met Alex, a young professional Ukrainian whose enthusiasm for the English language was immediately apparent.

After getting me going in the right direction, he invited me to join him and some of his friends Saturday evening at a pub where they gather regularly to practice their English. Recalling the great experience I had years ago in China interacting in English with the locals at various “English Corners,” I immediately agreed to come.

Several days later I got together with Alex and his friends at their favorite ruin pub (an abandoned building turned into a pop-up bar). They expressed their various reasons for wanting to learn English. It basically came down to the promise of a brighter future.


In Kiev, underground passageways are great for accessing a Metro station, getting across a street, or for shopping. An infinite variety of goods and services are available in underground passageways (shopping arcades) which are generally accessed by entrances to Metro stations. Some rustic underground passageways have packed, open stalls. Others are more sophisticated.

Once when I was downtown, my desire to purchase eyeliner led me to a Metro station entrance where I found an underground shopping arcade of mammoth proportions. A labyrinth of corridors with low ceilings offered an infinite variety of goods and services. Well-heeled professionals were scurrying in all directions. Despite the fact I was thoroughly lost down there, I eventually found what I was looking for. Whenever I felt a bit claustrophobic, there was always a street exit nearby where I was able to come up for air.


Adjusting to the prevailing winds at the doors that access the Kiev Metro stations was an interesting learning experience. Courtesy in other parts of the world commands that you hold a door open for the person behind you so it doesn’t slam in their face. But alas, not at the Kiev Metro stations when the wind is blowing!

At the Metro entrances swinging doors often catch the wind. I learned that people entering or leaving a Metro station often stop briefly to determine which way the doors are swinging, then manage to proceed through a door without touching it. A masterful move!

If you try to counter a prevailing wind at a Kiev Metro station by holding a door for someone, you could break the flow of foot traffic, as I did the first time. I learned to watch which way the wind was blowing through the doors, proceed quickly through a door when the prevailing winds dictated it, and then keep moving without looking back.


When going to the opera or ballet, which I often do, I have learned to leave the event quickly. If not, I must bear the consequences of trying to get through the turnstiles at the local Metro station with hundreds of others at the same time.


Riding the rails of Kiev is an experience not to be missed – the trolleys for fun, the Kiev Funicular for the experience and view, and the Metro for the swinging doors!


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Strolling Andryivsky Uzviz to Kiev Upper Town

Andryivsky Uzviz (Andrew’s Descent) is a national landmark and one of the oldest streets in the city. The winding road climbs a hill which connects Kiev’s Upper town with the commercial Podil neighborhood below.

Along this cobblestone way is a lively market for souvenirs and artworks, small museums, historic theaters, and fine restaurants in lovely old homes. This is the alternate way to reach the old city center from the waterfront area other than via the Kiev Funicular (which is great fun).

One of my favorite hangouts in the evenings on the lower part of this hill was the Chocolate Cafe (A.K.A. Lviv Handmade Chocolate) I enjoyed watching an occasional tango dancing class in front of cases of chocolate beautifully displayed, while sipping arguably the best hot chocolate I’ve ever had.

Near the top of Andryivsky Uzviz is St. Andrew’s Church, a traditional Ukrainian five-domed, cross-shaped Orthodox church. A remnant of Russian aristocracy, it was built in 1754. The views of Kiev, the Dnipro River, and surrounding area from the base of the church were stellar.


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Podil, Kiev – Beyond Kontraktova Square

The golden domes of St. Andrew’s Cathedral are outlined among the vines in this photo to the left taken from a window of my accommodations in Podil. The light and the draping limbs of barren trees express a rather esoteric feeling I sometimes felt when I walked the streets of Podil, due to the tragic WWII history that took place there.

Thousands of Jews who still lived in Podil at the time of the Nazi occupation in 1941 were massacred by German forces at a ravine at nearby Babi Yar in a few days time. 

It was an act that became one of the most notorious episodes of the Holocaust.

After the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 and the subsequent Ukrainian Independence, there was a revival of Jewish community life in Kiev. Today there are approximately 20,000 Jews in Kiev. Two major synagogues serve this community, the Brodsky Choral Synagogue in the Old Town (downtown) and the Great Choral Synagogue of Kyiv in Podil.

One day while exploring Podil’s narrow, quaint streets, I visited the Great Choral Synagogue in Kyiv, the oldest one in Ukraine. It was built in 1895 under the rule of the Russian Empire. The stunning Moorish-style synagogue was accessed through a courtyard along with three kosher dining establishments, a lovely kosher 23-room hotel, and a mikva (ritual bath).

After visiting the synagogue I had some delicious soup in a tiny cafe which was tucked away on the 2nd floor of an unmarked building in the far corner of the courtyard. The receptionist at the hotel chuckled as he invited me to eat there telling me it was “generally for the workers.” He then proceeded to show me the elegant kosher restaurant, called Takida, which could be accessed from the hotel lobby or the street.

As I departed, an unmarked van with driver pulled into the courtyard. A lovely Jewish family emerged and checked into the hotel. The two teenage girls were obviously excited to be there. I could see that these guests were going to be well taken care of.


The historic Zhituya Rynok (market) in Podil has been the main shopping center of the city since the 15th century, due mainly to the proximity of the Dnieper River and the harbor. It was here that I was introduced to fresh-squeezed pomegranate juice. This juice has became my drink of choice in Ukraine along with-”uzvar” a traditional spiced fruit compote.

Street vendors, bundled up for the cold, lined the sidewalk in front of the old marketplace. Their wares were spread out on low makeshift platforms.Fresh honey in all sizes of unlabeled jars and containers looked particularly interesting. Inside I pondered the displays of fish for sale, wondering which came from the nearby Black Sea and which came from some distant port. In every market I have visited in Ukraine the meat market takes a dominant position. This was no exception in this market. It is understandable given the popularity of meat in the Ukrainian culture. As my trustworthy Lonely Planet guide book to Ukraine put it: “…most Ukrainians are carnivores by nature.”


Zhituya Rynok is surrounded by temples and churches. One of them is the Florivsky Monastery, a women’s convent dating from the 15th century. I followed a lady in black through an opening next to a lovely old church and found myself in the quiet, well-manicured courtyard of the Florivsky Monastery. The door was ajar to the 18th century main church, the Church of the Ascension. It had managed to elude Podil’s devastating fire of 1811. The interior was stunning.

During the time I was enjoying the peace and quiet of the monastery complex, several old women individually approached the well in the courtyard and filled their containers with water. Much conversation took place among them.


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Podil, Kiev’s Historical Commercial Center – my home away from home in Ukraine

Kiev’s historic neighborhood of Podil sits along a bank of the lovely Dnieper River, one of the major rivers of Europe. The Kyiv River Port in Podil is the main river port of Kiev. It is here that I have made my home-away-from-home while I travel around Ukraine for a few weeks.

My safe, clean, and well-priced accommodations are part of a relatively new chain of hostels in Eastern Europe called *Dream Hostels. The price of a dorm bed is about US$10 per night, which is typical for hostels in major cities in Eastern Europe.

When my plane landed in Kiev from Budapest, I was thrilled to finally be at this historic Eastern European city. I had missed Kiev during my extensive travels of the Former Soviet Union in the late 1980’s. The explosion of the Chernobyl power plant reactor on April 26, 1986, put Kiev off limits to visitors during that time.


Kiev, Ukraine’s capital and largest city, is around 1400 years old. It is considered to be the center of East Slavic Civilization and reached its Golden Age in the 10th-12th centuries. Golden-domed Orthodox churches abound. Many have been rebuilt due to their destruction by various conquerors over the centuries.

Podil was the birthplace of the city’s trade, commerce and industry. It is an intriguing, progressive neighborhood, albeit a bit rough around the edges with some property in ruins and many with graffiti-covered walls.


I frequently visit Podil’s historic Kontraktova Square and dine at my favorite cafe called Puztz Khata. This popular Ukrainian cafeteria-style chain offers local specialties at bargain prices. Occasionally I ask a young person in line a question about the food, knowing they probably speak English. They usually do.

Kontraktova Square is usually bustling in the early morning hours. Street vendors are busy setting up their displays, people are standing in line at the take-out window at a pop-up coffee house made from an old bus, trolleys are screeching as they round corners, well-heeled people are scurrying through the swinging doors at the Metro station, and elderly people are sitting on park benches conversing and watching the world go by.  In the midst of all this hustle and bustle church bells occasionally toll from one or more of the many churches that are dotted around the area. Most of the churches are the faiths of Ukrainian Orthodox Church and Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church.

Restaurants, cafes and coffee shops of all levels, types, and nationalities add to the diversity of the square. The massive brick Old Food Hall (shopping arcade), now only a shell, dominates the square along with a ferris wheel called the “Great Wheel.” After a devastating fire in 1811 Podil was rebuilt. Most of Podil’s beautiful, old stately buildings, including the Old Food Hall, are from this era.

On International Women’s Day the activity in Kontraktova Square increased dramatically. The spring-like temperature didn’t deter people from enjoying the seasonal ice skating rink. Families were strolling; children were darting around on scooters. Food stalls lined one side of the Old Food Hall and along the nearby wide pedestrian street. A line was forming in front of the stall selling popular Georgian street food. Street bands and musicians were vying for the attention of passers by.

Many women were carrying a small bouquet of flowers. A young couple asked me to take their photo with their camera and then the woman proceeded to congratulate me (in English) on being a woman!



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Visiting Great Market Hall and Saying Goodbye to Budapest

Great Market Hall is located in Pest at the end of the historic Chain Bridge. The market was built in 1897, and is the largest of all Budapest market halls. The cast-iron Chain Bridge which was built in 1849, spans the Danube just under the Royal Palace on Castle Hill. I always tried to combine a visit to a thermal bath on the Buda side of the bridge with lunch or a snack at the Great Market Hall on the Pest side. Thus, by walking over the bridge, I was able to periodically enjoy stunning views of the Danube and the Hungarian Parliament Building, sometimes at sunset.

Food stalls and eateries are located on the second level of the market. They get packed during lunchtime with tourists and locals. The main attraction of the stalls is langos, a national street-food dish of deep fried dough topped with sour cream, garlic butter, and cheese, plus just about anything else you want to put on it. Due to the calorie count of this food, I usually opted for the more healthy, traditional goulash soup.

Browsing the colorful market was always a delight, offering everything from foodstuff to clothing, cookware, and souvenirs for the tourists. The smell of Hungarian paprika was always in the air. Fresh-baked apple strudel in the bakeries was hard to pass up. Language was never a problem here for me due to the fact that most of the young people working in the shops spoke English. The older people in the shops knew enough words in English to communicate with English-speaking customers.


Following are a few photos to say goodbye to the dynamic city of Budapest. I’m off to the Central European country of Ukraine, where I will visit Kiev, Lviv, and Odessa for a few weeks.




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