Monday, November 2, 2015

A DC Reunion in Kyiv

We had a DC reunion of sorts when we met our friend Joe in Kyiv for a visit to the home of the other Matt and Kristen.  We'll admit we had some concerns about packing up our baby and traveling to a country with recent security issues, but we had a wonderful visit and Matt and Kristen made us feel very welcome in their new city.

We were lucky to have Matt and Kristen show us the ropes because it would have been very difficult to navigate the city without knowing any Ukrainian or Russian.  Although many of the menus and tourist information were in English, people generally communicated in Ukrainian or Russian.  Without knowing the Cyrillic alphabet, the language seemed especially foreign and intimidating to us.

Kyiv is the capital of Ukraine and the 8th largest city in Europe.  (Kyiv has traditionally been spelled "Kiev" by the English-speaking world, but there has been a recent push to use the transliteration of the Ukrainian name, which is Kyiv.)  The city looks like many of the eastern European cities we have visited, but with bits of grittiness mixed with amazing pops of color from its many churches.  

It really was this yellow in person.  Ukrainians are not afraid of color.
We started our walk through Kyiv at St. Volodymyr's Cathedral, which is a bright yellow Ukrainian Orthodox Church.  The church was amazingly ornate on the outside, but even more intricate on the inside.  Every wall, ceiling, and corner was filled with religious treasures devoted to various saints and people would come in to pray to a specific one.  But that wasn't unique -- each of the churches we visited were equally, overly decorated.

Sorry, we didn't pay the 50 cents to take pictures inside.  But believe us, there was lots to see.

We next hit the Golden Gates of Kiev, a reconstruction of the 11th century city fortifications.  There are no records of the appearance of the original gate, so this is an architectural interpretation of what it may have looked like.  It was extremely popular the day of our visit because makeup artists were providing their horror makeup services to Kyiv's Halloween revelers at an adjacent square.  We were very impressed by how excited the residents of Kyiv were about celebrating Halloween.  There were lots of folks roaming the city in costume and Halloween celebrations at many of the city's restaurants.

All of these people were here to celebrate Halloween ... not to visit the Golden Gate.  We should have dressed up too.

We next headed to Saint Sophia's cathedral, with its amazing blue and white bell tower.  

The whole tower was covered in this amazing detail work.

Catching the sun just right behind the tower to give it a cool glow.

Sightseeing with Kristen and Joe.

Across the square waSt. Michael's Golden-Domed Monastery.  This working monastery was demolished by the Soviets in the 1930s, but a reconstructed cathedral was opened about 15 years ago.  Its exterior is a lovely purple with lots of gold accents.

We were struck by how many people were visiting these churches for prayer, rather than appreciating them as tourist attractions.  Most of the people we saw were visiting as a quick prayer stop as part of their daily routine, which was a level of religious dedication we don't remember encountering recently in Europe.  Also interesting was that these churches were not set up for services--there were no permanent chairs or pews.  So most of the congregants were praying in front of particular pieces of art or tombs, rather than generally in the church nave.  

Our last stop of the evening was the shopping area around the Andriyivski Uzviz.  We grabbed some coffee from one of the many coffee trucks in the city and explored the street of souvenir shops.  Because the exchange rate is very good, the items they were selling were extremely cheap (right now the exchange rate is about 23 Ukrainian hryvnia to 1 US dollar, recently it has been as low as 8 to 1 US dollar).  Matt and Joe grabbed a few t-shirts as souvenirs before we headed off to dinner.  We thought about buying some of the ubiquitous Putin toilet paper, but decided we could hold off on that purchase until our next trip.  

Awesome cheap souvenir shopping.  But it was so chilly our toes said it was time to go home.
We were really impressed by the food we ate in Kyiv.  It was much more "modern" than the food we typically find in Germany.  We ate at a quaint Italian cafe, at a cool modern Ukrainian restaurant with deconstructed salads and fun takes on Chicken Kiev, at a delicious Georgian restaurant, and a tasty pizzeria.  We couldn't believe how cheap it was for such great food.  It was one of the biggest surprises of our trip.  According to Matt and Kristen there isn't a ton of variety to the food (there aren't a lot of ethnic options), but everything we tasted was excellent.
I'm pretty sure the Milk Bar we went to wasn't licensed by the fancy dessert place of the same name in NYC and DC ... But it was still delicious.

We spent our last day in Kyiv checking out a few more of the sites.  We started at the Maidan Nezalezhnosti (Independence Square).  The square has been the site of a number of violent protests, most recently 2014 protests that led to the ousting of the Ukrainian president and the attempt to implement government reforms.
All joyful activities have been banned from the square after a spate of violence.  Our smiles were probably not appropriate.

Our last stop was to check out the Kyiv Pechersk Lavra (Kiev Monastery of the Caves), a thousand-year-old Orthodox Christian monastery.  The highlight is a series of narrow caves (actually a series of hand-carved tunnels) where monks lived and prayed underground and served as a burial spot for more than 100 local saints.  Most of the visitors were there to pray to the saints, many of which are entombed with naturally mummified hands exposed.  It was pretty creepy, to be honest.  We were lucky enough to have a guide help us understand the historical and religious significance of the place and help us find our way thorugh.    

The whole complex is about 60 acres and has several churches and a large bell tower in addition to the monastery and caves.

We were so happy to have Matt and Kristen show us their new city, and were thrilled that Joe's visit gave us an excellent excuse to make the trip.  Natalie enjoyed almost all of it, but we are pretty sure her favorite part was meeting Kairos!

Sunday, September 27, 2015

A Quick Weekend Checking out the Lysefjord in Norway

After a tough week at work for Matt, we found ourselves with a free long weekend for a last-minute trip.  We checked out for cheap tickets to any place in Europe and found a great fare to Stavanger, Norway.  Never heard of it?  Neither had we.  But we were excited to see what we could find.

We landed in Stavanger on a cold and rainy Thursday.
Natalie was most excited about all of the bus rides.  Her favorite song is The Wheels on the Bus.
Our first stop was the Norwegian Petroleum Museum.  Oil was discovered in the continental shelf off Norway in 1969 and now makes up nearly one quarter of Norway's economy. (I think of Norway as a progressive, wealthy country, but before the discovery of oil, it was one of the poorest countries in the world.)  The museum was an interesting look at both the technology that goes into oil exploration--including the drilling, helicopter transport to the rigs and SCUBA-assisted work--as well as the potential environmental impacts of drilling and oil use.  Natalie had fun climbing around the museum and we were excited for an indoor activity in not-so-great weather.

Natalie is in charge of the oil rig--watch out!
The next day we headed out for the highlight of our trip--the hike to Preikestolen (Pulpit Rock).  Preikestolen is a 75 foot square flat plateau nearly 2,000 feet above the Lysefjord.  It was recently named one of the 12 most mesmerizing destinations by TripAdvisor.

After ferry and bus rides, we finally arrived at the base of the hike.  We stuffed Natalie into a snowsuit and headed out in the rain.   We wore waterproof hiking boots, although enough people have tried the hike in high heals and flip flops that it warrants a warning on the sign at the start of the hike.  The boots were definitely a good idea, since the trail was flooded in a few places.  Although we did see a number of suspect hikers--including a pair of women in tennis shoes with their Louis Vuitton purses shoved into plastic shopping bags. 
Not exactly a level or dry trail.

After two hours of hiking we finally arrived at the top. And it was completely clouded in.  We spoke to one couple who said that they waited at the top for about an hour with no breaks in the weather.  So we opened up our picnic lunch and hoped for the best.

Nothing to see here.  I wonder what a fjord looks like.
And then the clouds started to break!  Success!  The amazing view of the fjord started to reveal itself.

Finally -- a view!

Natalie wasn't impressed.  Or she was hungry.  Verdict?  Very hungry.
The German couple who took this photo for us asked us what possessed us to take our baby on this hike.  We have been so excited to take Natalie on all of our adventures--it has been great to explore with her and she has been a fantastic little traveler.  And we can't wait to take her on more hikes with amazing views like this one.
Worth the hike.
On our second day, we decided to see the Lysefjord from a different perspective -- from the water.  So we hopped on a boat and headed up the fjord.  The fjord is about 26 miles long, lined with cliffs that stretch up nearly 3,000 feet from the water.

Departing Stavanger

Still unclear why this house was on the water.

The weather was beautiful and we were able to enjoy the breathtaking waterfalls, mountains and cliffs.  Seeing Preikestolen was way more interesting from above than below though.  From below it just looks like a big, square rock.  With some very brave hikers poking their heads over its edge.

This big rock is way cooler from the top.

But waterfalls are pretty cool.

Once we were done on the high seas, we took a nice walk around the town of Stavanger.  The pedestrian old town was filled with small white 18th and 19th century houses, typical of Norway.

They sell a lot of white paint here.

We didn't know what to expect, but we were pleasantly surprised by our trip to Stavanger.  The town was a little quiet, especially at the end of the tourist season, but the outdoor adventures were everything we had hoped for in visiting Norway for the first time.
P.S. Here's a great way to entertain a kid away from home