A city break in Kiev is all about politics

BMI started flying to the Ukraine's capital last week. So, is it worth a visit? Mark Leftly finds out

Knocked down twice already, the undersized, overmatched Cuban challenger suffers one final, thunderous left jab to his badly cut right eye. Juan Carlos Gomez turns his back on the champion, leaving the referee with no choice but to wave off the fight. Ukraine's Vitali Klitschko, aka "Dr Ironfist", has stopped the "Black Panther" in nine bloody rounds to retain his world heavyweight boxing crown.

Around me, dozens of vodka-soaked men and ultra-microskirted women cheer their victorious hero. Ukraine has been invaded by the likes of Lithuania, Poland, and Germany over the past 1,000 years, so to have produced the planet's most feared fighter is a source of great national pride.

I am watching the televised bout in the Arena Brewhouse, part of a huge entertainment complex once owned by Klitschko, at the end of Khreschatyk, Kiev's major high street. The other end of the thoroughfare is overlooked by a giant arch, a despised relic of the Soviet regime that during the evening is lit up like a rainbow.

In the centre is Independence Square, where four years ago hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians, dressed in orange, protested against an unfair presidential election. The Orange Revolution succeeded, forcing a second vote that brought the populist Viktor Yushchenko to power in January 2005.

Since then, Kiev has become an emerging city break destination as the Yushchenko government ended the need for a tourist visa for EU citizens visiting for less than 90 days. BMI's new flights from the UK, which started last week, are likely to tempt more visitors.

Today, Yushchenko's support has all but vanished. Rampant inflation of more than 20 per cent is destroying the value of the hryvnia national currency, while those lucky enough to have kept their jobs are not always paid. I am told by my guide, Tania, that surgeons earn just $100 a month, causing widespread corruption as they look to supplement their meagre income.

Although tourists benefit from the weak exchange rate, the financial instability means that hotels do not publish set room rates, meaning prices can vary tremendously from day to day.

When I arrive in Independence Square it is full of tents, each canvas covered by two words written in the Cyrillic alphabet. Tania tells me that this roughly translates as a message to the government to "get out". Later in the week, the tent camp is demolished by people in camouflage.

Below the square is a Westernised shopping centre with big-name chains, but it is fairly empty. Outside its entrance offers a much better snapshot of everyday entertainment. Gathered in small groups, men and women share the gossip of the day while drinking good-quality 50p-a-bottle domestic beer purchased from the many kiosks.

As I buy a goblet, which I am assured by the kiosk's saleswoman is made from "genuine mineral", a man approaches asking for 50 hryvnia. That's quite a bold gambit, given it's about £5 and in his right hand are several notes that combined are worth at least double that. "I need the money to find work," he explains.

As he starts to negotiate by asking for 20 hryvnia, the saleswoman's friend shoos him away, fearful they will lose a customer. At least the beggar was well dressed and had some cash: beneath the bell tower of the beautiful St Michael's Golden-Domed Monastery, two bent up elderly women are delighted when I hand them notes worth about only 10p.

The blue-walled St Michael's was built in 2001, a replica of the 12th-century church that was one of 1,000 in Kiev destroyed by the Soviets in the 1930s. Another replica is Zoloti Vorota (Golden Gate), the main entrance to Kiev until it was brought to the ground by the Mongols in the 13th century. All this devastation has created a very respectful, religious people who care deeply about the past. There are monuments to Ukrainians who lost their lives in the Soviet war in Afghanistan, those who fought the Nazis, and the millions who starved to death during the great famine of 1932-33. I see a newly married couple returning from the wedding day tradition of placing flowers on the Second World War memorial to the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.

The most important site, particularly to the older generation, is the Caves Monastery. There are some fantastic cathedrals and a series of museums here, but the centrepiece is two sections of caves where dozens of monks are buried. The monks naturally mummified when they died centuries ago, considered a miracle as the cave conditions should have resulted in decay. The religious press their heads next to the glass coffins, tears in their eyes.

So much of Kiev, despite the vibrant colours of its churches and residences, is tinged with sadness. I visit the wonderfully ornate House with Chimeras, which is covered by hundreds of stone animals, both real and imagined. The impact of the visual odyssey is tempered when I am told that the architect, Vladislav Gorodetsky, built the house in the early 20th century in honour of his animal-loving daughter, who had drowned.

As I search for the sole crocodile on the house, which is said to bring luck to those who find it (hint: don't look up), I hear chants from a megaphone. The house is opposite the President's office. On our behalf, the guide asks a security guard about the protests and translates as he says with a rueful smile: "We get used to this [demonstrations], because it is like this every day." I hope this beautiful city will get the peace it so deserves.

Compact facts

How to get there

Mark Leftly travelled to Kiev with Cox & Kings (020-7873 5000; coxandkings.co.uk). A three-night short break costs from £755 per person, based on two sharing, including return flights, private transfers and B&B accommodation.

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