By Richard Balmforth
NOVI PETRIVTSI, Ukraine (Reuters) - A sprawling forested estate of graceful waterways and summer houses - half the size of Monaco but just one hour's drive from Kiev - stands as a symbol of the folly of Ukraine's fugitive president.
Even the most cynical Ukrainians, who on Saturday streamed to see Viktor Yanukovich's luxury estate, rubbed their eyes in disbelief when they were confronted by the scale of the opulence he built around him and kept secret from the outside world.
There were Australian and African ostriches, stretching their legs. There were hares darting around people's feet - clearly unused to large numbers.
Deer and billy goats - their cages neatly labeled - were hunkered down, slightly alarmed at the numbers of sudden visitors.
All this in a country where the average salary is less than $500 a month.
Yanukovich, 63, who fled into hiding on Saturday as the turmoil of three months confrontation with his people caught up with him, relaxed at weekends in luxury behind high walls patrolled by scores of security guards.
When the dream ended and Yanukovich's staff fled the Gatsby-like mansion in the early hours of Saturday, the Kiev protest movement that had opposed him invited Ukrainians to go to see the opulence Yanukovich lived in.
As they poured in their thousands, by foot and by car, onto the 140-hectare grounds for a first glimpse at a luxury they could only suspect, Ukrainians gawped in wonderment at the fairytale surroundings.
What they saw reflected more the inflated dreams of a Middle East potentate - with all the attendant obsessions with security - rather than a rough-hewn man from the gritty eastern Ukraine who got to the top the hard way.
The incongruous presence of ostriches - labels said they were from Australia, Africa and South America - suggested a weakness for 'nouveau riche' status symbols.
PROTECTED, SECRET PLACE
Yanukovich bought a small house on the plot at the start of his presidency in 2010. Subsequently, according to local media, he acquired control of the full estate which exists today through a chain of companies with which he had close interests.
Beyond a five-floor Russian-style house - some said it was his guest house - a stone staircase opened up to a landscaped vista of water features, arboreal walkways and tree-lined avenues stretching into the distance.
Few people - apart from Yanukovich's chosen few and family - have visited a secret place which has been charted by satellite images that show a helicopter pad and a golf course.
Locals said that up to 3,000 security and support staff would arrive when Yanukovich planned a major social event.
With Yanukovich obsessed by security and fear of attack, they had to leave their mobile phones at the entrance to the grounds and pick them up only on leaving, locals said.
Over the years journalists have often tried to penetrate the security cordon - often with unfortunate consequences.
Journalist Tetyana Chernovil broke into the heavily-guarded grounds last year and though she escaped she was badly beaten months later after.
"This is a monument to a tyrant which we want to show the people," said Eduard Leonov, a parliamentary deputy from the far-right nationalist Svoboda party.
Graeco-Roman statues - a Goddess covering her modesty with her hair, lovers intertwined - decorated the lawns. Ornate ponds - half frozen on Saturday - nonetheless bubbled with water being pumped through them. Love-seats and colonnaded meeting places dot the estate.
There is a Russian bath-house - closed to the public on Saturday with an opposition protester's helmet on a chair across the door. On a hilltop, looking down on the Dnipro river through trees, was a plaza for a barbecue.
Families and lovers out for a different sort of Sunday afternoon excursion, posed for family album snaps at a once-in-a lifetime occasion.
Most shook their heads in wonderment at the ambitions of a president who had always proclaimed that he was on the side of the poor people of Ukraine.
"We did not expect anything like this. It is really extensive and all done with our money, the money of ordinary people. It really is too much for one person. It's very emotional when you see something like this," said Serhiy Remezovsky, who had brought his wife and nine-month old son.
His friend Roman Gretsky suggested that the estate should be turned into an orphanage or something recreational for the children of Ukraine.
Some sneered at decor which seemed over-the-top for a president known for his cultural shortcomings, having once described the Russian playwright Anton Chekhov as a "great Ukrainian poet".
Standing in front of a colonnaded portico, with a Grecian urn lying on its side, Lyudmila Golbtsova, 26, a developer from Kiev, sniggered. "A normal person doesn't build this sort of stuff. It's such a waste of money."
LOVES TREES, ANIMALS
The vanished president had his own production line of fresh meat. Cows, sheep and goat could be seen through the window of a large livestock pen - though staff refused to open the doors to inquiring visitors.
Yanukovich appeared, too, to like trees. One newly-planted tree, situated between two cooing statues of Graeco-Roman lovers in a superbly-tended garden, had a notice that proclaimed that it had a life expectancy of 300 years.
One could squint through the windows of a 3,500 square meter greenhouse, its lights blazing, where beans and other vegetable shoots were being cultivated.
Further back, ostriches of all sizes and colors plodded up and down 'ostrich runs' nervously pecking at the wire.
In other cages - very popular with children brought by their parents - deer, goats and boar looked quizzically at visitors.
Guards from among the protesters, helmeted and bearing shields, said the service staff left early on Saturday, some in an armored personnel carrier. The guards were adamant that Yanukovich himself had not been there for three days at least.
"Who did he take himself for?" asked this correspondent in conversation with another traveler on the way back to Kiev. "For God," he replied.
(Writing by Richard Balmforth; Editing by Giles Elgood)