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1 September 2013

Well, Olivia found the answer on Google, but I asked our tour guide, Alla, what she knew about the mysterious leaf that seems to appear everywhere.  She said it was just coincidence.  However, I mushed on and asked the program director (I think her name is Alloya) and she says that the horse-chestnut leaf is the symbol of Kiev.  I checked out a page of images and found this one, which looks like the tree we found around the corner from the hotel. Mystery solved.

But I digress and there is so much to talk about today this is going to be a humongous entry.

First of all, we were all thrilled to wake up to a glorious sunrise and hardly a cloud in the sky. It gave promise of good weather for our travels.

After breakfast, we started out on our tour of Kiev, some of which I had seen the day before, most of which the others had seen the day before.  Today we were seeing it by bus, with stops at strategic places.

The first place we stopped was back at the Golden Gate and I took a picture I didn't get yesterday, surely a prime tourist attraction.

Isn't that cute?  It's a coffee cart right next to the famous Golden Gate.  I have other good pix of the GG, but I'll save those for Flickr when I get home 'cause there is so much other stuff.

After the Golden Gate, we went to St. Sophia's Cathedral, which is no longer a working church, but is a World Heritage site.  It was built in 1037 (not completed until 1299) by good ol' Yaroslav the Wise again (that was one busy dude!)

It's a magnificent building (but you can't take pictures inside), but in truth, I was more interested in the stuff outside in the courtyard.  Some sort of a display of folk art which may have been in a parade recently (I'm not really a very good historian!)

But we had to leave the chickens and go inside and it was a very good tour.  As I said, you can't take pictures, but the place was beautiful, with a sparkling gold and silver iconostasis (the door that separates the worshippers from the altar).  Not nearly as gaudy as Melk Abbey in Austria that made me so angry last year!

A cool thing inside the building was this sarcophagus they found.  I've forgotten the date now.  But they dug it up somewhere and when they opened it, they tried to determine who was inside.  Apparently not only was Yaroslav busy building half the known world, he was also a cripple and by examining the remains in the sarcophagus, they determined it was ol' Yaroslav himself, so he now rests inside St. Sophia, which I think is kinda cool.

After we left St. Sophia (through the "ubiquitous," as Walt and I have come to call gift shops!), we drove to Cave Monastery, which was founded in...surprise, surprise, the time of Yaroslav the Wise. This guy was a real over-achiever!  It is a small monastic city, an active monastery with priests and all that stuff, a museum on the history of the place, and some burial caves. The caves are quite extensive, but much of the area is not safe, so only a small part is open to public tours.  They are not recommended for *the physically unfit, *tall people, *people with claustrophobia, and *people with cardiac problems.  I knew instantly that I was not going to go on that part of the tour, not was Char, but Mike and Walt would go.

Well, when we got there it was indeed a little city, and the whole place was filled with the sound of that gorgeous Orthodox chanting. 

It reminded me of the days when we would go to San Francisco once a month, to the Orthodox church that was run out of a garage, with our friend Andrij.  I got to where I could sing the chants in Russian and it was so nice and familiar to hear it again. I couldn't get enough of it, but the tour leaders kept droning on about historical stuff and dates and sizes and battles and I don't know what all, completely ignoring all the glorious music filling the air. Just totally ignored the thing I most wanted to hear!

We went into the museum with the local guide, who was really not very good at all.  She had no idea how large her group was, jammed us all into a teeny room and pointed out things in cases at the front of the room (I was at the back).  When I saw that the next room was the same, I decided not to take the tour and to just sit outside and listening to the singing.  It was one of the best decisions I made.

I loved people watching and love this picture of the priests kibbitzing while the ceremony in the cathedral was finishing up.

And when all the priests had filed out of the church and the singing stopped, a guy started ringing a big bell.  A big bell and soon people were standing around and resting their hands on the bell.  It went on for at least half an hour and then all the bells in the complex started ringing too. When the tour guide came out of the museum and someone asked her what was going on, she shrugged and said she didn't know.  THAT is a bad tour guide!  But it was one of the most thrilling parts of the day for me, watching those people touching the bell and the guy who continued ringing it for at least half an hour. (Another tour guide later told me that people feel that touching the bell, and feeling the vibration is very restorative and if they have health problems, they touch the bell when it is being rung.)

(Not all listeners were music lovers, though)

This was also "register for school" day and everywhere we went, we saw people buying big bunches of flowers for their children, and then taking their pictures, all dressed up, ready for school to start tomorrow.

There was also a wedding party which processed in, looking like a paparazzi parade, with a whole camera crew in front of and following the bride and her family.

We returned to the ship and had about 10 minutes to rest before it was time for lunch.  Char opted out of lunch in favor of resting.  At 2 p.m., we got back on the buses and headed for Babi Yar, the mile and a half long deep ravine in the middle of the city, where, over two days in September, 1941, the Germans shot and killed at least 30,771 Jews, men, women and children.  The victims were told they were going to be relocated and asked to bring all of their belongings. And they showed up, afraid that if they did not, they would be shot.  They were asked to remove their jewelry, deposit their valuables, and ultimately strip naked, stand at the edge of the ravine and be shot, their bodies falling into the ravine.  Very efficient. The massacre was the largest single mass killing of the Nazi regime and is considered to be the "largest single massacre in the history of the Holocaust."

I don't know how the tour leader can lead these tours.  I don't know how long she has been doing it, but she still gets emotional as she shows the well worn pictures and tells the story and admits that nobody really knows the total body count because the Germans, realizing they were not going to win, tried to cover up by digging up the bodies and burning them in the concentration camp ovens.  I think she said that to date only 10% of the victims of this slaughter have been positively identified.

Today it is a peaceful place.  You walk up this long path to a giant menorah

(the menorah is at the far end of this long path)

You pay your respects and then kind of meander down through this lovely grassy glen until you realize that this was the spot.  Here and extending a mile and a half from here.

In your mind you hear the screams of the terrified women and children as they are pushed, naked, to the edge and the guns open fire. The tour guide, stifling emotion, passes around well worn pictures of the soldiers, the bodies, the clothing.  And when you turn to walk back to the bus, there is nothing to say. You are drained and shocked and so very, very sad.

The bus makes two mores stops at other memorials in this very beautiful park, where parents pick up leaves with their toddlers and dog walkers walk their dogs and lovers walk hand in hand and whisper sweet nothings to each other.  The one that gets you is the memorial to the children who were killed in the holocaust in Ukraine.  I believe she said over 10,000 ... but by now the numbers are too large to comprehend.

We ended our tour at the oldest synagogue in Kiev, the one that survived during the German occupation because, like St. Sophia, the Germans took control of the building to stable their horses in. 

The rabbi had a small underground congregation and opened a matzo bakery where local people could pick up their matzo for Passover.  The rabbi of today, a right jolly old elf, told us, through an interpreter, about the history of this place, where the money came from to rebuild, and build a school as well.  It's a beautiful building.

Our very busy day ended with vodka and tonic on the sun deck, watching the sun go down as the ship pulled away from the dock and headed down the Dneiper, under a canopy of gathering storm clouds.

Just as we were saying goodbye to Kiev, the skies opened up and it started to pour.  We were very lucky weatherwise today.

It was a very full day, but I am going to sleep tonight thinking of 33,771 men, women and children toppling into a ravine.  It's hard to wrap your head around.  Well, you can wrap your head around it, but you can never get the visuals out of your mind.  And that is the point of memorial parks like Babi Yar.  Never forget.


Starter: prawn in some sort of coconut sauce
Oxtail soup (never had it before; won't again)
Pot de creme, with minted pineapple chunks

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