Kyiv: Europe’s Wackiest Capital

Onion domes

Onion domes

People often ask me why I like travelling to Eastern Europe. Thus far, I have managed to avoid the answer ‘Because it’s there’ in favour of a more considered response that involves three parts.

Firstly, if one considers Europe to the west of Russia, there are many places that can be reached in about three hours or less from the UK. Secondly, few parts of Eastern Europe are particularly expensive for the westerner. Thirdly, while many cities are becoming increasingly westernised, there is a distinctly different culture. All of these factors make this part of the continent appealing.

One such place is Kyiv. It could, even, be described as a bit odd, certainly to western eyes. This is intended as a compliment rather than an insult. It assuredly fits all three of the criteria invoked above, being a three-hour flight from Gatwick, inexpensive and with a style of its own.

The fact that Ukraine uses the Cyrillic alphabet helps the western visitor to feel that they are somewhere different. It’s useful to learn the letters, as street signs and directions are all shown in Cyrillic. In fact, it’s better to use a Cyrillic map rather than one printed in Latin script as the latter will often show a translated version and it’s all too easy to be fooled. The Cyrillic alphabet is similar to the Greek and might look a little intimidating at first, but really, it’s quite easy.

If the Cyrillic alphabet is easy enough to comprehend, the same cannot be said for Soviet-style architecture. Perhaps architects were only allowed to design buildings after they had imbibed a certain quota of vodka. In the case of the Hotel Turist, the quota seems to have been almost as high as the hotel itself, which climbs to twenty-seven storeys. One should not be deterred by appearances, as the interior is far more attractive, the rooms are comfortable enough and the staff are helpful. One pleasing quirk – Kyiv has many – is that there are four lifts, two of which carry you to odd-numbered floors while the other two deal with the even numbers. Convention is also defied by having staff on each floor to hold room keys, rather than the main reception. The guest is left hoping that the person responsible for keys on their floor has not wandered away for a chat or an extensive toilet break.

A slight drawback is that the hotel is situated on the other side of the Dnepr river from the city centre. Another Kyiv oddity; there are no footbridges. This is not a problem, however, as the hotel is next to Livoberezhna metro station and metro journeys cost a few pence. Having a splendid view of both the city and the metro station from a twenty-third floor room, it was quickly possible to discern that metro trains run approximately every ninety seconds. Even with such incredibly frequent services, finding a seat on a metro train is a rare luxury, a testament to its popularity.

A journey from Livoberezhna to the city centre only takes a few minutes, though one should be prepared to double the journey time because the stations in the centre are so far underground. Reaching the top of the first escalator for the first time, you feel a sense of relief at having made it to what you assume is the summit, only to realise that there is now a second escalator of exactly the same proportion to negotiate.

Something else that can be seen from the hotel room, and indeed from most places in the city, is the Motherland Monument, a very large stainless steel woman wielding a sword and a shield. At over a hundred metres tall, the monument is not subtle. The statue is located in the modestly-named Park of Eternal Glory, amid a museum complex and as one approaches, there are strains of Soviet military music, interspersed with typical Ukrainian folk music, which has its own stirring qualities, dipping into a slow, mournful pace and suddenly bursting into vibrant life. As you progress through this area, you pass tanks, other military hardware and sculptures in Soviet-realist style. It’s all just another example of the sometimes surreal experience of Kyiv.

Motherland statue

Motherland statue

Kyiv, like many cities in Eastern Europe, has myriad green spaces and a stroll to the Motherland Monument can be incorporated into a full day of interesting exploration in and around the park. The park is the setting for Pechersk Lavra, Kyiv’s famous Monastery of the Caves, first settled in the eleventh century. A typical Orthodox church, with its golden onion-domes, stands above the site. The Botanic Garden is also nearby and a simple walk in the park is pleasant enough, with abundant birdlife to be seen. Woodpeckers and jays can be seen in the wooded parts, seemingly determined to live up to a Kyiv-style zaniness by chattering and screeching loudly in the case of the jays and battering manically on tree trunks in the case of the woodpeckers.

"Arsenal"

“Arsenal”

Football aficionados should pay a visit to the Dynamo Stadium, home of Dynamo Kyiv. Even if there is no match on during your visit, it’s worth seeing for the museum and the statue of the legendary Valeriy Lobanovskiy, native of Kyiv, coach of Dynamo and three-times coach of the Soviet Union team. If there is a game, prices will vary depending upon the opposition, but even the more expensive tickets will appear astonishingly cheap, certainly for those used to English Premier League prices. Any Arsenal supporters are also advised to take the metro to Arsenalna station, which is a ten-minute walk from the ground. A small cannon sculpture outside the station is a perfect replica of the London club’s crest. Visitors to Arsenalna can also claim that they have been to Europe’s deepest underground station.

Lobanovskiy

Lobanovskiy

Overall, Kyiv’s quirks, oddities and strangeness are endearing qualities. The city, for westerners, is very cheap and a good meal with a few drinks should be easily obtainable for ten pounds or less. You also stand a good chance of being presented with a free glass of vodka at the end of a meal and it is most impolite to refuse the offering. Beer drinkers will find a good range of beer styles, but should remember that beer tends to be quite strong in many countries in Eastern Europe. A ‘low-strength’ beer means that the beer is less than around 5% ABV, so a ‘light’ beer can, in fact, be something considerably stronger than a British best bitter.

There are certain foods in any country that everybody should try once. For example, it feels almost obligatory to taste burek in Balkan countries and in Ukraine, the dish to sample is borsch. Many people – mistakenly – think of this as merely beetroot soup. Borsch is soup that contains beetroot, an important difference. The beetroot is added towards the end of the cooking process to enhance flavour and colouring, but is not the basis for the soup. The ingredients can vary considerably and it is perfectly possible for vegetarians to enjoy a meat-free version. A small test to see if your borsch is of the right thickness is to place a spoon on top of the soup. If the spoon remains resting on top, then you have the good stuff.

Kyiv has some excellent museums and galleries to suit all kinds of cultural interest, but naturally comes up with something unusual. There are museums dedicated to water, bread, toilets and trolleybus tickets, although the last-named is actually a pub with a collection of trolley-related photos, tickets and posters around the walls. Disappointingly, however, the Museum of Bee Breeding appears to have closed down.

Finally, a question: Kyiv or Kiev? I have used the former throughout this article for the simple reason that it is the preferred Ukrainian version. This is the spelling that you see throughout the city, or at least the way it translates from Cyrillic. Kiev is the Russian version and it seems much more respectful to use the Ukrainian spelling. Ensuring that you emphasise the –iv in the second syllable should bring the reward of a smile and even, perhaps, another glass of vodka.

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Tallinn – Welcome to the Freezer

The Frozen Sea

The Frozen Sea

Even in April, the temperature was, well, Baltic. With bright blue skies and the sun shining, it looked very nice through the hotel window, but the moment you got outside, your ears screamed in protest.

Admittedly, it was early April and in a few weeks, it would be warm. For now, though, a hat was essential. Estonians know this and it was a pretty safe bet that the only people with bare heads would be tourists.

It was an interesting time to visit, though. Despite the sun, snow lay on the ground and the sea was ice. Along the coast, deserted lookout towers watched over the frozen Baltic towards Helsinki. These posts, a relic of the Soviet days, reminded one of the cult television series, The Prisoner, with citizens’ every action watched over by an oppressive regime. One naturally felt for the Estonians, but there was also a sense of sympathy for the soldiers, doubtless young recruits, who had to brave the freezing conditions as they did their duty. Standing at the top of one of these posts for two minutes in April was cold enough; goodness knows what it was like for a few hours in the middle of winter.

All Along the Watchtower

All Along the Watchtower

These days, travelling between Tallinn and Helsinki is much less fraught, and many Finns take the opportunity to pop across on a ferry to take advantage of the considerably cheaper alcohol available in Estonia. Tallinn can be a little expensive in the tourist areas, but avoiding the more obvious traps usually guarantees a reasonably cheap night out.

Restaurants in the capital are very diverse and this can lead to an intriguing mix of cultures. Visit an Indian restaurant and one of your options will be elk vindaloo. There is also a garlic restaurant called Balthasar, where all dishes contain garlic. Away from Tallinn, the choice is more limited, but prices are very cheap and the ubiquity of borsch reminds you that this is eastern Europe. Similarly, in terms of drinks, vodka is never far away, although there appears to a curious predilection for pear cider among Estonians. You’re also likely to encounter Vana Tallinn, a spicy rum-based liqueur that is a bit sweet for drinking neat, but can be added to coffee in the manner of Irish whiskey.

Garlic

Garlic

Tallinn is a city in two parts, an upper and lower town. The latter is a delightfully preserved medieval affair, with narrow cobbled streets and ancient buildings. The upper town, the city’s administrative centre, houses the castle and cathedral and while the Parliament building is a more recent (18th century) neo-classical addition, it is stylish enough to add to the aesthetics of the city. The entire old town is a UN World Heritage site.

Tallinn does not, at least in its centre, suffer too badly from the excesses of Soviet architecture that mar many other eastern European capitals. An exception is the National Library, a ghastly eight-storey affair that was, ironically, designed by an Estonian architect, albeit one with strong links to the Soviet regime. In the outskirts and suburbs of the city, the tower blocks tell a rather different story. In complete contrast, wooden houses can still be seen even in central Tallinn as well as their more traditional setting in the outlying countryside.

National Library

National Library

With its pine forests and several national parks, the countryside is well worth a visit. While the Estonian rail system is not one of Europe’s best, buses are frequent and cheap. The largest of the parks is Lahemaa National Park, about 50 miles to the east of Tallinn, and is home to mammals that have vanished from much of Europe such as wolves and brown bears (though strolling tourists are unlikely to bump into either).

Estonia also has a population of elk, at least those that have avoided being turned into food, and a huge range of bird species. More than 200 have been recorded in Lahemaa National Park alone, and the coastal areas add many more to that number. Keen birdwatchers might prefer to consider late April or September to visit, as many migratory birds pass through Estonia. The country is rated as second only to Spain in European countries in terms of the number of species counted.

Culturally, Estonia is a mixture, with Scandinavian, German and Russian influences. Linguistically, Estonian is close to Finnish, and older people would have had to learn Russian. There is also a sizable ethnic Russian population and Cyrillic script is still found in many places. Visitors to museums, for example, will find information in Estonian and Russian, though English is becoming more prevalent, particularly in Tallinn.

Despite its many attractions, Tallinn is still a relatively small-scale tourist destination. At least one benefit of this is that it is not inundated by hordes of moronic stag parties, whose duel aims appear to be to drink as much as possible and aggravate as many people as they can manage during the course of a weekend. All the more reason to pay a visit before that happens.

Tirana – Europe’s Least Visited Capital

National Museum

National Museum

Two work colleagues were having a conversation about holidays. “Nobody” said one “goes to Albania for a holiday”. Now I know that it is rather impolite to interrupt, but it was impossible. “I did” I said. For a few moments, I was the recipient of one of those “Are you kidding?” looks. Then they realised I was being serious.

Unfortunately – and most of us are guilty at some stage – we often have preconceptions of places, people and many other things. The less we know, the more we may be tempted to imagine. Why, though, should Albania seem such a distant and mysterious country? It is, after all, closer to the UK than Greece.

Tirana is both one of the smallest and newest of European capitals. While there has been a settlement at the site for a long time, it has only been the capital since the 1920s. For a traveller, there is novelty value and a smallness of scale that makes the city easy to explore.

There is plenty of accommodation for visitors and it is not difficult to find small and cheap hotels that offer good facilities. The Tafaj Hotel is a fine example. It is a rather splendid Ottoman villa with a delightful courtyard and is a short walk from the central Skanderbeg Square. There are numerous guesthouses for the budget traveller as well as the usual suspects at the more expensive end of the market.

A three or four day visit is ample. There may be no immediately obvious tourist attractions, but the fact that the city appears to be so little visited adds to its appeal. It is also an architecturally unusual place, with some decaying, but still stylish, old Ottoman-style buildings and a substantial number of more modern and decidedly Communist edifices, particularly in the centre near Skanderbeg Square. The style is a mixture of Chinese and Soviet. Albania and the Soviet Union had a decidedly uneasy relationship and the former had much closer ties with China.

Not too far away from the square is an even odder sight. The daughter of the dictator Enver Hoxha commissioned an extraordinary (and extraordinarily tasteless) building to serve as a mausoleum and monument to her father. Known as the Pyramid, this abomination now serves as a cultural centre. There is an ongoing debate about the future of the building and it is possible that it may be pulled down.

Hoxha pyramid

Hoxha pyramid

One lingering hint of the days of dictatorship is that the visitor must be a little careful when taking photographs. The villa of Hoxha is in a central street that appears, at first glance, perfectly normal, filled as it is with shops and cafes. It soon becomes obvious, though, that the area is patrolled by rather sinister-looking men in black clothing, who give the distinct impression that any attempt to take photographs could have uncomfortable consequences. The railway station, despite being very small and having the appearance of being little bigger than that of a small market town, is another place to avoid waving a camera around. Otherwise, though, taking photos seems to be perfectly acceptable.

Station (illicitly)

Station (illicitly)

The National Art Gallery (on Skanderbeg Square) is a genuine treat. A highlight is the collection of Socialist Realist art, much of it in the style of Communist propaganda posters, all handsome, smiling and muscular working men and women. The gallery also features the art that failed the test by displaying people who simply did not look happy or optimistic. The unfortunate artists responsible were promptly flung into prison for the purposes of re-education.

Also on the square – one can hardly miss it – is the vast National History Museum with its truly weird mosaic on the façade. The museum is well laid out and offers a comprehensive traipse through Albania’s history, from ancient archaeological finds to the modern post-Communist era. Both the art gallery and museum charge small admission fees, though there are other, smaller museums that offer free entry.

National museum mural

National museum mural

Nothing is radically expensive in Tirana; indeed, much is very cheap. Traditional Albanian food tends to be quite a meaty affair, but for vegetarians, there are plenty of pizzas and salads (try one with some Albanian olives, as these are excellent). Despite being a largely Muslim country, it’s easy enough to buy a drink and there is, in fact, a local brewery that produces the imaginatively-titled Tirana Beer, a Pilsener-style lager that is refreshing on a hot summer’s day and can be reasonably safely quaffed as it is a sensible 4.0% ABV.

The city is small enough to walk around without needing to resort to public transport, and even when it’s hot (and summer is very hot) there are lots of places to stop for an iced tea. There’s no harm in buying a coffee on a hot day as you always get a glass of iced water to go with it. The best coffee is at the Opera House on Skanderbeg Square and it’s also a great place to sit and watch what’s going on.

Opera House

Opera House

Everything revolves around Skanderbeg Square and after a day or two, the visitor will be familiar with every inch of it. This is also the place to catch the bus to the airport (where the largest of Tirana’s many Mother Teresa statues stands). The bus service is efficient and a great deal cheaper than a taxi, a couple of pounds covering the cost of a ticket.

Tirana has some pleasant green spaces, the largest being the Grand Park. This has some lovely, shaded walks and there is a sizeable artificial lake, though sadly this seems to be entirely devoid of birdlife. Those who need to shop are well catered for, with some surprisingly trendy malls and streets as well as old-fashioned markets. Among the latter is a fish market, though disappointingly nobody has taken the opportunity to use the name Tirana Fish.

Albania has a Mediterranean coastline and for those with an adventurous spirit and strong leg muscles, mountains and spectacular countryside. Tirana is well worth seeing, however, with its curious mix of the old, the new and the downright weird. You won’t be trampled in the rush.