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.

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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.”

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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.

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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.

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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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* https://dream-hostels.com

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