The rain finally falls in Ukraine
07/27/2015 - 07/28/2015 76 °F
St. Michael's Monastery in Kiev, Ukraine
It is only appropriate that I am looking out my 13th floor window, watching a beautiful, golden-orange sunset, as I write about the last two days of my Ukrainian adventure. I had a day and a half to wrap up the sights I wanted to see in Kiev. I'd arrived back in the capital around 9 am after an uncomfortable night train from Kamyanets-Podilsky. The hotel let me check in early for a fee, and I caught a few hours of sleep to make up for what I didn't get on the train. After showering, I sat down with my guidebook and maps and made a checklist for the day.
St. Volodymer's Cathedral and its golden interior
There were a number of churches on the list, but also a museum and a quaint, riverside section of Kiev I had not visited, yet. My first stop was St. Volodymer's Cathedral in the University district. I loved it's yellow facade and starry, blue domes, but the trees all around it frustrated getting a good picture of its exterior. The inside was very atmospheric, and the golden glow of the mosaics was equally photogenic. Although the church is less than 200 years old, the mosaics give it a very Byzantine feel -- like Kiev's St. Sophia (which had my favorite interior). Volodymer was the Rus ruler who arbitrarily decided his kingdom would become Christian. As saintly Dark Age European rulers tended to do, he forced his subjects to convert at the point of a sword.
St. Michael's domes gleaming in the afternoon sunlight
From there, I walked to an even newer church -- the one with my favorite exterior in Kiev. St. Michael's Monastery has those shiny, golden domes you think of when you envision Orthodox churches. It was built in 2001 to replace one the Soviets decided to tear down when they ruled Ukraine. Determinedly atheistic states can make policy decisions like that, trying to un-convert the populace at the point of the bulldozer. I actually visited St. Michael's a second time the next day, because the sun was shining and I wanted pictures of those domes against blue sky rather than the gray, overcast afternoon I was having today. The interior was brightly colored with frescoes, but couldn't hold a votive candle to St. Sophia's medieval masterpieces.
Scythian armor hangs in the National Museum of Ukrainian History
The next hour-plus of the fading afternoon was spent at the sprawling National Museum of Ukrainian History. Monday is free entrance day, I was happy to discover. Even more thrilling were the comprehensive English language labels on the four floors of exhibits. Some of the more modern items were labeled only in Ukrainian, but the old stuff -- my favorite Ancient and Medieval history -- was covered. The museum even allowed photography, which these days is a rare bonus. I particularly liked the artifacts from the Scythians, Greeks, Avars, Sarmatians, and Rus. There was some really cool stuff in there, like a set of Scythian scale armor made from horn. Equally inspiring were the Viking swords and helmets -- the "Rus" were nothing more than Swedish Vikings plying Eastern Europe's rivers like the Danes and Norwegians did the North Sea. That is partly why you see so many blonde haired and blue eyed Russians and Ukrainians. The museum is so huge, and it's exhibits go on and on, that even me -- a History teacher -- was crying "Uncle!" near the end. A common feature of Ukrainian museums are the elderly (usually female) attendants in every single room. I think it is a carryover from the 100% employment of the Soviet days. When I tried to take a shortcut and skip a room that didn't look interesting, I was scolded. Chastened, I made a show at checking out the fascinating collection of 19th century, hand-held fans.
Andrew's Descent begins to wind it's way down to the neighborhood of Podil
I eventually escaped their clutches and took a walk down the winding, cobblestones of Andrew's Descent, as the sloping way to the riverside is called. This took me to Podil, an artsy, eclectic neighborhood of gorgeous buildings and interesting churches. Souvenir sellers and painters set up stalls along the way, and there are lots of restaurants and cafes. I spotted my first brewpub in Ukraine, and checked out its posted menu, vowing to return for dinner. I stopped to take pictures of the architecture and some interesting murals on the buildings.
Surrealistic mural in Podil
The first stop was the walled and gated grounds of the Florivsky Monastery. I noticed there were lots of cats sunning themselves or prowling the 15th century grounds. "What's with all the cats?" I wondered. The white churches and bell towers with their green domes were simple, and blended well with the well-manicured flower gardens and trees inside the complex. When I watched one, stern nun chew out an old lady, who had obviously broken some rule, I remembered it was a convent -- home to nuns -- not monks. As I ducked inside the church to avoid the nun's eye, it dawned on me. Despite being in a holy place, it was all I could do to restrain myself from laughing. Single ladies, many of them older...now I knew why all the cats! It was a convent of crazy cat ladies!
Orthodox service going on in St. Nicholas Neberzhny
At this point, the churches began to blur together. I visited the Church of Mytola Prytysk, as well as St. Nicholas Neberzhny. The coolest part of coming in early evening was that all of them were having some sort of service. I love the sound of the Orthodox call and response music. The priest will chant verses in an almost Gregorian sound, and then the choir of ladies will sing a response. It is very beautiful. The male and female parts play to the strengths of their voices and blend together in a lovely religious duet. As I'd checked off all my sights, it was time to close out the evening with a delicious dinner in the brewpub. I was not disappointed with either the food or the beer.
"Into every life, a little rain must fall," we say. I had been exceedingly lucky so far on my trip. Yesterday, it had been sprinkling as my train pulled into Kiev. It stopped by the time I awoke from my nap, though. This morning, I looked out the window as I was waiting for the elevator and noticed people far below carrying umbrellas. I dashed back and grabbed my rain jacket. It was only sprinkling as I walked to the subway. I was headed to what is billed as Ukraine's most holy site: the Kyevo Percherska-Lavro Complex. My guidebook described it as a "feast for the eyes" with its gold domed churches on a hill above the river. Even cooler, I thought, were the caves -- a catacomb beneath the churches where the monks are buried, their clothed corpses inside their coffin on display in glass and wood cases. Sounds amazing, right? Well, the Lavro area would be my only real, major disappointment of the trip.
As I emerged from the subway, I noticed the rain had picked up. I should have changed into my hiking sandals when I grabbed my rain jacket, I thought as I tried to thread a course that avoided the growing puddles. My pants were soon soaked, and my shoes and socks would follow shortly. At the entrance, the helpful cashier directed me to the caves. I wanted to hit them first before the accumulating crowd made them into a claustrophobic nightmare. At the entrance, I bought my candle and shuffled in behind the line of pilgrims visiting the caves. There are two sets of caves, one of which is open to the public and the other only to legitimate, Orthodox pilgrims. The Nearer Caves, which I visited, were probably the biggest letdown I've ever experienced at a historic sight. Picture a roughly finished stone basement, with whitewashed walls, and those were the "caves." Yes, there were coffins here and there, often with a painting of the monk above it. Yes, some pilgrims left candles in offering, prayed there, or kissed the glass. It obviously meant a lot more to them than to me. I made the circuit in perhaps five minutes. It never felt like a cave to me, and I didn't feel the History there. As sacrilegious as it sounds, it felt like a tourist trap in the basement of a church. As a Historian, I understand this is a deeply religious site for Orthodox Christians. But I would caution visitors who do not have the religious connection to reconsider a visit there -- or at least research other's opinions.
The Dormition Cathedral at Kyevo Pechersk-Lavro complex
As I emerged, the rain turned into a downpour. I also discovered that I had arrived on the day I'd a huge, religious event at the complex. A half dozen TV cameras were set up in the square in front of the Dormition Cathedral. I could hear there was a service going on inside, and the square outside was packed with people who arrived too late to fit inside. Even more, there was a line stretching back to the entrance of people waiting to get into the square or cathedral. There were a handful of small lecterns set up, each staffed by a monk or priest, who appeared to be hearing confessions from the visitors. It was a mob scene -- an orderly, respectful one -- but a mass of people nonetheless.
Part of the Gold treasure found in a Scythian burial mound
I retreated to the Historical Treasures Museum, which had an awesome collection of precious artifacts from the people who have lived in the area of Ukraine. The highlight was the hoard of gold jewelry found in burial mounds left by the Scythians, a steppe people from the time of the Ancient Greeks. I was the only visitor -- everyone else was attending the service. I took my time and wandered through the museum's two floors. There were several paragraphs in English posted at the entrance to each room, plus some of the items in the cases were labelled in English, as well. The museum is set up very well, and it was cool to see treasures from people I'd read about in history books. Often, a mannequin was clothed in recreated dress of the people, with the golden treasures on their headdress, belt, or whatever. The thrill of seeing these artifacts temporarily made me forget how big of a washout my visit to the complex would be. I left shortly afterwards, and made my way back to the subway and my hotel, completely drenched.
I changed clothes, had lunch, and ventured back out a few hours later when the rain stopped and the sun broke out. It was nice to walk Kiev's main drag, again -- Kreshchatyk Street -- do some last-minute shopping, and take some more photos. The sunshine felt like Ukraine was smiling at me, again. We'd had our little spat, but now she wanted to make up. Like a beautiful lady, Ukraine at its best is hard to resist. I strolled Kiev's streets one final time, remembering all the good times we had on this trip together. Then I headed back, to write my final account, and pack my bags to return home.