Yet again going beyond the call of duty, Oleksa drives us around the ring road into Kyiv and to the central bus station where we sprint and catch our Poltava-bound bus with 5 minutes to spare. Oleksa waves us off and we agree to meet again on our return here possibly after a week.
We are due to stop overnight in Poltava but when, after four hours on the road, the bus pulls into the decrepit edge-of-town station, with nothing but high rise Soviet suburbs in sight, Neil and I both lose our bottle for staying in this town we know almost nothing about. Instead, we jump back on the air-conditioned luxury bus and buy a ticket through to Kharkiv.
Kharkiv is a city of 1.8 million, considered one of the finest in all of the former USSR. It was built on a grand scale with the largest square in Europe, huge wide boulevards, dozens of monuments and an easily negotiable grid of leafy city centre streets with attractive low level architecture. From the moment we get into the area around the fanzone this city feels friendly, vibrant and cool.
Accommodation is very limited in the city with thousands of Dutch in town but with the help of a decent Ukrainian lad we met on the bus – Dima – we find the friendly city volunteers and within an hour of arriving have an air-conditioned twin in the brand new Hotel 12, close to the Botanical Gardens, for 100 euro. Yes, it is well above budget but we have been doing well with accommodation costs and at 50 euro each in a central location and with a great room, we reckon it is a bit of a result.
We meet Jeff, Johan and Margus, who have flown in from Kyiv, at the fanzone and watch Russia surprisingly get knocked out by Greece. I would never have imagined that the Czechs could win the group and Greece could finish second at the expense of the Greeks.
The atmosphere in town is superb and after the matches we all jump into a taxi back to the lads’ apartment where we prepare for a night of clubbing at Panorama with a bottle of vodka. The club is just around the corner from the flat and is considered to be the premier club in the city. This means a premier price to get in but Margus manages to get us in for 100 Hryvnia each. It is a very cool club with balcony views of the city and although there are a good few strutters present it proves to be a friendly night of partying. Amongst the vodka bottles and pretty girls we spot former England international Steve McManaman and French legend Christian Karembeu. Memories of getting home are vague.