Tour Manager’s layover in Kiev – what does a tour leader do on days off?

Two days in Kiev

Golden domes of St Michael’s church

Kiev? Where the chickens come from? I heard that old joke frequently before I set off via Barcelona for my short break in the city I have dreamed of seeing for over forty years. I was on what we tour leaders call a ‘layover’, a time in between groups when you get paid your daily rate, but not your expenses (this can vary between tour operating companies). At Barcelona airport I had to pay €10 for a boarding pass, even though there was no option to print one on the confirmation email. Ukraine International Airways (UIA) was in every other respect an above average budget airline, with roomy, comfortable seats.

Kiev airport arrival

My flight landed at 18.00 and after clearing the arrivals hall I looked around eagerly for a sign with my name on. Uh oh, no pre-arranged driver to meet me. After fifteen minutes I called the contact number and learned that he’d had a puncture en route and no, they couldn’t tell me how much longer he’d be, as it depended on the traffic. So I settled down with my book, among families with children running around, worried-looking businessmen on mobile phone calls, and general airport Tannoy announcements. Hmm, I thought, this would never happen on a tour I am leading! No, we tour guides can’t predict punctures, but we must have a back up plan for such incidents, for example, a standby driver and/or vehicle available at short notice.

Finally, we go!

After thirty or forty minutes, a nervous-looking middle-aged man strode over towards me, with his chin down, tensed muscles around his mouth, and looking pained with embarrassment. He offered profuse apologies, and after I reassured him, off we drove, right into the centre of the city, crossing the river on the way. The Dnieper is quite possibly the widest river I have seen.

Dniepr

We parked in the courtyard of a very rundown building, so dilapidated that it could have been in Havana, Cuba, complete with peeling paint and scraped door and bannister wood varnish. This could be a nightmare, I thought, but once we´d climbed the wide, concrete staircase and turned the enormous, old-fashioned key in the lock, I walked into a spacious apartment. It was both clean and well-equipped.  I enjoyed a fabulously hot and powerful shower and ventured out into the street, brushing cobwebs from my face on the way downstairs, past a pregnant woman sitting smoking on one of the wide interior windowsills. I decided to head uphill, where I could see the tell-tale twinkling signs which I took to indicate restaurants. Sure enough, just seventy metres up the road was a traditionally decorated establishment serving ‘authentic Ukrainian food’. The turkey with mashed potatoes and spinach was delicious, and the red wine worked very well, so I tumbled into bed just before 11.00pm for a long, comfortable sleep. My repast had cost UAH* 239, around €7.95. *Ukrainian Hryvnia

Independence Square

Next morning, I walked downhill to Independence Square, the popular meeting place for Kiev’s city dwellers. In 2014 there were vilent protests there, but today the scene is more like an open air art gallery, with posters and paintings on display. I discovered a lovely, French-style café overlooking the square, and breakfasted on coffee and a croissant to dunk. I had ascertained that the city tour bus starting point was around here. Somewhere.  The printed map showed the street, but as this was a wide, central thoroughfare, and fairly long, I had to rely on passers-by to tell me where the actual stop was.

‘No bus today. It is cancelled,’ said one. ‘No, it will come,’ said another. After hoofing up and down, crossing and re-crossing the street, weaving my way through passing traffic, I was about to give up, when the tour bus pulled up and stopped just five metres away from me. Hooray! I clambered up to the top deck and enjoyed seeing lovely, leafy parks, dachas – elegant villas – and tall trees, golden domes sparkling on every horizon. We passed the Olimplyskiy stadium, where the final of the 2018 UEFA Champions league football was due to take place the following week. Essential sites were pointed out and I duly noted down which ones I wanted to visit next day. After disembarking I was hungry, and walked towards a guidebook recommended self-service locale. The interior was funky, and there were lots of veggie options. I ordered what I thought was a baked potato, but it turned out to be a turkey burger. For a starter I indulged in scrumptious blini pancakes with spinach and sour cream, then a mushrooms dish, with a cold Ukrainian beer to accompany. All for UAH 105/€3.50.

It was ‘The Day of the Shirt’ in Kiev, and most people were wearing their traditional garments, both men and women. It was an endearing sight, and I bought one to celebrate.

I decided to take a ride on the metro, described as ‘unmissable’. I was not impressed; maybe I missed the best bits. A lovely young man called Petro took pity on me while I was turning a street map sideways and asked what I was looking for. I told him St Andrew’s Church, to walk down the famous street known as The Descent. He not only showed me on the map, but accompanied me all the way, including another metro ride, before turning back to meet his friends. Wow. If that’s Ukrainian hospitality, I’m sold.

Off duty tour director at St. Andrew’s church

I duly descended the well-trodden street, where Saint Andrew erected a wooden cross and predicted that the site would become a famous city,  and wandered on to Maidan metro station.  After another short, uneventful ride, it took me six attempts to exit at the right street for my accommodation. I passed a young man selling packs of five cigarettes from a card table in one of the underpasses, and wondered if this brought him enough income to live on. I returned to Très Français for a tartine and a glass of wine, and strolled back to base. It had been a fascinating day, in a beautiful city.

Très Français

Dawn saw me languishing in bed, reading and lazing around – which I would later regret – then enjoying a deep hot bath, before crossing the road for coffee.

Breakfast coffee

Around 11.30 I trudged uphill to Peizazhna Alley to see the modernistic sculptures, but was disappointed: they were underwhelming after seeing Barcelona’s Parque Güell.

Not quite Gaudí

From there I walked down to the Chernobyl Museum. I hadn’t intended to do that; I had a last-minute change of plan. After all, I thought, I’d seen the Naples Underground sewers, so I’d give the famous ‘Lavra’ monastery caves – where the mummified bodies of monks can be seen –  a miss. It was a long way to go, and I had wasted time in the morning, so couldn’t see both sights. Yes, even experienced tour guides can make mistakes! But at least I wasn’t leading a tour group. And I did need a well-deserved rest from leading tours.

Pravda (Russian for ‘truth’) Gorbachev announcement

Chernobyl power plant was the location of one of the world’s worst ever disasters, when in April 1986 a flawed reactor caused a huge explosion, causing radiation to spread out into the air. Although the disaster was horrifying, the museum is fascinating, and well worth the visit. Especially touching are the displays of town name signs, suspended from the ceiling. These were the small villages that had been wiped out or permanently polluted by the explosion. I wondered how many lives were damaged, not just physically and emotionally, but psychologically, too., and for generations to come.

Village road signs – just a few of the hundreds

clean up

going into site

Rescue workers display

One of many photos of victims

Museum entrance

I had a late lunch of fish and salad with a glass of white wine at the Porter Pub, and took the metro ‘home’ to meet my driver Sergei for the drive back to Borispol airport. As we drove away, I glanced out of the window in an attempt to count the golden domes and spires, and failed. What an impressive city it is. I spent €173.50 for two days in Kiev, and I hope to return. After all, I have yet to visit the Lavra!

Kiev skyline

Entrance to the Lavra

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