The Ukraine Experience: From Kiev to Lviv

This is my travel account for the Ukraine visit with a focus on the cities of Kiev and Lviv, both rich in heritage and cultural attractions.

I- Kiev: Memories of Mother Russia

Kiev is a strange city, the kind of city that makes you think deeply before judging it. I took my time, and slowly started realizing that it was a city of many charms: from the elegant buildings of the Khreshchatyk Street and Maidan Nezalezhnosti to the impressive and monumental green and gold domes and bell towers of Santa Sophia, Saint Andrew and Saint Michael, the city never fails to impress.

Walking down Khreshchatyk Street (the main thoroughfare), I contemplate the colorful kiosks selling ice-cream and fast-food, and I find it hard to believe that this very same street with its joyful atmosphere was the first place in history to be destroyed and gutted by a set of radio-controlled explosions (during WWII, thanks to the Red Army). Most of what I see now is a neoclassical post-war creation with a relatively recent Ukrainian twist.

But the real deal here is the ensemble of three incredible masterpieces of Ukrainian Baroque. I started with the Cathedral of Saint Sophia, an awe-inspiring UNESCO World Heritage Site dominated by green domes. The murals and ceiling paintings inside are captivating, with much Byzantine influence.

Then came the unearthly Saint Michael’s Golden-Domed Monastery. You have to see the scale and elegance of this place to believe it. Even at a distance, I could not stare at its golden domes, glowing under the sun and shimmering like giant mirrors. The onion-shaped gilt domes form part of a wonderful architectural work that seems as if designed to defy gravity. Not far from here is the Saint Andrew’s Church with its dark green domes and towers, located in a spot that lends it an exaggerated verticality against the lowlands surrounding it. From here, I took a nice walk down the Andriyivskyy Descent, Kiev’s Montmartre-sorts-of, with artists and artisans selling their works at the stands lining the street.

Like any good tourist, I had my share of plov (rice with carrot, onion, meat and aromatic spices), had a big scoop of ice-cream, and went on wandering around the streets. Kiev is a nice city, a bit decadent and unconfident, but definitely interesting and rewarding. Nevertheless, I was already dreaming of another city: Lviv. First, I have to take the night train (13 hours) to the Ukrainian Carpathians.

II – Teaching Art at the Carpathians

Not far from Volovets is the summer school where I spent two weeks teaching art and astronomy to students that are 13 to 17 years old. This place became my home in Ukraine for two wonderful weeks, and I would not be exaggerating if I say that, thanks to my students, my stay converted into a unique learning experience.
Seeing art through their eyes, listening to their interpretation of some masterpieces, surrendering to their passion as they explained to me things about Ukrainian art and culture, it has all been unforgettable (and now I’m a fan of Taras Shevchenko!).

Classes apart, the landscape here is one of cheer beauty. Sleepy little villages dotted with random houses, farmers in jeans, haystacks piled up like giant bells made of straw, old women looking like matryoshka dolls, the smell of fried food everywhere, trees, trees, and more trees…I think the photos can do a better job than my words.

I will never forget these students, all of them wonderful guys and girls. Nothing compares to teaching art to the young and the curious.

III – The UNESCO World Heritage City of Lviv

I can put it all in one sentence, a short one: “Love at first sight”! The only problem is, Lviv is worth a whole poem to praise its many charms. Just one phrase will not do.

Lviv, one of Europe’s best-kept secrets and most elegant cities, is understandably a UNESCO World Heritage City. However, one has to venture beyond the historic city to get a full grasp of what Lviv has to offer. It was quite an adventure to visit the Lychakivskiy Cemetery, and even more difficult to reach the spectacular 18th and 19th century wooden churches that now form part of the open-air folk museum, but not in vain.

Back to the city centre, one quickly gives in to the accommodating and lively ambiance of the Rynok Square and its surroundings, specially the Svobody Street. The Church of the Assumption is reminiscent of the Florentine grace, while the Chocolate Factory (Maystrenya Shokolady) is better than sex! Speaking of sex, one could not possibly miss the statue of Leopold von Sacher-Masoch, the Ukranian writer to whom masochism owes its name. Then there is the Holocaust memorial, the Opera House, the Taras Shevchenko Monument, a wonderful art museum (Andrey Sheptytsky National Museum) and much more.

Cobblestone streets, pleasant squares, elegant houses with pastel facades, good food, a bunch of interesting monuments and a vibrant cultural scene with human statues, street musicians and public art…Lviv is everything I was hoping for it to be…a picturesque city in every way imaginable.

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