Specters Of War – Kyiv: The Devil’s Breath

It is moments like these that make you glad to be alive. And it is moments like these that make you wonder how long you will be alive. When war is so near, and death is within days of staring you right in the face, it tends to focus the mind. I imagine that is how the inhabitants of Kyiv feel right now. The shadow of a sinister world looking over their shoulder. The devil’s breath on the back of their necks. The potential for the end of one world and the beginning of God only knows what comes next is days, minutes, or seconds away. The malevolent agents of change can be found two hundred kilometers to the north in the fields and forests of Belarus where tanks engines idle. Somewhere down in the Donbas the screaming might start at any moment. And the Black Sea has never looked darker. A storm threatens to fall on Ukraine from three sides. Ironically, the only way out is to the west. At this moment, that seems particularly appropriate. Geography really is destiny.

Fluttering in the wind – Kiev a decade ago

Looming Presence – The Not-So-Secret Service
As war grows ever nearer between Ukraine and Russia, I cannot help but turn my thoughts to Kyiv. It was just a decade ago when I made my first and only visit to the city. I guess it is appropriate that my eastern travels ended there, because it was tragedy that brought me to Kyiv in the first place. If not for the possibility of visiting Chernobyl, I would have stayed in Lviv. Lviv was sweetness and light, a powerful aroma of Austria-Hungary still pervaded the place, whereas in Kyiv I caught a whiff of the malodorous venality and violence that the 20th century brought to that unfortunate city. Kyiv was big, brash, and busy. It was dark cars with even darker windows, the equivalent of Ukrainian soccer moms taking their kids to school in Mercedes SUVs and Stalinist Empire style architecture. Imagine a wedding cake where all the candles may explode at any moment, the bride and gloom so close together. It was easy to see how the city had once been the setting for a May Day parade in 1987 where radioactivity rolled through the streets. Nothing comes easy in Kyiv.

I found Kyiv intimidating, to the point that it scared the hell out of me. The city never felt like it was on a human scale. Every aspect of Kyiv seemed larger than life. Perhaps its builders, or should I say rebuilders – since much of it was destroyed in the Second World War and then rebuilt – planned it that way. The metro swallowed passengers, the government quarter was filled with sinister policemen who could put the Soviet security apparatus to shame, the churches were on a fantastic scale that was scarcely imaginable. I never felt confident while walking around the city. Kyiv was a paradox, a place where I believed something bad was bound to happen and never did, at least not to me. The city was something of a bully, a constant confrontation with a menacing energy all its own. Independence Square (Maidan Nezalezhnosti) seemed shackled to the Soviet past. Something sinister always seemed to be lurking in Kyiv. This was the feeling that I could not shake. It had something to do with the police presence that could be felt within a kilometer of any government building. Men with earpieces in dark suits were part of the not-so-secret service. This was during Viktor Yanukovych’s reign of corruption. His presence creeped around every corner.

Sword bearer – World War II monument in Kyiv

Endless Excesses – Wandering & Wondering
Kyiv was as far east as I ever made it in Europe. Anything beyond that seemed frighteningly foreign. Standing on the banks of the Dnipro River (Dnieper River), the river looked larger than I ever imagined. I was too scared to ever cross over it. Kyiv offered the proverbial bridge too far. Here was one of the few chances I would not take while traveling. All I knew beyond Kiev was Kharkiv, rumors of a Soviet style city on steroids kept me from going there. Now I wonder if I will ever set foot again in Kyiv. More to the point, I wonder if I will ever want to come back. With the endless litany of threats emanating from Russia, the constant specter of war mongering and the feeling of inevitability that things are about to change for the worse, Kyiv is physically off limits to travelers in the foreseeable future.

At least for me, as a memory Kyiv can still be visited. I cannot help but think of those I met in the city during my short and memorable stay. The extremely shy girl at the hostel who gave me a box of chocolates on the day of my departure, the woman who would only take small notes of Hryvna at the sidewalk kiosk rather than risk having to make change, she knew how to give no for an answer. The rudest guide imaginable who gave me and one other man a tour taking in much of the government quarter. He was just as angry and argumentative as the government in power during that time. I wonder what has happened to them, I wonder what will happen to them. Even for those who treated me with disdain, I now feel a deep and abiding sympathy. Kyiv must not be an easy place to live, it is as hard as the concrete constructions of its Soviet era structures. There is a spectacular beauty that await those tough enough to survive its endless excesses.

Endless excesses – Independence Square (Maidan Nezalezhnosti) in Kiev

Double Dealing – Against The Odds
Kyiv is too important to be ignored. An enemy cannot help but want to occupy it. The Mongols certainly did in the 13th century, the Lithuanians in the 14th century, the Russians in the 17th century, the Soviets and Germans in the 20th century and now the Russians might be coming back in the 21st century. With these types of visitors, is it any wonder that Kyiv is less than welcoming? If Russian troops try to take Kyiv, it could turn into a bloodbath of urban warfare. The Ukrainians who now inhabit Kyiv do not seem like the type to back down. In fact, they are used to having their backs to the wall. The odds were not in their favor in 1991 or 2004 or 2014. Nonetheless, their defiance in the face of withering corruption and double-dealing politicians has served them well. Against incredible odds they have remained free. Civil society in Kyiv, as in the rest of Ukraine, is as strong as their many post-Soviet governments have been weak. These are people destined to define their history one way or another. They will fight to keep their country free. It is a tragedy of unfathomable proportions that so many will die in the process.  I hope I am wrong, but something tells me I am not.

Going Back & Going Beyond – The Power of Pecs, Lviv and Thessaloniki (Part Two)

The delights of a provincial rather than a capital city is an acquired taste, one that I have been lucky enough to gain in an Eastern European nation on three memorable occasions. My experience was all the better for it and not just with my first love in Pecs, Hungary. The first time I traveled to Ukraine, I did make it a point to visit the capital, Kiev. That was my second stop though. My first one was Lviv, a sparkling jewel of a city in western Ukraine. Lviv colors my opinion of Ukraine to this very day, even nine years after my first visit I cannot help but have a fondness for Ukraine because of that initial experience. It pains me when I hear people discuss Ukraine as though it is a dangerous country that should be avoided. Ukraine may have dangerous regions (the Donbas where an asymmetric war continues to rage is to be avoided by tourists) and endemic corruption (signified by the national government in Kiev), but Ukraine for me is a charming place full of magic rather than malevolence.

Street Art - Lviv

Street Art – Lviv

Lusting After Lviv – Falling For A Ukrainian Super Model
Lviv was then, what it still is today, the historical hub of Ukraine, a place where I could reach out and touch the past. On my return trips to the city I felt a sense of nostalgia, not just for Lviv’s past, but my own past in the city. The friends I met and kept over the years, the mystical churches that deepened my curiosity for the mysterious sensuality of the eastern world and the sheer exoticism of finding renaissance architecture in far eastern Europe. Kiev on the other hand, was a raucous and at times, menacing metropolis. I am fortunate that I avoided making it my first stop in the country. I have never been back and have no plans to go there again. I enjoyed certain aspects of the Ukrainian capital and the city center was well worth visiting. Conversely, there was something impersonal and at times outright inhuman about Kiev.

Perhaps it was the Stalinist architecture to be found on its most famous avenue or the hectic pace or the pushing and shoving on the metro that remains so vivid in my memory. Whatever the case, I could hardly wait to leave. I sensed then what I can still feel today, I would be unlikely to come back for a visit. If I did, it would only be to pass through the city. Bigger is rarely better and Kiev bore that truth out for me. Lviv is my idea of a Ukrainian super model, sleek, seductive and spectacular. Voluptuous in its charms, my eyes ogled its many beautiful buildings. I felt a pathological sense of romance in its city center. If there is such a thing as lusting after a city, then I fell for Lviv with uninhibited inclination. And I hope to get back to Ukraine, to visit Uzhhorod and Mukachevo, the type of provincial cities that are likely to give me a Lviv sized experience. Now when I look at a map of Ukraine, Kiev has vanished and all the smaller cities in the country are magnified. To lust like this, is to live travel forever.

The Dawn of a New Day - The Old Byzantine City Walls in Thessaloniki

The Dawn of a New Day – The Old Byzantine City Walls in Thessaloniki

Anywhere But Athens – Beyond The Obvious
My first visit to Greece last year was made with one thought in mind which can be summed up as “anywhere but Athens.” The capital of the classical world has never appealed to me. Perhaps it comes from disappointment at its failure to host the 100th anniversary of the Olympic Games. When Athens lost out to Atlanta, it lost something else, my respect. Then there are the stories I have read about the congestion and pollution that clogs and clouds the city. I have never heard a single person ever say anything nice about its modern iteration. The Parthenon, the Acropolis and a clutch of world class museums filled with astonishing artifacts do not provide enough an allure for me. This is snobbery in reverse, I find a perverse pleasure in the provincial when it comes to Greece. I cannot see the appeal of Athens. That is likely the product of my imagining throngs of tourists crowding me out. These feelings and an affinity for Byzantine and Ottoman history led me to first set foot on Greek soil in Thessaloniki, a city whose modernity is unsightly in the extreme.

What I found was another Greece mostly unknown to the western world. One with deep multi-cultural roots. Thessaloniki had more in common with Balkan culture than modern Greece, a place where digging in the dirt had unearthed entire worlds that existed before the blight of fires, wars and unchecked development smothered whole swathes of antiquity. Thessaloniki was an acquired taste, one that did not come easy. It asked visitors to look beyond the obvious or the famous, to the obscure and the infamous, to the Ottomans, the Sephardic Jews, the Byzantines and to the Rome of late antiquity. I want to believe that the difference between a visit to Athens and one to Thessaloniki, is like the difference between staying in a former five star hotel and staying in someone’s home. There is hospitality in search of your wallet and hospitality in search of your heart. Thessaloniki for me, was all about the latter.

A Lasting Memory - Pecs Cathedral

A Lasting Memory – Pecs Cathedral

Crossing Frontiers – My Wildest Imagination
At some point during my visit to Thessaloniki, I began to look further afield. My eye was not drawn to the obvious in Greece, neither islands nor Athens caught my attention. Instead, it was the hinterlands that I began to focus on. Those provincial outposts of interest that no sane tourist would take time to visit. This would be my Greece in the future. Thessaloniki made all of Thrace suddenly seem possible. The region, a Balkan borderland holds a magnetic attraction for me. I know not a single person who has traveled in its more obscure parts. I have not been back to Greece since my visit to Thessaloniki, but I already know what will come next. Crossing frontiers in my mind, as much as on the land.

The frontier between Greece and Bulgaria, Greece and Turkey, Greece and North Macedonia, the frontiers that only exist on a map and now appear in my mind. At one time these frontiers were as unfamiliar to me as any other lines drawn upon a foreign land, now I want to become as familiar with them as the lines on my hand. My future travels in Greece, will be like my past ones in Hungary, my future travels in Ukraine will be like my past ones in Hungary and my future in Hungary will be a place like Pecs, and in Ukraine a place like Lviv and in Greece a place like Thessaloniki. I could never have imagined the day I set foot in Pecs, that I was entering a whole new world, one that led the way down a path of endless possibilities. Soon it will be time to go back and go beyond my wildest imagination.

Running Into Problems – The First Morning In Lviv:  Dawning Of A Darkness (Travels In Eastern Europe #48)

On my first morning in Lviv I woke up with one thought on my mind, I was late, late for my morning run. This was understandable since my train from Krakow had not arrived until almost 11:00 p.m. the previous evening. I did not arrive at the hostel until just before the clock struck midnight and did not fall asleep until a couple of hours later. When I awoke it was mid-morning, hours past my usual dawn run time. It took me a good ten minutes just to figure out where I was at, the disorienting sensation of coming into a new country late at night had yet to wear off. It took me minutes just to put on trainers and sweats for the run. As I walked down the stone staircase which exited the hostel I was overcome by fear. An unsettling question suddenly came to mind, what awaited me outside on the streets of Lviv. A ridiculous notion perhaps, but this was my first visit to Ukraine, a land best known for revolutions, endemic corruption and bad governance. What would I find on the other side of the large, wooden door that stood in the way of entry or exit from this building? I had no idea.

Obstacle course - people and traffic dodging in Lviv

Obstacle course – people and traffic dodging in Lviv

Entering A New World – Uncharted Course
When I had arrived the night before, the city was shrouded in a supernatural fog. The taxi I took from the train station to the hostel was consumed by mist, giving me the sensation that I was being led through a mystical tunnel into another world. Now the morning sun was beaming through the windows and I could hear Lviv just beyond the door. Fear and attraction gripped me. I had no planned running route, knew next to nothing about the street patterns or city layout. My goal was to run for an hour. Where this would occur was a mystery to me. I wondered if this might be my final run, if fate would finally catch up to me in Ukraine. Paradoxically, this thought propelled me out the door. Fatalism offers an alternative path to destiny. It was time to enter a new world, one unlike any I had ever known.

The first thing I did was run the wrong way and it would not be the last time. Within 30 seconds I was running in place at a crosswalk on Prospekt Svobody, the pulsing heart of Lviv, surrounded by groups of pedestrians all looking to cross the street. Judging by their dress, the majority of these Lvivians were either on their way to work or school. Most of them managed to ignore the strange looking American in their midst, bouncing up and down to the internal rhythm of exercise. I have scarcely felt so vulnerable, a byproduct of what those around me likely defined as strange or foolish behavior. Prospekt Svobody was a congested mass of people and traffic. There was little hope of trying to make an illicit crossing. I did not trust Ukrainian drivers to slow or stop for me. When the light changed I picked my way through the crowd to the other side. Only to find that I would have to endure several more crossings.

Following An Obsession –  Crossing Over
I could have decided to stay in the center of Prospekt Svobody, running circles around park benches and old men on their morning strolls, but I wanted to find somewhere that provided a bit of privacy. What I needed was a park, what I needed even more was a plan. That should have been the logical first step when I awoke that morning. Unfortunately, logic is often the first casualty of obsession. I made a snap decision to weave my way through the foot traffic and head into the area known as the Halytskyi District. Approaching crosswalks, I used extra caution. The traffic was chaotic and the sidewalks slender. I was the only person mad enough to go jogging in the city during morning rush hour. It took intense concentration to keep from running into pedestrians or getting run over by reckless drivers. I never considered that I was the one being reckless. The entire time I was distracted by the Cyrillic lettering written on signs, buildings and advertisements. Even though I had previously been in Bulgaria and Serbia where Cyrillic was the alphabet of choice, nearly everything I saw that morning in Lviv was written in Cyrillic script. This made Lviv seem more foreign and exotic.

Eventually I began to make the slow climb up Mykoly Kopernyka street. At the time, I was not aware that Lviv’s city center is situated atop a stretch of the Poltva river. Located in a valley which is imperceptible due to the surrounding urban environment. But the further one gets from the center, the more likely they are to encounter hills. I soon spied some greenery which made my pulse race faster, unlike my running pace, which was suffering from travel lag. There was a steeply forested hillside which I hoped would prove to be a park, saving me from eternal sidestepping along Lviv’s slender sidewalks. Unfortunately, the hoped-for park proved elusive as the greenery turned out to be a clump of woods, but I managed to find a rough path. Scrambling up a steep hillside, I nearly plowed over a man attempting to walk his dog on the twenty-five percent incline.

Running into problems - remnants of The Citadel in Lviv

Running into problems – remnants of The Citadel in Lviv

Running In Circles – Discovering The Citadel: Present & Past
Reaching the summit, I found my way to a clearing occupied by a large brick, circular structure. This was about as good as I was going to get on this run. There was enough of a path that I could run circles around the structure. So that is what I did for the next half an hour. I wondered if this old, worn roundhouse was some sort of obsolete water storage tower. Later I would discover the horrifying truth. The structure was once part of an old Austro-Hungarian imperial fortress known as the Citadel. After the Nazis occupied Lviv (known by its Polish name of Lwow at the time) in the summer of 1941 they used it and other existing buildings within the old fortress to house Soviet prisoners of war who they systematically starved to death. Thousands upon thousands died within the walls that I ran circles around that morning. This was just one of many instances in the deep-rooted darkness of the city’s past. Lviv would turn out to be symptomatic of Ukraine, a place where you can never run away from problems.

The Attraction of Fear – The Path To Warsaw: A Self-Perpetuating Delusion (Travels In Eastern Europe #43)

The seeds of my second trip to Eastern Europe were planted on the first one. While talking with Tim, a travel companion I first met at a hostel in Bulgaria, he mentioned his future European travel plans. He could hardly wait to visit Krakow, as it would be at the same time as the beatification of Pope John Paul II. From there he would travel onward to Ukraine. That caught my attention. Ukraine had been part of the Soviet Union, a place I had never been, but was interested in visiting. “Ukraine? Where are you going in Ukraine?” He said to the city of Lviv, not far from the Polish border. It would be an opportunity for him to see a bit of Ukraine and visit one of the most historic cities in the country. Plus, American citizens did not require a visa to visit Ukraine. At that point, I began to formulate my own plans for a trip to both Krakow and Lviv.  Flights to either city from the United States required multiple stops, in addition to a couple thousand dollars. My best bet was to fly into Warsaw, then travel south and east from there.

Polish point of arrival -Warsaw Chopin Airport

Polish point of arrival -Warsaw Chopin Airport

Voices Carry –  A Transcontinental Nightmare
My excitement about this trip was tempered by the thought of starting in Warsaw. A Polish acquaintance from Poznan, in western Poland, had told me how much they hated Warsaw. They said it was a confusing mess that was not worth the bother. According to them, Krakow was the place to go. Others I talked to were of the same opinion. Warsaw might be the official capital of Poland, but Krakow was the real capital. I was also told to visit Gdansk, Torun, Wroclaw, but never Warsaw. My foreknowledge of the city was that it had been almost totally destroyed during World War II. The rebuilding had taken place under a communist government. The outskirts of Belgrade and Bucharest began to loom in my imagination, horizons covered with concrete apartment blocks. I was not looking forward to visiting Warsaw, but nonetheless I scheduled an entire day believing that it would still be worth seeing.

The trip required three flights and twenty hours of travel time for me to travel from the western United States to Warsaw. My final flight would leave from Amsterdam. This one would be the most grueling. I cannot sleep while sitting up, unless at the point of collapse. Nodding off is about the best I can do. Even when I am able to catch five or ten minutes of sleep, I awake drenched in sweat. I was at this point somewhere over Central Europe that a booming, thunderous voice in Polish came from a couple of rows back. A middle aged man in a business suit began to converse in the loudest manner possible. His verbal bellicosity was jarring. For minutes at a time he would pontificate at near ear splitting levels. Several times I turned all the way around in my seat just to glower at him. This did no good.

I began to wonder if I was really awake or if this was some sort of strange transcontinental nightmare. Almost as unbelievable as the volume level of the man’s voice, was the fact that not a single person around him seemed to take notice. The man he talked with sat rapt with attention. Everyone else slept, read or listened to music. Warsaw could not come soon enough. As the plane landed, the man stopped talking. I was shaking from a combination of anger and exhaustion. Like many of the people in life who have driven me close to the point of madness, my two-hour torturer turned out to be inconsequential. He deplaned in good spirits, while I was totally relieved just to arrive. Now that I was half out of my mind, it was time for me to collect my belongings and travel to the Oki-Doki Hostel in the city center. This was not going to be easy, since I decided to take the bus from the airport. That would put me right where I always want to be when entering a foreign country, on edge.

The attraction of fear - airport bus to Warsaw city center

The attraction of fear – airport bus to Warsaw city center

Moment of Clarity – Extra Baggage
My tension and fear were induced by the following sentence from the Wikitravel Warsaw webpage: “ (Bus) Number 175, which runs from the airport to city center, is reportedly infamous for pickpockets and sometimes snatch-and-run thefts.” Of course, I chose to take this bus. I could just as easily have booked a taxi in advance, but I was too cheap. My ulterior motive was more self-serving, some might even say self-flagellating. I was magnetically attracted by potential danger. In the weeks prior to departure I had spent countless hours reading and rereading that sentence, doing ridiculous researches about bus crime in Warsaw. Obsessing over the possibility of becoming a robbery victim made my arrival in Warsaw more interesting.

A logical person would have just taken a cab, but obsessions are never logical. They are grinding, gnawing and all consuming. Warsaw was a city I had little interest in visiting, but I did have an intense interest in seeing whether I could ride bus #175 from Warsaw airport to the city center without getting robbed. Of course, I was exaggerating the threat, but that was precisely the point. The tension I felt when boarding the bus was real. I was in survival mode due to a self-perpetuated delusion. My fear and paranoia were real.

The imagined threat, turned out to be just that. Bus #175 was half empty. The passengers were either tourists like me or locals getting an affordable lift to the city center. Everyone and everything looked to be totally normal. No one was eyeing my bags or sizing me up, for that matter no one was sitting closer than a couple of rows from me. Still I kept clutching my luggage as though any moment a life or death struggle would ensue. I knew better, but obsessing over a crime that would never happen satisfied a deep seated fear. That fear did not repel me, it actually attracted me. This was my moment of clarity. Fear was what brought me to Warsaw and I would carry it with me to the frontiers of Eastern Europe.

Animal Instincts – The Lions of Lviv (Lviv: The Story of a City In Ukraine #2)

During my week long stay in Lviv I was stalked by lions. Lions were on every corner in the old town, they could be found at High Castle, protruding from the facades of business and glowering at the entrances to residential buildings. Some of these lions were sleeping while others looked fierce and determined, supersized stone statuary demanding attention. These lions are lasting remnants that recall the very earliest days of Lviv. Scarcely any structural remains of 13th century Lviv still exist, but symbolically lions are everywhere, a symbol of the city that goes back over 750 years.

Lion sculptures on facade of Lviv residential building

Residential instincts – lions can be found on many facades in Lviv

Leo and the Lions – The Name Of A City & Its Eternal Symbol
It has been at least 5,000 years since lions roamed the land that is today Ukraine. Fossils found near the Black Sea regions of the nation have been identified as belonging to lions with manes. These wild, magnificent and deadly creatures likely roamed all across Ukraine, including Galicia in the western part of the country, during the final (and also current) geological epoch, the Holocene (12,000 years ago to the present). Human settlement and population growth eventually brought the era of wild lions in Ukraine to an end. Nonetheless, lions are an ever present part of Lviv. They can be found laying and lounging, guarding or greeting at buildings and parks across the city. These lions are not alive in a biological sense. Instead they act as the living embodiment of the city’s majestic history. These static sculptures may not be able to roar, but their presence can still be felt today as a lasting symbol of the city’s most ancient history.

Lviv has been associated with lions since its founding in 1256. This is because the city was named after Lev Danylovych, or as he was otherwise known, Leo I of Galicia. Leo I was the King of Galicia-Volhynia (King of Rus’) and Grand Prince of Kiev during the latter part of the 13th century. Leo in the Latin language means lion. Latin was a much preferred language of royalty, while lions were often used as an enduring symbol of royalty. They symbolized courage, dignity and grandeur. These were traits Leo I would certainly want to be known for. They are also symbolic of attributes a city might want to reflect both its past and present. A person or a city symbolically aligned with lions evokes a certain powerful image. Leo I lived up to his name in many ways. He was certainly brave when it came to martial affairs. He was on the warpath for much of his reign. He attacked westward in attempts to take control of parts of Poland, Lithuania and Hungary. During a 14 year period beginning in 1375, he led no less than six military campaigns against his kingdom’s foes. By the end of his reign he had expanded the Kingdom of Galicia-Volhynia to its greatest territorial extent.

Lion on a gate in Lviv

Lions in Lviv guard many a gate

What’s In a Name? – Legacies Of Ambition, Legacies of Failure
The power and territory he acquired would seem to cast his name and the city that bore his name in a radiant glow. Leo I had moved his capital to Lviv in 1274. The capital city continued to grow and bask in glory, after his death, but Leo’s legacy soon faded. It was never that solid to begin with. His costly military campaigns brought as much failure as success. The territorial gains achieved were relatively small compared to Leo’s ambitions. A half century after Leo’s death, the Kingdom of Galicia-Volhynia, including Lviv, was subsumed under Polish rule.  The truly lasting legacy of Leo I came to center around the meaning of his name and what it came to symbolize for his namesake city. Lions and Lviv became inseparable, a powerful image of a city’s grandeur and status.

Every empire and every conqueror of Lviv incorporated the lion into disparate city seals and coats of arms. For instance, during the late 16th century the papal coat of arms was added to Lviv’s. The lion on these was no longer passive, but now rampant. During the Soviet era – an empire that was virulently anti-aristocratic and anti-royal – the coat of arms was redesigned to add the hammer and sickle. The traditional trio of towers above a city gate was colored red, while a lion rampant stood in the entrance. This could be seen another way. The lion, like the people of Galicia and their traditions were caught against their will by the red menace of Soviet Communism, but they were trying to fight their way out.

Lviv lion on a manhole cover

Lviv’s lions lurk everywhere – even on manhole covers

Symbolic Recognition – The Lion Lives On
When the Soviet Union disintegrated and Ukraine declared independence, the coat of arms and city seals reverted back to their original form from the late Middle Ages. The towered gate was still there, but now covered in yellow, as was the lion. All of this was done on a blue background, colors symbolic of the Ukrainian flag. This reversion to the earliest design hearkened back to the Kingdom of Galicia-Volhynia, one of the very few times in the city’s history that east Slavic peoples were in control of the city and surrounding region. The lion had managed to survive all the iterations of empires that had now vanished. The same was true of Lviv’s Ukrainian citizenry. The lion, that quintessential symbol of Lviv, has now become an inseparable representation of the city as well as its people.

Found In Translation – Baltia-Druk’s Touring Lviv Guidebook (A Trip Around My Bookshelf # 5)

Any traveler to a country where they are unable to speak the language and have little knowledge of the culture is largely at the mercy of a guidebook. Whether that guidebook is from Lonely Planet, Rough Guide, Wikitravel or any of the other innumerable offerings available in either print or digital form these guidebooks pretty much tell a tourist where they are going to go and what they are going to do. This was been doubly true for me the first time I visited Ukraine. I cannot speak the language and have only a rudimentary understanding of the Cyrillic alphabet. The first time I set foot in Ukraine was four years ago when I rolled into Lviv, a stunning city in the far western reaches of the country.  My lone touristic resource when I first arrived was the Lviv chapter of a Lonely Planet guidebook to Ukraine. I had ordered and download this online. The chapter was rather helpful in the discovery of the many must-sees found in the Lviv Ensemble of the Historic Center which is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, but going any further afield or gaining a more in-depth understanding of the city was beyond the scope of that chapter.

Baltia-Druk's Touring Lviv Guidebook - A Rare & Lucky Find

Baltia-Druk’s Touring Lviv Guidebook – A Rare & Lucky Find

An Indispensable Travel Companion
Getting to really know Lviv was going to take a guidebook dedicated solely to the city. Of course, I could have hired an English language guide, but I am a literal learner and wanted something to read as I ventured into a world I knew little about. I found a bookstore just off the Prospekt Svobody (the heart of the city) where I managed to communicate my needs to a sales lady who spoke some broken English. She led me to a small shelf laden with touristic literature. There she pulled a guidebook that came in multiple languages, Polish (the majority of foreign visitors to Lviv), German and most impressively English. This guidebook was called quite simply Touring Lviv Guidebook by a publishing firm known as Baltia-Druk. Within minutes of the purchase, this guidebook became my number one resource not only for the rest of that first trip, but also two ensuing visits back to the city. It was not just informative, but also a good read. I have even found myself back home, thousands of kilometers from Ukraine, being warmed by the guidebooks engaging narrative style on many a cold winter night. I find myself referring to it again and again.

Why is this? Mainly because it dispenses with in just twenty pages the usual reams of information on hotels, restaurants, transport and all other essential, but seemingly endless details that clutter up almost all travel guides and travelers itineraries. This information is located where it should be in every travel guide, at the very end of the book. The publishers get right to the meat of the matter in the guidebooks first section “History In Facts And Figures”. The section title was something of a misnomer – and thank goodness for that!  There were of course facts, less figures (statistical figures), but an astonishing narrative, filled with stories, personages and legends that covered the high and low points during seven hundred memorable years of multicultural and multifaceted history in Lviv, Leopolis, Lwow, Lemberik, Lemberg and Lvov – the multiple personalities symbolized by the many names it acquired through the ages.

Statuary on a grave at Lychakiv Cemetery

Lviv is filled with sites of sublime beauty such as Lychakiv Cemetery

Fantastical & Non-Fictional – A Spectacular Past
The publishers of the guidebook understand what it takes to make history come alive, by using a story to transform a detail from merely interesting to highly fascinating. Take for instance how they introduce the fact that the Poltva River runs beneath the center of Lviv. “Much water has flowed under the bridges since the city’s foundation. And it is the water that poses the most fascinating of the town’s mysteries. Partly, it is attributed to the fact that the only river in Lviv, the Poltva, like the mythical Styx, flows in the darkness of underground crypts under the city’s main street. People say that when it rains, one can find a mysterious house somewhere by the railway station. The water that drips from the right side of its roof runs into the Baltic Sea, and from the left side – into the Black Sea. The legend could be explained by the fact that the city is situated right in the middle of the main watershed in Europe. The city’s very geographical position destined it to be the meeting place for the East and West, North and South.” Not only is that a well told tale, it also sets a scene, with “the darkness of underground crypts” and a “mysterious house”. At the same time it manages to convey crucial facts concerning the intrigue and importance of location in the history of Lviv.

Connections made in the text between factual information and seemingly unrelated subject matter showcase the stylistic powers of the authors. For instance, in a paragraph on St. John’s Church, whose genesis dates back to the 13th century, the reader learns of much more recent history pertinent to the religion and tourism in Lviv during the Soviet era (1944 – 1991). “In the soviet days, if a rare foreign tourist happened to come to the “closed” city of Lviv (under the Soviet rule some cities were closed for tourists for safety purposes; one could visit them only if he had permission issued by military authorities), it was commended he saw, among few other sacral edifices in town, the church of St. John.
The text also makes apt and telling comparisons that link past with present, such as when we learn that “Salt-mine ownership could be compared to owning an oil well nowadays” This statement is made in a sub-section expressing the wealth and power of the gentry during the 14th century. In another paragraph we are introduced to “Northern Rome” the “Eastern Gate” and “the Golden Book.” These terms evoke thoughts of fairy tales and the fantastical, yet they are actually historical. All part of the city’s spectacular past.

Fedorov Statue and Korniakt Tower

A good book can be the best guide – Fedorov Statue and Korniakt Tower

Everything & Everyone – Voices Heard On The Street
And there is more, so much more. The historical multiculturalism of the city is succinctly expressed in just a couple of sentences as, “A Lviv saying goes that when a Greek merchant was trading, two Jewish vendors were crying, but when an Armenian merchant came to the market Greeks would burst into tears. It was the fierce competition and national diversity that formed Lviv’s unique character.” Later we learn how the Ukrainians, who today make up approximately 90% of Lviv’s population, but were treated as second class citizens or worse in the city for centuries on end, made themselves heard in a unique way during the 16th century. “The Ukrainians made their presence in town known by means of the “Cyril” bell, placed on an elegant Renaissance belfry that had been erected by the Greek architect Cyril Korniakt. It was the loudest bell in town and the monks of the Dominican order often complained to the City Rada that the chime impeded them while conducting their services.

The class system was a notable and noticeable trait that affected everyone and everything in Lviv throughout its often fraught history. The following tale, from the time of Austrian rule, illustrates this. “Anyone fluent in German was sure to make a brilliant career and make a handsome fortune even in the poorest province of the Empire. Legend goes that it was then when the following funny story occurred. A local noble lady, accompanied by her friend, an Austrian official was approached by two beggars. One was local, the other – German. The first tramp got a copper, the latter – a silver coin. As she it explained it to her astonished friend, “tomorrow the German beggar might become a high official” and she wanted to make sure he remembered her.” Such stories say more than any number of demographic statistics or heavily footnoted monographs ever could.

As seen in Lviv - this is what the Touring Lviv Guidebook by Baltia-Druk does to visitors

As seen in Lviv – this is what the Touring Lviv Guidebook by Baltia-Druk does for visitors

Born Again – Lviv Into Life
Each time I arrive at the final paragraph of the “History In Facts And Figures” section entitled “Modern Lviv” I feel as though I have been taken on a rousing and illuminating ride, a tragic and triumphant introduction to the city. All done in just twenty short pages, interspersed with color photographs and a timeline adding substance, style and context. I am now primed to walk the cobbled alleyways, wide boulevards and photosynthetic parks, to experience for myself the intermingling of past and present, in one of Europe’s greatest cities. Yes this is Europe, make no mistake about it. As the authors remind us in the section’s final paragraph, “The rash statements made by some Ukrainian politicians, that Europe is a distant land evoke nothing but ironic smirks from Lviv inhabitants. Lviv has always been part of Europe, regardless of all the borders. It is only in Lviv a beggar will address you in several languages.” The high and the low, the possible and the improbable, all of it was, is and – let us hope – always will be a part of Lviv. Baltia-Druk’s splendid Touring Lviv Guidebook brings the city to life, both past and ever present.

Traces Of The Golden Rose Synagogue– Beyond the End of a History in Lviv (Part One – Text)

On a recent week long visit to Lviv in western Ukraine I was able to rent an apartment in the old city center. A UNESCO World Heritage Site, this elegant historic area acts as the cultural and touristic heart of the city. The interior of the apartment had been renovated and modernized. It contained all the creature comforts a person might need: a flat screen television (which I never turned on), a clothes washer, coffee maker, large living/bedroom. It was ultra-modern, with new paint, sparkling floors and a veneer of refinement. The apartment was located in what for centuries had been the Jewish section of the old town. I was reminded of this when I flung open the windows overlooking Bratan Rohatynsiv Street. My attention was drawn to a vacant lot, where along an opposite wall were the outlines of what had once been the famed Golden Rose Synagogue. Built by an Italian architect during the Renaissance, the synagogue had provided spiritual sustenance for Lviv’s Jews over a 350 year period. Tragically its storied existence mattered little to the Nazis who in 1941 stole its reliquaries and then during the summer of 1943 blew it up.

Subliminal Reactions – The Jews of Lviv
At the moment of destruction, the Golden Rose started a new existence, as an open wound and a place of memory. The area surrounding it still stands and is constantly being tidied up, restored, reconstructed and transformed, but the Golden Rose site still lies empty with a scant, few remnants of its former glory. Every day I opened the window and looked out at the void, a disturbing reminder of all that had been lost.  Then I turned around and looked at the polished, shiny surfaces of my accommodation. This was reality, a sublimely disconcerting one.  The Irish philosopher Edmund Burke defined the sublime as a feeling of astonishment ‘‘in which all [the soul’s] motions are suspended, with some degree of horror.’’ That pretty much summed up my emotions. Feelings such as these, when it comes to the fate of Lviv’s Jewish population during the war, are virtually impossible to come to terms with.

Jews played an outsized role in the history of Lviv. They were merchants and traders in the city ever since it was founded in the mid-13th century. Their commercial activities were vital to the city’s economy. They were also heavily involved in the cultural and religious life of the city. During the 19th century their numbers began to grow exponentially.  By 1930 the city’s Jewish population had swelled to one hundred thousand, accounting for nearly a third of the city’s population. Following the outbreak of World War II with the German invasion of Poland, tens of thousands of Polish Jews escaped the Nazis by fleeing eastward to Lwow (the Polish name for Lviv). The city had also been occupied by the Soviet Union. By the time of the German invasion of the Soviet Union on June 22, 1941, it is estimated that the number of Lwow’s Jewish inhabitants had doubled to 220,000. Just eight days after Operation Barbarossa began, in the late afternoon of June 30, 1941, German troops arrived in the city. Their occupation of the city would last until July 26, 1944. For Lwow’s Jewish community, this occupation was nothing short of an apocalypse.

The Golden Rose synagogue in 1916

The Golden Rose synagogue in 1916

Remnants of an Apocalypse – The Existence of Non-Existence
During the three years of German occupation, the Jewish population of the city plummeted from 220,000 to just over 800. Put another way Lviv lost 99.6% of its Jewish population.  The overriding majority of Lviv’s Jews were either murdered in pogroms, concentration camps or worked to death as slave labor. The scale of the crimes committed is a direct reflection of the Holocaust in the borderlands of the Soviet Union, where more than a million Jews were murdered, mostly by machine gun.  This has been termed the “Holocaust by Bullets.” The human destruction was mirrored by physical destruction of Jewish cultural landmarks, namely synagogues. The Nazis destroyed no less than 42 synagogues in the city, including the Golden Rose. Centuries of Jewish life in the city was obliterated during the three years of German occupation. What survived often ended up being paved or plowed over by Soviet development during the post-war years. Markets now sit atop historic Jewish cemeteries and new residents live in neighborhoods that were once all Jewish.

And yet there are still remnants both living and vanished of Jewish life in Lviv. There are a couple of active synagogues providing support to the 1,100 Jews that today call the city home. The most enduring presence of Jewish culture in Lviv are the shockingly poignant ruins and open spaces on the sites of once famous Jewish landmarks that have yet to disappear beneath development.  The most famous of these is the site of the Golden Rose synagogue. In a city once filled with synagogues this was the most famous, prominent and venerable. Despite the Nazis efforts, its destruction was never quite complete. Today some of the north wall remains, along with Hebrew inscriptions and other faint traces. The emptiness of the vacant lot at the site is an arresting reminder of what once was and in a sense always will be the epicenter of both Jewish existence and non-existence in Lviv.

Golden Rose Synagogue in 1941

The last known photograph of the intact Golden Rose Synagogue taken in 1941

Voices From Beyond The Grave – In The Words of Vasily Grossman
My visit to the site of the Golden Rose left me with a feeling of tragic ambivalence. It was hard to know what to make of the near totality of the destruction of Lviv’s Jewish heritage. I am at a loss for words to explain the feelings and thoughts I had on a Thursday afternoon, with fog and chill enveloping much of the city. I wandered across the site, took photos and pondered both what was left and what was not. Because words fail me I am leaving it to my photos and the words of Vasily Grossman, the famed Jewish author from Soviet Ukraine who wrote what is perhaps the greatest novel of World War II, Life and Fate, to provide interpretation of the feeling evoked by the site of the Golden Rose. Grossman’s writing often deals with the destruction of Eastern European Jewry, the nature of totalitarianism and the individual’s search for hope and meaning when confronted by evil. I find Grossman’s words (though they are not specifically referring to Lviv’s Jewish community) to encapsulate the experience of a visit to the Golden Rose and its remnants.

Click here to see Traces Of The Golden Rose Synagogue– Beyond the End of a History in Lviv (Part Two – Photos) with pictures taken by the author at the site of the Golden Rose accompanied by quotes from Vasily Grossman’s novels Life and Fate and Everything Flows.

Victory Indistinguishable From Defeat – The Gorlice-Tarnow Offensive (Part Two)

On May 2nd, the opening bombardment for the Gorlice-Tarnow Offensive started at the light of dawn. Over the next four hours, the Germans let loose a torrent of 700,000 shells. This was followed by a new tactical twist, as German storm troopers moved forward. The storm troopers were able to wreak havoc and chaos as they got behind enemy lines. When the Russians turned to face them, they were confronted with another wave of attackers on what a few hours earlier had been their front. Resistance was feeble. The German General Hermann Von Francois wrote of the hellish scene that unfolded as the battle began in earnest, “North of Gorlice a thick column of fire sprang up, as high as the houses, black masses of smoke swept up into the clouds. It was a gripping unforgettable spectacle. The tanks of an oil refinery had been ignited, either by our fire or perhaps deliberately by the Russians.”  Scenes such as this were common all along the 30 mile front of the attack. The Russian Third Army collapsed. In two days no less than six divisions were totally ruined. One Russian corps, the 24th, lost nearly all of its 40,000 men. A week after the offensive had begun, Russian losses ran upwards of 210,000, with one-third killed or wounded, while the other two-thirds had been captured.

German postcard showing war damage in Gorlice - the town was destroyed and had to be rebuilt

German postcard showing war damage in Gorlice – the town was destroyed and had to be rebuilt

German Steamroller/Russian Collapse – The Front Moves Further East
This was just the beginning. The German 11th Army poured into the gaping hole they had opened through the Russian lines. For their part, the Russians futilely attempted a retreat. The chaos led to tens of thousands more Russian soldiers surrendering. On June 3rd, just a month after the offensive’s start, the fortress of Przemysl, which the Russians had taken in March only after a six month siege, was surrendered by them with scarcely a fight. On June 22nd, Lemberg (Lviv, Ukraine today), the fourth largest city in Austria-Hungary was recovered. The pre-war borders were now reestablished. An offensive that had begun in order to relieve the beleaguered Austro-Hungarian forces in the Carpathian Mountains and keep the Russians from breaking into the Great Hungarian Plain had succeeded beyond the wildest dreams. The Russians were forced to not only pull back from the Carpathians, but they continued to retreat eastward. The German steamroller had advanced an average of ten miles a day during the offensive. It now looked like the war on the Eastern Front might be headed to a decisive and dramatic conclusion.

A big problem loomed for the Germans though. The vast spaces of the front made it increasingly difficult for the Germans to resupply their troops so far beyond their initial starting point. They soon put out peace feelers to the Russians, as they hoped to knock Russia out of the war and refocus their efforts on France. Russian Tsar Nicholas II stubbornly maintained his loyalty to the allies and refused to negotiate. This was one of two colossally bad decisions he would make during the summer of 1915. The Gorlice-Tarnow Offensive was over, but a full scale attack on the Russian Eastern Front sector was about to begin. The German high command now took the opportunity to use the success of the offensive to make a general attack against the Polish salient, a bulge in the Russian lines that had been created in 1914. The south side of the salient had been undermined by the offensive. Starting on July 13th new attacks took place on the north, west and southeastern sides of the salient. A total Russian collapse seemed eminent.

Russian World War I Military Cemetery in Kobylanka east of Gorlice

The Little That Was Left – A Russian World War I Military Cemetery in Kobylanka east of Gorlice (Credit: Tadeusz Kozik)

Temporary Victors/Ultimate Losers – Putting Gorlice-Tarnow In Context
On August 4th Warsaw, the capital of Russian Poland, surrendered without a fight. Fortresses at Kovno and Brest-Litovsk, among several others capitulated. By September 18th when the fortress at Vilna (Vilnius, Lithuania) surrender to German forces the rout was complete. The German and Austro-Hungarian forces had pushed the Eastern Front 500 kilometers (310 miles) back. This unprecedented outcome became known as the Great Retreat to the Russians. They had suffered 500,000 casualties and nearly a million had been captured. The loss of men was matched by the loss of material. Whole swathes of the countryside were burned and bridges destroyed by retreating Russian troops. Polish Jews became scapegoats as thousands were murdered, raped or robbed. This was the unknown Holocaust twenty-five years before a more infamous one would take place. The Germans inherited a wasteland. The Russian Army’s disaster became known as the Great Retreat. Yet the Russians refused to settle for a negotiated peace. Paradoxically, the retreat in many ways strengthened their overall strategic position. There was no salient to defend, as their lines were now straight. The front line had also been shortened from 1,600 (960) to under a thousand kilometers (600 miles). The German supply lines were beyond their limits. Russia had men, material and space to spare, for now.

The worst outcome for the Russian Empire could not be foreseen at the time.  In the midst of the retreat Tsar Nicholas II dismissed Grand Duke Nikolai Nikolaevich as Chief of Staff of the Army. He now assumed supreme command of all Russian forces. This was a fatal decision. He would now bear the brunt of blame for anything that went wrong with the Russian war effort. This was a crucial decision that eventually helped lead to revolution and eventually cost the Romanov Dynasty its very existence. Gorlice-Tarnow and the general offensive which followed was not the death knell of the Russian war effort, but it was an unmitigated disaster. For the Germans and Austro-Hungarians it was a pyrrhic victory. It gave them a false sense of confidence that they were winning the war. In actuality they were only winning battles and offensives that led them deeper into an eastern oblivion.

Kriegsfriedhof (German) World War I Military Cemetery in Gorlice

German & Austro-Hungarian forces sustained 87,000 casualties during the offensive -Kriegsfriedhof World War I Military Cemetery in Gorlice (Credit: Tadeusz Kozik)

The Ultimate Outcome –A Microcosm Of The Eastern Front
A Google news search for Gorlice-Tarnow around the centenary brought up a lone English language article about a reenactment of the battle in Poland. It was a minor affair. At best it provided some entertainment for the locals and created a bit of awareness of the catastrophe which occurred in their backyard long ago. The reality is that no reenactment can do justice to the destruction wrought upon the area by the offensive. The Germans and Austro-Hungarians counted it as a glorious victory, but lost hundreds of thousands of soldiers in the campaign. They gained nothing, but territory that was filled with people who opposed them only a little less than they did the Russians. Seen this way, Gorlice-Tarnow was much like the ultimate outcome of the Great War on the Eastern Front, a case where victory was scarcely distinguishable from defeat.


Flat Screens & Fin de siècle – Lviv’s Hotel George: Between Past & Present

Well if it was good enough for Honore Balzac and Johannes Brahms, Maurice Ravel and two famous Franzs, Liszt and Josef not to mention another famous Josef, Pilsudski that is, then surely it would be good enough for me. I am talking about the Hotel George. This venerable lodging, located in the historic heart of Lviv, Ukraine, is the most famous hotel in one of the most famous cities in Eastern Europe. It is well known, both as an architectural monument and also for the famous personages who once strode its halls. Located in Lviv’s historic core, its stately, classical stature has been known to inspire passers-by to gawk in amazement. All this sounds like something out of a tourist brochure, though I did not steal it from one. Instead those first few sentences are pretty much the image of the Hotel George from the outside looking in, but what is the view from the inside looking out. To find out you have to spend a night or perhaps several within those historic walls of the “George” as it is affectionately known. I had that opportunity so I took the chance.

The Hotel George - one of the most famous historic landmarks in Lviv, Ukraine

The Hotel George – one of the most famous historic landmarks in Lviv, Ukraine

Modernity Or Mystique at “the George”
The first thing one should know in order to properly understand the Hotel George as it stands today, is that half of the rooms have been renovated and half have not. Being budget minded, I procured a room in the un-renovated half. This was as much by accident as by choice. The room came via an internet hotel booking site and was available at an alarmingly low cost, to the tune of fifteen dollars. At many a hotel in Western Europe or the United States, this might pay for breakfast and that would be about it. Incredibly, the rate included not only a room, but also a full breakfast each day. This was a sublimely low cost. There had to be a catch and of course there was. It seemed that my room did not have a toilet or shower. I would have to make my way to those when nature or an urge for cleanliness called.

I must admit that I never saw the renovated rooms at the Hotel George so my opinion is skewed. From what the hotel website shows, the refurbished rooms look both comfortable and fabulous. They are pretty much what one would expect for really nice accommodations in the western world. That is all well and good, but why would any American or west European visit Lviv to experience what they could at home. When people think of a night at the Hotel George, what should come to mind are not flat screen televisions or mints on a pillow, but an old, stately building with a fin de siècle Austro-Hungarian mystique. This is the kind of place that can evoke the end of an era, but never quite the beginning of a new one.

Down a staircase at the Hotel George - into the corridors of time

Down a staircase at the Hotel George – into the corridors of time

Haute Couture at “the George”
If the Hotel George can put their guests in a position to reimagine Honore Balzac smoking and drinking the night away while playing endless games of cards until dawn, so much the better. Now that would really be something, but the Hotel George really was something. After all, Balzac chose to stay and play there not once, not twice, but thrice. During the 19th and early 20th century, it was the place to stay for a couple of reasons. One was that it offered superlative accommodation. It also gained fame because of its hometown. Without the haute couture of Lviv, the Hotel George would have been nothing more than a large inn, in a provincial city, on the forgotten frontier of far eastern Europe’s fringes.

Straus, Liszt, Brahms and Ravel did not come to Lviv to stay at the Hotel George. Instead, they stayed at “the George” because of concerts that were held in what was once a cultural hub of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Yes it may have been on the fringes of the Habsburg’s domains, but it was also an intellectual and cultural powerhouse for the region. When I scanned the list of famous guests at the Hotel, it was not the names that impressed me, but the fact that they all had a reason for coming here. This was not an easy place for the glitterati of culture, intellect and politics to travel to. Nonetheless, they came and so many of them stayed at the Hotel George.

Glitter & gleam - a chandelier in the front lobby of the Hotel George

Glitter & gleam – a chandelier in the front lobby of the Hotel George

Spooky Charm – Into the Heart of “the George”
So what was it like? Well for the un-renovated (which I will call myself since that was my experience) it was a bit surreal. The lobby gleamed and sparkles. There was a doorman greeting guests, friendly English speaking staff awaiting arrivals and an air of refinement about the place. Service was very personal and old fashioned in a good way. Wake up calls were not automated, but personalized, with a friendly, heavily accented voice on the other end wishing a cheery good morning. The staff was attentive to an astonishing degree. When I left at 4:30 a.m. to catch the morning express to Budapest, the doorman who had fallen asleep, suddenly awoke at the sound of my footsteps and leapt to attention. I have never seen anyone move so fast, so early in the morning. It was more jarring for me, than it was for him.

As for my room, it was a bit rough around the edges. The plaster was cracked in a few places, but this was really no problem. The lock to the door, looked as though it was installed at the turn of the 20th rather than 21st century. The most memorable aspect of the room was it spaciousness. A ball could have been held in the place. Shiny gold bedspreads offered a bit of gaudy splendor covering the two small beds. The beds looked more like museum pieces than sleep units, as the cavernous surroundings made them stand out. The only drawback was having to get up in the middle of the night to unlock the door and make my way to the bathroom. Stumbling out into a large hallway, covered in a deep red carpet, I made my way down a roomy corridor that felt like the haunt of ghosts rather than guests. There was a spooky charm to the un-renovated section. It was a trip not just down a hotel hallway, but back in time.

A picture of a picture of a picture - the past is ever present at the Hotel George

A picture of a picture of a picture – the past is ever present at the Hotel George

The Un-renovated – Glimpses of the Past
I truly hope that half of the Hotel George stays un-renovated. My reasons are selfish, I want to feel the past, I need to feel the past. This was one of the few places I could actually get in touch with a former world and glimpse, if just for a moment, time turned back a hundred years or more. It was here, as I walked through the empty corridors and floated down the wide staircases, that I felt for once and all time that the Hotel George was a place where the past can truly be recaptured.

After This: I Will Never Fear What Is Coming Next – Chop To Lviv by Rail

(Note to Reader: This was written on a train trip from Budapest to Lviv, specifically the stretch after crossing the Hungary-Ukraine border at Chop, Ukraine until Lviv)

15 Chickens, a Pink Gown and a few bright blue towels hanging from a clothesline, these are the only colorful scenes in the backyard of tumble down, endless squat houses and a landscape the color of drizzle.

The current count: 10 bicycles and 3 cars

A cyclist is riding away with a bundle of stuff from the town dump. Within sight and smell of this dump are nice, two story houses, looking prosperous and indifferent.

A small road and paved at that, but every 50 meters there are piles of fill that have yet to be deposited in an endless succession of potholes. Two men, one younger, the other middle aged, shovel the fill in a hole. Only 25 or so more to go, Sissyphus would be proud.

Border towns always suck, but at least Chop has a memorable name.

A slender young lady walking in the middle of nowhere along tracks three railroad lines away, wearing a bright red winter coat, black tights and talking on a cell phone. Everyone is heading somewhere.

Bicycle swerving all over a pothole covered road. The rider is talking on his cell phone.

I get the stinging suspicion that this place was better off a hundred years ago, but not much. This is what happens to an area when history decides to have its way with it

Train stops for no apparent reason, in no apparent place. Footsteps, voices, there must be a station here. I cannot bother to look.

Eight lines of railway tracks the other side of my window and not a train, not a car, not anything on them.

Entry into another world - Ukraine Passport Stamp

Entry into another world – Ukraine Passport Stamp

Four cars and one bike at a road crossing. Now that is progress!

Every time I see an abandoned concrete blockhouse I imagine something sinister.

Everything that must be built, must be made from concrete. This was communism’s rule of thumb.

The Romans could build temples and tombs, arches and columns, roads and baths from concrete. The communists could only build a disaster.

Anytime I see a no smoking sign on a train in Eastern Europe I prepare for the smell of smoke. The sign should state, No Smoking – Right NOW!

The further from the border, the better things get. There are even green fields in Eastern Europe in the winter.

I can see the Carpathians in the distance. Thank God for hope!

I spot a marvelously kept cemetery on the edge of a village. The dying, grey light in the brown fog of a winter afternoon cannot even snuff out the colorful flowers and wreaths covering the headstones, easily spotted through a blurry train window from 400 meters away. These are people who respect their dead.

I would never consider myself a religious man, but every time I see a church steeple rising above a village I feel comforted.

The first Orthodox onion domes, two wrapped in gold, two in blue. That has to be worth it. The place they rise from looks to be more like a town than a village. On the edge of the town, there is another cemetery. Beside it an abandoned collective farm, the manor houses of communism. Their labor day has come and gone.

I just want this heavy industry to end. Well it did, but it never quite went away. It feels like it never will.

This landscape can swallow you with its nothingness. This is what outer space feels like on earth

Ideas of progress are never to be trusted in this land. Not ever.

On the rails somewhere between Chop and Lviv Ukraine

Reflections – On the rails somewhere between Chop and Lviv Ukraine

Sometimes I look out the window at the encroaching darkness and feel like I could spend the rest of the evening hiding. I have no idea why.

I can feel my hands getting dirty while I am sitting here looking out the window.

Lights, how marvelous. They remind me of home.

More lights, oh no, it’s another damn factory. This is the only one that looks like it is still working. There are lights on full glow, a good five stories up. I am suspicious. I think they are left on to appear that something is being done. An efficient inefficiency..

Smokestacks – the skyscrapers of sub-carpathia.

Regulation - mandatory but not necessary

Regulation – mandatory but not necessary

The train slows, there must be a station coming. Out the window there is another train partially hidden by a high, fading white wall and all the lights in the cars are on. No one, not a single person is sitting in any of the ultra-illuminated interiors of these cars. Through their frosted glass the vacant rows of seats look frightening, like a murder is about to happen or already did.

The train whistle blows, the singular voice of hope, sweet, shrill and pure.

Looking out the window, I saw a man standing in a lighted room with his coat still on and back turned. I have never felt so sorry for someone. I have never felt so sorry for myself.

What good would a shopping mall do anyone right here, right now. What good has a shopping mall ever done anyone?

A Trabant at a railroad crossing, its headlights illuminate a cobblestone road, a light from a near past casting a glare on a distant one.

The future in this land is but a shadow surrounded by darkness.

After this I will never fear what is coming next.

At the border it felt like we would never get started. Now it feels as though we will never stop.

Train finally comes to a halt right beside a supermarket. The store name is written in cursive Cyrillic. Now I am really done for!

The attendants have it in for me. It all started when we started on this journey. It seems that one of the attendants was sleeping in the compartment that I was supposed to inhabit. I did not know she was an attendant. It is not like she was wearing monogrammed pajamas with Ukrainian State Railways emblazoned on the front of them. She refused me my rightful place, with grunts that slowly grew to high pitched moans. Finally her compatriot came and directed me to an empty compartment. That was fine, but then the request for my passport. I gave it to her. She glanced at it, raised an eyebrow and blurted out, “America.” Next question, where was I going?  “Lviv.” Where was she going? “Lviv.” I tried to tell her I had been to Lviv before. She did not comprehend. All I could think of was Rynok Square in the old city center so that was what I said. She looked at me quizzically. I said it again. Then I tried to stammer out what I believed was the Ukrainian name of this square, Ploscha Rynok. She looked at me confusedly, so I tried saying it louder. She just stared at me. So I said it even louder. Loudness of course is the last refuge of the incomprehensible. Finally she left. Probably did not care to get yelled at, in a polite manner I might add. Later I made an even worse mistake. I went to the bathroom and forgot to lock the door. She walked in, but I had my back turned and she could not have seen a thing. She shrieked. I heard her stomp away and slam the door to her compartment. A couple of minutes later I came out and made my way back down the hall. She came out of her room and as I looked back, she barked several words at me in Ukrainian. She then made a hand gesture showing me how to lock the door. She hurried past and went in to see her colleague. I heard whispers. A scandalous glance was cast my way, followed by loud snickering. Now I am met with silences and icy glares. Thank goodness I brought several large bottles of water. Just asking for such at this point might cause an international incident. I can also use them to relieve myself, if it comes to that. Maybe it already has.

Climate control - Ukrainian Railways style

Climate control – Ukrainian Railways style

It is getting hot! According to a chart posted in the corridor that even I can somewhat comprehend, it seems that if it is 5 degrees Celsius outside than the heat should be set at 40 Celsius in the train. Well 40 Celsius is nearly 100 degrees Fahrenheit and it gets worse, like Death Valley worse. 0 Celsius outside gets the heat knocked up to 50 Celsius. For every decline of 5 Degrees Celsius another 10 Celsius is added until finally at -20 C the heat gets ratcheted up to 90 C. Glad there is a warm spell hitting the area at the moment. I wanted a train to Lviv not a 14 hour sauna! I know Ukraine is having some issues with heating during the winter, but if this is their idea of energy conservation they are going to need a Saudi Arabian supply of oil reserves just to get through a few winters.

The time to learn the Cyrillic alphabet is not on an insanely long train trip while staring ignorantly at an encyclopedic explanation of regulations no one ever bothers to look at. The only thing mandatory about these kinds of regulations is the posting of them.

No one I know would have taken this train route. It is through a land they know nothing about, to see nothing in particular. It not about either the journey or the destination, it is about the perception of decay and decadence.

It is getting hotter.