The Experience Of Denial & Arrival – Distant Shore: An Uncertain Journey To Odessa (Part Two)

Some of the best ideas for traveling in Eastern Europe are often the most unfeasible. Train travel is a nostalgic throw back to a bygone era, it is also insanely slow. A river cruise on the Danube sounds relaxing and romantic, unless you enjoy paying a mint to be surrounded by American pensioners who enjoy complaining about the lack of ice in their drinks at brunch. The open road by car offers unprecedented access and speed, but quickly becomes an irritation when you must find a parking space in a city, let along figure out how to pay for it. Bus travel offers an affordable way to see the countryside. Unfortunately, it is almost always exhausting after the first half hour.  Flying is cheap, saves time and offers a chance to see cities you would otherwise overlook. Conversely, some of those cities are overlooked for a reason. Chisnau anyone!

A Vision Unseen - The port of Odessa

A Vision Unseen – The port of Odessa (Credit Szymon Stasik)

A Dreadful Malady – Out Of Service
A journey by ferry across the Black Sea from Istanbul to Odessa sounded like a wonderful idea to me, that was until I really thought about it. A bit of research confronted me with innumerable problems. The first of these was trying to find a reliable ferry that kept regular hours and days of service. The only ferries I could find at the time were Ukrainian cargo ships. Since their mission was to carry goods across the Black Sea and passengers were an afterthought, this did not bode well for trip planning. Everything depended on availability and the vagaries of weather. Fortunately, I had a Turkish friend in Istanbul who was willing to check on this service for me. What little they managed to discover was just as nebulous as everything I found online. They were told that it was best to just turn up at the terminal a day or two in advance. Schedules which had once been set in stone were now open to change.

This news was discouraging to say the least. I was thousands of miles away from my point of departure, unable to get any assurance of when or if the journey would take place. Obviously, passengers were not a priority on journeys across the Black Sea. This information started me down a slippery slope that would lead me to begin reconsidering the journey. My next worry was seasickness, a dreadful malady which afflicts the unwitting traveler stupid enough to set sail without motion sickness tablets. The thought of spending a day and night on the roiling waters of the Black Sea surrounded by hard bitten merchant mariners while I begged for another bucket in which to dry heave, made me cringe. I have never been seasick, but then again I have never been at sea for more than an hour. The closest I ever came to an all day voyage was when I took four ferries in a single day along the Outer Banks of North Carolina. That had been enough for me to learn that my stomach was a bit on the queasy side.

Distant Memory - Sunset on the shores of the Black Sea

Distant Memory – Sunset on the shores of the Black Sea (Credit: Insider)

The Potential For Problems – A Less Than Stellar Seafaring Adventure
The potential for a less than stellar seafaring adventure, but a sickeningly memorable one, was definitely a possibility on a seagoing journey to Odessa. The cost for the journey added to my growing list of doubts. UKR Ferry Shipping Company charged passengers $750 for an individual berth, but it did come with a private bath which did not interest me in the least. The best deal was a berth for two in first class which went for $250. These charges included three meals a day. Of course, it was anyone’s guess what the quality of food might be like. This was troubling, but hardly the least of my worries. The water route between the two cities was notorious for human trafficking. Many lovely, but desperately impoverished and hopelessly naïve Ukrainian women had been lured away from squalid villages to set sail from Odessa with the promise of steady jobs. They had been lured into a terrible trap, forced to perform slave labor or worse in Turkey and other Middle Eastern countries. The idea of being a witness to these poor souls filled me with fear. This was the opposite of romance, it was depravity and decadence in the service of venality. Such issues were unlikely to affect me, but they were impossible to ignore

The list of drawbacks led to an internal conversation where I began to convince myself the journey was probably not worth it. I came to the realization that a Black Sea voyage would be expensive, none too pleasant and possibly dangerous. To make matters worse, a round trip journey had a very short turnaround time. A UKR ferry “usually” left on Tuesday, arrived on Wednesday and returned on Saturday. This would leave me little time to explore Odessa. I suddenly imagined wandering around the city in a daze. Then just as I was finally getting my bearings, the ferry would be setting sail once again. This only served to justify my increasing pessimism. It was a matter of time before I talked myself out of the trip. Odessa was a distant shore I would fail to reach by ship. Romance was trumped by reality which led to relief. I promised myself that a visit to Odessa would eventually be in my future. Eleven years later, that day has yet to arrive.

The Uncertain Arrival - Odessa Train Station

The Uncertain Arrival – Odessa Train Station (Credit: Alex Levitsky & Dmitry Shamatazhi)

A Bit Of Faint Hope – Pulling Into The Station
A few years after my imaginary trip from Istanbul to Odessa had been aborted I was staying at a hostel in the western Ukrainian city of Lviv. There I engaged in a discussion with an American teenager whose mother was a Ukrainian émigré to the United States. Mother and son were traveling around the country, seeing sights as well as family. We began discussing all the places they had visited. The son said Odessa was by far his favorite. “You have to go. It is a wonderful city.” I felt the pain of regret as he spoke of the enchanting seaside city. His favorite aspect of Odessa was the arrival experience. “Classical music was playing” when their train pulled into the station. A sense of envy overtook me which was followed by a bit of faint hope. I now knew the best way to travel to Odessa, if only I could bring myself to do it.

A Window On The Wider World – Sailing Away: The Uncertain Journey To Odessa (Part One)

The trips not taken haunt me. They come back to me in the strangest places, at the strangest of times. These memories are ghosts that materialize and vanish seemingly without reason. The most recent occurrence took place while I was at a used bookstore in Akron, Ohio. It all started when I came across a book, part travelogue, part history titled the Black Sea by Neal Ascherson. I had been hoping to find something fascinating on the region. Discovering the book in a very thin section of Eastern European history, I worked hard to persuade myself to purchase it. While perusing the book, I came across several passages on Ukraine. That was when a thought suddenly arose of Odessa, that fabulous Black Sea port city with its magnificent multinational past and fatally tragic Soviet history.

I began flipping through the book once again. I soon came across passages on the Ottoman Turks. Suddenly my mind connected the two, not somewhere in the historical past, but in my own personal past. Over a decade ago I got the idea that I might return to Istanbul for the second time in my life. On this trip, I would be alone rather than with my best friend who accompanied me in 2008. The trip would be a romantic adventure, where I would board a ship in Istanbul for a voyage across the Black Sea, arriving a day later in Odessa. Though I had no idea if this was possible, I decided that such a trip was worth researching and possibly attempting. Thus, I set out on a distant and memorable journey, one more of imagination, than reality. A journey that eventually led to nowhere.

Distant Shores - The Vorontsov Lighthouse in Odessa

Distant Shores – The Vorontsov Lighthouse in Odessa (Credit: Nata Naval)

A Dream That Outlasted Reality – Port Of Entry & Exit
Before hitting upon the idea of a possible seafaring journey to Odessa I stumbled across the name several times while traveling. My closest brushes were trips through the same named places in Texas and Washington states. The former was a frighteningly ugly oil city out on the dusty flatlands of West Texas, the latter a small town in eastern Washington known for its fertile farmland that had been settled and cultivated by Germans from Russia. These settlers began their emigration to America by leaving from the bustling port of Odessa and crossing the Black Sea in the late 19th century. They left at just the right time, avoiding the cataclysms that would soon arrive in Odessa by both steppe and ship. Both American towns – along with eight others in the United States – were a long way from the bustling, cosmopolitan port city that has been a window on the wider world for Ukraine, the Soviet Union and Tsarist Russia since it was founded by Catherine the Great in 1794 and intensively developed under the vision of Frenchman Armand, Duc de Richelieu.

The city became a free port in 1819, which led to an even greater expansion of trade and investment. Merchants and associated industries grew wealthy off the grain trade exported from Odessa. The upshot was a beautiful Mediterranean style city stuffed with Italianate and French architecture on the edge of Ukraine. It was a dream that managed to outlast reality, surviving revolution, imperial collapse and a seemingly endless succession of catastrophic wars. For me, Odessa had to be seen to be believed. It was home to several notable sites including Odessa’s famed Opera and Ballet Houses along with the statue of the city’s greatest leader, Armand Duc De Richelieu, which stands at the pinnacle of the famous Potemkin Stairs. The allure of this mysterious port city focused my gaze firmly on a trip to Odessa.

Point of Entry - Duc De Richelieu Statue in Odessa

Point of Entry – Duc De Richelieu Statue in Odessa (Credit: Alex Levitsky & Dmitry Shamatazhi)

Imaginary Revelry – Ghosts In Broad Daylight
There was another side to Odessa I was unwilling to admit to myself during these moments of imaginary revelry. It was now located in Ukraine, a nation rife with corruption. The country was being run off a cliff by menacing oligarchs who were controlled an insipidly bad government for their own narrow interests. Odessa, one of the busiest port cities on the Black Sea, was a great place not just for history and atmospheric architecture, but also for smuggling, rent seeking, laundering money and human trafficking. These criminal activities washed up or sailed away from its magnificent warm water port. The present condition of Odessa (this was in 2010) was described by many journalists and travel writers as one of faded glory. The kind of place haunted by ghosts in broad daylight.

Traces could still be found of a Jewish population that held a slim majority on the eve of World War II, of the international financiers who were run off by the revolution and of the terrifying Stalinist purges which destroyed much of the city’s human capital. All of this occurred prior to the coup d’macabre, when the Nazis showed up and encouraged a crazed Romanian occupation force to wreak murder and mayhem on the local Jewish populace. If drama is conflict, then Odessa during the 20th century was a Shakespearean play with all the actors at war with one another. After their conflicts subsided, only an audience of astonished onlookers was left to sort through the wreckage. All along Odessa’s beautiful boulevards history’s miseries and mysteries were there for the taking, if only I could find my way there. Unfortunately, getting there from Istanbul by ship would turn out to be problematic.

A Stairway To The City - The Potemkin Stairs in 1905

A Stairway To The City – The Potemkin Stairs in 1905

Cargo Holds – Passengers As Appendages
Traveling by sea to Odessa was like the greatest things in life, it could not happen without a struggle. A struggle that took place, not so much within the city, but within myself. I soon discovered that only a single ferry line made the trip one or two times a week between Istanbul and Odessa. The infrequent journeys were at the mercy of cargo transport. These were Ukrainian ships running ferry services on the side. They were not making their money transporting passengers. Instead they were in the business of transporting goods. This made sense. Odessa is the busiest port in Ukraine. As such, massive amounts of cargo travels in and out of the country through it. Passengers are a mere appendage on such journeys. Traveling on a cargo ship to Odessa was not exactly what I had in mind. I was also beginning to realize the problem with my Odessa dream, it was shared by few others.

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A Library Brought Back To Life By A Single Book – Eleanor Perenyi At Szollos (Part Two)

It will be many months or years before I am able to visit Szollos Castle in Vynohradiv, Ukraine. I cannot go there at this time due to the simple fact that I am sitting thousands of miles and an entire ocean away from the castle. The only guide I have for now is Eleanor Perenyi’s memoir, More Was Lost, it will have to suffice as a substitute. That might just be good enough, because Perenyi’s writing offers a vivid description of the castle during those final years just before World War II descended on the castle and its inhabitants, altering the course of its history and destroying those that had given it such life. Fortunately, Perenyi keeps memory of the castle alive through the written word. It is a pleasant irony that she recovers some of what was lost at Szollos with her book. Ironic because books helped her learn about the Castle’s past while living there in the late 1930’s. She was one of the last to enjoy an incredible library that would be scattered to the winds just a few years later.

Aristocratic families in Hungary had libraries consisting of hundreds or thousands of volumes

Aristocratic families in Hungary had libraries consisting of hundreds or thousands of volumes

Man Of Reason – A Legacy Of Learning
Many of the great aristocratic families in Hungary had libraries consisting of hundreds or thousands of volumes collected over many centuries. These same libraries also could contain letters that told of everyday life for the nobility. The Perenyi family had one such library. It was discovered by Eleanor Perenyi not long after she arrived at Szollos. She found the library in a downstairs room tucked behind accessories used to run the castle’s wine business. The books were still locked away in glass cases. It turned out that there was much more locked in those cases, including decades of correspondence between family members and friends. The ultimate trove were the old books, some of these dusty tomes had sheepskin bindings and covers. Much of the collection came from a family forebear by the name of Alexei Perenyi who had inhabited the castle a century and a half earlier.

Alexei’s prized books reflected the influence and popularity of French thinkers during this time. Alexei Perenyi had come of age during the Enlightenment, thus the library’s greatest works were the product of men such as Rousseau and Voltaire. Latin and German works were also well represented. The purpose of reading during the 18th century in Hungary was to educate rather than entertain. Reading expanded the world and connected Hungary with a Europe enthralled by the Enlightenment. What influence these books had upon Hungarian political thought and discourse can only be imagined. The latter half of the 18th century was a time of relative peace and prosperity for Hungarian nobles. The Ottoman Turkish occupation was growing more distant with each passing decade, by comparison Habsburg rule were relatively benign. The Kingdom of Hungary was by no means independent or autonomous, but Hungarian consent in imperial affairs was often sought by the Habsburgs. Alexei Perenyi may have been in a European backwater, but his books showed that he was connected to a much larger and changing world.

Telling Tales – The Life Of A Family
These books were so inviting to look at and delicious to read that Eleanor Perenyi had them relocated to a room closest to where she slept. The true power of those volumes was not only in the ideas they transmitted, but the fact that she was following in the footsteps of a Perenyi forebear who also craved the written word. This continued a tradition of self-education that was central to the lives of Alexei and Eleanor Perenyi, a connection that stretched across a century and a half. It is hard to imagine the value of the Perenyi library during the 18th century. This has little to do with money. The books of Alexei Perenyi also acted as a sort of news of the day, filled with new ideas and information. It is hard to imagine just how remote Perenyi Castle was back then from the centers of political power in Vienna and Pozsony (present day Bratislava, Slovakia). The books Eleanor found were a lifeline to the outside world for Alexei Perenyi. And this world did not speak a word of English, since there was not one English language book to be found in the entire library.

And it was not just books that Eleanor discovered, she also delved deeply into an archive of family correspondence. Unlike the books that were filled with ideas and information, these personal letters were rich in narrative. They told of the everyday lives led by several generations of Perenyi’s and their friends during the heyday of Austria-Hungary. This was a time when the Adriatic was almost as much a Hungarian Sea as Lake Balaton. Trips to the seaside of what is today Croatia and northeastern Italy were a rite of passage. Governesses and archduchesses were as much a part of life as horse riding and hunting. This world had not quite been lost, but irreparably altered by the Great War. Viewed through the prism of personal letters it was both real and fantastical. Eleanor read love letters quaint yet romantic in their formality. I am quite sure that she was able to put herself in place of the author, imagining how she would have reacted or felt in similar circumstances. Time must have ticked backwards for her as she read the letters and relived the lives of people whose footsteps she was now following. In this sense, the library spoke volumes.

More Was Lost - A Memoir by Eleanor Perenyi

More Was Lost – A Memoir by Eleanor Perenyi

Reimagined & Recovered – The Glory Of Dusty Volumes
Then another cataclysm – World War II – executed the final death sentence for Perenyi Castle and the nobility at Szollos. Among the victims was their library. We can only imagine how the books and letters were either stolen or destroyed, scattered in a hundred directions or cast into the rubbish bin. The terrible birth of Stalinism in the Subcarpathians required this loss of lifeblood. An avenging Red Army set in motion a merciless destruction of the Perenyi’s past. For the Soviets had to destroy the past, so they could control the future. Eleanor Perenyi was the last in the family line to experience that wonderful library as it had existed for centuries. It had been a great gift for her and she paid it the ultimate respect, by recreating it in her memoir. Each sentence a shelve, every word a book or letter to be reimagined and recovered by future generations such as myself. Left to marvel at the glory of those dusty volumes and the woman who brought a library back to life through a single book.

A Hostel Affair – Kiev: Man On A Single Minded Mission (Travels In Eastern Europe #54)

During my stay in Kiev, I met the standard mix of odd personalities that frequent most hostels. There were a group of four young male Brits who were drinking their way across the cheaper cities of Eastern Europe. They had come from Chisinau, the Moldovan capital, on to Kiev looking for another few days of dizzying drinking. The hostel’s front desk personnel were all young ladies, who rather than the lively types I had met in other Eastern European hostels, were somber, quiet and shy. They looked as though they had been plucked out of a funeral procession. Sometimes though, they could be surprisingly hospitable, such as the young woman who barely uttered so much as a word, but upon my departure presented me with a box of chocolates as a thank you gift for staying at the hostel.

One of these quiet front desk types did manage to engage with another patron. On several evenings, I overheard an American accent fumbling through Ukrainian words. The woman who was helping him along also staffed the front desk. He was trying hard, but his efforts were well short of fluency or comprehension. I figured his real goal was to cultivate romance. One evening I struck up a conversation with this language learner. My assumptions about his linguistic studiousness could not have been more incorrect.

In search of Ukraine - Cliffs along the Dnieper River

In search of Ukraine – Cliffs along the Dnieper River (Credit: Matvey Andreyev)

Walking Into One World & Away From Another One
The man trying his best to learn some Ukrainian was an American. He looked to be in his late 20’s, had dark hair and a curious look in his eyes. His disposition was more like that of an office professional, than the kind of person one usually meets in a hostel. Prior to landing in Kiev he had worked as a government contractor in Maryland, not far outside of Washington D.C. He had recently quit that job to travel for an indefinite period of time. When I told him that I had taken a Free Tour of Kiev, which was an excellent way to learn about the history and culture of Ukraine, he self-righteously waved the idea off. “I don’t do those tourist things. That is not what I am interested in.” I then proceeded to ask him what he was doing in Kiev. He replied that he was going to spend several months walking along a route that would hug the Dnieper River. I figured he must be taking some sort of footpath or long distance trail. My assumption was wrong again. He was just going to head south while walking as close to the river as possible. His goal was to see and experience the real Ukraine, whatever that meant.

I found his adventure admirable, but a bit perplexing. Was he not a little bit worried about walking on private property? The answer was a confident no, he could manage. Was he going to at least take a look around Kiev before he went about blazing his own trail? In a tone of condescension, he reiterated that Kiev was only a jumping off point for his travels. He had no interest in seeing the city. The idea of tourism was heretical to this young man. I found my limited interaction with the American version of a latter day Robinson Crusoe frustrating. He did not have a plan on when or where he would finish.
It was already mid-autumn, I imagined even the best outfitted, most physically fit person would have difficulties navigating the Ukrainian countryside in winter. I could tell there was no use in bringing up this point. He was on a single minded mission, to see the real Ukraine and nothing was going to dissuade him from this goal.

Days Of Imagination – Land Of Frustration
From time to time I find myself wondering what happened to this American adventurer. I have multiple images in my mind. In one, he is getting shouted at and threatened by suspicious property owners who mistaken him for a thief, while he naively fumbles through some very bad Ukrainian that only serves to implicate him further in their eyes. In another, he is reduced to walking along roadsides, dodging wild drivers and dangerous close calls. After days of frustration, he finds the nearest bus stop and travels to another hostel where he makes a more sensible plan.

In still another, he ignores the hardship and irritation with self-righteous stubbornness. Any villager who shows even the slightest kindness affirms his belief in the goodness of all Ukrainians. If only the world could share his experience. This confirms his belief in the justice of his cause, which amounts to wandering around country roads and fields in a blissful stupor that will somehow prove enlightening. What really happened? I will never know. It is likely that he had some neat experiences along with a few close calls. When the chill of late autumn set in, his thoughts turned to warmer climes and the Ukrainian adventure abruptly came to an end.

Eclectic Endeavors – Not To Nowhere
A neutral observer – of which I was not – would likely say that my cynicism was only matched by the would be adventurer’s naivety. The inquisitive skeptic taking on the stubborn optimist was just about all our interaction really amounted to. Perhaps I was jealous that I did not have the time and courage to undertake such an eclectic endeavor. The adventurer believed in something pure and illuminating, where all I could see was absurdity and foolishness. Both perspectives were likely valid and said as much about why we were traveling in the first place. This man was on a mission to find something. Perhaps a purity and grace that middle class life and a comfortable, if unchallenging job in the United States could never provide him.

I, on the other hand, always wanted to be somewhere, something or someone else. Kiev was just a passing phase, I wished to make the temporary permanent. Going from one place to the next, satisfying my restlessness through constant travel. In search of the next best place, which was much the same as the last place.  Both of our dreams were based on self-delusion. The adventurer in search of one true path, myself in search of too many paths. All of this led not to nowhere or to Kiev or to this hostel, but somewhere deep inside ourselves.

Anything But A Walk In The Park – From Daylight To Darkness: A Trip To Babi Yar (Travels In Eastern Europe #53b)

Trying to find the actual site of Babi Yar was rather difficult though I was most definitely in Babi Yar Park. I had expected to find some directional signage or ominous clues to the ravine’s location, instead what I found were people strolling around a rather large public park filled with deciduous trees. Autumn had yet to take hold despite the season, thus the trees were still thick with leaves. I was surrounded by greenery. It was hard enough to believe that 33,771 people had been executed at Babi Yar in just two days less than four generations ago. It was even harder to believe that such a thing could have happened in such a tranquil place.  Of course, places can change radically over time and the area around Babi Yar Park was quite different from what it had been in 1941. On the edge of the park was a large television station for Kiev. This building had been effectively constructed in place of the Jewish cemetery which had predated the war.

Babi Yar Ravine

Babi Yar Ravine

Dangerous Intuition – An Unfathomable Depth
The few black and white photographs taken at Babi Yar during the time of the massacre looked foreboding. A bleak, black and white landscape of dirt and grime, a polar opposite of the present. While the nature that surrounded me was inviting. I spent many minutes walking down one paved pathway after another. There were many elderly pensioners out for a walk. The deeper I went into the forested parkland the less I heard the city traffic on nearby streets. I began to believe that I was either in the wrong place or a coverup had been carried out. Was nature hiding the area’s history? Using the under and overgrowth as a cover. Straight and narrow paths led in a multitude of directions, these only took me deeper into the woodland.

My attempts to locate the ravine finally sent me off trail. I made my way through woods until I saw a higher point ahead of me. Walking towards this small prominence I came out into an area where the earth began to rise on both sides. I suddenly found myself standing in a ravine. I was unsure whether this was Babi Yar or not. I did not see any memorials or monuments. Coincidentally, the ravine and surrounding woods looked like a place I used to play as a child. Could one of the worst massacres in human history really have occurred in this place, it looked so familiar, so non-descript, startlingly average. The ravine was no more than 50 meters wide at its greatest extent. As I headed up into it, the space between the earthen walls narrowed. About this time another man came walking around the edge. Neither of us acknowledged the other, but I wanted to ask him of this really was Babi Yar? And if so, how could he go for a nonchalant walk in this part of the park.

A Memorial - Babi Yar Park

A Memorial – Babi Yar Park

Deep Disturbance – On The Ground & In The Ground
It occurred to me that I was might be standing where thousands of bodies were once stacked. In a bit of fearful curiosity my eyes darted from one side to the other looking for traces of bones. I did not see any, though nearby tree roots protruding from the earth made for macabre imaginations. And still I had no idea if I was in the correct spot, though some strange intuition began to creep over me. Like the feeling one has when they are in danger or about to be confronted with some horribly unsettling truth. Making my way to where the ravine started I forced to scale the steep earthen walls. Once at the top I began to look for any signs on the ground that this was Babi Yar. Over in some brambles and weeds I found a double cross erected from metal posts. I had to be close. Then I caught sight of a monument where the woods gave way to a clearing. There were a couple of people standing there, in front a monument with large menorah. At this point I knew that the ravine I had just walked up through was Babi Yar.

The confirmation was deeply unsettling. I soon made my way back to the precipice of Babi Yar. Peering down into it I tried, but could not imagine the endless stream of humanity that died here. And when I say humanity, not only the murder victims, but German humanity as well. The Jews lost their lives, the murderers had lost any sense of moral conscience. For me, the latter explained the former, rendering an explanation for what was otherwise a scarcely explicable tragedy. The fact that this site was now a public park with only a handful of monuments I found deeply disturbing. Something this horrible deserved more than what was here. This was the American coming out in me. In the United States, Babi Yar would have been a National Historic Site, with signage to offer education and interpretation in an effort to explain what happened. There was nothing of the sort here. Just the ravine, surrounded by woods and silence.

The Menorah Memorial - Babi Yar Park

The Menorah Memorial – Babi Yar Park

Ordinary People, Ordinary Places – A Million Lives Later
The killings at Babi Yar did not stop with the 33,771 Jews murdered on September 29th & 30th. That was just the start. Over the next two and a half years, Ukrainians, Russians, Roma, more Jews, communists and nationalists were killed here. Estimates of those murdered in and around the ravine are upwards of 100,000. The Syrets concentration camp, located in the immediate area, only added to the horrific death toll. The sheer immensity of the crimes committed were difficult to fathom. I was left asking myself, “All of this and now what”? The peaceful woods, paved trails, muffled sounds of a city in the distance and people enjoying nature. I had no idea what to make of it all. Part of me felt physically sick, another part slowly came to the realization that Babi Yar was a microcosm of the Holocaust. A reflection of the death dealt to millions on ordinary days, in ordinary places, by ordinary people.

The Nightmare That Was Kiev – Cauldron Of Loss: A Trip To Babi Yar (Travels In Eastern Europe #53a)

The main reason I had traveled all the way to Kiev was due to a chance meeting with an Australian at a hostel in Lviv. The Aussie told me of a fascinating daytrip he had recently taken from Kiev to Chernobyl. Tourists were now allowed into the exclusion zone where they could tour sites associated with one of the worst tragedies of the 20th century. I quizzed him for a good half hour about the logistics involved. Before the conversation was over my mind was made up, I was going to Kiev. Arriving on a Saturday afternoon, I soon learned that the earliest I could get a tour to Chernobyl was on a Tuesday. This gave me a couple of days to sight see in the city. Enough time to visit the scene of another 20th century tragedy, a ravine that arguably witnessed as much horror as any other specific spot during World War II. And a place that in many ways represents the nightmare upheaval that consumed so much of Kiev from 1917 – 1945.

Dorohozhychmetro metro station and the edge of Babi Yar Park

An ordinary scene for a tragic place – Dorohozhychmetro metro station and the edge of Babi Yar Park (Credit: YarikUkraine)

War On One City – Stalking The Streets
Kiev was not the place to be during the first half of the 20th century unless a person was looking to get killed. More death and destruction was inflicted upon the city than entire countries experienced within that same time span. The details are frightening in the extreme. Kiev changed hands no less than 19 times during the Russian Revolution and resulting Civil War. The Red/White warfare led to deadly reprisals. The Bolsheviks won the war and right to rule as they pleased. By the early 1930’s, it was not only the Ukrainian countryside that suffered from widespread famine as starvation stalked the streets of Kiev due to forced collectivization. It was also during this time that Kiev suffered through the indignity of losing its capital status in the Ukrainian SSR to the Soviet city of Kharkiv. Things took another turn for the worse even after Kiev won back that status in 1934. Stalin’s purges resulted in a lethal bloodletting of the Ukrainian intelligentsia and anyone who dared whimper a word of nationalist sentiment. Incredibly, the interwar period was only the beginning of much worse violence to come.

For Kiev, the Second World War was a disaster of unimaginable proportions. The Red Army lost more soldiers in the Battle of Kiev than the United States lost in the entire war. The decisive German victory over the Soviet forces resulted in one of the worst defeats inflicted on any single army in world history. At the center of this cauldron of loss was Kiev. The city was subsequently mined by the retreating Soviet forces. Greeting the German occupation forces were upwards of 10,000 explosions, the product of Soviet sabotage efforts. This set the city on fire for nearly a week and left much of it a smoking, hollowed out ruin. In the aftermath of this devastation, an equally grim human toll was exacted first on Kiev’s Jews, then on the population at large. The casualties rose to unheard of levels. In 1939 Kiev’s population was 846,724, four years later that number had been reduced by almost 80%, to just 180,000. Many of those who lost their lives had done so in a ravine that became synonymous with mass murder, Babi Yar.

Handout dated September 28. 1941 ordering all Kievan Jews to assemble for the supposed resettlement

Handout dated September 28. 1941 ordering all Kievan Jews to assemble for the supposed resettlement

Pinnacle Of Depravity – The Deepest Ravine
Babi Yar sounds more like the name of a Saturday morning cartoon character, than the site of a genocidal massacre. The etymological origins of Babi Yar are quite innocuous, referencing a woman by the name of “Baba” who sold the “yar” (ravine) to a Dominican Monastery. In a darkly ironic twist the site would later be home to Eastern Orthodox and Jewish cemeteries as well as a military camp. Those same purposes would coalesce in the darkness that unfolded in the final days of September 1941. On September 29th & 30th of 1941, 33,771 unsuspecting Jews were murdered at the ravine by Nazi death squads. What Auschwitz was to mass murder by gas chamber, Babi Yar was to mass murder by machine gun. The prevailing stereotypical image of the Holocaust continues to be the gas chambers at Auschwitz-Birkenau. It is often overlooked that in the lands to the east of Poland – Ukraine, Belarus, Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia and western Russia, hundreds of thousands of Jews were shot by Nazi police units and security services. The pinnacle of this depravity was carried out at Babi Yar.

On a bright and sunny Monday morning amidst the waning warmth of early autumn I went to visit Babi Yar. My route took me from the center of Kiev at Khreshchatyk on the metro to Teatralna where I then transferred to the Green Line. From there I traveled three stations down the line to Dorohozhychi. As I got further from the city center, the crowds dissipated. At Dorohozhychi – in the northwestern part of Kiev – I found myself one of only a few people exiting the metro. Making my way to the surface via a long escalator ride I expected to see signage pointing the way to Babi Yar. There was none that I could find. The situation had been very different for Jews on September 29, 1941. They had been given direction earlier in the week by an order posted by the German occupation authorities. This order would lead them to their deaths.

Crimes concealed - Pathway in Babi Yar Park

Crimes concealed – Pathway in Babi Yar Park

The March Of Death – From Incomprehensible To Unimaginable
The order stated that all Jews in Kiev were to gather at the corner of Mel’nikova and Dorohozhytska streets. That street corner was just 2,000 feet from where I exited the Metro station. Standing beneath a brilliant blue sky on a clear autumnal morning I found the idea that one of the largest mass murders of the Holocaust had occurred nearby both incomprehensible and unimaginable. The tens of thousands of Jews that arrived here on that dark day not so long ago had loads of their belongings in tow. Most believed they were headed for resettlement. The Germans were surprised at the number of Jews who obeyed the order. The Jews of Kiev likely did so out of fear. The next to last sentence of the order was a virtual death sentence, stating, “Any Yids who do not follow this order and are found elsewhere will be shot.” Those who had obeyed the order would be ushered to Babi Yar by members of the Nazi police battalions. Never has a death march been so short.

Lost & Found – Kiev Metro: The Memory Of Moments (Travels In Eastern Europe #52)

One minute I was in a half-empty train car fighting off sleep, the next I was standing in the central railway station of Ukraine’s largest city. Kiev-Pasazhyrskyi station was a hive of energy, people were everywhere. It was Saturday afternoon and the whole world was in motion. The signboards showed trains heading in every direction. One in particular – the express from Kiev to Moscow – caught my eye. Russia suddenly felt very close, even though it was still hundreds of kilometers to the east. Then again, the genesis of Russia much to the chagrin of the Kremlin, began with Kievan Rus. Up until the mid-13th century – when the city was destroyed by Mongol hordes – Kiev was the nexus of the Eastern Slavic world. At Kiev I was entering another world, where Europe and Asia intermingled, politically and culturally it did not belong to one or the other, but something all its own. Geographically this could be considered the far east of eastern Europe. 

Into the Depths - Escalator to Kiev Metro

Into the Depths – Escalator to Kiev Metro (Credit: Jason Minshull)

A Current Of Fear – Plumbing The Depths
Upon arrival, my immediate mission was to find my way to the Kiev metro. From background reading I had learned that it was incredibly cheap. I also discovered that the metro was an engineering marvel, having the deepest station (Arsenalna) in the world. I weaved my way through the crowds, making my way to the metro entrance. Before entering I would first have to purchase a ticket. This should not have been a problem except for the fact that all my Hryvnia (Ukraine’s currency) was buried within a self-inflicted system to discourage pickpockets. It included two layers of pants atop a money belt. As waves of passengers headed to the escalators, I was stuck beside the ticket machine attempting to excavate my wallet without stripping.  At one point my hand was crammed down the front of my pants while I tried to somehow unzip the money belt. No one seemed to notice my embarrassing predicament except for the one person whose attention I most wanted to avoid. A young Ukrainian policeman was standing close to the entrance chatting with another man. He watched as I rummaged around in the front of my pants. I saw him staring at me, then noticed that he said something to the man beside him while nodding in my direction.

A current of fear ran through me. The policeman walked up to me and asked for my ID. This sent me into a furious second excavation attempt.  After more frantic rummaging, I finally managed to procure my passport. Handing it over, the officer leafed through the pages, until he found the one with my personal information. I watched as he studied it with intense suspicion. He did not say a word, then glanced up at me. Abruptly he said “Ok” and handed it back. I felt a wave of relief. For a moment, I had believed he would take me and my passport away in a bribery scam. When first confronted I had been sweating profusely from lugging a large suitcase around. A typically confused tourist overwhelmed by the speed and energy of a large city. Maybe I did not look worth the bother, or maybe I looked like I would not have much to offer or maybe he was just doing his job. Whatever the case, that interaction then made the following minutes of procuring a ticket seem rather easy. Soon I was on my way into the subterranean bowels of the Kiev Metro.

Illumination- Vokzalna Metro Station Kiev

Illumination- Vokzalna Metro Station Kiev (Credit: AMY)

Squeezed On All Sides – Packing In The Passengers
The escalator ride to the underground took minutes rather than seconds. It was difficult to fathom the depths of Kiev’s metro system. Two things were immediately noticeable on this Saturday afternoon. The first involved the metro cars, which were packed with people. Passengers were literally standing within inches of one another. The heat in the car was nearly overwhelming, almost all of it emanating from the packed in passengers. I managed to somehow squeeze into this seething mass with a very large suitcase. In a matter of seconds, I was sweating profusely. I also noticed the eerie quiet that descended on the metro car. It was a strange feeling to be pressed so closely against fellow passengers, but for everyone to remain silent. The only other sound besides the train rolling along the tracks, was the breathing of passengers.

The Kiev Metro is by far the most utilized public transport in the city. Over a million passengers a day ride on three metro lines, this accounts for nearly half of all passengers using public transport in Kiev. And no wonder, even by Ukrainian standards a ticket is ultra-cheap. For a westerner such as myself, the cost of the ride – the equivalent of 20 cents – was negligible. The drawback to such cheap and efficient transport was the overflow passenger levels, especially along the most utilized routes. I was going three stops down the busy Red Line, starting from Vokzalna (which is accessed from the main Railway Station) to Universytet then Teatralna and finally Khreshchatyk. At each stop I hoped for a respite from the human induced humidity within the car, but more people boarded at each stop. By the final two stations I was literally squeezed on all sides.

The Memory of Moments - Kiev Metro Train

The Memory of Moments – Kiev Metro Train

An Elusive Quest – To Meet A Woman He Had Never Met Before
One of those pressed close to me was a middle aged man who said “excuse me” as we were pressed into one another. This led to a short conversation. He hailed from the Netherlands and was headed to the city of Odessa on the Black Sea coast of Ukraine to meet a woman he had never met before (this is rather typical of foreign men and Ukrainian women). He had a couple hours layover, thus he decided to take a look around Kiev, before the potential marriage meet up in Odessa. Something about it sounded romantic and rather ridiculous.  As he was telling me all this, the surrounding passengers did not say a word, eyeing us suspiciously for breaking the silence. We were both pouring sweat, swaying to and fro while the metro car jerked, skidded and glided its way to Khreshchatyk. Upon arrival, the Dutchman informed me that he was traveling on down the line. I exited and headed towards the surface.

To this day I still wonder what happened to him and that potential relationship. This is the magnificently evocative part of travel, to meet someone for less than five minutes and find yourself thinking about them recurrently for years to come. Travel becomes an elusive quest to retain the memory of people, places and events that were experienced intensely for a few minutes or moments. These have the potential to change everything or nothing, mostly it is the latter. The metro left me with a first and what would become a lasting impression of Kiev as a big, bold city. The policeman who checked my documents left me with a scare, the Dutchman left me with a recurring memory that gets dimmer as the years pass. The same could not be said of the Ukrainian capital. In the coming days Kiev would leave me with a memory that never goes away, even if I wish it would.

A Bathroom & A Borderland – Against The Unknown: Lviv to Kiev By Train (Travels In Eastern Europe #51)

Sleep could not arrive soon enough for me on the train from Lviv to Kiev. It was not long before I fell into a fitful somnolence. After about an hour I woke up with my forehead covered in sweat. Once I realized that I was on a train somewhere in Ukraine there was only one thing to do, use the bathroom. I made my way past the other passengers in the semi-empty compartment. Everyone was fast asleep by this point in the trip. Long train rides have an air of romance about them, but that is before you visit the bathroom. The ultimate cure for the excitement and adventure of travel is a bathroom in an older Ukrainian railways train car. This one I found to be like so many others on Eastern European trains, with toilet paper the consistency of sandpaper, powdered soap (if you could call it that) that was dispensed from a turnstile type mechanism emitting dry flaky white stuff.

The worst was the toilet and not because it was dirty. Instead the toilet seat had small spiky gradations atop it, not unlike those found on a cheese grader. I found this rather perplexing, because only the most demented mind would inflict this on passengers. I stared at the dull silver surface of the toilet partly bemused, partly frightened. It occurred to me that someone only invented this painful looking toilet to deal with a real or perceived problem. I shuddered at the thought of what that problem might have been. The one good thing about this toilet was that whatever your business, it did not flow straight to the tracks. There is nothing quite so disconcerting as taking a leak while watching the ground speed past. I did my best to concentrate on using the bathroom and vacating it as quickly as possible. After this bathroom I was ready for almost anything.

Simply frightening - Toilet on a Ukrainian Train

Simply frightening – Toilet on a Ukrainian Train

Lost In Space – Unfounded Fears
As the train slowly made its way eastward into the vastness of the Ukrainian interior, I grew increasingly cognizant of the land’s size and scale. Woods, marshland and empty fields passed by, seeming to go on forever. Ukraine was huge by European standards, two of the largest nations in Eastern Europe, Poland and Romania would fit within it. The train was beginning to cross the vast east European Plain, stretching from the Baltic to the Black Sea. Imperceptibly the train crept from plateau onto the plain. The hilly terrain in and around Lviv soon became a distant memory, the land became flatter and more featureless. This was a pass-through landscape that kept me falling in and out of sleep. Sometimes I would suddenly wake up and wonder if I was dreaming in daylight. Where was I at? Ukraine yes, but where in Ukraine.

The train made a few scheduled stops, one at a larger town known as Korosten, which was a major railway junction. I could not see very much of the city from my window, but what I did see frightened me. Not because of any real danger, this was entirely imaginary and had nothing to do with crime. I was afraid, because I had no real idea of exactly where I was. I did not have a decent map or travel guidebook. I wondered what would happen to me if I got off at this station. At the time, no one in my family had any idea where I really was, for that matter neither did I. I could not speak more than a couple of Ukrainian words, found the Cyrillic alphabet an endless source of confusion and would have had trouble explaining myself to even the most patient person. I was lost without being totally lost. Of course, the best advice when you are lost is to stay put. I had no intention of doing anything else.

Korosten Railway Station in north-central Ukraine

Something fearful – Korosten Railway Station in north-central Ukraine

An Immense Borderland – Filling In The Emptiness
This was why I traveled, to test myself against the unknown. The fear I felt was paradoxically matched by a sense of nervous excitement. Every stop was another offer to step into the unknown. I did not take that chance, but I found the idea intriguing. Part of my fear was a product of ignorance. I hardly knew anything about north-central Ukraine except that it was a horrific place during the first half of the 20th century and a very tough place to live during the last half of it. Every time I looked out at a barren field I wondered how many peasants had succumbed to hunger during the forced collectivization of the early 1930’s. At the sight of marshland, I imagined invading armies sinking in the mud. When woodland came into view, it was a reminder that in these forests thousands of Jews had been machine gunned by Nazi death squads. This landscape gave the impression of anonymity, subtly disguising the succession of terrifying tragedies that lay just beneath the land. There was nothing in the geography of this netherworld to stop an invasion, ideological imposition or inquisition.

Clock tower at Kyiv-Pasazhyrskyi Station

Arrival time – Clock tower at Kyiv-Pasazhyrskyi Station (Credit: Prymasal)

Ukraine roughly translated means borderland. For me borders have always conjured up images of clear dividing lines and definitive crossing points. This borderland was indefinite and expandable for hundreds of kilometers in any direction. It was relatively easy to cross. The problem was its size, it seemed to go on forever. The sameness, the flatness, the vastness left me feeling defeated. There was too much distance to comprehend. I found its immensity daunting. It took quite a bit of effort to believe that Kiev, with some three million people was getting closer by the minute. There had to be people somewhere out in this empty landscape or so I hoped. I was nearing one of the great cities in both European and world history without much of an idea what to expect. Before I knew it the train was approaching Kiev. My sense of time had been warped by fatigue. One moment time was passing at a glacial pace, then suddenly all the slowness and sameness disintegrated as the train pulled into Kiev-Passazhyrskyi station. The had arrived right on time and I was not ready for Kiev.

Hell On Wheels – Lviv To Kiev By Train: Eastern Questions (Travels In Eastern Europe #50)

After a sleepless night listening to the excesses of drunken youth I felt a sense of relief to be departing from my hostel in Lviv. Despite the considerable effort it took for me to rouse the besotted front desk clerk from an alcohol induced slumber, I did manage to have him call a taxi which arrived right on time. The sun had yet to rise over the city, so an endless series of street lights guided the taxi’s way to the train station. My zombie like state was worsened by the glaring blur of fluorescence. With my head screaming I arrived at the station a little too early. My train to Kiev would now leave for another 45 minutes. I dragged myself into the waiting room, hoping to stay awake long enough to not miss my train. I was surprised to find the waiting room packed with people before dawn. The station had been just as crowded when I arrived late in the night three days earlier. The place had also been packed a day earlier when I purchased my ticket to Kiev.

The way to Kiev from Lviv

The way to Kiev from Lviv

Waiting Games – States Of Unreality
I began to wonder if the station acted as a permanent residence for a subset of Lvivians. It would have made a great short story. These people always on the verge of leaving, filled with hope and expectation of new beginnings. Unfortunately they could never find their way to the platform. They were stuck in an eternal waiting room. This idea was intriguing and depressing, sounding a bit too much like life. I picked my way through the would be passengers, stepping over their baggage and bundles. I spied a vacant seat beside a sleeping woman, curled in the fetal position, taking up two seats for herself. Not long after taking a seat I smelled a foul odor. In my sleepless sensory state I had trouble discerning whether it was body odor or coming from the station itself. I looked down at the woman lying on the seats beside me. From what I could make out of her shriveled figure, she looked to be a bit grungy. I began to wonder if she was a passenger or a vagrant.

About this time, a policeman who was making rounds through the waiting room walked up to her and proceeded to smack her half-heartedly with a baton. The jolted her, she looked up at him and tried to ignore this signal. He then stopped, looked at her again and gave her a harder smack. He then followed this with some harsh words. The woman, who happened to be ethnically Roma, raised herself up, scratched her head and after a couple of minutes left the seat. For all of Lviv’s architectural beauty, I could also see how it was part of a developing country. Poverty was in plain view and the police were brutish. In countries further west such as Hungary and Slovakia I had seen Roma begging in public transport stations, but the police tended to ignore them. In Ukraine, they offered an opportunity for a cop to exorcise his frustrations.

Running The Rails – A Soviet Scaffold
Bleary eyed, head throbbing, silently shaking, unable to think straight or for that matter at all, I boarded the train for Kiev Pas, the Ukrainian capital city’s main station. It would be a six-hour journey, but in my current state I would have been fine with a 12 hour journey. All I wanted to do was sleep and periodically wake up to have a look at the Ukrainian countryside. I had a second-class ticket, but from the looks of it everything was second class on this train. The seats were cheap leather with no arm rests, the passenger accommodations spartan with no hint of luxury or provisions made for comfort. I had little doubt that this train car came from the Soviet era. That was not all bad for Ukraine, since the Soviet Union at one time had been an empire that could afford to spend much more on infrastructure.

The nation of Ukraine had inherited a vast railway network. That was a good thing, since the country’s politicians and upper classes had spent the first two decades of independence stealing almost anything of value. Every time I saw anything rundown that was part of the public sphere I immediately thought to myself “the money to improve it must have been stolen.” Two years after my first visit to Ukraine, the people had enough of the systemic corruption and revolted. Speaking of revolts, as the train started moving down the track I began to second guess this trip to Kiev.

Despotism Before Democracy – A State Of Lawlessness & Disorder
Despite or perhaps because of my exhausted state, I was a nervous wreck, both worried and excited to be traveling eastward from Lviv. I was now moving further away from Europe culturally, economically and politically. Central and eastern Ukraine were heavily influenced by one big mother, in the form of Russia. Russia is neither completely European or Asian, it is a hybrid. Though Ukraine is officially the largest nation inside Europe, prior to the Maidan Revolution, it tilted more to the east than the west. This eastern orientation meant despotic rather than democratic government, oligarch dominated economies, the rule of lawlessness and disorder. I was unsure how any of this would affect me. The poor governance was too opaque for someone as unimportant as me to worry about, the oligarchs were people best avoided unless I took to valuing dishonesty and violence.

On the other hand, Ukraine’s lawlessness could not be ignored. In Lviv, which was reputedly much better run than the rest of Ukraine, I noticed on several occasions that the police looked menacing. They seemed to exist outside of public control, wandering about looking tough and edgy. One English speaking Lvivian I met told me they were terrified of the police, but that fear was matched by a corresponding hatred. I did my best to avoid any encounters with law enforcement. That was something I likely would not have to worry about on this train, but there were more personal concerns, such as the bathroom.

A Secret That’s Been Passed Around – The Discovery of Lviv: Mass Tourism (Travels In Eastern Europe #49)

When I think back on my first visit to Lviv, I find it almost impossible to consider that trip without also reflecting on the last time I visited the city, three more trips and four years later. During the interim, Lviv had hosted matches for the Euro 2012 Football Championships, been buffeted by the economic and political tumult of the Maidan Revolution, seen remarkable growth in its burgeoning Information Technology industry and become a major tourist destination. It was the latter change that would become most visible to me. The Lviv I visited in 2011 was still a rather sleepy place for foreign visitors. I remember thinking “everyone should see this place.”

When I would tell friends or family to visit Lviv, they would recoil in shock at the mere mention of Ukraine. They could hardly believe I had been brazen enough to visit that ill-fated land. I told them Lviv was different from stereotypical Ukraine, it had more cultural and historical connections with Mitteleuropa than Moscow. It was the furthest eastern extent of the Renaissance, the old Polish Kingdom and Austria-Hungary. It was a new and different Ukraine, one filled with hope and possibility, leaning towards the west. Of course, I said all this in the knowledge that my advocacy for Lviv was falling on deaf ears. The city could not escape Ukraine and its dangerous reputation or so I thought.

A sense of direction in Lviv

A sense of direction in Lviv (Credit: Buka – Власна робота/)

Charm Offensive – The Old Town Imagined Anew
In the fall of 2015 I found out the meaning of be careful what you wish for because you just might get it. I said everybody should see Lviv and it this wish had been granted. Lviv was packed with tourists on the weekend of my arrival in the latter part of October, not a time usually known for heavy visitation. At certain points in the Old Town I was standing elbow to elbow in crowds. I heard as much Polish as Ukrainian being spoken. The cafes and coffee houses had a refined, sleek veneer. The cobblestone streets and sidewalks were pristine, some of the trams looked as though they had been transported from the space age and the smart, immaculately kept shops could just as easily have been in France or Germany rather than Ukraine. Lviv had been “discovered”. To find any hint that only twenty-five years before Lviv had been part of the Soviet Union, I would have had to flee the city center. Most tourist establishments used Latin as well as Cyrillic script in their signage now. Lviv’s Old Town looked so smart, tidy and trendy that I wondered if it had ever or never looked this way. Lviv was managing to charm the masses with a reinterpretation of itself.

The Lviv I first visited in 2011 had yet to realize its full tourist potential. Outside of the Old Town, signage in Latin script or written in English was scarce in the extreme. The amount of English spoken was even rarer. The Old Town at that time was evocative rather than electric. The range of accommodation on offer was limited, with few good hostels. Tourist information in English could be found, but only after searching. Except for the locals, I felt as though I had the city to myself back then. Mass tourism was a thing of the future. 2011 was a time when I could stroll the narrow streets, four years later I would jostle my way through them. I could hardly blame Lviv for this transformation, it was cultivating Old World charm in a bid to boost its economy. A reminder of this came blaringly loud at strange intervals, as a trumpet played a few notes that seemed to signify some sort of medieval sounding call. I had heard much the same thing in Krakow four years earlier, Lviv was becoming more like its bigger, more well-known Galician sister city.

The Logo Says It All

The Logo Says It All

Come Together – The Lure Of Lviv
In the interim, Lviv had inadvertently managed to gain from the instability in Kiev and unrest in the eastern part of Ukraine that started with Maiden. Through no fault of its own, Lviv was some 1,200 hundred kilometers away from the violence consuming parts of the Donbas region. This made Lviv one of the safest places to live, invest or visit in Ukraine. When the Hryvnia (Ukraine’s currency) plummeted in the wake of Maidan, Lviv became one of the best values for domestic and foreign tourists. Domestic tourists could no longer afford to go abroad, so instead they traveled to the most European city in Ukraine which also happened to call itself the most Ukrainian. The weekend of my arrival there was a living history reenactment of the street fighting which occurred during the 1918 Battle of Lemberg (Lviv’s Austrian name) following World War I.

The reenactment took place in Rynok Square which was packed with Ukrainian and Polish tourists looking on. It was strange watching a battle reenactment in a country that was currently at war. It was stranger still that Ukrainians and Poles stood side by side watching. Once blood enemies, they were now united in their fear of a resurgent Russia or quite possibly they were just looking to be entertained while on holiday. Tourism and marketing had brought hundreds of people into Rynok Square that day. City leaders are hoping to lure tens of thousands more to follow in their footsteps.  As much as I selfishly would like Lviv to be the way I found it in 2011, there is little hope of that. The same year of my last visit – 2015 – the city hosted two million visitors for the first time ever. Such increases led to the creation of 30,000 jobs in the tourism sector over the last several years. With much faster rail links to Krakow and Kiev, the tourist numbers are only going to increase.

Waiting on the future in Lviv

Waiting on the future in Lviv

A Selfish Desire – Old World Beauty
My memory of that first visit to an uncrowded Lviv is still vivid, wandering around a spacious Rynok Square, the churches empty except for the locals and restaurants hoping for a few more patrons. That moment is now as much history as anything else in Lviv. I had been fortunate to visit the city before millions of tourists smoothed the cobbled streets with their foot traffic. Yet my perspective has become skewed by a selfish desire to want Lviv all to myself. If I am honest, I was just as much a part of the increase in tourist numbers as the masses I profess to loathe. By the time I arrived in Lviv, it had been transformed from a crumbling, neglected Ukrainian provincial city, to a vibrant Old World beauty. A city that millions would come to visit, just as I did. My “discovery” of Lviv was like learning a secret, only to later learn that it’s been passed around.