David takes an adventure in Ukraine’s capital Kiev in all its sparkling splendour.
Ukraine means "borderland", named because it was the crossroads between the Baltic and Black Seas, between Europe and Central Asia. Scythians dominated the steppes from the seventh to fourth centuries BC and traces of their culture can be found in Kiev's Caves Monastery, with tombs containing superb gold work depicting highly-detailed animal and human forms.
They were followed by a series of invaders, including Ostrogoths, Huns and the Turko-Iranian Khazars.
The Scandinavians known as the Rus were the first people to unify and control the area for a long period, after taking Kiev in 882 AD. By the late 10th century it was the centre of a unified state known as Kievan Rus, which stretched from the Volga west to the Danube and south to the Baltic.
Its location meant it was a desirable prize for surrounding empires, which made it a battleground much of the time. The Poles, Lithuanians, Russians, Tatars and Turks all coveted it and between the 14th and 19th centuries its boundaries fluctuated during wars and broken alliances.
For most of the 20th century Kiev was gripped by the savage ideology of the Soviet Union. After 72 years of communist control, Ukraine declared independence in 1991 and began its transition from servant to sovereign state.
In 1986, the tragedy of the Chernobyl nuclear power station reactor explosion, 100km north of Kiev, stunned the world. Nine tonnes of radioactive material spewed into the sky and over the following days blew north and west to Belarus, Russia, Poland and the Baltic. A 1999 estimate of those killed or injured was published as 4365 and 167,653 respectively.
Major effects of the explosion became clear gradually. An estimated 4.9 million people in northern Ukraine, southern Belarus and the south-west Russian corner were affected to some degree. Many continued to live on land which produced contaminated meat, milk and vegetables.
Despite great pressure from the international community, the Ukrainian government opted to reopen the remaining three reactors to help solve its energy crisis. Only reactor No 3 is open today and has been temporarily closed several times for safety repairs.
Western medical and governmental sources are unanimous that the risk to short-term visitors is insignificant and a local travel company actually organises guided ecological tours of Chernobyl.
Ukraine is Europe's second-largest country after Russia and was known as the breadbasket of the USSR. More than half the country is covered with fields of wheat, barley, rye, oats and sugar beet.
It does have its share of the thoroughly modern, but there are many reminders of former occupiers. Kiev is replete with gothic, Byzantine and baroque architecture and art.
Kiev's number one tourist attraction is the Caves Monastery, three kilometres south of the city. It was Kyivan Rus' first monastery where monks dug and lived in caves. It is spread across wooded slopes above the Dnipro and is an amazing array of gold domed churches, underground labyrinths lined with mummified monks, elegant monastic buildings which are now museums, one with a hoard of Scythian gold to rival that of St Petersburg's Hermitage. A full day is needed to begin to understand the place, but the underground passages are narrow and low and not for the claustrophobic.
The monastery became Kyivan Rus' intellectual centre, producing chronicles and icons and training builders and artists.
Andriyivsky Uzviz is Kiev's most charming street, curving from St Andrew's to the Podil district. The steep, cobbled lane is the headquarters of the city's artists and is a popular place for shopping and eating. Halfway down is a small history museum dedicated to the street and the Podil district.
Shevchenko Park was named after the writer who embodied and stirred the national consciousness. Born a serf, orphaned in his teens, suppressed under Russia's tsarist rule and sent to Siberia for 10 years, he was, against all odds, prolific and elegant in his writing and has influenced people in many ways.
The park is full of magnolias, ancient platens, acacias and chestnut trees, all of which smell and blossom beautifully in spring and summer. Stone paths, statues and monuments, benches and magnificent sea views make the park a popular place for visitors and locals. Many men pass the hours by playing game after game of chess.
A 72-metre metallic statue of a woman brandishing a sword and shield stands high on a hill overlooking the city. The "Defence of the Motherland", or "Mother Russia", has outlasted its namesake and is now in a foreign land. Next door is a sombre gallery of statues dedicated to Ukraine's wartime sacrifices, one of the city's most revered attractions.
The tourist complex Prolisok is in 18 hectares of pine forest on the outskirts of Kiev. It has two modern hotels, as well as Khata Karasya, a traditional restaurant. Local cuisine is based on peasant dishes of grain and staple vegetables such as potatoes, cabbage, beetroot and mushrooms. Small dumplings are the most popular snack and the sacred dish is pig fat. This is to the Ukranians as a good red wine is to the French. Most restaurants serve European cuisine and of course, vodka, local beer and a liquorice-like drink called kvas are popular drinks.
The capital of Ukraine
Intours-Kiev has two-night packages including twin-share accommodation at Hotel Prolisok, breakfast, dinner and show at Khata Karasya restaurant and guide for $323 per person. Bookings can be made through Contal Travel.
Lauda Air flies daily to Vienna with connections to Kiev, starting at $2052 from Perth, $2169 from Melbourne, $2189 from Sydney, $2315 from Hobart, $2319 from Adelaide and $2344 from Brisbane, per person.
Please note prices are valid at time of filming.
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