Recently, Ukraine has been making a more frequent appearance in the news than ever before: think topless protesters, an unfairly imprisoned ex-Prime Minister and, of course, being one of the hosts of Euro 2012.
While it's not yet an Original Travel destination, it's a fascinating place - the second largest country in Europe (after Russia) - with a rich, turbulent and often tragic history, its own language (yes, Ukrainian is different to Russian) and hopefully a bright future.
My home town..
Kiev, the capital of Ukraine, is my home town, and one I hadn't been back to for 12 years until a few weeks ago. Landing in a small airport just eight kilometers from the center of town - one of those rare occasions when a budget airline gets you closer, rather than further from where you want to be - the city felt the same, but different.
There is still a huge divide between the rich and the poor; the streets are still wide and leafy with ancient Lada's struggling to make it to their destination. However, Russian is a lot more widely spoken than it was in the early 90s, when Ukrainians felt a surge of nationalism after the collapse of Communism. The streets are now lined with Western shops - GAP and Zara galore. Most people still buy their food in local markets where organic and fresh are the standard - but there are also stands selling oranges, bananas and Snickers bars, which were unheard of when I was growing up.
Signs of change..
A ride on the underground costs 15p (London, take note!) with ornate stations resembling museum halls, as well as one of the world's deepest stations nestled 105.5 meters below ground. Station names are written in Ukrainian but with English translations below them - 'Khreshchatyk', anyone?
Hitchhiking is more popular than taxis, waiters in restaurants struggle with the concept of splitting a bill between two cards and bottled Evian is more expensive than local beer. My English friends were grateful to have me with them as it's not the easiest place to get by in when you don't know the culture or understand the language.
It is, however, showing signs of progress and development - a lot of renovation work was done in preparation for Euro 2012, Pinchuk Art Centre is curating an Anish Kapoor exhibition, and slowly but surely decent hotels are opening up signaled by the arrival of Fairmont Kiev. Slowly but surely Eastern Europe is re-branding itself, and soon Moscow will be a thing of the past. Watch this space; I have no doubt that Kiev will be the next big thing, even if I am a bit biased. Oh, and did I mention that Brits don't need a visa?
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