It’s Saturday and Khreshchatyk Street is closed to traffic. Each weekend the eight-lane thoroughfare, which has seen its share of tanks roar past over the years, morphs into a vibrant playground for the people of Kiev.
For 48 hours a small part of a large city becomes human in scale and convivial in atmosphere. Storytellers entertain children and the National Philharmonic of Ukraine perform for free. Babushkas stand chatting about the old days and a topless (male) choir raises funds for an orphanage with its attention-grabbing approach. Cafe owners arrange tables and chairs to maximise people-watching possibilities. There are puppet shows, a pan-pipe band and a ruddy-faced Scot who plays the bagpipes until passers-by donate enough money to make him stop.
Something is missing, however, and before long you begin to wonder where all the tourists are.
Ukraine co-hosted the Euro 2012 football tournament, which provided a muchneeded shot in the arm for the hospitality industry. In readiness, airport terminals were upgraded and high-speed trains introduced. Doctors, police officers and other frontline workers signed up for government-sponsored English lessons and bilingual signs appeared.
Fast forward a year and tourism chiefs feel the country has failed to capitalise on its summer in the spotlight. Sightseers still arrive from neighbouring Russia and Belarus but the international influx tapered off soon after the last ball was kicked.
Tourist office charm offensives are all very well but they require the goodwill of the general population. Kievites are rather indifferent towards foreign visitors. No one I meet could be described as rude but no one goes out of their way to be particularly helpful either. Still, if you don’t need anyone to hold your hand, Kiev is an underrated gem.
There’s no better setting in which to get a feel for the city – and perhaps the whole of Ukraine – than Maidan Nezalezhnosti (“Independence Square”), an open space of Tiananmen proportions surrounded by sturdy Soviet structures.
Locals come here in droves to relax and shop. They also come to protest – as up to a million did during the orange revolution, in 2004.
A short walk away is St Sophia’s Cathedral, the oldest church in Kiev and a Unesco World Heritage site. Facing it is St Michael’s Golden-Domed Monastery, which reopened in 1999 after the original mediaeval structure was demolished by the Soviets in the 1930s. The gleaming onion domes have a fairy tale appeal that is more than matched inside, where shafts of sunlight illuminate the nave.
It’s an easy walk over to Andriyivskyy Descent, a steep, pedestrianised lane crammed with lacquerware, jewellery and Soviet memorabilia stalls. Inexpensive eateries and juice bars line the shiny cobbles, which lie beneath the perfectly proportioned curves of St Andrew’s Church.
The capital retains a tangible communist legacy, which isn’t all bad. Public transport is priced for the people and the dark Ukrainian sense of humour, honed during the cold war, is still evident. (Chernobyl Hard Rock Cafe T-shirt anyone?) However, it’s wise to tread carefully when suggesting to Ukrainians how similar their country is to Russia.
Architecturally and bureaucratically they’ll concede that you have a point but, in many respects, the nation is increasingly influenced by the West.
Back on Khreshchatyk Street, for example, freedom of expression is alive and well. Supporters of jailed former prime minister Yuliya Tymoshenko set up a camp in 2011 and protesters representing each region of Ukraine take it in turns to occupy a collection of tents.
Police have attempted to clear the activists a number of times but after a national outcry, politicians have backed down and the settlement remains.
Exploring further afield is a breeze as the metro system is clean, user-friendly and even has its own claim to fame.
Arsenalna is the world’s deepest underground station. The escalators disappear into infinity and there’s enough time to scribble out a postcard or two during your journey to the centre of the Earth.
On the surprisingly chilly platform I ask an attendant in a heavy fur-lined coat where all the English signs have gone and receive a shiver and a shake of the head. A colleague explains in hesitant sentences that they were taken down as soon as the football tournament finished.
“No point making things too easy for you tourists,” he might have added.
I’m having a Cyrillic meltdown and simple tasks are proving complicated. A trip to the seaside is almost abandoned until a taxi driver blessed with telepathic powers realises I need the Odessa ticket counter at the Kiev bus station.
The Pearl of the Black Sea turns out to be more tourist-friendly than Kiev and has long been a favoured destination for relaxing Russians, who feel very much at home here. Many of Odessa’s pastel-coloured buildings date from the founding of the city by Empress Catherine the Great in the late 18th century. Holidaymakers sautéing on the beaches and stars performing at the Opera and Ballet Theatre are more likely to speak Russian than Ukrainian. I’ve also been warned that run-ins with the police have a sinister Soviet twist.
“Get caught running a red light and a traffic cop will accept a ‘gift’ of 80 hryvnia [HK$75],” the Ukrainian-American owner of my guest house says. “Argue or refuse to pay and you’ll find yourself in court, where it’ll cost 400 hryvnia or more. We all know exactly how much to offer, depending on the law we break. No one wants to end up in front of a judge.”
I take a taxi into town, gesturing frantically at my driver to slow down in case he hasn’t memorised the sliding scale of fees for speeding. He nods and immediately accelerates towards the Potemkin Stairs, immortalised in film (Battleship Potemkin; 1925) and the starting point for any sightseeing tour of the city.
Odessa boasts a plethora of parks and palaces; opera theatres and outdoor cafes. Balalaika-playing buskers provide a plaintive soundtrack as you stroll along treelined Primorsky Boulevard.
No one is playing the bagpipes though. Perhaps the fine is too high.
Getting there: Qatar Airways (www.qatarairways.com) flies daily from Hong Kong to Doha, and from there to Kiev. There are flights and buses (six hours) between Kiev and Odessa.