Ukraine has its problems... but it could be a great trip
The country has been buried by terrible headlines (most of them justified) yet, says Shaun Walker, if you look beyond the issues there are interesting cities, a football-crazy population... and lots of bars
If you were to draw up a 10-point plan of everything you should absolutely, categorically not do while preparing to host a major international sporting tournament, it might well include some of the following: don't allow hotels to raise prices by 500 or 1,000 per cent, instead of simply having a small tournament mark-up; don't introduce high-speed trains for the first time ever in the country, with no testing period, just a few days before it starts; don't allow racist attacks to go unnoticed and unpunished by your police force and then claim that actually there is no problem at all; and don't lock up your country's most recognisable political figure on charges most people believe to be spurious, and put her in a jail located in one of the tournament's host cities.
Ukraine has been doing all of this, and more, ahead of Euro 2012, which kicks off on Friday, and has been receiving spectacularly bad publicity for it, most of which is completely justified. The majority of the problems are very real, and as a result very few England fans are expected to go – fewer than 10,000, compared with the 100,000 who descended on Germany for the 2006 World Cup.
But here's the thing that you may not have read anywhere – those who do make it might just end up having the football holiday of their lives. Kiev is a great city, especially in the summer. The capital's central Khreschatyk Street, lined with Stalinist buildings that are imposing but beautiful, is a delightful place for a stroll on long, hot evenings. During the Euros, the whole stretch is being pedestrianised and turned into a giant fan zone.
When you are not watching the football, there are dozens of things worth seeing, ranging from glorious monastic architecture to a macabre but fascinating voyage into the "dead zone" around Chernobyl. You could be wandering around the ghost city of Pripyat, abandoned after that nuclear disaster in 1986 and kept as a kind of late-Soviet Pompeii in the morning, and back in Kiev in time for a match in the afternoon. For football-free evenings, the choice of entertainment runs the gamut from a night out at the opera for a fraction of what it would cost in London, to late-night drinking sessions in one of the hundreds of bars and cafes that are open round the clock.
Nobody would claim that Donetsk, where England play two of their three group games, is a beautiful city, but in summer it also has its charm. It has plenty of tree-lined avenues and outdoor beer cafes, and the city lives and breathes football. The Donbass Arena is one of the best stadiums in Europe, and the atmosphere for Ukraine v England, on 19 June, should be electric.
All of this makes it extra depressing that the Ukrainians have made such a hash of getting the information across to people and making their accommodation and infrastructure accessible. I have learnt first hand what an utter nightmare it is to book hotels and transport during the tournament as I have tried to plan my time in Ukraine for the duration. I've lived in the region for years, speak fluent Russian, and spend my life booking trips in post-Soviet countries with overdeveloped bureaucracies. So if I'm finding it hellish, God knows what it is like for the average England fan.
It should be really easy to get between the host cities on high-speed trains, but the timetable and pricing was released only a few days ago. Lots of Googling, scouring the website of the Ukrainian rail company and various Russian language news sources turned nothing up, until a friend told me about a site where you can buy tickets with a credit card online with no hassle and pick them up when in country.
Then there is the racism issue. The footage Panorama filmed of abuse and attacks in Ukraine was utterly shocking, and there is no doubt that the problem exists, and has not been adequately tackled by authorities over a period of years. But while I don't want to diminish the threat, there is the probability the country will "clean up" for the Euros, rather like in South Africa in 2010, when the criminals of the country seemed to be far too busy enjoying the football to indulge in the massive wave of theft and attacks on naive fans that had been predicted prior to the tournament.
Those supporters who do go will probably get ripped off once or twice, and find themselves lost a few times, but they will also experience a country desperate to showcase itself, a people that are on the whole friendly and welcoming, and a set of cities well off the European tourist trail that nevertheless have much to recommend them.
With prices sure to come down at the last minute as people realise they might not find thousands of people willing to rent their Soviet-era apartment for £300 a night, it is worth considering as an 11th-hour trip. Whether the England team can produce good enough football to justify making it, though, is another question entirely.
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