Odessa’s Hidden Courtyards

Odessa’s hidden courtyards intrigued, fascinated, and more often than not, surprised me.

Around the corner from Cathedral Square in the old town was my hostel, the door of which was deep inside a gated, old courtyard. The pavement was in upheaval, paint was sorely lacking everywhere, but it was clean. Laundry was often hanging out to dry between the walls of houses which surrounded the inside of the courtyard.

I eventually came to the conclusion that my atmospheric courtyard was typical of Odessa’s old traditional courtyards which were hidden throughout old town. The occupants were of diverse nationality, age, and profession. It was scarce on beauty, but revealed an interesting slice of Odessa life and culture.

My courtyard became my *Little Odessa. I soon felt very much at home there. I periodically exchanged friendly greetings in English with two Muslim women outside the entrance of their stately, two-story house. A couple of times I observed a young professional man tapping on a window as he approached a door of a house in the courtyard. The door opened quickly thereafter and he vanished inside. Once I was faster than he was and got a glimpse of a stunning, flower-filled interior. I often exchanged smiles with a middle-aged woman who was taking her dog out for a walk. Two adolescents occasionally played a noisy game of football (soccer) until someone called them in.

I observed a different kind of courtyard activity just outside my dorm window where I often sat while writing this blog. A large paved area with a volleyball net was surrounded by buildings. It was often a buzz of activity with students from the high school next door who were playing volleyball or football (soccer). First there would be a scurry of excitement, then a whistle, then total silence as the group exited the play area. Then I would get back to work until the next pleasant disturbance. Fun!

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No courtyard was more thought-provoking than the one where the Museum of History of Odessa Jews was located, which was a few blocks from my hostel. In the rear of the crumbling courtyard was a small apartment where four Jewish families had lived together during Soviet times. This museum pictured the lives of the Jewish population of Odessa before the Holocaust with a rich, diverse collection of items donated by descendants of Jewish families who managed to survive those times.

I couldn’t help but compare this humble museum to the grandiose Jewish history museum that I visited a couple years ago in Warsaw, Poland. The museum in Warsaw delved deep into centuries of Jewish history. In comparison, the museum in Odessa gave me the feeling I had walked into the lives of several Jewish Odessa families in the 20th century. It was cozy, informative, and heartbreaking, all at the same time.

The new handbook City Guide of Jewish Odessa, which I purchased at this museum, was a great help in my quest to learn about the city’s heritage. The smile on the fresh-faced Jewish boy on the cover made me feel like he was welcoming me into his world, which he did through this well-written guidebook.

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On the wall of one of Odessa’s more artistic courtyards was a mural containing the famed Russian poet, playwright, and novelist, Alexander Pushkin, in a very casual, relaxed pose. Born into Russian nobility in 1799, he was the great grandson of an African slave. He was eventually banished, for his political poems, to remote southern Russia, where Odessa was located.

It seemed every time I turned around there was some sort of remembrance of Pushkin, whether in the form of a statue, a bust, or a wall painting. This wall painting was the most endearing of all these remembrances, presenting him as a charmer, which I understand he was.

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* Little Odessa was a nickname sometimes given to Brighton Beach, NY, due to the Russian immigrants who settled there, largely Russian Jews, from Odessa.

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My Arrival in Odessa on the Black Sea

As I alighted from my nine-hour overnight southbound train ride from Kiev to Ukraine’s strategic port city of Odessa, I was greeted by the delightful, sea breezes of the Black Sea. It was mid March and spring was on the horizon in this southern port city.

Odessa is the third most populous city of Ukraine and a major tourism center, seaport and transportation hub located on the northwestern shore of the Black Sea. It is the only major port of Ukraine. Two other Ukrainian ports are off limits because of the current political situation with Russia concerning the Crimean Peninsula.

I shared a compartment on the train with three young men from Kiev who were on holiday for the weekend. They had booked an apartment on the sea in Odessa through Airbnb. One of the men named Sergio spoke fluent English. He worked in technology for a company out of Norway that has an office in Kiev. The common language among the workers in his company was English. We all talked into the night.

On arrival in Odessa’s main train station we all walked a half hour to the heart of Old Town and found a hearty breakfast in an Irish pub on vul Derybasivska, Odessa’s main commercial street. It was near a McDonald’s which had a delightful outdoor seating area outside a historic building. It was the most inviting McDonald’s I have seen overseas. An international money exchange place was located next door with exchange rates posted to exchange Euros, US dollars, and Russian Rubles, with Ukrainian currency (hryvnia).

After saying goodbye to my new friends I headed for my hostel which was located just off vul Derybasivska near Cathedral Square.

Every time I strolled along pedestrian vul Derybasivska, whether day or night, it was always bustling. A huge sign on one street stall read “Israeli Street Food” in English. Ponies, dressed to attract children, were usually standing or parading in the vicinity of the Israeli food stall, their owners looking for families with small children to entice for a ride. The street was lined with restaurants and coffee houses with outdoor seating offering front row seats for people watching. Buskers and fire performers provided entertainment for the price of a coin.

Cathedral Square is considered the spiritual center of Odessa because Transfiguration Cathedral, the main cathedral of the city, is situated here. The historic orthodox cathedral that used to grace this square starting in 1808 during Czarist Russia times, was destroyed by the Soviets in 1936. It was subsequently rebuilt starting in 1999.

A large market of hand-made souvenirs and artwork lined the sidewalks and plaza. There was a definite Jewish presence in some of the paintings, with several men wearing a *kippah. I found this particularly interesting considering the history of the Jews in Odessa.

Once an ancient Greek settlement, the Odessa region was eventually ruled by the Ottoman Empire. Empress of Russia Catherine the Great founded the port city in 1794, promising religious freedom and economic opportunity.  It was to provide new markets for the Russian Empire.

Odessa Jews came from the *shetyls of Eastern Europe looking for a better life during this time. The port city soon became home to one of Europe’s largest Jewish populations and a center of Ukrainian Jewish life.

On the eve of World War II, approximately one third of Odessa’s population was Jewish (200,000). The city’s Jewish population was nearly eliminated during WWII by Nazi-allied Romania. Now it is about 3% (45,000)

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* kippah – a brimless cap worn by male Jews

**Shetyl – a small town with a large Jewish population which existed in Central and Eastern Europe before the Holocaust.

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Saying goodbye to Lviv

Visiting the Museum of Folk Architecture and Rural Life was my last adventure before departing Lviv.

It was a bit of a hike on dirt paths through a hilly, landscaped park to get to the open air Museum of Folk Architecture in the outskirts of Lviv. Along the way I ran into a friendly young lady named Natalia who was walking her dog. She confirmed, upon my inquiry, that I was going in the right direction and then offered to accompany me.

Natalia, a native of Lviv, studied English in her early school years, then stopped. We still managed to communicate in English quite well. Her job is an insurance sales agent. Her passion is landscape architecture, which she does for a hobby. Twenty minutes later we arrived at the open-air museum. Our brief, friendly encounter was heart-warming.

One aim of the Museum of Folk Architecture and Rural Life is showing rural life in all its forms from villages in western Ukraine. A highlight of the outdoor museum was the unusual architecture of several well-preserved wooden churches including their fine ecclesiastical interiors. One church was a part of the UNESCO World Heritage List of wooden Orthodox (and some Eastern Catholic) churches of the Carpathian Region in Poland and Ukraine which were built between 16th and 19th centuries.

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Following are a few photos in memory of my experience in Lviv, a multicultural city that exudes European Charm and UNESCO history. 

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The Cafe Culture of Lviv

Lviv is often referred to as the coffee capital of Ukraine. Three centuries of European influence in the city have left a stamp in the Old Town in the form of unique, atmospheric cafes, with coffee dominating the scene.

Because I was staying in Old Town, I enjoyed visiting many of them frequently. In Rynok Square (Market Square) the street level of historic tenement houses, which are protected by UNESCO, are occupied mostly by commercial establishments – but what delightful commercial establishments some of them are!

The coffee complex

Lvivska Kopalnya Kava, for example, is a popular coffee complex in Rynok Square. It consists of a coffee-themed souvenir shop, a section where you can purchase recently mined and milled beans, plus two cafes. One cafe was a charming, light-filled, covered courtyard located deep inside the complex behind the shop. On weekend nights live music packed the place. I first discovered the inviting courtyard cafe when I was looking for the Lviv Ethnographic Museum. I finally found the stairway access to he museum in the back of the shop next to the cafe. The displays of traditional dress and way of life in the Lviv area was interesting and well done. I found the diversity of this complex intriguing, considering coffee was at its core.

The gingerbread shop

The young staff at the Lvivska Maysternya Pryanykiv (gingerbread shop) got used to me dropping by daily for a couple of their freshly-baked gingerbread cookies. One day as I entered the back of the shop where the cafe was, I noticed two staff persons behind the counter focusing intently on some writing material. They said they were learning French in order to better serve their customers. Another time when I came in, a staff person was patiently teaching children from the community, at a table full of colorful frosting, how to decorate cookies, while their Mothers looked on. I loved dropping in frequently, not necessarily for the delicious cookies, but more because there was always something interesting going on there.

Atlas Cafe

One evening was girl’s night out for myself and my four roommates from my hostel. Our place of choice was the historic, candle-lit Atlas Cafe which was tucked in a corner of Rynok Square. Its dark, carved wood interior with high hand-painted ceilings, brass chandeliers, and oil paintings on the walls, all added drama and mystique to the place. It was the favorite gathering place of bohemians before WWII*.   The interior was badly damaged during the war and is now completely restored.

Honey” restaurant/cafe

Honey” (translated), was a delightful, little cafe/restaurant on one of Old Town’s cobblestone streets near Rynok Square. On weekend evenings Dennis, a Ukrainian guitar player, could be found perched on a stool in front of a widow of the cafe while singing romantic ballads in English, French, and Ukrainian.  He never used any sheet music.  His music, the charming staff, and traditional desserts offered by the cafe, always combined to make a delightful evening for me.  Once I expressed my appreciation to Dennis for his multilingual talents.  He commented that he will not sing any songs in Russian as it is not popular to do so at this time, due to the current political situation between Ukraine and Russia.  

The strudel shop

Whenever I wanted an inviting place to work on my blog, I often visited Lvivska Plyatsky, a cafe in Rynok Square that sells fresh hot apple strudel with several choices of sauces. On arrival I would order some tea and apple strudel at the counter, find a cozy table, open up my computer, and make myself at home. Inspiration flowed, as long as I wasn’t too distracted by the beautiful people around me.

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*Atlas Cafe is included in “Jewish Lviv: 100 Addresses”  https://lia.lvivcenter.org/en/storymaps/100-addresses/

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Lviv’s Street Markets – a Treasure

Visiting some of the numerous street markets in Lviv was a joy and a challenge at the same time. They were colorful, fun, insightful into the local culture, and continually challenged my language skills.

I often walked through the Vernissage Market because it was conveniently located between my hostel and the Opera House, which I frequently enjoyed. Since Ukrainian independence in 1991, the market, often referred to as the “Souvenir Market,” has occupied the area where a building once stood. The building had been bombed during WWII and never replaced.

Vernissage Market offers an assortment of handcrafts and local works of art, among other things. Paintings were displayed under barren trees with a church looming overhead. An assortment of items for sale were spread out at various places on the ground and on tables. Linens and garments for sale were hanging from long ropes. I resisted buying a nice piece of brass ware due to its weight. I would have had to carry it in my backpack, which is already too heavy, until I return home in a few weeks.

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One day Taras, the local young man whom I introduced in a recent Lviv posting, invited me to go with him to the Krakivsky Market in the old Jewish Quarter. The famous market occupies the site of the old Jewish cemetery which had been there for centuries, and was subsequently destroyed by the Nazis during the Holocaust. The market is located next to the dome-topped, former Jewish Hospital which was built in the 17th century and is now a maternity hospital.

At one of the market entrances I paused in contemplation, aware of the tragedy that befell the once hallowed ground of the Jews which I was about to walk upon. I then descended into the depths of the huge marketplace.

Some foodstuff and clothing were being sold on open tables and benches. Others were being sold in more up-scale enclosed glass stalls and buildings. At one point we came across a most welcome open area in the middle of the marketplace, where we were able to simply stop and take a breather. Exploring the labyrinth of the marketplace was an adventure, but I was grateful to have a friend with me who knew his way around.

 

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Lviv’s Jewish Legacy

One morning shortly after my arrival in Lviv, I joined a *Free Walking Tour of Old Town” at the Neptune statue in Rynok. It was a cold, blistery day. Our tour guide Nicole suggested we stop mid-way through our tour for a coffee to warm up. The cozy coffee house she introduced us to had been a Jewish shop before the war. At the entrance the post-war plaster had been removed, revealing pre-war inscriptions in Yiddish, Polish and German.

That afternoon I visited the museum at the Hesed-Arieh Jewish Center, the All-Ukrainian Jewish Charitable Foundation. There I found a map called “Jewish Lviv: 100 Addresses”**. This tourist map identifies 100  buildings and sites related to old Jewish Lviv. It provided some historic background about the cafe my tour group had stopped at earlier that day. The map became an important source of Jewish information for me during my  Lviv visit.

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The Golden Rose Synagogue is a UNESCO World Heritage site incorporated into UNESCO Lviv – the Ensemble of the Historic Center. All that was left standing following its destruction by the Nazis in 1941 was a couple of walls and the foundation. On this foundation is a holocaust memorial consisting of a series of stone plaques.

On one of the plaques it read: “It’s a beautiful city, but also a graveyard for 150,000 Jews.”  It was written by Eli Brauner.  His ancestors built the Golden Rose Synagogue in 1582.

Since the end of the 18th century until 1939, Jews were about a third of Lviv population.  In 1939 Lviv’s population was 340,000 of whom 110,000 were Jews. Today there are about 1200 Jews out of a population of over 700,000***.

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Baczewski Restaurant which is just off Rynok Square, is the place to go in Lviv for a well-priced, first class breakfast buffet in a leafy courtyard, while being entertained by a classical pianist.

The restaurant and adjacent shop which sells fine spirits, celebrate the history of the wealthy Jewish  Baczewski family. Their family business of fine spirits has been in Lviv since 1782. The Baczewski factory was the first factory to launch the mass production of vodka in the world. The family escaped to Austria in 1939. The huge distillery in Lviv was destroyed during WWII. Production resumed in Lviv a few years ago.

I was told to arrive for brunch at 8am to beat the crowd.  The patrons at that hour appeared to be mostly tourists. A group of friendly, young American Jehovah Witnesses sat near me. 

As I left the restaurant one morning, the pianist was playing the Viennese Waltz. Baczewski Restaurant is a slice of European flavor in the middle of Lviv’s multi-cultural Old Town. What a treat!

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* Free Walking Tour – www.lvivbuddy.com

** Jewish Lviv: 100 Addresses – https://lia.lvivcenter.org/en/storymaps/100-addresses/

*** www.history.ucsb.edu/projects/holocaust/Resources/history_of_lviv.htm

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Lviv – Where History and Culture Blend Harmoniously with Music

Lviv’s historic center is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. I stayed right in the heart of it, just off Plohcha Rynok (Market Square). Rynok Square is dominated by City Hall in the middle. The east side is lined with palace museums, one of which was owned by a Polish king. Fountains with Greek mythological figures dot the square. Historic, tenement houses which are occupied on street level with shops, restaurants, cafes and pubs, line the square. Many have underground cellar pubs.

Lviv is a little slice of Europe, more so than the former Soviet capital of Kiev. This is due, in part, to its far western location within Ukraine in Galicia, a historical and geographic region between Central and Eastern Europe.

Lviv is a magical city with a turbulent history, especially during the 20th century. By all appearances it is recovering well. Live music of various genres greeted me at every turn, whether it was simply by walking around as a tourist, dining day or night, or by searching for it.

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Rynok Square is always alive with music. One afternoon as I was passing through the square, a young guitar player was performing pop songs in front of one of the palace museums on the east side. Under the clock tower of City Hall, a lively brass band had their audience swaying to their music.  Two men on a sidewalk were playing traditional tunes and were dressed accordingly.  A Hare Kirsna religious group was just coming into the square from a side street, in song.

Each day at the top of the hour, quite regularly, a trumpet player opened a door from a third-story window near the clock tower of City Hall, extended his trumpet out of the window, played a brief tune, waived to the crowd below, then quickly disappeared behind a wooden shutter. If I heard it, I quickly proceeded to the window where he was playing to see if I could get a glimpse of the elusive player. I saw him only twice. This game of cat and mouse is apparently played regularly by many tourists.

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I expected to find beautiful organ music in a church in Lviv, but instead found it at the Organ Hall and at the National Museum of Religion. Due to centuries of European influence in Lviv, a large percentage of churches are Greek Catholic churches, and they traditionally don’t use organs.

I was introduced to Taras, a charming young man from Lviv, by a friend in the States. Taras was hired last year to develop a former Polish Catholic church into a concert hall. Many organs that were in churches around Ukraine were destroyed during communist times, but this one was saved. As a guest of Taras, who was the organizer, I attended a beautiful classical concert with organ, piano and a tenor singer, in this venue. The setting was exquisite.

I heard another lovey organ recital on a restored 17th century organ at the Museum of Religious History. It had been acquired from the neighboring Dominican Cathedral. After the concert Mr. Pivnov, the performer, proudly showed me some of the details of the treasured organ which he had restored himself.

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