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Kyiv — one of the best walking cities in the world
The cars and jeeps that drive up on the sidewalk on the Ukrainian capital’s central street, Khreshchatyk, is a relatively recent phenomenon. While modern life in central Kyiv may be at the mercy of burgeoning middle class ambitions and progress gone awry, the old city beckons to be seen. In fact, the case is strong for Kyiv to claim that it is among the best cities in the world to walk, cars on sidewalks notwithstanding. Stephan LADANAJ, an American citizen who has lived and worked in Kyiv for the last 13 years, invites you to take that walk, with some history provided for background.
Where to start?
The real beginning, of course, is Kyivan Rus with Kyiv at its center. Despite the numerous invasions and the loss of thousands of millions of lives in the last millennium, there is enough left of the core to amaze. But what was Kyivan Rus and who were its people?
Historical evidence points to the medieval state of Rus with its center in Kyiv rising around 880 AD. At its height, Kyiv was among the largest and most developed urban and cultural centers in Europe, second only to Byzantium, according to some sources. Rus reached its zenith around mid-11th century, after which a number of internal and external factors would contribute to its disintegration and decline, starting around the second half of the 11th century until its collapse with the Mongol Invasion in 1240.
From a historical point of view, the Rus polity can be viewed as an early predecessor of the three modern East Slavic nations of Belarusians, Ukrainians and Russians. However, there was never a single great and powerful Slavic people known as Rus who started the whole thing, as some theories (mostly Soviet and Russia-sponsored) would have one believe.
By the 8th century, the territory of what would become Kyivan Rus was inhabited by proto-Slavic tribes who shared a similar language, pagan beliefs, customs and lifestyle.
Modern-day Ukrainians arose from the Polianians, who appeared to have been the dominant force that shaped Kyivan Rus society, together with other Slavic tribes.
Belarusians would descend largely from the Drehovichians mixed on a substratum of Baltic and Finno-Ugric tribes, while Russians developed from a number of yet other Slavic tribes mixed heavily on a substratum of Finno-Ugric tribes.
According to the Rus Primary Chronicle, the Polianian prince Kiy founded Kyiv in the 6th century, but its Slavic tribes were unable to form a viable state.
By around the mid-9th century, Varangians (Vikings) from Scandinavia took power over the Slavic and Finno-Ugric tribes far north of Kyiv in the northwestern corner of present-day Russia around Lake Ladoga, first establishing their trade base there, or, as the Chronicle relates, were eventually invited by the area’s Finno-Ugric and Slavic tribes to “rule over” them.
According to the Chronicle, the Viking rulers who were invited to reign over these tribes were called Rus, much as others were called Swedes, Normans, Angles and Goths.
Because the Scandinavian Rus ruling elite, as well as the state by the same name, became centered in Kyiv, the conglomerate of Slavic tribes living in and around Kyiv began calling themselves Rus (Rusyns, also referred to as Ruthenians from the Latin), taking their name from the Vikings that had organized them into one of the most powerful and largest European states of that time.
From Ladoga, the Varangian Rus increased their power into Novgorod, with the Varangian Rurik taking his seat there in the 860s. From there, his son, Prince Oleg (Oleh), took power in Kyiv in 882, launching the Rurik Dynasty that would rule Kyivan Rus, and then other East European territories, until 1596.
The reigns of Volodymyr the Great (980–1015) and his son Yaroslav the Wise (1019-1054) constituted the Golden Age of Kyiv, which saw the acceptance of Orthodox Christianity (988) and the creation of the first Eastern Slavic legal code, the Russkaya Pravda (Justice of Rus). Both rulers continued the steady expansion of Kyivan Rus that had begun under Oleh.
Heart of the Center
I’ve lived and worked in this city for more than 13 years, so you can pretty much follow my advice and directions, but only if you feel like it.
If you are on Maidan Nezalezhnosti (Independence Square), made famous by the Orange Revolution of 2004, you can open the old city in any direction you choose to go.
The Maidan, and Khreshchatyk, the central street of Kyiv that runs alongside the square, comprise a valley where two of Kyiv’s main hillsides meet.
While the Maidan has had a major remake of its Stalinist face in the last several years, with fountains rebuilt and repositioned, new monuments installed and an underground shopping mall constructed, Khreshchatyk has undergone major reconstruction and significant development in the same short period.
The entire street was completely destroyed during WWII and rebuilt in the neo-classical style of post-war Stalinist architecture. During weekends and public holidays, Khreshchatyk is closed to traffic and open to pedestrians. A great deal of youthful activity takes place along the street and on the Maidan, as well as in the passages under them, especially as the weather gets warmer.
Speaking of which, spring is the best time of year in Kyiv, covering the capital in a lush canopy of green that transforms the old city into one vast park, turning it into one of the most beautiful urban landscapes in Europe.
If Khreshchatyk and the Maidan are your point of entry into Kyiv center and the old city, you can rest assured that there’s plenty to buy and you won’t go hungry. While in terms of cafes, restaurants and pubs Kyiv is not yet Prague, there are already plenty of them, from a large variety of ethnic kitchens to Ukrainian fast-food chains, entertainment hubs, and points of rest and relaxation, and they are everywhere — a far cry from the situation of a decade ago.
There are many upscale stores and places to eat along Khreshchatyk. There is also the Pasazh (Passage), an arched side street of interesting architecture, elite boutiques, cafes and restaurants, to name just one of many Khreshchatyk-related attractions. Under the Maidan you’ll find an upscale shopping mall called Globus, while in the opposite direction, the more affordable Metrograd shopping complex stretches for several football-field lengths under Khreshchatyk.
From the Maidan, take a walk up any of the narrow channel streets that run into the square — Sofiyivska Street, for example, or Mykhailivska.
When you make it to the top — it’s not a long walk — you will be in the midst of a huge cobblestone field. Before you will be the famous monument of Hetman Bohdan Khmelnytsky on a horse, built in 1888 by Russian artist Mikhail Mikeshin, and the St. Sophia Cathedral, built by Yaroslav the Wise in 1037 and named after the Hagia Sophia in Constantinople.
Today the cathedral, which is on the UNESCO World Heritage List, functions as a museum. With 13 cupolas and an interior that still reveals mosaics and frescos that are on par with Byzantine art of that time, St. Sophia’s has remained an outstanding architectural monument since Kyivan Rus times. The cathedral is surrounded by a monastery built in the 17th century in the Ukrainian baroque style.
If you continue past the cathedral along Volodymyrska Street, you will come upon the famous Golden Gate (Zoloti Vorota) of Kyiv, which is currently being restored. From its present appearance, a lot more work and care are needed to make it as impressive as it looks on some of the photographs that you may have seen.
Regardless of what it may look like now, the Gate is nevertheless famous, having been the gateway in the walls of the old city. This gateway was one of the three constructed by Yaroslav the Wise and reputedly modeled on the Golden Gate of Constantinople. It was used largely ceremoniously as the gate into the city through the 18th century, but gradually fell into ruin.
The Gate is a good place to stop and take a break. You will find a pavilion atop a grassy knoll next to the Gate where you can sit and enjoy a mineral water or get a bite to eat. There are also a number of restaurants and food places on the four corners surrounding the Gate that you can duck into before stepping out again.
A bit further beyond the Gate, moving in the same direction along Volodymyrska, you can get a glimpse of the National Opera House, built in the early 20th century. Further still are other architectural treasures, like the Red (Kyiv National) University and the monument to the great 19th century Ukrainian poet Taras Shevchenko in a beautiful park across from the university.
Turning right at Taras Shevchenko Blvd. where it intersects Volodymyrska, you will come to the charming domed Universytet metro station and the old neglected botanical garden behind it, as well as St. Volodymyr Cathedral, just down and across the street from this metro stop, and one of the city’s major landmarks.
The cathedral was built in the Neo-Byzantine style in 1882 to commemorate the 900th anniversary of the baptism of Kyivan Rus. The cathedral is crowned by seven domes, and the murals and frescos of the church’s interior, executed by famous Russian painters, are of considerable artistic significance. Venetian masters authored the church’s mosaics.
From the Center to Podil
Now go back to Volodymyrska and walk in the opposite direction past St. Sophia’s and the Khmelnytsky statue. At the opposite end of this field, and almost mirroring St. Sophia’s, is St. Michael’s Golden-Domed Cathedral, which was destroyed in the 1930s along with numerous other churches and architectural monuments during Stalin’s reign of terror. The splendid sky-blue and glistening gold monastery overlooks the city’s historical and merchant quarter of Podil, which stretches along the Dnipro far below.
The Byzantine-style monastery was originally developed in 1108– 1113 during the reign of Prince Svyatopolk. In the 17th–18th centuries, the monastery’s central basilica was rebuilt in the Ukrainian Baroque style.
Here I will mention the newly opened five-star Hyatt hotel, which has taken a prominent place in this magnificent cobblestone square. Venture to the eighth floor of this wonderful hotel and you will come out on the terrace of the hotel’s Bar on 8. Sit down, order a drink and enjoy the fantastic view of everything that you have just seen below and the cityscape that surrounds it.
Once you are down at street level again, it’s impossible to miss the ponderous post-war Ministry of Foreign Affairs building just across from St. Michael’s. Follow the street that runs adjacent to the ministry, Desyatynna, and you will come to the very famous Andriyivsky Uzviz, (Andrew’s Ascent in Ukrainian) or Andreyevsky Spusk (Andrew’s Descent — in Russian).
It is difficult to say what it is about Andriyivsky that excites so much, but it is surely more than any one thing; the street itself, or the people on it and what they sell, or the lofty jewel-like St. Andrew’s Church at the top, the Bulgakov home and museum, together with restaurants, cafes and art studios in the middle, or the street’s happy ending in Podil at the bottom.
Whatever the charm and attraction of Andriyivsky, enjoy it — there’s no other place like it in the world.
The baroque St. Andrew’s Church was built in 1747–1754 according to a design by the Italian Bartolomeo Rastrelli, imperial Russia’s best architect at the time. Overlooking the historical Podil district from a steep hill to which the church gave its name, the five-domed structure is one of the city’s best known landmarks.
Often advertised as the ‘Montmarte of Kyiv,’ the bohemian Andriyivsky contains numerous antique shops, art studios, galleries, theaters, museums, hotels and cafes. Andriyivsky is indisputably the best place to shop for Ukrainian crafts and artworks.
At the foot of Andriyivsky lies Podil. More small churches are concentrated in the historic area of Podil than in any other section of Kyiv. You won’t miss a number of them as you come off Andriyivsky.
As you come out onto Kontraktova Ploshcha (Contract Square), you will notice that Podil is not only topographically different from the rest of the old city above it, but architecturally as well, being more reminiscent of a port town through which goods and wares would arrive upriver and leave downriver rather than a part of the old capital.
Situated next to Kontraktova is Eastern Europe’s oldest university, Kyiv Mohyla Academy, founded in 1654. Today, the academy functions as a national university, and is considered one of the top institutions of higher learning in the country.
On Kontraktova, you will not be able to miss the wide Sahaydachnoho street, which is often closed to traffic on weekends and holidays at the height of the tourist season, thanks to its now well developed cafe and restaurant infrastructure and refurbished comfort and charm. Take your time and a stroll. Unlike the Upper City, the pace in the Lower City is easier, slower, more casual.
Sahaydachnoho is the best main street in Podil to turn from onto any of the side streets that intersect it and walk a short distance to the Dnipro. Walk along the riverfront. Take in the breeze and listen to the water. See the yachts, boats and restaurants moored to the bank. Have a bite to eat. Relax.
As modern life would have it, though, it’s time to move on again. Get back to Sahaydachnoho and walk to Poshtova Ploshcha (Postal Square), where you will find the Funicular, a ride on which I do not recommend missing, even if you don’t ride the metro while in Kyiv.
The Funicular cable car was built in 1905 and offers a two-minute ride, with a magnificent view of Podil and the Dnipro that opens as you are pulled back to the Upper City. It costs the same as a ride on the metro (just 50 kopecks — US 10 cents), although a ride on the latter should also not be missed, if only to experience the fast whoosh of truly remarkable Khrushchev-era municipal planning.
From Heart to Soul
There’s also plenty to see if you were to start up the opposite hill from the Maidan.
In this regard, there are two main parallel streets to follow that will yield sightseeing dividends as you make your way along them — Instytutska and Hrushevskoho.
Built in 1905 and then added to in 1933, the ruddy pastel-pink National Bank of Ukraine on Instytutska is not to be missed.
Turning right from Instytutska onto Bankivska Street, you will find the Horodetsky Building, more popularly known as the House of Chimeras, directly across the street from the presidential building. The art nouveau chimera building was constructed as a private residence by and for Polish architect Vladislav Horodetsky, regarded as the Gaudi of Kyiv. Used today as a presidential residence and for official and diplomatic ceremonies, the building features intricate gargoyle-like monster and animal sculptures, reflecting Horodetsky’s enthusiasm for hunting.
Moving over to Hrushevskoho, you will pass by the parliament building, and behind it, the Mariyinsky Palace, which gives its name to the vast park that it’s in.
This beautiful blue-and-cream palace was built for the Russian Empress Elizabeth in 1750–1755 and was used as the Kyiv residence of the Tsar family. Today it is used for official state receptions, presidential meetings and international conferences.
As you continue up this main street, you will finally arrive at the Kyiv Pechersk Lavra Monastery, also known as the Monastery of the Caves — the spiritual center of Kyiv, as it had been of Kyivan Rus.
The monastery complex was founded in 1051 on the green hills overlooking the Dnipro. Should you have the opportunity to cross the Dnipro from the left bank over the Paton Bridge, your gaze will undoubtedly be fixed on the golden domes of the Lavra that shine like beacons reflecting the essence of Kyiv.
Once you have seen the Lavra (placed on UNESCO’s World Heritage List in 1990), you have gone beyond the city’s beating heart and merged with the soul of Rus. Once you have walked amid the Lavra’s churches and catacombs, you have walked on holy ground.
Since its foundation, the Lavra has been the center of Orthodox Christianity in Eastern Europe. Its numerous churches, bell towers, and underground cave systems with their narrow corridors, living quarters and chapels, are architectural masterpieces in themselves. Saints’ relics have been preserved in the catacombs, drawing devoted Christians to worship here over the last thousand years.
St Andrew’s Church, a wonderful eighteenth-century
architectural landmark, that sits at the mouth
of Andriyivsky Uzviz, the street where art is
lavishly displayed and beer and coffee taste
particularly good in the many cafes situated there.
Maidan Nezalezhnosti, the central square of Kyiv.
Sofiyivska Ploshcha, one of the central squares of
the city where many pivotal events in the history
of Kyiv and Ukraine took place.
Holy Sophia Cathedral, an eleventh-century church
(partially reconstructed in later centuries)
which is one of the UNESCO World Heritage Sites.
Lilacs in the Central Botanical Garden of Kyiv are
of many species; in the background —
the cupolas of the Vydubetsky Monastery.
The Uspensky Cathedral (founded in 11th century,
destroyed in 1941 and recently rebuilt)
of the Kyiv Pechersk Lavra Monastery.
The Mariyinsky Palace,built in 1750–1755.