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EURO 2012: A soccer fan's walking guide to Kiev

Last updated on: June 4, 2012 16:02 IST

EURO 2012: A soccer fan's walking guide to Kiev

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A large digital clock, inexorably counting down to the kick-off of the month-long Euro 2012 soccer feast, looks out onto a broad Kiev boulevard where metal barriers are going up to corral Europe's football faithful.

This is a giant pedestrian 'fan zone', where outside screens will enable thousands of spectators to satisfy their soccer hunger through the month of June.

The epicentre of the Euro invasion will be Maidan Nezalezhnosti (Independence Square), a place of bubbling fountains and a soaring statue to independence. It is Kiev's throbbing heart.

The last time thousands of people massed here in these numbers was in the winter of 2004-5 when the Maidan was 'ground zero' for the Orange Revolution protests.

That upheaval brought, for a while at least, a realignment of political forces in the former Soviet republic.

The square rang then to the oratory of Yulia Tymoshenko. At the losing end of her fiery rhetoric was Viktor Yanukovich, whose suspect election as president brought tens of thousands onto the streets.

Seven years later, after a reversal of fortune, she is down -- serving a jail sentence for alleged abuse-of-office as prime minister. He is up, and in power as president.

But all this is a footnote in a city, where Russian orthodoxy was born and whose 1,000 plus years of existence has been marked by occupation, poverty, famine and flight.


Image: Teenagers sit in front of EURO-2012-themed decoration in Kiev
Photographs: Gleb Garanich/REUTERS

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You can almost reach out and touch history

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History is so close here that you can almost reach out and touch it.

Khreshchatyk boulevard -- a tree-lined avenue which runs north-south and leads into the Maidan -- hems football fans in with its heavy, Soviet architecture.

It was destroyed in 1941 by Red Army forces retreating before the Nazi offensive.

Buildings like the cavernous central post office were a product of Josef Stalin's reconstruction after World War Two victory and the return of Soviet power.

So, forget the pub crawl for an hour or two and catch some history. There'll be plenty of terrace cafes en route where you can stop off for refreshment.

Leave the southern end of the 'fan zone' and you will see a tent encampment stretching 50 metres (yards) along the pavement, emblazoned with white flags bearing a red heart, and posters calling for Tymoshenko's release.

This is a round-the-clock vigil by her supporters who say they will stay there until Tymoshenko -- in jail since last August -- has been released: history-in-the-making.


Image: German coach Joachim Loew (left) and Dr. Charlotte Knobloch, President of the Jewish community of Munich and Upper Bavaria (second left) place candles as they pay their respects in memory of the victims of the Nazi regime
Photographs: Markus Gilliar/Getty Images

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Ukrainians are soccer-mad

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At the next intersection, turn right and there is a glossy brown statue to Bolshevik revolutionary and Soviet state founder Vladimir Lenin, his jaw jutting forward in a resolute pose.

Though the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union and Ukraine's independence consigned communism to the dustbin, Lenin's monument can be found in other Euro match cities in Ukraine.

But, apparently judged too un-cool for today's average European tourist, his image has been air-brushed out of official Euro promotion publicity.

Head up the poplar-lined Shevchenko boulevard, a steepish climb in one of Europe's hilliest capitals.

Beware of the name. It's the Smith and Brown of Ukraine.

Soccer-mad though the Ukrainians are, this pleasant avenue is not named in honour of the national team's top goal scorer Andriy Shevchenko, but after 19th century poet Taras Shevchenko, the father of Ukrainian literature.

Revered as the man who turned a peasant tongue into the language of verse, Shevchenko's zeal in promoting Ukrainian earned him both fame and disgrace with Russia's tsars.

Today in Ukraine he is the national symbol of the struggle for freedom. The heavily-whiskered, avuncular Shevchenko stares solemnly down from a pedestal in a park at the crest of the hill, across to the garishly-crimson walls of the national university which bears his name.

Proceed right along Volodomyrska street which is roughly parallel to the Khreshchatyk. At the next intersection, you come to the National Opera House.

Completed to a Viennese taste at the start of the 20th century, Kiev's opera house these days pumps out a regular fare of Russian empire hardy annuals such as "Swan Lake" and "The Nutcracker".

It is renowned too for being where the tsarist prime minister Pyotr Stolypin was assassinated in 1911. He was shot in the interval of a production of a Rimsky-Korsakov opera.

Kiev's opera officials don't intend putting up any cultural competition on Euro match nights, though Tchaikovsky's "Iolanta" is showing on June 8 when the first tournament matches are played in neighbouring Poland.

The street is named after Prince Volodomyr -- more commonly known to history by the Russian version of his name, Vladimir - who ruled what was then called Kievan Rus from 980-1015.

A convert to Christianity, he marched his subjects down to the Dnipro where he had them dump their pagan idols and join in a mass river baptism. It marked the birth of Russian Orthodoxy which then swept east across Russian territories.


Image: An amateur skateboarder jumps in front of a monument of Vladimir Ilici Lenin, the founder of the former Soviet Union in Krasnoyarsk
Photographs: Ilya Naymushin/REUTERS

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Time for a borsch beetroot soup and a beer

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A few hundred metres along the street are the Zoloti Vorota -- Golden Gates -- which back then marked the perimeter of the city-fortress and its main entrance through which its rulers marched majestically.

You can pick up here Ukrainian crafts such as hand-made embroidered peasant shifts, bead necklaces and wooden kitchen ware as well as a mass of Soviet memorabilia.

Also drop in on the house-museum of Russian writer Mikhail Bulgakov - best known for his mystical classic "The Master and Margarita". He was born in Kiev though he ended his days in Moscow on the wrong side of the Kremlin.

Street protests led to Akhmetov - also owner of Shakhtar Donetsk soccer club and the stadium where some Euro games will be played - scrapping plans to build a glitzy business centre. But that did not save what had already been knocked down.

Once down in the riverside quarter of Podil, head back towards the city centre keeping the Dnipro to the left and after passing some chic restaurants and drinking spots you find yourself at the foot of a funicular.

The soaring, winged Monument to Independence comes into view as you walk back to the Maidan. The stroll through the centuries with Kiev's historical forebears has taken a couple of hours.

Time for a borsch beetroot soup and a beer.


Image: Fans welcome members of Russia's national soccer team
Photographs: Peter Andrews/REUTERS

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