Euro 2012: A soccer fan's walking guide to Kiev
KIEV (Reuters) - A large digital clock, inexorably counting down to the kick-off of the month-long Euro 2012 soccer feast, looks out onto a broad Kiev boulevard where metal barriers are going up to corral Europe's football faithful.
This is a giant pedestrian 'fan zone', where outside screens will enable thousands of spectators to satisfy their soccer hunger through the month of June.
The epicentre of the Euro invasion will be Maidan Nezalezhnosti (Independence Square), a place of bubbling fountains and a soaring statue to independence. It is Kiev's throbbing heart.
The last time thousands of people massed here in these numbers was in the winter of 2004-5 when the Maidan was 'ground zero' for the Orange Revolution protests.
That upheaval brought, for a while at least, a realignment of political forces in the former Soviet republic.
The square rang then to the oratory of Yulia Tymoshenko. At the losing end of her fiery rhetoric was Viktor Yanukovich, whose suspect election as president brought tens of thousands onto the streets.
Seven years later, after a reversal of fortune, she is down - serving a jail sentence for alleged abuse-of-office as prime minister. He is up, and in power as president.
But all this is a footnote in a city, where Russian orthodoxy was born and whose 1,000 plus years of existence has been marked by occupation, poverty, famine and flight.
History is so close here that you can almost reach out and touch it.
Khreshchatyk boulevard - a tree-lined avenue which runs north-south and leads into the Maidan - hems football fans in with its heavy, Soviet architecture.
It was destroyed in 1941 by Red Army forces retreating before the Nazi offensive.
Buildings like the cavernous central post office were a product of Josef Stalin's reconstruction after World War Two victory and the return of Soviet power.
So, forget the pub crawl for an hour or two and catch some history. There'll be plenty of terrace cafes en route where you can stop off for refreshment.
Leave the southern end of the 'fan zone' and you will see a tent encampment stretching 50 metres (yards) along the pavement, emblazoned with white flags bearing a red heart, and posters calling for Tymoshenko's release.
This is a round-the-clock vigil by her supporters who say they will stay there until Tymoshenko - in jail since last August - has been released: history-in-the-making.
At the next intersection, turn right and there is a glossy brown statue to Bolshevik revolutionary and Soviet state founder Vladimir Lenin, his jaw jutting forward in a resolute pose.
Though the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union and Ukraine's independence consigned communism to the dustbin, Lenin's monument can be found in other Euro match cities in Ukraine.
But, apparently judged too un-cool for today's average European tourist, his image has been air-brushed out of official Euro promotion publicity.
Head up the poplar-lined Shevchenko boulevard, a steepish climb in one of Europe's hilliest capitals.
Beware of the name. It's the Smith and Brown of Ukraine.
Soccer-mad though the Ukrainians are, this pleasant avenue is not named in honour of the national team's top goal scorer Andriy Shevchenko, but after 19th century poet Taras Shevchenko, the father of Ukrainian literature.
Revered as the man who turned a peasant tongue into the language of verse, Shevchenko's zeal in promoting Ukrainian earned him both fame and disgrace with Russia's tsars.
Today in Ukraine he is the national symbol of the struggle for freedom. The heavily-whiskered, avuncular Shevchenko stares solemnly down from a pedestal in a park at the crest of the hill, across to the garishly-crimson walls of the national university which bears his name.
ER ... ANYTHING ON AT THE OPERA?
Proceed right along Volodomyrska street which is roughly parallel to the Khreshchatyk. At the next intersection, you come to the National Opera House.
Completed to a Viennese taste at the start of the 20th century, Kiev's opera house these days pumps out a regular fare of Russian empire hardy annuals such as "Swan Lake" and "The Nutcracker".
It is renowned too for being where the tsarist prime minister Pyotr Stolypin was assassinated in 1911. He was shot in the interval of a production of a Rimsky-Korsakov opera.
Kiev's opera officials don't intend putting up any cultural competition on Euro match nights, though Tchaikovsky's "Iolanta" is showing on June 8 when the first tournament matches are played in neighbouring Poland.
The street is named after Prince Volodomyr - more commonly known to history by the Russian version of his name, Vladimir - who ruled what was then called Kievan Rus from 980-1015.
A convert to Christianity, he marched his subjects down to the Dnipro where he had them dump their pagan idols and join in a mass river baptism. It marked the birth of Russian Orthodoxy which then swept east across Russian territories.
A few hundred metres along the street are the Zoloti Vorota - Golden Gates - which back then marked the perimeter of the city-fortress and its main entrance through which its rulers marched majestically.
A thriving hub of commerce, Kiev was a regular target for invading hordes and the city was finally razed by the Mongol Tatars in the 12th century. Little remains today of the original ramparts, apart from two massive stones, housed in a museum.
It was Volodomyr's successor and son, Yaroslav, who codified customs into basic law and hence became known as Yaroslav the Wise. The 'hryvnia' currency, now back today as the coin of the country, was first minted under him.
Further along Volodomyrska, though, is Yaroslav's even greater triumph - the spectacular golden-domed St Sophia's cathedral. He built it in thanks for a significant victory over tribal raiders and its Byzantine, frescoed interior managed to withstand turmoil and war over the centuries.
Ravaged by time and neglect, it has benefited from the benevolent hand of former president Viktor Yushchenko, most nationalist of the four leaders who have run Ukraine these past 20 years. He promoted much of the internal restoration work during his four years in power.
The cathedral still comes in for unwanted attention. A few months ago, the young women of Femen - a neo-feminist protest group and no respecter of conventional custom - climbed into its bell-tower and staged a topless demo to further their cause.
Silhouetted against the skyline in front of the cathedral is the bronze figure of a mace-touting warrior on horseback. This is Bogdan Khmelnitsky, a 17th century Cossack leader who racked up notable victories over the Poles, the great enemy of the day.
In 1654 he signed a landmark treaty uniting Ukraine with Russia as a bulwark against the Polish king. To this day, Ukrainians cannot agree on his place in history. Many reproach him for opening the door to centuries of domination by Russia.
Beyond him, are the blue walls and golden dome of St Michael's, a mediaeval monastery named after the city's patron saint, which was demolished by Stalin in the 1930s but reconstructed after independence.
At its main gates, an information board details the Great Famine or Holodomor ('death by hunger') of the early 1930s - a catastrophe in which millions of Ukrainians died of starvation in a policy directed by Stalin against the Ukrainian peasantry.
Yushchenko, who was disdained in the Kremlin as an obsessive nationalist during his four years in power, spent much energy seeking international recognition of the famine as genocide and won support from several world governments.
But Yanukovich, less troubled about righting historical wrongs, has shown little interest in the issue since he took over from Yushchenko in 2010. A law defining the Holodomor as a deliberate act of genocide remains in force, however.
KIEV'S ANSWER TO MONTMARTRE
Facing the monastery, do a quarter-turn to your left and head for Andriyivsky Uzviz (Descent), a picturesque Montmartre-style cobbled street lined with souvenir stalls, street artists and arts and craft studios.
The Church of St Andrew, built in the 18th century in baroque style by the Italian architect Bartelomeo Rastrelli, stands at the top of the half-mile winding street, which drops down to the city's riverside quarters.
You can pick up here Ukrainian crafts such as hand-made embroidered peasant shifts, bead necklaces and wooden kitchen ware as well as a mass of Soviet memorabilia.
Also drop in on the house-museum of Russian writer Mikhail Bulgakov - best known for his mystical classic "The Master and Margarita". He was born in Kiev though he ended his days in Moscow on the wrong side of the Kremlin.
Only a month ago the Descent itself was a sea of mud and rubble as builders raced against time to put in new drainage. It is a tribute to Ukraine's determination, but it was not without controversy.
In a separate development just off the street, a company owned by Ukraine's richest man, steel and coal tycoon Rinat Akhmetov, knocked down at least one 19th century building.
Street protests led to Akhmetov - also owner of Shakhtar Donetsk soccer club and the stadium where some Euro games will be played - scrapping plans to build a glitzy business centre. But that did not save what had already been knocked down.
Once down in the riverside quarter of Podil, head back towards the city centre keeping the Dnipro to the left and after passing some chic restaurants and drinking spots you find yourself at the foot of a funicular.
A 1.50 hryvnia ticket will whisk you back up the hillside you have come down and land you at the back of St Michael's from where there are some clear views over the Dnipro and its islands where Kiev residents love to hold barbecues in the high season.
After checking out the view, go back to the cable car entrance and take a track that plunges down into the woods.
Follow the path skirting the hill and, in a clearing, you suddenly come to a majestic monument to the Christian Prince Volodomyr, holding a cross aloft and facing the Dnipro where he carried out his mass conversions.
Retrace your steps a bit and then take a path off left up the hillside back to the main observatory point over the Dnipro.
From there, head down a tree-lined avenue to the main road and turn left to drop down to European Square. You have completed the loop back to the 'fan zone'.
The soaring, winged Monument to Independence comes into view as you walk back to the Maidan. The stroll through the centuries with Kiev's historical forebears has taken a couple of hours.
Time for a borsch beetroot soup and a beer.
(Writing By Richard Balmforth, editing by Paul Casciato)
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