by Ed Leahy
Dazed and confused arriving into Kharkiv, three flights and 19 hours after my early morning taxi pick-up in Dublin.
It was, admittedly, dark and the view from the aeroplane was not great but an optical illusion convinced that I had just passed a castle on the edge of the runway as we taxied up to the terminal.
First impressions can often be misleading and ill-informed arriving into a new destination under darkness and Kharkiv was no different thanks to an hour-long wait for a taxi and a swerving, bounce of a midnight run to the final destination, the Melnitsa Hotel.
‘Welcome to the Oranje Fans’ Campsite’ read the sign on the hotel entrance. The narrow winding road took us past rows of tents and parked campervans, before the driver pointed and assured us that a hotel was just through that bit of forest ahead. Just follow the techno music is what he meant, no doubt.
The Dutch were having a party (no football had been played at that stage), and the hotel was, as promised, just beyond the trees, right next to the makeshift, marquee nightclub, which pumped out dance music until the early hours.
The next morning, everything appeared anew.
A bit of breakfast and off to explore the host city of Kharkiv, and more importantly, the Metalist Stadium, home to Kharkiv's finest mentalists, no doubt.
Everything was as expected and the stadium tour finished with a quick pitch inspection with RTÉ’s commentary team of Peter Collins and Trevor Steven.
Personally, I thought the pitch looked a little artificial but former Everton midfielder Steven assured me it was better than any pitch he every played on - even Wembley!!
Stadium recce checked off the list and it was off into town to check out the famous Euro2012 FanZone.
But first some food. One of the locals working at the stadium for the tournament recommended a place for lunch and like all the other information we received at the stadium, it was spot on.
Puzata Hata (pot-bellied house) was located in the heart of Kharkiv and served up a fine feast of local nosh from the famous Ukraineian borscht soup to chicken skewers and finished off with some chesse and apple filled pancakes – and all for a pittence.
The money in Ukraine has taken a bit of getting used to but the ten to one ratio makes things very easy.
Prices are displayed, for example, as 200UAH so our travelling party now refer to all prices in ‘Paul McGrath’s’. We were somewhat disappointed to later find out that the currency is actually called hryvnia and not pronounced Uh-ahs after all.
Once in the city, everything appeared easy as a very efficient Metro system brought us from stadium to city centre in a matter of minutes, while lots of Euro 2012 signage helped out with the navigation.
The city of Kharkiv is described in one guide book as a ‘place with a lot to say about itself but not much to show’. This could be an accurate description if you were just looking for things to do but when you are visiting a place, especially at a time when a major event is happening, it becomes more about the people and the experience rather than the tourist attractions.
Another local marched us up to the FanZone vicinity, which provided great craic during the build-up to the tournament’s opening game, and there was much love shown for co-hosts Poland from the local Kharkiv public who had virtually filled the plaza, complete with a huge screen, on the opening day of Euro 2012.
The following match was enjoyed acossedat a minature FanZone in Coffea restaurant, complete with comfy couches, wall-mounted plasma screen and another dose of local hospitality and classy culinary dishes.
The Russia versus Czech Republic game was watched in Ukrainian, while enjoying the RTÉ panel’s analysis on the laptop. It all got a bit noisy at one stage but the now video instilled radio star Peter Collins made sure he heard Dunphy et al by any means necessary .
Day two, or match day one, got the Kharkiv posse up early doors for another bizarre breakfast, this time a yogurt-related scenario with Trevor Steven.
Our campsite companion Orangemen were also ready and willing at an early hour dressed in their amazing regalia with some of the outfits showing up the Irish Carroll’s – bought leprechaun outfits - for what they really are.
More techno music entertained the troops before an orange double decker bus arrived for the march to the stadium.
The commentary position for the first game was second to none as we watched on from the halfway line and while the result was not as predicted, the atmosphere and match-day experience were as expected.
Every other day is a travel day in Ukraine venturing between each of the four host cities and we left for Kiev with a tinge of regret, assuming that it would be a while before we set foot in Kharkiv again.
As the flight made it’s approach to Kiev airport, it suddenly turned around and as cabin crew announced that we were heading back to Kharkiv due to a storm below.
And sure enough, an hour later I was stepping onto the hot tarmac at Kharkiv, this time by daylight, in full view of the runway-side faux castle, sitting, not so pretty, alongside the brand new terminal.
Arriving late into Kiev and it was almost kick-off time so the main priority was to find a big screen to see Giovanni Trappatoni’s Ireland enjoy a victory in their opening encounter of the tournament.
Well the big screen was found but as for the football, well, the less said about that, the better.
With Monday’s game being a late kick-off (21.45 local time), I had plenty of time to take a ramble around part of Kiev’s city centre.
The heat was pretty intense and the stroll included lots of stopping and not getting so far, but there is certainly a great feel to the city and one which I hope to further explore on return to Kiev later in the tournamentn
En route to the stadium, which is in a great location close to the city centre, the streets were awash with yellow and blue (colour of both sides) and the sweltering heat noticeably cooled approaching kick-off.
The Olympic Stadium in Kiev is also the venue for the final on 1 July and the huge crowd generated a great atmosphere with local hero Andriy Shevchenko scoring two goals to send the local crowds into ecstasy.
I went to sleep to the sound of celebrating Kiev folk honking horns till the early hours. Imagine what they would be like if they won the entire thing.