Day 4: Angels and Mummies
Kiev Travel Blog› entry 5 of 260 › view all entries
April 9th, 2010 – by: Biedjee
Not much time to linger over a cuppa though, since I had some serious sightseeing to do.
Much of the Lavra was saved from the Stalinist purges by turning it into a state museum, though several of the churches did had not survived WWII. After Ukraine gained independence in 1991, ownership of the Lavra posed a bit of an issue. After 70 years of Soviet rule ownership of the Lavra was disputed and even today the ownership is split between the upper Lavra on the higher hill and the lower Lavra beneath it. The Upper Lavra remains in the hands of the state, features the most architectural interesting buildings, and requires charges an entrance fee, while the lower Lavra, ironically, has the most interesting attractions and is completely free of charge.
So I started at the upper Lavra, where I was overwhelmed by the amount of golden domes everywhere around. The various cathedrals and churches lie scattered around a squeaky clean courtyard and the whole thing did give me a bit of a Disneyland feel. As the main cathedral was rebuilt from scratch in 2000, and the surrounding churches and monastery buildings have all been renovated, the whole complex looks spanking new.
After a few hours wandering around the churches and marvelling at the frescoes and mosaics inside, it was time to move down to the lower Lavra. Here, more gold-domed churches stood waiting for me and I must say that pretty soon church fatigue was setting in. However, the Lower Lavra holds another unique attraction underneath the churches.
Underneath the lower Lavra is a complex man-made labyrinthine of tunnels and several underground churches. In here the bodies of dead monks were naturally preserved and mummified by the caves' cool temperature and dry atmosphere. The caves have become a must-see for tourists and Orthodox pilgrims alike, with the hundreds of mummies believed to hold healing powers and answer prayers.
What I liked about the place is that it hasn't become a fancy tourist attraction. Tourists and non-believers are only allowed in certain passages, while only pilgrims are allowed further into the tunnel system for prayer. While there isn't that much to see in terms of actual mummies (all lie in identical glass coffins, wrapped up entirely in identical clothes - there could just as well be sand bags lying inside the coffins as mummies), wandering through these narrow passages, trying to see where you go by the light of the tiny flame from the candle you are holding, is quite a surreal experience.
It is recommended not to visit the Lavra during weekends and it is easy to see why, clambering down the tunnels with hundreds of people can be quite a claustrophobic experience, not to mention the fire hazard involved with all these hundreds of people wielding candles.
Lunch was a traditional Ukrainian pancake, a blyny. I had already had these in Russia, and they are utterly delicious, especially with caviar. Uhm, well, if only it wasn't for caviar being all but banned in Ukraine due to serious over-catching of sturgeon. So I opted for blyny's with meat and mushroom instead.
The last stop of my 'religious' tour was the St Sophia cathedral. The oldest standing church in Kyiv, originally built in 1031. Named and originally modelled after Istanbul's Hagia Sofia (which I hope to see in a few weeks time), this Unesco World Heritage listed site is another must see in Kyiv.
However, it was good I did visit the St Sophia, because I noticed signs of some spectacular that was supposed to take place at 20:30 on the 9th. Well, that is today!
So in the evening I went back there to find thousands of people standing in the square, and the cathedral, its bell tower and the surrounding buildings beautifully lit.
At 20:30 music started and several artists, dressed in white, appeared high above the square handing from steel cables which were strung between the bell tower and opposite buildings. The trapeze artists looked like a cross between angels and turn of the century baroque style royals, as they soared high above the crowds dropping eiderdown.
I didn't stay all the way until the end, but went in search for a bite to eat instead. I ended up in a nice Turkish-Ukrainian fusion restaurant where they served kebabs with traditional Ukrainian pastry. Very nice!
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