Kiev’s first UNESCO site, the 13 spires of the 11th century Byzantine St Sophia Cathedral contrast wildly with the more modern concrete blocks courtesy of communism. Named for the famous church-turned-mosque the Hagia Sophia in Istanbul/Constantinople, the Hagia Sophia is one of the best architectural relics of the Kievan Rus. With ground broken in 1011, St Sophia’s Cathedral celebrated its 1000th anniversary in 2011! Like many religious buildings, its history has been far from peaceful. St Sophia was pillaged in 1169 and again in 1240, leading to abandonment and disrepair, including the loss of irreplaceable wall paintings. It was later damaged again in the 1500s when Poland and Ukraine joined forces in a misguided (and doomed to fail) attempt to unite the Catholic and Orthodox churches. It was claimed by several Orthodox communities – notably, the Ukrainian Greek Orthodox Church and the Moldavian Orthodox Church, who made repairs to St Sophia in the Ukrainian Baroque style. The Soviets wanted to destroy the cathedral and turn it into park, and indeed they managed to do so with St. Michael’s Golden-Domed Monastery at the other end of the boulevard. But its popularity and reputation caused many to speak for the cathedral and St Sophia was saved, instead being turned into a history museum. And today, due to arguments over which branch of Orthodoxy should hold the rights to this ancient place, St Sophia remains a museum, frequented more by tourists than by members of the Orthodox community.
Pro tip: Things in the Ukraine follow their own rules and opening hours. Be sure to arrive early and be ready to wait if they say its not open. Special rates for students. Be sure to visit St Michael’s afterwards!
Imagine walking through a city such as Kiev. It is months before war is thought of, and there is an element of peace still wafting through the air. Despite this–despite its magnificent cathedrals and fine buildings on its main street, there is still an air of desperation, a slight tugging at one’s side. Square, concrete buildings remind one of the war, which like many other cities in Eastern Europe–destroyed large chunks of the city and had to be rebuilt quickly and cheaply. Imagine grey skies overhead, as you hurry through the rain. Imagine you turn a corner and stumble upon the President of Ukraine’s office. Imagine turning around just as the rain relents–and coming face to face with this. This dramatic house, which for the past ten years has been used for diplomatic ceremonies, looks as if it popped up from a (rather dark) storybook. It is the House with Chimaeras. The name does not relate to the mythical animal, but rather the architectural style in which a building is adorned with animal sculptures. Look closely–and you will see nothing but animals! Whales, frogs, elephants, rhinos, deer, eagles, fish, serpents–you name it, it’s probably there. Italian architect Emilio Sala redesigned the house after original architect Vladislav Gorodetsky, who was an avid hunter, was forced to sell it. I suppose this is one way to pay homage to one’s hobbies–albeit an excessive one! Despite–or perhaps a result of–its prestigious address, important guests and strange decor, the house remains one of the strangest, creepiest, most bizarre yet most important buildings in all of Kiev and beyond.
Андріївська церква, or, St Andrew’s Church, Kiev, Ukraine
In light of Kiev‘s recent, rather negative ascent to the spotlight, I thought I’d turn tables and show the beautiful side of the Ukrainian capital. Here is St Andrew’s Church (which also happens to be my favourite church I’ve so far visited), reaching for the heavens with its beautiful bejewelled turquoise dome. According to legend, St Andrew had planted a cross on this exact site, proclaiming that one day, it would be the site of a ‘great Christian city.’ Not exactly a cathedral, St Andrew’s namesake is no ordinary church either. Commissioned by the famous Catherine the Great, built by the famed Italian architect Bartolomeo Rastrelli who had a penchant for extravagance and opulence (architect of St Petersburg‘s Winter Palace and Smolny Cathedral), and named for St. Andrew, the patron saint of Kiev, St Andrew’s Church was constructed in the years 1747-54 in Baroque style. However, for some reason, Catherine wasn’t pleased, and poor Rastrelli was fired. Apparently, she had no taste for beauty because today, Андріївська церкваone is one of the most beautiful buildings not only in Kiev, but in the entire continent.
St. Michael’s Golden-Domed Monastery, Kiev, Ukraine,
or, Михайлівський золотоверхий монастир
It’s like fairyland, no? Overlooking the Dnieper River in central Kiev and facing down its beautiful sister, St Sophia, this magnificent piece of architecture is actually a functioning monastery. Though built in 1108-1113, it was demolished in 1934-1936 (three guesses who destroyed it…), and not rebuilt until 1999. So really, it’s only the site that’s old, not the cathedral itself. If you’ve never been to an orthodox cathedral, prepare for jaw-dropping beauty, both inside and out. Hershey-kissed shaped golden domes top its exterior towers, and inside, well, prepare for walls covered floor-to-ceiling in intricately-painted pictures and paintings. Golden walls and impressive idols line the alter. The whole interior is seems massively never-ending, and its acoustics are amazing; it’s like you’ve stepped into another world! Buildings like this make you appreciate the artistic capabilities of humanity all over again.
After having seen the orthodox cathedrals in Kiev – wildly colourful, crazily textured, beautifully gilded, onion-dome topped, with every inch carefully painted, I will never look at a cathedral the same way. Western cathedrals, while impressive and beautiful, rarely stand out from each other. But Eastern Orthodox cathedrals – each one is a separate work of art, each one is different, unique. This is St. Panteleimon’s, built in Russian Revival design between 1905 and 1912, so it is not terribly old in comparison with other religious structures in Europe. Some say it resembles the Nevski Cathedral in Tallinn – and there is some resemblance! St. Pan’s was intended to serve as a branch of St Michael’s Golden-Domed Monastery, but was closed and looted in WWII. Today, it is only a hollow shell which has been restored as the main church of a nunnery. It rests in the quiet, suburban park of Feofaniya (getting there is tricky because the Ukrainians don’t post bus signs or if they do, they are in Cyrillic. From M. Libidska take bus 11 or 156 to the last stop) on 1.5 km2 acres of land. It makes a lovely backdrop for an afternoon stroll!
I have fallen in love with a new European nook–Tallinn, Estonia, a place that most people don’t even know exists. This fog-laden Nevski Cathedral isn’t exactly old, only dating back to about 1894. Built during the Russian occupation of Estonia, it is of course built in the Russian Revival style, giving the city a fairy-tale look (it has been said that it resembles St. Panteleimon’s Cathedral in Kiev. Also as a side-note, I just learned that there used to be an impressive Alexander Nevski Cathedral in my former city of Warsaw, demolished 1920. I lived there 1 year, and this was the first I’ve heard if it! A shame too–it looked beautiful). Not that Tallinn needs too much help at looking beautiful or charming; much of the city walls, towers, and gates have survived the wars, and as a result, the remarkably extensive old town becomes a sea of 800 year-old stone and red-clay roofs lost in the clouds! Tallinn is truly straight out of a book of fairy tales!