Behind the soothing melody floating in the summer heat stood tall townhouses in pinks, yellows and bubble gum blue, setting the stage for the open-fronted piano which was enthralling a small crowd snacking on candy floss.
The man played with smooth strokes, and the sun illuminated the surrounding gold church domes. A little breeze gently forced a rose garden to sway, and the bold pillars of a soviet building stood strong on my peripheral.
The city of Kyiv in front of me was as far removed from the images that flooded across the worlds TV channels in 2014 as it could be.
The protests that took place just moments from here on Independence square, and the subsequent actions which followed are a defining moment for this decade in Ukraine, but don’t let this put you off visiting as a tourist, the capital city is a captivating place, and a fantastic city break.
St Michael’s Cathedral in Kyiv
My trip to Kyiv was only to be 36-hours, and I quickly realised that was a mistake. On this lazy Sunday afternoon, there was no rushed spirit like my usual city breaks, and I joined in the slow-paced strolling vibe of the capital rather than dashing from one tourist spot to the next.
Everyone was lounging around in parks, of which they are many, Kyiv is a surprisingly green city, or chilling out at the beaches where comedy clubs and bars entertained patrons.
Ice creams were everywhere, candy floss was adding colour to the landscape, and music and art finished the picture.
The architecture of Kyiv comes in many styles
Flanked by St Peters Church, a bright green-domed beauty categorising the religious architecture across the city, were rows and rows of artists exhibiting their work.
Hiding in the shade of their own paintings and stretching along the whole boardwalk were countless impressions of people, architecture and the abstract. Kyiv’s creativity was evident throughout the city, broken up by Soviet architecture which provided a stark contrast.
You could easily spend a full day, and then some, exploring the gold-domed churches and cathedrals of Kyiv. A predominantly orthodox nation, there are countless houses of worship scattered across the city.
Long before Ukraine was Ukraine, and the history of this decade we are all mostly familiar with, the long past of this city has defied many other border changes, in fact, the city dates back some 1400-years.
Following the wooden footpath with viewing platforms out to the Dnieper River, I arrived at the glass walking platform which floated high above the highway below. Here, you can see the Friendship Monument, dedicates to friendship with neighbouring nations and currently decorated with a painted crack to signify the current strain in certain relationships.
I walked around in a happy dazy, lost in the laid-back Sunday vibe, and loving it.
Old streets in Ukraine
All was going well until I tried to find traditional cuinse though.
I’d done something wrong, that I could tell; but what, I had no idea. With a scowling look, the salad bowl was snatched out of my hand, a single slice of aubergine was removed, and it landed back on my tray with a clank.
Sampling Ukrainian cuisine at a self-serve style restaurant was already turning into a confusing chore; a far cry from how friendly and helpful everyone else I had met in Kyiv had been, even with the occasional (ok, regular) language struggle.
I pointed at some things, which brought more tutting, and then settled in to chow down on what now was an overflowing tray of different local dishes. Luckily, with one less piece of aubergine to eat, I didn’t have to worry about breaking my Tajikistan hiking training diet.
Most dishes were delicious, one was awful, what anything was I couldn’t tell you – and this is why I’ll never be a food writer.
By far the best meal I had in Kyiv though was Georgian, of which there are multiple restaurants throughout the city catering cuisine from the caucus country.
Criminally this was the first time I was eating Georgian cuisine, and from the pomegranate tea to the cheese breadstuff Kachuliara, it all was a treat.
After a quick coffee and cake stop, of which both seem a popular local past time, I continued on my quest to find more gold domes.
Two of the most famous sights for spotting these sit close by each other; St Sophia’s Cathedral and St Michaels, the latter being free to visit.
Strangely quiet squares in Kyiv in August
In the ground, or territory as it’s referred to, of St Sophia’s, an opera singer was warming up for a concert in the garden that night, while another piano was being played in the courtyard. A somewhat confusing set of ticket prices will define what you can, and can’t enter here, and sadly my choice didn’t include entry into the actual cathedral, but the views from atop the bell tower are fantastic.
Across the vast square, strangely devoid of tourists in the August heat, St Michaels allows entry into its gold-domed, blue painted cathedral. Inside the intricate art reminded me of the cathedrals of St Petersburg, without perhaps the excess showing of wealth.
The road took me back down to Independence Square, past my hotel, Kozatskiy, which had a prime position and views for a bargain price, although the interior felt more soviet office block than check-in and relax.
As the sun was starting to set, bands were playing at the far end of the square under the Independence Monument, and closer to me the music fountains enthralled the crowds.
I took a coffee from a lady behind a tiny window and settled in to watch the show as children giggled under the light spray of the water.
The fountains shot far into the sky, eclipsing the Golden Arches advertising McDonalds and the signs of the proCredit bank.
Dancing in time to the amplified music, the many fountains set the stage for a square of harmony and laughter, with friends and families enjoying the last hours of the weekend.
I thought back to when I had seen this square on TV five years ago, and just how removed my media image of this city was from the current reality.
Outside of St Sophias Cathedral Kyiv
The next morning with just hours to spare before my flight to Kazakhstan, I stepped out to find a dedicated team of street cleaners finishing their work and the square in a pristine state.
Jumping on a metro, something you must do in Kyiv to appreciate individual stations impressive decoration, I headed out to the Motherland Monument, an imposing and towering statue well known in the city.
Residing myself to the fact I wouldn’t see everything I wanted to in Kyiv, and already knowing that was ok as I planned to return, I headed back to my office block hotel, grabbed my bags, and thought I’d treat myself to an Uber to the airport, given the rather friendly prices compared to Portugal.
Goodbye, calm and relaxed Kyiv, hello everything I’ve ever read about driving in Ukraine.
‘I’m not in a rush’ I offered in English, but I think the word rush was the only one not lost in (literally no) translation.
Dutifully we pulled out of our lane, and barrelled down the other side of the road, honking at a parking bus as if it was somehow in the wrong.
‘What’s their safety record like’ my mum had enquired about Air Astana having never heard of them. ‘I’m more likely to die in a car crash’ I laughed, a reply about to become more fact than statistic.
It was time to leave Kyiv, a city that had surprised me at every turn; I just hoped I’d be leaving in one piece.
Hmm, KFC sells hot dogs here I pondered, staring at the billboards rather than the road ahead which although officially four lanes, now seemed to be six. My friendly driver throwing the occasional smile of encouragement to me in the dash mirror.
My mum would want to give him a lecture; I decided he was getting a tip.
The traffic broke, and white tower blocks stood in unison on the side of the motorway, slowly fading into grey and browns the further from the city we got.
I liked Kyiv; I liked it a lot I thought, as a car with its back held together with cellophane somehow overtook us.
We pull up at the airport, both sighed relief, and I can’t tell if the look is pride in getting me there in time or annoyance I’ve made him make the journey. I feign I’m in a rush, dash into the terminal to make all his hard work seem worthwhile, even breaking a little jog, before being first at the still yet to open check-in desk.
My adventure to Central Asia was only just beginning, and I have a feeling it’s going to be one of those trips you never forget.
Until next time Kyiv, of which you can be sure they’ll be one, drive safe!