Ukraine has been suffering from a fever since we arrived. Not a bad ailment, though. Football fever!
Kyiv will be hosting the final of Euro 2012 on July 1st, so interest in the city will be maintained long after Ukraine’s exit from the tournament. It means that the city can show off its many attractions to a wider audience, and persuade them that the Ukraine is a place worth visiting.
As aforementioned, the city has a distinctly European feel. With colourful cathedrals dotted along cobbled causeways, Kyiv has an aura of history and importance. It was one of the most important strongholds in Europe in the 11th and 12th centuries, until it was ransacked by the Mongols in 1240. Many of the buildings, whilst not nearly as old as this period, possess an identity that suggests there are many stories to be told from within their vibrant and well-preserved walls.
Of course, the Ukraine’s more recent history has not been quite so triumphant. The country was assimilated into the Soviet Union in 1921, and Kyiv became an important industrial city during the Great Patriotic War of 1941-1945 – the USSR didn’t officially get involved straight away after signing the Nazi-Soviet Pact. Many sculptures adorn parts of the city showing the courage and bravery of the soldiers and workers who protected this land.
More recently, tragedy struck the country and affected the north of her landscape in 1986, when an explosion at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant sent powerful doses of radiation as far as Scandinavia. I would have liked to visit the site and the nearby town of Pirayat, and it is possible to go on a (rather expensive) tour, but not booking in time means that I contented myself with the museum that remembers the people who worked at the plant and prevented the explosion from being much, much worse. There is a poignant memorial in the middle of the museum, a simple wooden cot filled with stuffed toys, to the children of Chernobyl whose lives were changed before they had a chance to grow up.
Though these memorials serve a timely reminder to the country’s past, Ukraine is moving forward and modernising at quite a pace. This can be seen in the various Western influences that proliferate the capital. From McDonald’s to Marks & Spencer, everyone now seems to want to be involved in Kyiv’s development into a major international city.
Why you would buy a Big Mac here, however, is beyond me. One lasting Russian influence is the food. Borsch, the purple soup, is a national symbol of pride, as are vareniki. The latter are parcels of meat wrapped inside dough, though you can have fillings as diverse as cherry or cabbage. A chain of restaurants called Puzata Khata serves up some wonderful Ukrainian and international food in the style of a canteen for very cheap prices. We didn’t need three meals a day – instead, we ate here late in the afternoons and never needed food for the rest of the day.
On one such sunny day we headed to Kyiv’s flavour of the month – the fanzone. It was filling up nicely as we gently meandered through the crowds. The population were awash with blue and yellow. Not of Ukraine, however. Of Sweden. Stockholm seemed to have taken a vacation to the Ukraine for the football; tens of thousands of them waltzed along the streets. There were plenty of locals too, hoping for an upset victory over England. The possibility of this happening wasn’t that remote, resulting in a huge number of people descending on the fanzone to watch that game.
We weren’t there, though. Ukraine were playing in Donetsk, but at the same time that Swedish army of fans were marching to support their team against France in the Olympiiska stadium that will be the centre of the footballing universe in a couple of weeks. I was going too – tickets were available for e30, which is a steal for this quality of competition. Consequently we walked to this large bowl that can hold 70,000 screaming fans, situated brilliantly in the centre of the city to add to the atmosphere.
There were a few French fans there, but unfortunately for them it seemed like a home game for Sweden. I would love to be a footballer and see that many people vehemently cheering for me in a far-off land. The fans must have inspired their team, as Sweden produced a determined and impressive display to see off an off-colour Les Bleus 2-0.
Football fever has been one of many highlights of Kyiv. I have really enjoyed this city, even though it seems to have more steps and churches as the whole of Kazakhstan. We will take this optimism and good cheer now onto a five-hour train to stop two on our Eastern European excursion: Lviv. I don’t know how to say it either.
Love you all