Part IX

Return to Kyiv - Lavra


The site of the insect bite on my right arm is swollen to the size of an apricot. We have cake and cheese for breakfast. Cabbies are waiting as we get off the train. I think the price they are asking is steep so we take a long walk to outside the station. Here the same ride is half the price. We hire Victor who waits while I try to phone our home stay. All the phone numbers I am given are busy so we have no option but to go there and hope someone answers the door. Bill and Victor wait while I look for flat 62. This meant getting off at each floor from six to thirteen, before finding the suite. A dog barks as I twice ring the doorbell and after considerable time a woman calls out "who is there". I identify myself. Two doors are unlocked and I am face to face with a women who is definitely not fortyish or English speaking as promised. It appears my hostess has gone off to another town to work and left  her mother Olya to care for the suite. Bill and heavy luggage (suitcases filled  with gifts of alcohol) are collected, but we are not yet moved in. There is no place for us to sleep comfortably, except on a couch that folds out on the floor. She phones another daughter. We can sleep comfortably there, but there is no hot water. I consider the floor the lesser of the two evils, so after we sort out that all we need is someplace to sleep, shower and have breakfast, we settle in.

Kyiv was founded at the end of the 5th century. The earliest  settlements were developed high above on the bluffs of the Dneiper River named the Upper City or Staro Kyiv and the Pechersk District. The Low City or Podil was the trading centre close to the river. It is in these areas that we found the most interesting historical sites. There were many rival tribes and assorted heads of state during the years of Kyiv's evolution as capital of the region. It was invaded by Tartars as well as by many other nations and on a couple of occasions suffered devastation by fire. Today the city reflects the rebuilding done following WWII and boasts a population of 2,600,000.

After breakfast we are off to the Caves Monastery. Olya walks us to the metro station. The Kyiv subway system is very efficient. It is mind boggling at how deep underground the metro was built. A rapid escalator ( sometime two) take you down to the different metro stations. Although the escalators move quickly, the trips take a considerable amount of time. People read, young adults snuggle and kiss, others talk face to face as one person rides the escalator backwards and I on occasion do my notes of activities of the day.  Kreshchatik station is the main transfer point for destinations that resemble an "X" on the metro map. Each stop carries the name of a nearby site so in most cases it is relatively easy to get off where you wish to be, but initially we had many instances of confusion as to which track we should be at to board the correct train. During rush hour it is a case of pushing and shoving your way on and body odour is a major obstacle for a pleasant ride. From the apartment to town the trip takes about thirty minutes. We had requested that we not be accommodated more than fifteen minutes from the center of Kyiv, so it is a disappointment that we will waste half an hour more each day in travel. Anyway, we managed to transfer to the correct bus, but we got off near the Arsenalna Metro Station which is prior to our intended stop. No problem as we walk through the Park of Eternal Glory. The stroll is leisurely, but it is soon determined that we are behind the caves. We backtrack to the main street and follow the whitewashed fortification walls to the ticket kiosk. I request two tickets and for some reason the seller asks me where the other person is. I say my husband is waiting by the Trinity Gate Church entrance and why does she want to see him. Exasperated she provides the tickets and to this day I am not sure whether I paid the locals or the tourist price.

The Pechersk Lavra is situated in a park like setting covering many acres. It was founded by monks in the mid eleventh century. By the eighteenth century the monastery was very rich and powerful. After the Bolshevik Revolution, being religious was taboo, so the Soviets turned it into a museum. It was returned to the Orthodox Church on the 1,000th anniversary of Christianity in Ukraine, so it is now a museum with functioning churches. Directly as you enter the Upper Lavra, on either side of the promenade are the old monks dormitories which now house exhibitions. We follow a tour into a building on the right. The guide is speaking Russian, so I understand nothing, but there is marvellous stuff to see. Hammered brass icons, an ornate coffin, ancient priest regalia, portraits and a huge chandelier. The second building is dedicated to painted wooden icons. The third contains many portraits, painted on wood (I think) of monastic clerics and what appears to be Austrian royalty. Crossing over to the left side, the fourth building has many rooms with tons of church stuff - Bibles, icons, paintings, ornate robes and crowns, silver incense holders, goblets, chalices,  etc. - too numerous to document everything. Next door is the hologram exhibition with an assortment of neat Scythian jewellery, religious medals, miniature bibles and a most remarkable mural depicting the history of Ukraine.

It is raining as we wait for the St. Nicholas church to open. A tour guide accompanied by a group unlocks the rear entrance doors to the Trinity Gate Church so we zoom across the courtyard to join them. The rear entrance to the church is simple but the front archway entrance is a spectacle to whet the appetite for sights inside the complex. Along one wall in this small church is a  row of old wooden seats. This leaves little room to accommodate all of us comfortably. With few exceptions, most Ukrainian churches do not contain many benches. Parishioners stand or kneel on the ground throughout the service. As we are crowded in, everyone is gawking and straining to see as much as possible. The tour guide speaks Russian so again I miss valuable historical data, but the beauty of the church speaks for itself. Amazingly, murals cover almost every square inch of the dark green walls. I get a crick in my neck looking up at the elaborately painted ceiling. The gilded iconostasis is spectacular.

Returning to the courtyard we enter the small St. Nicholas Church, now an exhibition gallery. The church has a lovely blue dome, playfully adorned with gold stars. Inside is an exhibit of paintings. A few are painted on canvas, but the majority are done on wood. They are superb and one could spend all day here just looking at the marvellous details created by their artists. There is some construction going on near the monstrous bell tower. I did not feel I was in shape to climb the three hundred or so steps during the last visit and now four years later I definitely pass on the opportunity to buy a ticket to see the view from the top.  We peer at the enormous hammered gold dome and Bill points out the double headed gold eagles way, way up there. Despite corrective lenses, myopia bars clear visibility of fine detail of the belfry. He also brings to my attention the old monastery well. Odd, I did not notice it last time either. It is of ample size so I cannot blame my poor vision on missing it. Nearby in the centre of the complex is the ruins of the Dormination Church. Old photos show it to be a magnificent structure. This is not surprising as it was designed based on Byzantine influence. Apparently it was not meant to survive as it was destroyed at different times by Mongols, Tartars, a fire and eventually it was bombed during German occupation.  A guide said it was destroyed by the Russians and not the Nazis, but as I could not understand all that was said, I cannot relate what happened. It is a shame as all that remains is a few walls and one dome. A few frescoes are barely visible. Big urns are standing within the ruined walls, but I don't know if they are from the original church.  We take a time out at the little plaza near the former print shop. The Museum of Books and Printing is not of interest to us, so we pass on it.

The Refectory Church is truly beautiful. Earth tones, maroon and gold provide a distinguished, calming effect. We sit on a couple of folding chairs, drinking in the beauty of the elaborately painted walls. The Refrectory Hall is as I remember it. With few people visiting, it appears even larger than when I visited before. I am happy to have more time to look at the excellent murals as I had been whizzed through when I last visited with Joy's friend Stephan. There is now a gift shop set up in one corner and I note that the postcards for sale are the same I purchased four years ago.  Only difference is that they cost about ten times more. Outside of the church are the graves of a couple of Cossack leaders who were executed by the hetman Mazepa (more on him later).  We walk around the former Metropolitan's house but do not go in. This museum contains traditional folk art which we figure we have seen a lot of.  We also passed on visiting the Theatre Museum.

We walk past the long Economic Building to the All Saints Church. Like the Trinity Gate Church it is situated over a service gate. There is an admission charge so between my frugal disposition and being somewhat churched out, we opt not to climb the stairs to view the interior. Bill is not keen to visit the Microminiature Museum, so we buy tickets at the old monastery bakery for the Historical Treasures Museum. We have to wait for the next tour, so we wander towards the viewing platform where there is some artwork for sale. The art gallery has mostly modern stuff for sale and I am moaning about not purchasing the painting I liked in L'viv.  The wide stone terrace affords a lovely view of green and gold onion domes nestled among the green background of forests. In the distance is the busy Dnieper River. The imposing Mother Russia Monument towers over all.

We check our bags at the entrance to the Historical Treasures Museum. Most of the tourists are Russian and demand to have the guide provide the dialogue in Russian. The guide diplomatically says she will speak Ukrainian and if she is not understood she will then translate. There is a wealth of precious stones and metal on display. A fourth century Scythian pectoral is the centerpiece of one  exhibit. I wonder who originally wore this magnificent piece of jewellery, as the huge necklace is pure gold and must have been extremely heavy to wear. The tour moves very quickly so I am not able to appreciate the superb craftsmanship of every detail created by the artist. A coffin with a female skeleton contains gold jewellery laid out adorning the body, as originally found at the burial site. In addition to the beautifully crafted pieces, she was buried with a mirror and a bowl for washing. We are escorted to a number of rooms. Crystal, china, richly ornamental silver and gold swords, coins, tools, striking religious artifacts, plates, goblets etc are displayed in glass cases. The Russians crowd around as the guide explains their history. As I do not understand all she is saying anyway, I wander to have a closer look at items encased away from the group. I am soon returned to the group by a stern guard. I guess I look like a snatch and grab robber. A model of old Kyiv provides a good impression of how the city looked in ancient times. Back out in the sunshine, the guide passes by with what may be her supervisor, who I hear saying "never mind what they want, you speak in Ukrainian during the tour".

We walk under the half arches supporting the Printing Press Museum toward the Lower Lavra. We stop at a building that I think it is a volunteer headquarters because of a sign posted at the door. I think we are invited in but as I do not understand what the woman at the door is saying, we leave. We walk to the side of this building and peer in an open door. It is a kitchen and we are soon shooed away by a monk. A steep winding walk down a weathered cobblestone road brings us to a covered walkway to our right. We enter and walk a fair distance, but we know not where it leads, so after a considerable time we turn back. We stop a couple of German tourists to ask what is at the end, but they too have no idea and are returning. It must lead to somewhere as not only were there many monks dressed in black robes in the walkway, but lay persons with briefcases intent on their journey passed us. Returning to the courtyard we stick our noses through an iron gate to get a better view of the botanical garden near the entrance to the caves.

The monastery is of immense importance to Orthodox believers, primarily because of the catacombs in the Lower Lavra. These are known as the Near and Far Caves. Some are natural caves and others were dug many years ago by holy men. There is a lot of interesting history regarding the monks who originally inhabited the caves. The labyrinths contain churches and living quarters that date from 1051. Some ten years later a Prince gave the monks the hill that is the Upper Lavra and so the community of the monastery moved above ground. Some monks continued to live in underground cells, but the caves were primarily relegated as burial sites. Men of importance, both religious and not were entombed here. The Near Caves contain seventy-three burial niches and the Far Caves have forty-seven.  Due to environmental conditions underground the bodies did not decompose. In the 1600's many of the bodies were canonized and so by making the remains sacred relics, it turned the monastery into a place of pilgrimage.

It is late and I fear we cannot enter the catacombs as they are soon to close. A monk indicates that we may enter the building. There we purchase a candle and stooping so as not to bump our heads, we are escorted into the dark and narrow corridors. The route taken appears different from last time or maybe because there are few tourist, I am just able to see more. Previously, I just passed the glass covered coffins in the corridor but today we are permitted to enter a couple of large cubicles which affords a better look at the mummified bodies. Near each coffin hangs a portrait of the Saint. The remains are handsomely adorned. Cloth covers the faces but I am again taken aback by a number of protruding black fingers. We mingle with an escorted group that arrives but the info is again in the Russian language. This is unfortunate as I am certain the remains dressed grandly and housed in larger quarters were of significant historical importance, but I shall never know who they were. Soon a woman starts yelling at the monk, I think because the tour is being cut short. Despite her threatening, we are escorted out.

The Church of the Rising of the Cross is adjacent to the caves. I am impressed as it is elaborately decorated. There are quite a few people partaking in the service, including many elderly nuns. I am overwhelmed and reluctant to leave as the intensity of the people praying is incredible.

We trudge up the steep incline to a road that leads to the perimeter of the Lavra. It is very warm when we settle at an outdoor cafe for a snack. Wasps are a bloody nuisance and even moving the artificial flowers to another table does not decrease the numbers that invade our space. Distressed by their kamikaze-like dives at us, we head for the Mother Russia Monument. Along our route is the Voscresenka Church. It is quite small and being remodelled so there is not much to see. We continue along what I think is the Heroes Avenue above the Central Botanical Gardens. Military tanks are not only on view in the outdoor museum, but are parked on the wide stone platform at the base of the Motherland Monument. They provide an odd contrast to a beautiful rainbow over the Dnieper River. I had told Bill about the incredible bronze sculptures situated under an overpass, depicting misery of Ukrainian people during the war. He agrees the work is magnificent, but neither of us care for the statues in the centre of the pond. A good view of the enormous greenbelt and monastery is available as we encircle the extinguished eternal flame.

We board a bus to return to Kreshchatik. We thought there would be a glut of restaurants here, but not so. The eatery places are numerous, but most are fast food or ice-cream parlours. We walk a fair distance examining different establishments and at about 1900 hours finally settle on an outdoor cafe. There are fountains in the square which affords a pretty setting with one exception. There are five young men with monkeys on chains taking photos of tourists. The fellow who approached us to have our photo taken obviously did not know how I feel about wild animals being held in captivity. Unfortunately, they were doing a booming business. The music is too loud and I can't figure out the menu. After much confusion, we are served breaded pork, fries and cold vegetables. The meal was pretty good or maybe we were just very hungry.

It is about 2100 when we walk towards the apartment. Olya with Sherry her dog is out on the street looking for us, as she fears we are lost. Incidently, there are many dogs in Kyiv and L'viv. Although there were some of the small yappy variety, most were large dogs. They all appear to be purebred and are paraded by their owners at the end of thick leashes. There are many pet stores in the cities. By contrast in the village, there were few dogs and they were mixed breeds. Olya makes tea and serves a delicious fried squash sprinkled with garlic. She is a retired physician and at seventy-seven years is quite spry. She has a pension of approximately US$15.00 Her husband now deceased, was a Maestro.  I have a fairly hot bath because each time I turn on the cold water, the pipes hammer like a cement drill.


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