Ukraine - Off the beaten track
Home to some of Ukraine's outstanding 11th and 12th century religious buildings, Chernihiv dates from the 8th century, and was one of the most important principalities in Kievan Rus. Just off the central ploshcha Chervona is the simple yet lovely Pyatnytska Church. It dates from the 12th century, though most of what's visible is a 1960s reconstruction that brought it close to its Kievan Rus appearance. Masonry mavens will marvel at its exterior brickwork.
A few blocks south-east is the Dytynets, where a leafy park surrounds a remarkable group of early religious buildings. The most striking is the 11th century Spaso-Preobrazhensky Cathedral, which has two distinctive missile-like bell towers. The interior is dark and mysterious, housing an 18th century Baroque icon-covered screen and the tombs of several Kievan Rus royals. Immediately north-west is the 12th century Boryso-Hlibsky Cathedral, home to a museum charting the history of the cathedral and the Dytynets area. In the eastern corner is the Chernihiv History Museum, housed in an early 19th century neo-classical building. It has good displays on Kievan Rus, some Cossack weaponry and a copy of the famous 1851 Ostroh Bible, the first printed in the old Slavonic language. The town is just over 100km (62mi) north-east of Kiev, and buses and trains run regularly between the two.
A century and a half out of the Russian orbit have been kind to Chernivtsi. It has a graceful, cosmopolitan, Central European air. Its mixed history has bestowed upon it a wide variety of architectural styles, from Byzantine to Baroque, and the elegant streets of its old quarter are lined with grand, vine-covered facades. Tree-lined vulitsya O Kobylyanska, the main pedestrian avenue, is lined with cafes, restaurants and shops. A very different, very Ottoman world opens up in Chernivtsi's courtyards, which have wooden balconies and covered staircases. A block east of O Kobylyanska is the Armenian Cathedral, a mid-19th century building based on ancient Armenian designs. Its interior is meticulously painted, and its organ benefits from excellent acoustics.
Stroll up the avenue to the bustling Tsentralna ploshcha, the old town square, surrounded by beautiful 19th century buildings. One of the most interesting is the main Regional Museum, housed in a turn-of-the-century Art Nouveau building with a unique central staircase. Inside are 20th-century paintings and embroidery-rich ethnographic displays. Chernivtsi is about 400km (250mi) south-west of Kiev. The train takes 11-13 hours from Kiev, buses longer. There's also a small airport just outside of town.
If a visit to the Caves Monastery in Kiev leaves you thirsting for more in the ecclesiastical vein, the monastery in Pochayiv is the second largest in the country. The site is sacred to all devout Ukrainians and is flooded with pilgrims during religious festivals. The main Uspensky Cathedral (1771-83) is an overwhelming Baroque affair. Its interior, able to hold over 6000 people, is a breathtaking expression of Orthodox iconography - nearly every surface is lavishly and masterfully painted and gilded with saints and patriarchs. The 1597 Mother of God icon is believed to have protective powers.
Built over 100 years earlier, the gold-domed Holy Trinity Cathedral nearby is smaller and darker, with massive pillars and thick vaults beneath a deep cupola creating a quiet atmosphere of weighty spiritualism. Directly west of the Holy Trinity Cathedral is the mid-19th century bell tower, a 65m (215ft) Baroque structure with a fine view and a 11,180kg (11 ton) bell. Pochayiv is in the middle of Western Ukraine, 300km (185mi) west of Kiev. There's a bus depot just west of the monastery grounds where buses arrive from Kremenets (40 minutes), Ternopil (2 hours) and Lviv (6 hours).