14 Jan Kiev sights & Chernobyl
Welcome back to the second part of my Kiev posts! If you’re joining at this one, don’t forget to check out last week’s food special featuring Ukrainian and Georgian cuisines as well as a ton of chocolate. Today I’m sharing the best places to sightsee from monuments to shops and let’s not forget the notorious Chernobyl tour! We stayed in Kiev for five days and to be honest, I thought we’d be twiddling our thumbs for things to do by the end. I could not have been more wrong, there was so much to see and explore.
This was the first time I’ve been in a country with Soviet history so the architecture and general feel of the place was unique to me. Seeing the contrast between how buildings are used now compared to their original purpose was really interesting. One example is the Zara on Khreschatyk Street. You can tell it was in the midst of New Year sales as heaps of clothing were strewn all over the place. The fact that this was set against a backdrop of rusty white marble pillars and a grand central staircase (I imagine debutants gliding down them) made it almost jarring and a bizarre shopping experience for a newbie! I felt like I should be giving the building more attention than the clothes!
We found some fun department stores on the same street. Tsum (ЦУМ) is a higher end department store, comparable to Selfridges. It’s beautifully laid out, spacious and a little fancy with an art gallery and champagne bar on the top floor. Travel down a level and you’ll find a large food hall made up of cafés, restaurants and speciality shops. If you’re more in to homeware try Vsis Voi (Всі Свої Магазин). There is also a clothes version of this on the opposite side of the road, but if you want gifts and home decor items, this is the place. I’ve linked the Googlemaps location below where, as always, you’ll also find the links for everything I’ve mentioned in this post. We found some really cool simple line prints of fruits and vegetables which we’re hopefully going to frame and put up soon!
Speaking of New Year, we actually spent New Year’s Eve in Chernobyl. Not the most festive of places I admit 😀 We spent the day on a tour with Chernobyl Exclusive Tours – it’s an early start with registration at 7.30, but the drive from Kiev takes two hours and you want to make the most of the day before the light starts to fade. First of all, don’t worry, it is safe! You are taken along a special safe route and your time in any one place is limited. There are radiation checks at the start and end of the tour to make sure everything is ok. The guides run you through rules like no eating or drinking in open air, no photos of any policemen in case they hate on you and not to run away from the guide (it’s not a video game!).
During the drive to Chernobyl, a two hour documentary was played about the history of the disaster – what happened, how people reacted to it, how it was covered up for so long. I fall asleep almost instantly in moving vehicles, so I’ll admit I was dozing on and off so only caught bits of the video. Mr Munch was bewildered by this and I was slightly annoyed with myself because it was a really interesting documentary, but once sleep descends you can’t stop it!
The tour takes you to several locations by minibus and you hop off at various points. Much of the area is called the Red Forest which is now full of wildlife as nature is reclaiming the land. We saw a HUGE moose and I caught a glimpse of a red squirrel, but reportedly there are deer, wild boar, wolves and bears too! There are stray dogs roaming around who seem pretty friendly but it’s best not to pay them much attention. When we crossed over the Pripyat river it struck me actually how beautiful the landscape is. First we stopped off by a statue of Lenin and walked through a path where there are signposts listing each place which got abandoned after the explosion. Each name has a bright red strike through it, a rather sobering symbol. Next was The Woodpecker, which sounds like a spy name and in some ways it is. It was a secret radar which was supposed to detect American missiles. Now it lies as a ruin getting rusty but looks super cool and imposing. How anything that big was meant to be kept a secret I have no idea.
Back on the bus and we headed to a nursery in the village of Kopachi. This was where things started to get a little creepy. By the base of a tree was something, probably metal, which sent the Geiger counters beeping in dissonant quarter tones – nothing to worry about as long as you keep your distance. As you come up to the building, a pair of abandoned dolls lie naked in the snow. They’ve clearly had a rough few decades. The nursery itself is completely dilapidated with peeling walls, broken windows and papers scattered everywhere. Iron bed frames have only the occasional beheaded doll, rotten toy or odd shoe as decoration. Seeing faded dog-eared children’s art on the walls is pretty depressing. After our few minutes here, we got back on the warm bus and headed over to see some old robots. These were used to spare humans from the harsh and dangerous conditions during the clean up period. They remind me of inventions from Robot Wars!
Then for the big one. We headed towards the Chernobyl Power Plant. Reactor 4 was where the disaster originated. At first people thought it was just an explosion, but what many didn’t realise until too late was that invisible radiation was also being emitted. The bus takes you round the plant before stopping by Reactor 4, now sealed with a new steel containment structure, basically a nuclear entombment device. Fantastic engineering really. From the outside it looks like a massive warehouse but remembering how many people lost their lives here from the accident here left me feeling bleak.
Pripyat was the largest city we went to on the trip and we spent a little more time here investigating different areas. There’s an abandoned supermarket, concert hall and restaurant. Our guide showed us ‘before’ pictures filled with people (the city had a population of just under 50,000), blue skies and colourful posters. A far cry to the grey soulless structures of today. Further on is the famous Pripyat fairground. Here stood rusty dodgems, seesaws and a huge yellow ferris wheel (many photo opportunities here 😀 ). We then went on to a sports centre to see the swimming pool. Again, ‘before’ pictures show people diving and having fun. We tiptoed around the edge of the empty pool avoiding broken tiles and sludge. Even the old clock timers are still up on the walls. Lastly in Pripyat we visited a primary school. At the end of one of the classrooms was a token barrier as the ceiling on the other side wasn’t the most stable. In the main part of the room was a pile of gas masks, books and and old play till. Seeing daily items like maps and animal drawings in such condition is saddening, you can imagine how scared people must have been to suddenly leave their lives behind.
I’m so glad I did this tour. Initially I was wary but the safety precautions are thorough and having done my research, I felt much more at ease with the idea. Our tour group consisted of sixteen people, an eclectic mix of Australians, Austrians, French, Italian, Polish and more. The tour guide was extremely friendly and took care of us, especially in the slippery ice and snow! I highly recommend this, it’s a one-off insight, a snapshot almost frozen in time as nature takes much of it over again.
We returned to Kiev around 6.30pm on New Year’s Eve so it was a whole day event. I highly recommend a nap after this, I just needed to chill out and mentally return to civilisation! Later on we went to St Sophia’s Square where the NYE party was happening. A stage had been set up for a few days with various bands playing, and on this evening they had the Ukrainian Philharmonic playing waltzes and other classic NYE rep. St Sophia’s Cathedral is beautiful with gleaming golden domes typical of churches in Kiev. This was one of my favourite experiences in Kiev. The Cathedral is a thousand years old and wonderfully maintained. Inside is a museum which contains 11th and 12th Century mosaics and there are many places where the original stonework is exposed for all to see. I couldn’t believe how close I could get to century old masonry and artwork! Similarly to St Andrew’s and St Michael’s, the interior is some of the most ornate I’ve ever seen. Gold is used liberally and what is not gold is a painting. We were lucky enough to hear a choir singing Latin Mass in St Michael’s and they sounded glorious, perfectly supported by the acoustic. A little further South is the monastery complex Kiev Pechersk Lavra. I say complex as a whole series of caves run underneath the monastery’s grounds which contain relics of a hundred and twenty saints. Unfortunately these were closed when we went but would be a fantastic sight another time!
Other monuments worth seeing include the Friendship of the Nations Arch. You could take the Park Bridge as we did, past the Mariynsky Palace and through the Mariynsky Park. These are all up on higher ground so are great viewing points. Carry on straight and you will see a huge obelisk, a memorial to the ‘Unknown Soldier’. Around the corner is the Holodomor Genocide Museum, its distinguishing gold and white tower marking the underground entrance. As we were here late in the afternoon and didn’t want to miss the light, we carried on walking. Our goal was the Motherland Monument. She is a ginormous image of strength, sword and shield grasped high symbolising the people’s effort during the war. Standing proud at 62m tall, she is certainly impressive.
Going to the Golden Gate of Kiev felt like a bit of a musical pilgrimage, to see the place Mussorgsky referenced for his final movement of Pictures at an Exhibition. In real life it’s not so grand nor gold anymore yet its history and view of the city make it worthwhile still.
Kiev is known to have some spectacular Metro stations. Like their churches these can be extremely ornate. We went to Zoloti Vorota which was deep underground. Not only were the escalators faster to stop it taking all day, but they were steeper than any I’ve been on before. They also had a communist design feel to them. The station is large and broad open spaces are lit with chandeliers. If you have time I’d definitely try and seek out the more extravagant stations (metro tickets are super cheap, 20p for a single?!).
We weren’t able to check out any museums or art galleries due to New Year timings. We tried the National Art Museum of Ukraine but missed the last entry by ten minutes due to an unexpectedly early closing time for the holidays. There are many museums in Kiev including ones on Modern Art, Water, Money and even Toilet History. Kiev really has something for everyone!
The hotel we stayed at was the Crystal Hotel, located right in the middle of town. Staff here have wonderful English and are incredibly hospitable. The price is good, especially compared to the more well known hotels which may cater to Russian business people. It’s a boutique hotel with only seven rooms so you feel like they really take care of you. Plus they give you lots of free chocolate ?
I hope you enjoyed this post, please give it a like and share with your travel enthusiast friends! For more foodie and travel photos take a look at my instagram. Thanks and see you next week! ???
We stayed at: Crystal Hotel, Khreschatyk St, 13/2
Metro stations: Zoloti Vorota