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When Travel Hits Home (and Homes)

In the nearly 12 years of writing my “Been There,

HAVEN’T Done That” travel column, I’ve recommended sites missed by most tourists – and even missed by many natives. This column is about sites that will be missed for eternity – and people who have entered eternity – way before their time. It’s about my visits to Ukraine.


When you’ve been to a place you like, and you hear about it in the news – that intimacy with that particular town – or even site – really hits home – especially during a war with bombs that hit homes. When I’ve been to a city that’s then ravaged by an act of God such as an earthquake, tornado or tsunami – you feel for the lost historic sites and, above all, for its lost people. But when you’ve been to an entire country that’s being destroyed by an act of war – you can’t get it out of your mind – especially the people you’ve met there over the many years of visiting – hoping that they’ll still be around for your next visit.


While I’ve been to Ukraine a few times, my most memorable visit was my first in 2006 when I led the commercial tour I created, “Lost Palaces of the Tsars.” And since that tour, Ukraine lost many palaces in 2014 when the Crimea was returned to Russia. Unlike the magnificent Romanov Palaces of St. Petersburg, (Russia) – many of the Crimea’s Romanovs palaces – like Dulber Palace – looked like something out of the Arabian nights – flights of fancy – which is terrific in buildings – as long as a handover doesn’t involve flights of people.


My favorite city of Ukraine happens to be its capital, Kyiv – which at the time of my visit was still being translated into English as “Kiev.” 


Kiev is even older than Moscow. Before the year 1000 it was already on the trade route between Scandinavia and Constantinople. It’s also known as “The Jerusalem of Orthodoxy.” In the 980s Prince Vladimir of Kiev adopted Christianity of the Byzantine Empire which then spread to Belarus and Russia. Kiev’s St. Sophia has 12th-century frescoes which have once again been brought to the surface after having been hidden under painting-over from later centuries. 


There are so many buildings in Kiev which are part of the remarkable St. Sophia complex – which along with other nearby churches – when viewed together from a distance – looks like Oz but with golden belfries and domes. 


Let’s hope the churches are still there – since prayers are even more important today than in any other time in Kiev.


And from the “New Jerusalem of Kiev” to the Israel’s Jerusalem of the 1970s when it was the home of the Prime Minister – Golda Meir. And if you can’t make it to Israel to see the Prime Minister’s House – (up until last February) you could visit the Birthplace of Golda Meir in Kiev – or at least the inner courtyard of her
apartment house.


If you like Italian Baroque, you go to Rome to see the great architecture of “BNB” – “Bernini and Borromini.” I’ll add another great 18th-century Italian Baroque architect – Francesco Bartolomeo Rastrelli who brought the Italian Baroque to St. Petersburg and then to Kiev. 


Russia has many more and bigger examples of the Great Italian Baroque’s Rastrelli including a section of St. Petersburg’s Winter Palace – part of the Hermitage. Russia has Rastrelli’s gigantic ecclesiastical complex of the Smolny Church. Why then do they need Rastelli’s much smaller (but more dramatically situated on the top of hill) St. Andrew’s in Kiev? Near St. Petersburg is Rastrelli’s ginormous Catherine Palace – which vies with Versailles for size, but not splendor. (Rastrelli wins that contest.) Rastrelli’s much smaller Marrinsky Palace in Kiev – also pales in comparison. (Actually, “pales” is not the correct choice of word considering all the above Rastrelli buildings are in a very bright shade of blue.)


However, because of the not bright-at-all idea of invading Ukraine – architecture lovers are left in the blue, in addition to the grief.


Living in Kiev’s Mariinsky Rastrelli Palace actually saved the last Tsar, Nicholas II’s mother and his sisters from the onslaught slaughter of another Russian killing purge – brutal execution of the Romanovs by the Bolsheviks. The Romanovs who were stuck in (the) Ukraine in 1917 – survived the
Russian Revolution.


During WWII more than 30,000 Jews who lived in Kiev didn’t survive the Nazis– they were murdered in just two days in a ditch that set a Holocaust record. That place is Babi Yar. How can Russia claim Ukraine is “Nazi” when Kiev was part of Russia – there wasn’t a single monument or shrine at Babi Yar dedicated to the slaughter of Jews. When Ukraine first achieved Independence, a Jewish memorial – a Jewish Menorah – was erected there.


I can’t help but think that anyone walking today in Babi Yar – the memorial to the ultimate Nazi evil and cruelty – has a good chance of becoming a victim of terror in the 21st century. Lightning may not strike twice in the same place – but lightning attacks do.


While we’re on the subject of places associated with tragedy – I’ll always remember my visit to that one town – Chernobyl. At the time, I thought one totally destroyed town was more than enough. And now, sadly, all of Ukraine is on its way to becoming one big Chernobyl. 


The evening after I visited Chernobyl, I relaxed in a square surrounded by Stalinist architecture – a bizarre Neoclassical Style that looks like Neoclassical buildings blown up out of proportion with a gigantic bicycle pump. And now even bad architecture is being blown up. By the way, that square I sat in is called, “Independence Square.” 


To me, the most moving site in Kiev is Russia’s War Memorial. – a gigantic silver statue of a woman on a pedestal holding up her sword and shield as if fighting has ended once and for all! (To put the overpowering feeling in perspective – Kiev’s female statue at 205 ft is even taller than our Statue of Liberty at only 151 ft.) If that gigantic memorial to war survives this war, Russia’s War Memorial should be taken off her pedestal to become the main exhibit in “Ripley’s Believe It or Not!” – when they open their Kiev branch.


In the beginning of this column, I brought up the name change from. “Kiev” to “Kyiv.” Soon the name “Kiev” – will entirely disappear. And the way Kiev is defending itself – let’s also take “Chicken” out of “Chicken Kiev.” Ukrainians are anything but chicken. 

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