Ukraine’t Help but Love Kiev: Geog Soc trip

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Recently, the UCD Geography Society went to Kiev, Ukraine. Kiev is a modern metropolis, with a transport system that puts the current mess of College Green to shame. However, we spent most of the time walking. We walked among the beautiful neo-classical architecture, which easily equals the romance of Paris or Madrid when lit up at night. If we had the faintest air of confusion on our faces a kind, English-speaking local would come up to us within seconds to ask if we needed help. We were never left without something to see or do in this huge city, especially given that for us in the Eurozone, the exchange rate allowed five days of fine-dining, drinking, and constant shopping for under €100! It is the perfect place for a bunch of broke, Irish college students.

“It is the perfect place for a bunch of broke, Irish college students.”

Certain tour companies offer free tours of the old and new parts of the city which will show you things I guarantee you wouldn’t see otherwise. They are completely worth the walking; you’ll need to work-off all the food you’re going to eat anyway. Even without a tour, Kiev is a city you can get lost in and discover absolute gems. There is no problem with getting lost as long as you can find the nearest metro, which will return you to familiar turf in minutes.

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The buildings scattered among the impressive, brutalist Soviet-era blocks contain great nightlife and a thriving food scene. Kiev, like many big European cities, is catching up with the trend of vegan and vegetarian food, and doesn’t just provide “borscht and mayonnaise.” (Yes, someone actually said that to me). For bars and clubs, ask the locals, they couldn’t be friendlier and will point you towards the best spots. The exchange rate means that people used to Euro, Dollars, and Pounds could be eating caviar for the price of our McDonalds.

“Kiev, like many big European cities, is catching up with the trend of vegan and vegetarian food, and doesn’t just provide “borscht and mayonnaise.” (Yes, someone actually said that to me)”

Street corners are often home to a red-signed, Ukrainian ‘fast-food’ chain, which in actual fact is a buffet-style restaurant where you can stuff yourself with delicious Ukrainian food – dumplings, fried veggies, roast chicken, you name it – for a steal. I would recommend the Georgian Mamma Manana. You’ll need to book a table as it is always packed, but when you eat the food you’ll know why.

On our third day, we travelled North on a tour of the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone. This wasn’t like anything any of us had done before. We were guided through abandoned villages, Chernobyl town (including standing right outside the reactor) and the city of Pripyat, the home of the 48,000 people most affected by the 1986 disaster – a haunting reminder of how quickly life can change and a memorial to the victims.  The tour was through amazing Ukrainian nature, as we saw snowy coniferous trees with wild mistletoe hanging, wild dogs, an elk and buildings overgrown with plants. Nature is taking the area back.

“The area acts as a time capsule of the Soviet Union.”

For me, however, the most interesting aspect has to be the fact that the area acts as a time capsule of the Soviet Union. In Ireland, many hold outdated presumptions about anything vaguely related to the ‘other side’ of the Cold War. A ridiculous statement for many reasons, coming from Ireland’s supposed neutrality to the fact that the Cold War has been over for 20 years, but I still hear this kind of talk from my fellow peers. I can safely say that we learned more about the Cold War in Kiev than I ever did in an Irish classroom.

We passed a smiling Lenin statue and walked amongst posters of Karl Marx quotes. Every gate, lamp post, and building was adorned with red stars and the classic hammer and sickle emblem. If you like history, the Chernobyl tour is unmissable and will teach you things a Western textbook probably won’t. I was amazed by the story of those who cooled the reactor and prevented a far more catastrophic explosion which would have gravely affected Europe. I’m not one to throw the term around, but these were true heroes and deserve recognition.

European city guides forget to mention Kiev as a must-see, because it is still slightly undiscovered by the West. I couldn’t urge a university student more to get there now, while we can avoid the high prices and decreasing safety that often comes with a sought-after tourist spot. Make no mistake, it is a must-see, just as much as Paris or Rome, and it offers its own former-Soviet twist. You could be the second UCD society group (after Geog Soc of course) to visit Chernobyl, or the first in your family to visit Ukraine, and come back with stories to tell for years to come.

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