- The Washington Times - Saturday, April 26, 2008

KIEV, Ukraine (AP) Shining with Orthodox golden domes that rise from forested hilltops, crisscrossed by narrow cobblestone streets and speckled by quiet, leafy parks, Kiev draws visitors with an Eastern European charm.

For those who seek the exotic artifacts of the Soviet era — Lenin statues, imposing bronze monuments and colonnaded subway stations — Kiev has those too.

Founded over 1,500 years ago, Kiev is one of the oldest and historically richest cities in Eastern Europe. The site of the ancient Kievan Rus state, forerunner of the Russian empire, it is considered the birthplace of Slavic civilization. The city endured the Mongol-Tatar invasion, was an important provincial capital in the Czarist and Soviet eras, and in 1991 finally became the capital of an independent Ukraine.

Today, Kiev strives to be a proper European city while at the same time preserving its unique Slavic appeal. Cut in two by the broad Dnieper River, the city is a mix of medieval onion-domed Orthodox churches, elegant 20th century buildings and some stubbornly durable artifacts of the Soviet times, including large statues and gloomy apartment blocks on the city’s outskirts.

Khreshchatyk Street is a broad avenue lined with grand Stalin-era brown-brick buildings and chestnut trees. On weekends, when Khreshchatyk is closed to traffic, it is especially pleasant to walk and gives a chance to mix with the local crowd — glamorous young women walking hand in hand with their lucky suitors, teenagers dancing to hip-hop music and retirees taking their giggly grandchildren for a stroll.

Khreshchatyk is at its best in May, when the chestnuts are in full bloom and they fill the air with a delicate sweet aroma.

The street ends at Maidan Nezalezhnosti, or Independence Square, where Ukrainians made history in 2004 by staging the peaceful Orange Revolution that overturned a fraudulent election and brought a pro-Western opposition leader to power.

Since then, the concept of opposition protests has become so popular in Ukraine that hardly a day goes by in Kiev without a rally of some sort.

Aside from the revolution, Maidan is noted for the soaring 130-foot statue of a young woman in the national costume representing the newly independent Ukraine. Many Ukrainians appreciate the statue’s political significance, although some might question its taste.

Kiev is dotted with hundreds of medieval Orthodox churches and monasteries — a reminder that it was here that the state of Kievan Rus (parts of modern-day Ukraine, Russia and Belarus) became Christian. In 988, the Slavic prince Volodymyr marched his servants into the Dnieper to be baptized and eventually converted the whole region to Christianity.

If you don’t have time for all of the churches, see at least three: St. Sophia and St. Michael’s cathedrals, both just up the hill from the Independence Square, and the landmark Kiev Pechersk Lavra, also known as the Cave Monastery, overlooking the Dnieper.

St. Sophia’s Cathedral was founded in the 11th century by Volodymyr’s son Yaroslav and was rebuilt in the 17th and 18th centuries in the so-called Ukrainian Baroque style, which is more modest in decoration than the classic Baroque. The cathedral managed to escape destruction by atheist Soviet authorities when a group of historians cleverly proposed to close it to worshippers and turn it into a museum, thus preserving its ancient mosaics and frescos.

The golden-domed white-and-blue St. Michael’s, dating from the 12th century, was not so lucky. The cathedral, also built in the Ukrainian Baroque style, was demolished in 1935 and rebuilt in the late 1990s.

St. Michael’s is a popular place to get married, and visitors often see beaming brides in elaborate white dresses posing for photographs, with their more serious grooms clad in dark suits.

To feel the atmosphere of Kiev of the beginning of 20th century, head to Andriivsky Descent, a cobblestone, serpentine street that is one of the oldest in Kiev. The Descent is often compared with Montmartre in Paris. There are numerous art galleries, artists eager to paint your portrait or caricature, and cozy cafes offering Ukrainian and foreign cuisine.

Those looking for souvenirs — national costumes, folk music and even Red Army uniforms — can find them here too.

Be sure to stop at the Mikhail Bulgakov Museum, the house of the renowned Russian author of “The Master and Margarita,” a world-acclaimed novel satirizing the soulless Stalin-era bureaucracy. Bulgakov, who lived here in the early 20th century, once said that no city in the world is as beautiful as Kiev.

Next on the must-see list is the Kiev Pechersk Lavra, one of the oldest and the holiest Orthodox monasteries in Ukraine and a sacred pilgrimage site for Orthodox believers from all over the world.

Its sprawling territory is home to a dozen churches and museums, a forested park and massive underground caves. The saints buried inside are believed to have healing powers.

The monastery’s 317-foot bell tower offers a great view of the city, but only for those prepared to climb narrow stairs to the top.

A traditional Ukrainian meal will keep you up and running for rest of the day. Begin with the two best known local specialties: a piece of bread with a slice of salo (hog fat) and borscht (beet soup). Then try varenyky dumplings with cabbage, potatoes or meat and wash it all down with vodka, or horilka as it is known here.

After the meal, head to the Lypky district, a quiet area of 19-century houses built for wealthy aristocrats and civil servants. Here, you will run into a miniature replica of Versailles, the Mariinsky Palace, built in 1755 by the renowned architect Bartolomeo Rastrelli, who was the court architect for Russia’s Empress Elizabeth.

Another peculiar site in the neighborhood is the House With Chimeras, an unlikely name and design for the presidential reception house.

Nestled on a steep hill, the house has three or six stories, depending on which side you look from, and is decorated with sculptures of such bizarre creatures as mermaids, lizards and frogs. It was built by one of Kiev’s most famous architects, Wladyslaw Horodecki, whose Art Nouveau buildings dot the center of the city.

If it’s warm outside, take a boat tour on the Dnieper and get a splendid view the city’s green hills and church domes. But don’t get intimidated by the giant steel woman staring at you, a sword and a shield in her hands.

If the Soviet-era 200-foot-tall Motherland statue looks more menacing than hospitable to you, just ignore it. The rest of the city welcomes you.

•••

For information on Kiev, go to www.traveltoukraine.org/contact.htm or phone 202/223-2228.

Citizens of most Western countries and Japan don’t need visas for stays of up to 90 days.

Flights to Kiev are available from major Western European cities, New York and Toronto.

Most street signs are Cyrillic, which will be a challenge to foreigners. But an increasing number of Kievans, especially among the younger generation, speak English and will be able to give directions.

It is advised to rely on bottled water.

Kiev has a well-developedpublic transportation system, including the subway, buses and trolleys, but the city is also infamous for its traffic jams, and it’s often better to walk.

You can also easily hail a taxi, but be prepared to bargain with the taxi drivers; otherwise you might be taken for a ride. Also, be twice as careful when crossing the street, since many drivers here are reckless.

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