We didn’t have the best of starts when, for the first time, yesterday, our luggage failed to arrive. We’ve had short connections, multiple flights and been to some really strange airports, but, true to reviews, Ukrainian International Airlines are unique amongst flag carriers. Either they’re late or they lose your luggage. We’d have preferred the first option.
This morning began with a tour around Odessa by coach and on foot. First impressions? Really interesting, with lots of parks and trees lining the streets. It’s a little eclectic and somewhat “hit and miss”. Up-market shops seem to appear in the middle of a down-at-heel block. We couldn’t really identify a main street, but it may be in a pedestrian area and we hope to explore more on foot tomorrow.
The afternoon was spent just outside Odessa, visiting the Catacombs. Not really catacombs because they should have a planned purpose of burial. These were formed from pre-history until modern times as limestone was excavated to build Odessa.
There are unintended burials. They’re the World’s largest, some 1500km in total, and not fully mapped. People have been lost and never found.
Their modern claim to fame is their use by Resistance fighters in WW2, and the section we visited is an underground museum. This is Ukraine - a phrase I'm sure I’ll use again (TIU*). Already some things don’t make sense to a rational way of thinking!! If this was in the UK, the Health & Safety Executive, after they’d had a seizure, would close it down. Large sections are unlit (thanks be someone thought of a torch option on my phone). The “pathway" is often uneven and (because it's cut from rock) ceiling height can change dramatically and dangerously around the next dark corner.
The tour was, however, interesting and worthwhile as we learned about the Ukraine heroes who had resisted German and Romanian Nazis at incredible risk in appalling underground conditions.
Still no sign of our luggage, but Viking have provided free next day laundry until it turns up, so we’re getting by just fine.
Another morning sailing the river and its lakes. Unfortunately, today not in sunshine, but through fog. The long, lazy breakfast was just as good and, by midday, the sun made half-hearted attempts to break through.
We docked very close to the city, which, like Odessa, is built on a high hill above the river, and again, a funicular railway makes the transition survivable. Unlike Odessa, however, the upper city is also hilly; we’re a lot fitter this evening than we were this morning!
We skipped the guided tour and explored by ourselves. What a change in environment. Kiev would pass muster as an EU capital with little difficulty. Clean, modern (with plenty of decent older architecture), multi-national cuisines, bustling pavement cafés, and it’s residents mostly looked affluent and busy. Orthodox churches with gold copola - everywhere. The traffic is also major city standard - noisy, reckless and bad-tempered.
St Sophia’s Cathedral is the most famous place in Kiev, so we bee-lined for it. Beautiful, but unusual. (Sorry, photography ist verboten - OK, I don’t know any Ukrainian!).
It’s not the vast caverns that most Orthodox Cathedrals are. Apart from the gilded altar and iconostasis it comprises passageways, stairways and side rooms filled or covered with up to 1000 year old (or more) paintings of saints and religious scenes. Unique and fascinating.
We then strolled around, somewhat randomly, to see what we could see, came across quite a few interesting sights.
We’ve another day in Kiev tomorrow. A chance to explore some more.
Our second day in Kiev began with showers and as the excursion was to an outdoor “Folklore” museum (a bit like St Fagans, near Cardiff) we decided to see if the showers would pass and then go for a walkabout.
They did, mid-morning, and so we set off to find out what was on our doorstep (gangplank, to be exact). What a surprise! It’s so nearby and yet, because it’s at the lower end of the funicular, I wonder how often it’s visited?
Along the promenade… Have you ever seen a floating office block? Me neither! A seaman’s mission with gold cupola?
We strolled inland a block or two and after about 500m came to the district of Podil, which Google lists as an historic district. It was littered with interesting sights and seemed well on the way to being renewed into an upmarket restaurant quarter.
The sun made frequent (if brief) appearances which, together with Podil, proves that it’s often worthwhile to step off the Tourist Trail and take a look around.
We feel like we’ve visited Kiev rather than just toured it.
It’s been an “unusual” trip. We’ve seen lots and done plenty, mostly “interesting”. However, the ship is clearly not crewed by Viking, but by a local Agent, with Viking Officers. Not a Viking Experience, but an experience, nonetheless!
Some 51 miles outside Odessa is the Akkerman Fortress, the venue for today’s excursion. It’s about 2 hours by road, if you could grace them with that appellation; they’re potholed and uneven and so, just like 007’s martini, you arrive shaken, not stirred, anticipating the joy of the return journey.
In exchange for this four hour massage, you spend just an hour at this, in fairness, quite impressive fortress. You are escorted by a local guide, who explains everything to your Viking guide in Ukrainian for translation (TIU). When you tire of this somewhat bizarre entertainment, you set off to explore on your own. Once again “Health & Safety” is optional.
We arrived, out of season, on a beautiful cool day and enjoyed our strolling and climbs up the ramparts for some glorious views of the Black Sea and countryside. Misty or raining - not such a good place to be. High season - ditto. Whilst there is evidence of stalls, displays and exhibitions that, in high season, might be open, there is also evidence of large children’s play areas which suggest it might not be the calm and peaceful place we visited.
We enjoyed the excursion and, in fairness, Viking did mention (several times) the travel time (but not the road conditions). However, it’s not something any right thinking person would place on a bucket list!
Zaporizhzhia is the Ukraine’s main source of hydroelectricity. The town is dominated by a massive dam and relies heavily on the industry it supports to provide employment. This city helps one come to realise that Ukraine is struggling with the post-Soviet era. It simply doesn’t have the economic muscle to rebuild and renew, and so its towns are mostly shabby with sections of brighter modernisation and architecture.
Our visit was to an outdoor “cultural museum” dedicated to Cossack life, which forms the principal part of local history. All-in-all, it’s very well presented and constructed, and, as you might expect, full of visiting secondary school groups (who are more polite and well behaved than their equivalent at home).
The wooden church is an active place of worship, and whilst we were there, two baptisms took place amidst groups of school children and “Vikings” admiring the iconography and structure. TIU!
Our guide, Olga, is from Zaporizhzhia, and is very proud of her hometown. You could almost sense her frustration at the problems Zaporizhzhia and Ukraine face. For example, a much needed new highway bridge across the Dnieper was started in 2002, for completion in 2009. It’s still barely half completed.
To complete our tour, we visited a large square where local crafts were on sale. One carpenter made boxes with drawers, the designs of which we’d never seen. Some in the shapes of animals, some geometric, all well made. Hope ours fits in the suitcase!
We skipped the excursion today to do some shopping in case the cases (😀) didn’t show up. In credit to Viking, they’ve done anything and everything they can to make sure our trip wasn’t disrupted, including keeping in contact with UIA - we’ve had to do nothing. Some things, however, just aren’t available on board.
We walked into town, which means an encounter with the famous Potemkin Stairs a serious and potentially lethal climb for those of us of a certain age. Fortunately, there’s a funicular to it’s side and for the local equivalent of 10p/12¢ you can ride to the top. That’s 3грн. We only had 200грн notes and the female dragon in control had no change. We offered her a US$1 (about 28грн). No, not interested. TIU! A very friendly lady gave her 6грн for our fare. We gave her the $1. She insisted on giving us more currency, even though we tried to refuse it several times.
Odessa’s centre is easy to find and is a lovely place to stroll and shop. Again, TIU. In one fairly up-market shop, Margaret saw a sweater she really liked and wanted to try it on. “Can I?” “No!” - which also meant No Sale. In another, not a problem and the friendly young assistant went to the trouble of explaining where we could find other things on our list.
Next a SIM card. (The ship’s internet uplink? Quicker by troika!). Vodaphone, great, international provider, no problem! Yes they had a data card. 140грн. £5 for one month’s unlimited data. An absolute bargain. TIU. Credit card machine out of order. No change for a 200грн note. No Sale!
So, next, Vodaphone in the Athena shopping Mall. Card installed, set up for use, registered with the network, all by a delightful young lady in 5 minutes.
Back to the ship, most purchases successfully acquired, for lunch. Food, beer and, joy of joys, our suitcases were outside our cabin when we went back. Fortunately nearly everything we’d bought will be used here or at home.
Some downtime before dinner and the pleasure of actually unpacking (or, in my case, of watching Margaret unpacking).
If you’re travelling in Ukraine, try the local wines & spirits. Viking are serving Ukrainian wines at lunch and dinner. SHABO seems to be the local preferred marque. These wines are better than French (but everyone knows I’m Franco-phobic) and at least as good as South African or Californian.
The local cognac, SHABO VSOP, is available in supermarkets for about 200грн a bottle, as good as Camus or Remy. It’s 200грн per measure in the Viking bar and Viking don’t restrict guests from bringing booze on board. No brainer!
Kherson is one of those places that makes you wonder why it was included on a tour itinerary. Fortunately, our guide explained that it’s the Sineus’ home port, it’s home to most of the crew who can get to see their families every 10 days or so, and the ship can be tendered whilst in port. We can accept that as a good reason.
The most impressive part of the tour was how Nina, possibly the best of the guides, managed, for 3 hours, to make the mundane seem vaguely interesting. However, her extensive knowledge of Ukrainian modern history allowed her to make tentative links to some fascinating facts.
For example, I’d never heard of “The Night Witches”, an all female Soviet squadron (pilots, bombardiers, ground crew) who terrorised Nazi units using dangerous strategies and tactics.
We were to visit an Orthodox Church; we did, but there was a funeral in progress. We walked around the grounds and Nina kept up her calm monologue.
We were promised a visit to an open-air market for souvenirs and shopping. Just 4 stalls full of what must have been leftovers from the season.
We've learnt to take mornings like this and keep them close. They make for great conversation pieces when talking to friends and neighbours about our journeys.
The journey along the river, after Kherson, passes through some charming countryside and through some towns which have churches and homes visible from the verandah. The sun came out as we left Kherson. Even the weather felt the need to comment, perhaps?
The day began with a pleasant cruise along the Dnieper and across one of its many large lakes. Clear blue skies and crisp temperatures, sitting in the Panorama Bar with tea and croissant for a late, light, leisurely breakfast, reading Kindles and watching the water go by - a perfect start to the day.
We docked in the town of Kremenchug around 3pm. The plan was to meet some Ukrainian farmers in their home in the nearby village of Omelnik. I had mixed feelings about that. Kremenchug itself looked very interesting - nothing historic but far more alive and vibrant than almost anything I’ve seen so far. Modern brightly painted bendy-busses, clean cars, bright shops and shopping centres, parks & gardens. Well worth some exploration time, in my opinion.
The “home visit” had little to commend it. We met up with our host in the village centre and she directed our coach to her home - a village house with an adjoining (fallow) field. She was gracious and friendly but didn’t speak a single word of English. We were offered a soft drink and some homemade pastries. Our guide and the Quietvoxs came into their own. Very disappointing as we’d been led to believe we were to visit a farm (you know, fields, crops, animals, barns), “meet” the farmers and enjoy local farm-grown produce.
However, the host’s daughter (about 15 years old) spoke some English, learned at school, and was overjoyed to chat to those of us who took the time. Everything in Ukraine is paid for, including education and she’d made some quite attractive dolls to sell. They must each have taken hours to make. She priced them, adventurously, she admitted by Ukrainian standards, prices varying from £3 to £6. I didn’t want a doll, so I bought one and told her to give it to her little sister or friend.
It’s such a joy to meet young people who don’t feel “entitled” and are willing to work for rewards. She hopes to go to study Business at University. Good luck to her. I hope she can afford it.
On the journey back, our guide, in her 60’s, whose politics seemed somewhat left of Josef Stalin, explained what it was like to be a villager in Ukraine.
The village we’d visited she classed as a “good village”. They had returned their farming practices to a co-operative to allow crop rotation. (You could tell she yearned for the security of Soviet-Russian times.). They had researched the needs of nearby EU countries and were producing and exporting organic foods. They had a school, a medical centre, a community hall and had good roads to the city. (Our guide chuckled at good roads - our bones were being shaken loose as she spoke, but these were good by Ukraine countryside standards).
Less well off villages, she told us, have to send their children to “good” villages for school, on foot, up to 7km away. Not possible in winter or the rainy season. These children receive perhaps 4 months schooling per year. Medical and social needs require similar effort.
She pleaded with us to ask our Governments NOT to send money as it will be spirited away by corrupt officials and her children and grandchildren will be repaying the interest for generations. “What we need,” she said, “is political pressure from your Governments and expertise from your entrepreneurs."
I understand Ukraine better now, at least from an ethnic Russian perspective.
Dnipro is pleasantly surprising after the other towns we’ve visited, although the docking location left a little to be desired!. There’s still a lot of Soviet Shabby-Chic in evidence, but there’s also a much more vibrant and optomistic feel to the city - new buildings, shopping centres and, as if further proof were needed, not only is there a McDonalds, there’s also a KFC!!!
The morning’s orientation tour (at least from our perspective) started badly. We visited a fairly small museum and spent around 75 minutes being lectured on practically every exhibit in the place (all of which were old but none of which were especially remarkable).
Then things improved. We visited an exhibition on the current conflict (war?), something on which our guide had strong feelings. Biased, for sure. Vladimir Putin must have felt the heat in Moscow. However, Olga is an ordinary, everyday, well educated, 30-something Ukrainian. It’s good to know how regular citizens feel and hear how it affects them socially and emotionally.
We then moved along to visit an Orthodox Church, and a wedding had just finished. Bet the happy couple didn’t expect their wedding to be photographed on 100+ cameras and taken to the four-corners of the UK and US!
We skipped the included afternoon excursion, 40 miles (x2) travel. We remembered the Akkerman Fortress Martini - and took the shuttle bus to Dnipro centre. Bustling with people, shopping, eating at pavement cafés and generally looking much like any Western city. (Orthodox Christian Sunday? - TIU).
The central road reservation had a park (and tramway) with local artisans selling their goods. We found a couple of hand-painted boxes for souvenirs. It was most enjoyable to be able to experience this city without a history lesson!
And, of course, sunshine and blue skies do you no harm!