Kyiv: St Sophia Cathedral

Ukraine 2003

The Road to Balaclava

 

After my hectic dash across Ukraine in September 2000 (see the "Stalingrad 2000 chapter), and the fact that Ukraine would soon be developing into a serious tourist destination I decided to return for a proper visit while it was still a bit off the beaten track. I worked out I could afford two weeksKyiv: St Sophia Cathedral Complex leaveKyiv: Independence Square From my Hotel in June and began to prepare.

As usual the tourist visa was the main hurdle. After the previous fiasco where the Ukrainian Embassy managed to give me a double entry transit visa for consecutive dates (see "Stalingrad 2000" chapter once again) I decided to do things properly. So I wrote to them but they were insisted that I could only get a tourist visa with pre-booked accommodation. A private visa could be obtained but only if you had a letter of invitation from a Ukrainian resident.

For some reason I didn't know any Ukrainian residents but enquires revealed that if you made up a convincing letter of invitation from a fictitious resident it was highly unlikely that they would check up to see if this person existed. This I did, using a fictitious name and address in a real street in Kyiv (Kiev). I presented this to the consulate by hand and two days later my visa was issued.

Kyiv: St Sophia Cathedral ComplexI flew out to Kyiv via Prague at the start of June; the trip was uneventful and I got an almost palatial room on the 13th floor of the Hotel Ukraine overlooking Nezalezhnosti Square. Not bad for only twelve dollars a night!

In the morning I went down to breakfast and had a substantial continental breakfast; white and rye bread, cheese, cold meat and fruit juice. I got up to leave to discover this was only a starter, they then served me a huge plate of beef sausages, macaroniKyiv: St Sophia Cathedral cheese in a meat and onion sauce. I managed the sausages but macaroni cheese at eight in the morning? No thanks!

As luck would have it today was "Ivan Kupallo Day" to celebrate Midsummer, and most of the city centre was cordoned off to traffic for a huge street party. This included everything from bands and parades to a giant "Titanic" inflatable slide where kids slid down the sinking ships deck into a tub of water! It was warm and sunny, and I had had a good day but decided to start the more cultural sites the following day.

Next morning I started my sightseeing proper with a walk around the city centre beginning in Independence Square. I was struck by how relatively clean the streets were even after the previous nights festivities and that the streets were hosed down in the morning. Despite the pounding it took in WWII a lot of the old buildings were still intact although I suspect some may have been rebuilt from the rubble, brick-by-brick in the nineteen-fifties by the Soviets.Kyiv: "Titanic" Water ChuteKyiv: Boat Trip on the River

Looking for somewhere to lunch, the first place I came to was, of all things, a Ukrainian branch of the Irish pub chain "O'Brien's". At least it wasn't a branch of the American burger chain "MacDonald's". It actually served a very good lunch and a dreadful pint of expensive Guinness.

Over the years I have started to suffer from a surfeit of Orthodox Cathedrals and Churches but the St. Sophia Cathedral Complex was well worth a visit. Feeling fit I started by climbing the 200-odd stairs to the top of the bell tower. Good views, good photographs and I could get a good idea of where to go next. I spent most of the afternoon touring the cathedral complex but eventually the sheer grandeur and ornateness became oppressive.

Later thatKyiv: Urban Beach evening I took a river cruise on the Dnipro. This killed a pleasant couple of hours, it was nice to be back out in the fresh air Outside Kyiv on the Riveralthough perhaps I should have kept the river cruise for later as next day I was going to the Caves Monastery.

Apart from the usual golden domes and ornate interiors the Caves Monastery are known for their catacombs where the mummified bodies of medieval monks are preserved. I had been warned that they were extremely dark and very claustrophobic; neither which are my favourite environments. Hoverer I'll do anything once which was just as well as afterwards I had no intention of repeating the experience.

In the entrance area I was issued with a candle which was about 18 inches long but with a diameter about the width of a pencil. Once the door of the catacomb was closed it was totally back. The light from the candle was minimal and penetrated only a couple of feet. By shuffling my feet I felt a downward step, twenty more seconds of Kyiv: Caves Monastrygroping a second, then a third. There were no hand rail and no way of knowing how far down into the bowels of the earth I had to go. After about half a dozen steps I realised this had been a mistake, but return was impossible; although my eyes might have been gouged out for all use they were in the inky blackness I was aware of people behind me and turning around let alone trying to go back would have been impossible in the narrow space. I felt that every step might be my last. I had premonitions of slipping and falling down and down for everLeaving Kyiv Railway Station but there was nothing to be done but keep groping my way a step at a time. I think I counted 80 or so steps although it could have been 800 or 8000. After what seemed an eternity there was a glimmer of light and I was at the bottom where the mummified bodies of the ancient monks were on display. Very interesting, but I was thinking only about having to climb all the way back up again. Fortunately this was not required as they let you out a little door at the bottom of a small cliff although why they couldn't have let us in this way remained a mystery.Kyiv to Sevastapol Train

Deciding that one catacomb was enough for a lifetime I had a look around the rest of  monastery and then went back to my hotel for dinner and to collect my train tickets to the Crimea.

Balaklava HarbourThe Sevastopol train left late evening, I was in a four berth couchette compartment which I was lucky enough to have all to myself. I always sleep well on long distance trains especially with the bonus of not having to get up in the middle of the night for a four-hour Customs inspection. The train arrived in Sevastopol early the next afternoon. I booked into the Hotel Sevastopol (I think that was its name) and had a look around the town and the port although the Russian Black Sea Fleet did not seem to be in residence.Sevastapol

I had really only come to Sevastopol for two reasons, it was convenient for a direct train to the Black Sea coast from Kyiv and also because I had more than a passing interest in the 1854-55 Crimean War. The city was also besieged and taken by the Nazis in 1942; as a result it is filled with war memorials to the Great Patriotic War; most locals I met had only a vague notion of the nineteenth century siege. However next day, Sevastapol: WWII Railway Gunequipped with a map I got a bus to Balaclava.

There was a lot more to the Battle of Balaclava than the "Charge of the Light Brigade" which was just as well. The bus stopped off beside a massive Soviet railway gun used during the 1942 siege, walking out of the town there were a succession of heroic war memorials. Fortunately I like Soviet war memorials and enjoy photographing them. When I got to the hills where the Battle of Balaclava tookOutside Sevastapol place I realised that actually working out where the various actions took place was going to be difficult; eventually I climbed up a high hill and managed to work it out although I still wasn't 100% sure if I had got it right - the landscape was much flatter than it had appeared when doing my research. By sheer luck I was approached by the only living person in sight, an ex-Soviet submariner who not only spoke very good English but knew all about the battle and where it had all happened. This was just as well as I discovered Sevastapol Marinathat just like Lord Cardigan I too had been looking down the wrong valley (actually it was a plain, not a valley) when trying to pinpoint where the Charge of the Light Brigade took place. And Lord Cardigan, Despite being an arrogant snob, was the only player in the debacle who acted correctly.

Actually I was rather disappointed with Balaclava. Apart from a plinth to mark the Charge there wasn't really much to see and even from a geographical viewpoint the "Valley of Death" was hardly much of a valley either. Part of the site is even now developed as a housing estate. Also later when climbing up to what had once been the Turkish Redoubts I slipped 20 Sevastapol: Obelix to the Hero Citymeters down a scree-slope and managed to loose not only a film I had just taken and also my mobile phone.

My next port of call was Yalta, about 50 miles east along the coast. But due to unforeseen problems this took most of the day and by the time I arrived and got myself a hotel there wasn't much opportunity to do very much except get a meal. I was already beginning to run out of time so I limited myself to one day in Yalta,Memorial to the Liberation of Sevastapol a pity, as there was a lot I wanted to do but I only had two weeks before I had to return home to work.

Next morning I decided to have a lazy day and ignore the history, in what was a pleasant and relaxing resort town. Apart from a visit to the Alexandr Nevsky Cathedral, yet another example of Orthodox glitz, I spent most of the afternoon hanging around the waterfront, harbour and local park, eating snacks and taking photographs in the sun. I tried to get up the hills on the chair-lift and to get out on a boat trip but there seemed to be some sort of holiday or festival on, the place was mobbed and the queues horrendous. In the evening there was a local open-air Fishermen at Yalta Harbourconcert under a surviving statue of Lenin.

I  took a long coach journey to Odessa which was to be my last stop before returning back to Kyiv for my flight home. However this was where things went seriously wrong. I had got a very nice suite (bedroom, living-room, bathroom, and hallway in a huge, rambling, central hotel, come back for the evening after a meal when without warning I was violently sick. I just kept vomiting every 15 minutes or so, started shaking a bit and feeling slightly feverish. It was pretty obvious I had some sort of food poisoning. To keep from getting dehydrated I was drinking as much water as possible (fortunately Odessa tap water is supposed to be safe); I was soon out of the bottled variety). The fact that the hotel turned off the cold water for the night (but not the hot!) - never heard of that before - didn't help, but I found the night porter and managed to Odessa: Potemkin Stepsfill up my water-bottles. This kept up for the next 36 miserable hours. I was on the verge of calling a doctor but the vomiting attacks abruptly stopped. I felt weak, a bit shaky and just wished I was home. But I still had a long journey ahead of me.

This happened in the middle of the night. In the morning I tentatively went down to the railway Odesa: Duc de Richelieu Statuestation where, despite the horror stories I had heard of two hour long queues, managed to buy an overnight train ticket to Kyiv for that evening after about five minutes. OK, all I wanted was to be home but I still had eight hours left, and ill or not, was damned if I was going to leave Odessa without first climbing up the famous Potemkin Steps. So still feeling weak, shaky and ill I went down to the dock area and did just that. Twice. I also spent a few hours wandering rather aimlessly around the streets and even risked some food later which I managed to keep down.

The overnight train Odesa Harbourto Kyiv wasn't as bad as it could have been except that my fellow passengers insisted in spending the first half of it eating greasy food and drinking vodka, but I convinced them I was not up to joining in and left me to dose in my couchette. Arriving in Kyiv I made straight for the airport. When it came to boarding the plane KLM, deciding that my weak and unshaven appearance meant I had been participating in exotic pharmaceuticals decided to give me and my luggage the full works although at least they didn't strip search me and finally let me onto the plane. Fortunately my transfer at Schiphol was brief and eventually arrived back at Glasgow Airport after 36 hours on the road, fell into a taxi, got home and fell into bed.

Not exactly the perfect ending to one of my less successful trips. For some reason it is always the ones that seem the easiest on paper that come closest to defeating me. But in the end I'd done some of what I had set out to do, and I in retrospect, I suppose it was almost inevitable that one day I would take ill somewhere in the world. However I was back on my feet again within 48 hours, back at work and planning my next trip to Chile and Bolivia for the Autumn. That never happened, I was soon to be given an opportunity I just couldn't refuse....

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