Kiev is sparkling and radiant as spring sunshine sets the gilded baroque churches ablaze. Snow banks begin to melt; shoulders drop and faces soften. The city, and its people, look newborn.
Kiev may have a reputation for political unrest (gained during the Maidan protest-cum-revolution of winter 2013-14) but today’s visitors are unlikely to see it. Instead, this city offers tourists a taste of bar life with an edge, softened – this week at least – with a dollop of Eurovision kitsch.
Visitor numbers to Ukraine were never huge – 81,000 Brits came in 2013 – but Kiev deserves more, and hopes the Eurovision Song Contest, staged there this week will reignite interest, and that cheap Ryanair flights from Stansted (starting in October) will tempt more British visitors. But what could really boost visitor numbers is the city’s creative edginess: it has a lively underground arts and nightlife scene, and an underdog atmosphere.
On a Saturday night out, the Alchemist Bar on Shota Rustaveli Street announces itself through a twang of soundchecking guitar. We follow the noise into the basement, where a man with an Amish-type beard foot-stomps on stage as he tunes up. Tonight’s band, The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, kick off with a cover of Return to Sender. It’s an ironic opener but it gets the crowd – mainly dressed in vintage clothes – on their feet. Over cheap Old Fashioned cocktails (£3.50) we talk of the lineup for Kiev’s new Atlas Weekend festival in June. This year, British performers Nothing But Thieves and The Prodigy will play with local bands such as the Hardkiss and Pianoboy.
“In Kiev, we don’t get many top pop stars visiting, so we tend to focus on our own performers, like Dakh Daughters [the avant-garde, seven-piece, all-female group who played to protesters at the Maidan, and will play Atlas Weekend],” says Bohdan, himself a musician. “It’s one of the best cities for techno and underground parties,” adds his friend, Pavlo.
Next morning, indie bookstore Kharms, in a courtyard off Volodymyrska Street, is crammed with people browsing old LPs. Vintage cameras sit on shelves and abstract Polaroid photos line the walls. I chat with a couple on the next table who are fans of Pianoboy, real name Dmitry Shurov, a local composer and musician.
Later on, Shurov and I order tea in his favourite cafe, On Stanislavsky. It’s a busy, bohemian place with rug-strewn floors and ironic art on the walls. Shurov tells me culture is one of the only things not in crisis in Ukraine, and that musicians are more trusted than politicians. “It’s not meant to be that way: it’s painful.”
He also sees Eurovision as a positive force: “The only things people know about Ukraine are Chernobyl and the war. Eurovision is about having something that is Ukrainian and good. Kiev is like the India of Europe. It is mystical and unpredictable, and has a chaotic energy. Hidden talents are everywhere. We have young people looking outwards, while living in a messy place, dealing with war and revolution. In spite of it all, it’s a great city for people to get creative in.”
And sitting in this bohemian cafe, with winter drawing to a close, it is hard not to share Shurov’s optimism. More people should come.
• Regent Holidays has a three-night break to Kiev from £520pp B&B, including transfers and flights from Gatwick with Ukraine International Airways