DAY 1: Kiev, Ukraine
Arrival day in Kiev. A rainy drive to Heathrow for an early flight started our day. We grabbed an English breakfast at the lounge and caught up on some deprived sleep from the night before.
Before we knew it, we touched down in the Ukraine. A new airport terminal greeted us and… click here to read the rest!
everything was so smooth and efficient. No visa is needed so it’s a fast entry through immigration control. Outside we met our rental car contact. There was lots of activity and signs for pick up of important soccer VIPs. Traffic was bad as we entered the city of Kiev. It took forever to get to the hotel. We had booked the hotel months ago and it was pretty basic. It looked worse than it was from the outside but the hotel prices for this weekend were scary and bad hotels were charging 5-star prices.
Off to discover the metro. We descended on a crazy escalator ride that lasted forever. It’s the deepest metro in the world. The metro was really efficient and we were in the main square in no time. The square is a delightful outdoors place where we ate incredibly well and incredibly cheaply. Cabbed back as it was late. Day 1 done. Kiev has a nice vibe.
DAY 2: Chernobyl
We had rushed to get this booked. A full day excursion to the town and the site of one of the worlds most tragic nuclear accidents – Chernobyl.
32 years ago the reactor Number 1 exploded due to human error. There were about 150,000 people living in the villages around there including Chernobyl itself. By day four, the Soviets realized they had to evacuate everyone fast. With basic Soviet buses they got everyone out but not before they had all been exposed to massive doses of radiation. Literally, the town was isolated and until recently frozen in time and left to rot as a contaminated high risk area.
The drive out was a little intense. Dreadful traffic held us up and it took about two hours. We went through a radiation check and then headed to the town that had been largely overgrown by the surrounding forest. Weird. A school, a nursery, a hospital, a supermarket, a swimming pool and an amusement park, all literally frozen in time. Nothing touched for fear of radiation. An old hotel where visitors would stay was just ghostlike.
We checked radiation levels frequently and the acceptable level is 0.3. But there were hot spots. We passed into zones that were 8 and drove by a hazardous zone much higher. Most of the time the radiation was around 0.4. It’s safe. They say!!
Chernobyl is now a tour! It was bizarre and eerie. Especially the amusement park – like some horror movie. Chernobyl tours can be booked from Kiev. Tours must be booked in advance and you must submit passport before approval. Our delightful guide had done 200 tours. She was 23 and delightful. The finale was the reactor itself. Safely sealed with a steel cover. It was one of the weirdest days of travel I have done. Remind me to never stay overnight there. Best day ever! Who said nuclear is good! It’s not. It’s bad. And who said it couldn’t happen again. Untrue. Japan. Long live renewable energy!!
DAY 3: The Match
We started the day with a brief sightseeing of Kiev. We had a couple of guides take us around the famed cathedral and walk through the grounds. Kiev is a surprisingly nice city. It’s lively and fun and has enough sights to keep you busy for a couple of days. Having spent the day outside the city the day before in Chernobyl, the morning was perfect for a slow start and a little education. Afternoon lunch consisted of of hummus and some hydrating water followed by a siesta before the Champions League Final.
The game start was 9:45 pm. A late game as it had to sync with most of Europe that sits one hour earlier. We walked to the stadium down a wide boulevard of a street where the stadium appeared right at the end. A beautiful stadium, recently built and with a capacity of 80,000. Gorgeous evening. Warm and sunny. The fans were drinking in the bars outside, but nothing so outrageous.
We were in the stadium one hour before game time. We had tickets inside the Real Madrid end which was handy because we got to look at the Liverpool end from a great perspective. A sea of red filled with song. Their familiar anthem, “You’ll never walk alone,” was belted out and beautifully sang. It was eerie almost
Game started and we had great seats. There’s something truly wonderful about not having a horse in the race. Stress free. In summary, the game was full of crazy drama. Broadly summed up by a devastating injury to Liverpool’s star player, one spectacular goal, and two incredible goalkeeper errors that gifted the win to Real Madrid. We rushed out two minutes before the end to avoid the dash to leave. I stopped for a program, a souvenir hat, and a t-shirt and we were sitting in a restaurant less than half hour later. That’s the way to do it. This will be our 11th Champions League Final that we’ve attended. Madrid next year!
Day 4: The Drive to Odessa
It was a not too early start after a fairly late night because of the game. We escaped the city easier than we thought. We had about 500 kilometers to drive but all went pretty smooth. The road was super, the land extremely flat, and this tempted my friend to hit the gas a little harder. Inevitably, we drifted into high speed and just at that moment there were a bunch of cops hanging out with not much to do. We got nabbed! We stopped and waited. Ukrainian cops! Just like the movies. We followed the guys to the station which was pretty inconvenient! Then a candid conversation occurred. There were two ways to process. Cash up front of 200 Euros or half a day at station filling out forms and paying with a credit card at 400 Euros. We took the former. No ticket (of course) and no hassle. Beautifully delivered and 200 Euros lighter we were on our way. It was a travel moment.
We arrived in Odessa later that evening. Checked into the Bristol Hotel and wandered around the town. Odessa looks cool with lots of bars and a lively street ambiance. We are in the Ukrainian riviera. And its a total scene. We strolled around the gardens, walked the Potemkin steps, saw the Pushkin statue and grabbed a late afternoon snack. Love this place!
DAY 5: An Odessa Beach Day
Today we drove down to the beach. It’s a fairly shoddy shoreline but it’s only a mile or so from the center of Odessa. This is where folks grab their rays and have fun. Beach fun. As it turns out there was a super funky (and slightly derelict) chair lift that took tourists down to the beach. It looked like something out of the dark ages. The cabins were colorful and rusty and it looked precarious and slightly dangerous. But hey – fun comes in various forms and this was funky fun. After two trips on the chairlift, we found a super modern Dubai-like enclave down the road. It was tacky and full of beach restaurant set ups and shops. We grabbed a late lunch and then headed back to the hotel. Tonight we were heading to the opera house. The most fantastic and beautiful opera building I have seen. Odessa is quite a trip.
DAY 6: Transnistria
Southern Ukraine is flat. Kansas like flat. The drive from Odessa to the Transnistria border was unexceptional. But hey, we were heading into the unknown. I mean, who ever has heard of Transnistria and who ever goes there!?
It’s a tiny sliver of land absolutely and completely frozen in time. A small part of the USSR not recognized by any country including the USSR. Stuck between Moldova and the Ukraine, it’s a time warp. The border crossing was full of checks and waiting around but eventually we crossed into the unknown. We were back in the USSR! First thing we noticed was that the highway was in good shape. No cars but great condition. Walnut trees lined both sides of the road.
Our Italian diver was speeding (as usual) and out of nowhere (as usual) a policeman waved his speeding baton furiously. We stopped and he came over. He was wearing a ridiculous hat. He looked 15. We were in trouble. Nothing that 50 Euros wouldn’t cure. Money exchange was made. He was happy to have photos with the group. Everyone happy and we were on our way. Welcome to Transnistria !
DAY 7: Caviar at its Finest
Even though Transnistria is left over from the heady days of the USSR it remains very retro. It is pure “good old days “ stuff. The currency is not recognized by anyone. The country itself is recognized by hardly anyone and yet the economy is surprisingly decent. So, what’s the deal here? Yes, lots of back handers from Putin’s Russia, maybe a few shady deals here and there, but something else has to give.
Here in tiny little Transnistria they got real smart. They asked the Dutch to help them set up a fish farming business. The Dutch, as it turns out, are experts in this field. They have the equipment to make this business make money – lots of it. However, this was not your average fish farming business. This was Sturgeon. Caviar. Black gold. The lucrative fish business.
There are not that many places in the world that boast sturgeon fish farms as big as Aquatir, the place we visited, and I have never seen so many alpha male belugas in my life. There they all were. In giant tanks inside a huge hanger building. Sturgeon are native to the Black Sea but the riverways that fed the sea became polluted and the species was threatened. That is a business opportunity!! Step up Transnistria and the fish farming business. Now one of the mainstays of the economy, caviar is a staple export for this country. If you happen to be passing through, stop in for a visit. You get to see the tanks, the fertilization process, and while you can’t swim with the giant alpha males, a frightening prospect, you do get to enjoy the delicacy of their mating ritual. And it’s worth the journey if you like fish eggs.
DAY 8: Moldova’s Fabulous Wine
It was an early departure from Transnistria today across the border to Moldova. At the western part of the Soviet Empire, Moldova is starting to adjust to the modern world. It’s not there yet but given it’s proximity to Europe, it’s moving fast.
The capital Chisinau is interesting. Not fabulously rich in architecture or monuments or museums, but it’s significance is simply being in a place that has only recently opened up and that was literally torn apart by Germans, Romanians, and Russians.
Today we were heading to the Cricova Vineyards. Moldova has a fast growing wine industry. It’s wines are developing a reputation and it’s highly organized and competitive. We were met at the vineyard by a groovy young sommelier. He had a private electric transporter waiting for us. We donned warm clothing and then began a crazy journey through a maze of tunnels 100 meters underground. We drove through a series of wine vaults of Cabernet, Champagne, and more, and I would have easily gotten lost. I was getting claustrophobic as we got deeper and deeper. And it was freezing! There were about 100 kilometers of roads underground. Bloody hell. And then we had the tasting. This vineyard produces 150 million bottles a year. Not bad! The wine is unbelievably inexpensive like everything here. It was great quality and the guy was a treat. We drank too much too early and needed a nap before the art museum later.
DAY 9: Headed Home
The possibilities for getting back to Boston from Moldova are pretty skimpy. As it turns out Turkish Air has a connection from Chisinau through Istanbul and onwards with their non-stop Boston service all the way.
Chisinau’s airport is actually pretty nice. Modern and in renovation status, it is surprisingly comfortable. The only ominous thing is a Moldova Airlines Airplane that has been erected to greet you. Not necessarily comforting but there it is. A real life-size airplane welcoming travelers to the airport. Sort of happy we had opted for Turkish!
Turkish has more destinations than any other airline in the world. The service is always superior and the Istanbul airport is a scene. Not to mention Turkish Airlines’ amazing business class lounge there. One of the best, if not the best. It’s enormous and is a great place to hang out. There is fabulous food and everyone is so helpful.
The flight back to Boston was a smooth 10 hours. I love what Turkish does in Business Class. They dress up a guy in a chef’s outfit, hat and all and he comes around the cabin and asks you what your preference is for dinner. It’s not that he then goes back and prepares the food…it’s still the same microwaved stuff served everywhere. It’s just that it looks more authentic and it makes you feel somehow more into the experience of eating airplane food. It’s a subliminal marketing trick and its brilliant! Not to mention that Turkish also trends the way many restaurants operates nowadays. They have a variety of hot and cold appetizers. Something that is easy to pull off and something that just tastes a whole lot better. The flight attendants ….and the chef….are all so service-oriented, super-efficient, and friendly. I have to say, it’s a nice way to pass 10 hours and travel through 7 time zones. We were back in Boston in time for dinner and a night on the town.
What a trip this was though. A look inside the old Soviet Union, a visit to a Visa-free Russia, and experiences that will last a lifetime. Plus we got to go to a soccer game too!
Travel changes lives!