Podil, Kiev – Beyond Kontraktova Square

The golden domes of St. Andrew’s Cathedral are outlined among the vines in this photo to the left taken from a window of my accommodations in Podil. The light and the draping limbs of barren trees express a rather esoteric feeling I sometimes felt when I walked the streets of Podil, due to the tragic WWII history that took place there.

Thousands of Jews who still lived in Podil at the time of the Nazi occupation in 1941 were massacred by German forces at a ravine at nearby Babi Yar in a few days time. 

It was an act that became one of the most notorious episodes of the Holocaust.

After the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 and the subsequent Ukrainian Independence, there was a revival of Jewish community life in Kiev. Today there are approximately 20,000 Jews in Kiev. Two major synagogues serve this community, the Brodsky Choral Synagogue in the Old Town (downtown) and the Great Choral Synagogue of Kyiv in Podil.

One day while exploring Podil’s narrow, quaint streets, I visited the Great Choral Synagogue in Kyiv, the oldest one in Ukraine. It was built in 1895 under the rule of the Russian Empire. The stunning Moorish-style synagogue was accessed through a courtyard along with three kosher dining establishments, a lovely kosher 23-room hotel, and a mikva (ritual bath).

After visiting the synagogue I had some delicious soup in a tiny cafe which was tucked away on the 2nd floor of an unmarked building in the far corner of the courtyard. The receptionist at the hotel chuckled as he invited me to eat there telling me it was “generally for the workers.” He then proceeded to show me the elegant kosher restaurant, called Takida, which could be accessed from the hotel lobby or the street.

As I departed, an unmarked van with driver pulled into the courtyard. A lovely Jewish family emerged and checked into the hotel. The two teenage girls were obviously excited to be there. I could see that these guests were going to be well taken care of.

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The historic Zhituya Rynok (market) in Podil has been the main shopping center of the city since the 15th century, due mainly to the proximity of the Dnieper River and the harbor. It was here that I was introduced to fresh-squeezed pomegranate juice. This juice has became my drink of choice in Ukraine along with-”uzvar” a traditional spiced fruit compote.

Street vendors, bundled up for the cold, lined the sidewalk in front of the old marketplace. Their wares were spread out on low makeshift platforms.Fresh honey in all sizes of unlabeled jars and containers looked particularly interesting. Inside I pondered the displays of fish for sale, wondering which came from the nearby Black Sea and which came from some distant port. In every market I have visited in Ukraine the meat market takes a dominant position. This was no exception in this market. It is understandable given the popularity of meat in the Ukrainian culture. As my trustworthy Lonely Planet guide book to Ukraine put it: “…most Ukrainians are carnivores by nature.”

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Zhituya Rynok is surrounded by temples and churches. One of them is the Florivsky Monastery, a women’s convent dating from the 15th century. I followed a lady in black through an opening next to a lovely old church and found myself in the quiet, well-manicured courtyard of the Florivsky Monastery. The door was ajar to the 18th century main church, the Church of the Ascension. It had managed to elude Podil’s devastating fire of 1811. The interior was stunning.

During the time I was enjoying the peace and quiet of the monastery complex, several old women individually approached the well in the courtyard and filled their containers with water. Much conversation took place among them.

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Podil, Kiev’s Historical Commercial Center – my home away from home in Ukraine

Kiev’s historic neighborhood of Podil sits along a bank of the lovely Dnieper River, one of the major rivers of Europe. The Kyiv River Port in Podil is the main river port of Kiev. It is here that I have made my home-away-from-home while I travel around Ukraine for a few weeks.

My safe, clean, and well-priced accommodations are part of a relatively new chain of hostels in Eastern Europe called *Dream Hostels. The price of a dorm bed is about US$10 per night, which is typical for hostels in major cities in Eastern Europe.

When my plane landed in Kiev from Budapest, I was thrilled to finally be at this historic Eastern European city. I had missed Kiev during my extensive travels of the Former Soviet Union in the late 1980’s. The explosion of the Chernobyl power plant reactor on April 26, 1986, put Kiev off limits to visitors during that time.

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Kiev, Ukraine’s capital and largest city, is around 1400 years old. It is considered to be the center of East Slavic Civilization and reached its Golden Age in the 10th-12th centuries. Golden-domed Orthodox churches abound. Many have been rebuilt due to their destruction by various conquerors over the centuries.

Podil was the birthplace of the city’s trade, commerce and industry. It is an intriguing, progressive neighborhood, albeit a bit rough around the edges with some property in ruins and many with graffiti-covered walls.

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I frequently visit Podil’s historic Kontraktova Square and dine at my favorite cafe called Puztz Khata. This popular Ukrainian cafeteria-style chain offers local specialties at bargain prices. Occasionally I ask a young person in line a question about the food, knowing they probably speak English. They usually do.

Kontraktova Square is usually bustling in the early morning hours. Street vendors are busy setting up their displays, people are standing in line at the take-out window at a pop-up coffee house made from an old bus, trolleys are screeching as they round corners, well-heeled people are scurrying through the swinging doors at the Metro station, and elderly people are sitting on park benches conversing and watching the world go by.  In the midst of all this hustle and bustle church bells occasionally toll from one or more of the many churches that are dotted around the area. Most of the churches are the faiths of Ukrainian Orthodox Church and Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church.

Restaurants, cafes and coffee shops of all levels, types, and nationalities add to the diversity of the square. The massive brick Old Food Hall (shopping arcade), now only a shell, dominates the square along with a ferris wheel called the “Great Wheel.” After a devastating fire in 1811 Podil was rebuilt. Most of Podil’s beautiful, old stately buildings, including the Old Food Hall, are from this era.

On International Women’s Day the activity in Kontraktova Square increased dramatically. The spring-like temperature didn’t deter people from enjoying the seasonal ice skating rink. Families were strolling; children were darting around on scooters. Food stalls lined one side of the Old Food Hall and along the nearby wide pedestrian street. A line was forming in front of the stall selling popular Georgian street food. Street bands and musicians were vying for the attention of passers by.

Many women were carrying a small bouquet of flowers. A young couple asked me to take their photo with their camera and then the woman proceeded to congratulate me (in English) on being a woman!

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* https://dream-hostels.com

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Visiting Great Market Hall and Saying Goodbye to Budapest

Great Market Hall is located in Pest at the end of the historic Chain Bridge. The market was built in 1897, and is the largest of all Budapest market halls. The cast-iron Chain Bridge which was built in 1849, spans the Danube just under the Royal Palace on Castle Hill. I always tried to combine a visit to a thermal bath on the Buda side of the bridge with lunch or a snack at the Great Market Hall on the Pest side. Thus, by walking over the bridge, I was able to periodically enjoy stunning views of the Danube and the Hungarian Parliament Building, sometimes at sunset.

Food stalls and eateries are located on the second level of the market. They get packed during lunchtime with tourists and locals. The main attraction of the stalls is langos, a national street-food dish of deep fried dough topped with sour cream, garlic butter, and cheese, plus just about anything else you want to put on it. Due to the calorie count of this food, I usually opted for the more healthy, traditional goulash soup.

Browsing the colorful market was always a delight, offering everything from foodstuff to clothing, cookware, and souvenirs for the tourists. The smell of Hungarian paprika was always in the air. Fresh-baked apple strudel in the bakeries was hard to pass up. Language was never a problem here for me due to the fact that most of the young people working in the shops spoke English. The older people in the shops knew enough words in English to communicate with English-speaking customers.

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Following are a few photos to say goodbye to the dynamic city of Budapest. I’m off to the Central European country of Ukraine, where I will visit Kiev, Lviv, and Odessa for a few weeks.

 

 

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Budapest – Liberty Square and the Quest for Local Flavor

I explored the Left Bank of The River Danube (Pest) by foot, by trolley, and by subway. The hilly Buda district contrasts sharply with the easier-to-navigate flat plain where Pest is located.

My constant quest for public markets, street promenades, and festivals in order to better grasp the local flavor of a place when I travel, usually leads me down interesting, diverse paths. In the process I usually find good local food, live traditional or classic music, hand crafts, and a local crowd.  I usually learn more about local history in the process.  Such was the case in Budapest.

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During a *free “Red” walking tour (Budapest under the rule of the Soviet regime), we visited Liberty Square (Szabadsag ter), one of the largest squares in Budapest. It is across from the hundred-year-old Hungarian Parliament Building, the seat of the National Assembly of Hungary, on the bank of the Danube. The square is home to the U.S. Embassy, the Soviet War Memorial, and the controversial “Memorial to the Victims of the German Invasion” (1941 – 1943).

The Soviet War Memorial, commemorating Russian military who served in WWII, is flanked on one side by the U.S. Embassy, and on the other by a bronze statue of Ronald Reagan walking toward the memorial. The international people on our English-speaking walking tour chuckled when our guide pointed out the irony of Russia being sandwiched in by the U.S. on both sides of their monument.

I was particularly moved by the “Memorial to the Victims of the German Invasion.” What at first appeared to be only a monument, was in reality a living memorial by friends and descendents of the Jews who perished in the hands of Hungarian Facists. The site is a protest by the Jews who left photos and sayings there, with the express purpose of pointing out that this monument is falsifying history. I noticed that tourists lingered a long time here – reading, contemplating. I returned alone another day and did the same.

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During the time we were in the square, it was bustling with activity due to an upcoming event. Various sizes of stalls were being erected and a small stage was being put together. Upon inquiry, I was invited to come back on the weekend to enjoy an arts and crafts fair with lots of food, crafts, and live music.

I returned over the weekend to find enticing dishes of hot Hungarian specialty foods being served to eager customers. A Bulgarian band was entertaining an appreciative crowd with their traditional music. Children were dancing. Colorful handcrafts and accessory stalls were sandwiched between the food stalls. I sampled various fresh local cheeses and bought some home made apple strudel. Everyone seemed oblivious to the near freezing temperatures that day.

There were long lines where traditional Kürtőskalács (chimney cakes) were being prepared. Dough was cooked on a revolving spit over an open fire and then rolled in a sugary mixture of cocoa and spices. Each chimney cake was served piping hot.

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*www.freetour.com

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Exploring The Castle District of Budapest

A visit to Budapest is not complete without spending some time exploring the historic Castle District in Buda along the left bank of the mighty Danube River, overlooking Pest. The plateau of Castle Hill is divided into two parts, the Old Town and The Royal Palace.

Buda Castle, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, was first completed in 1265. It is the historic castle and palace complex of the Hungarian kings of Budapest. The dramatic Baroque palace complex today was built in the middle 18th century and currently houses the Hungarian National Gallery, the Budapest History Museum, and the National Szechenyi Library.

For two days while exploring the Castle District, I stayed with Servas hosts Miklos and Agnes, in their lovely apartment at the foot of Castle Hill. My first meeting with Miklos was on his riverboat where he keeps an office for his book publishing business. Some of the books he recently translated from German into Hungarian and then published, were written by Hungarians during communist times. They had been published outside the country, and could only be published in Hungary after the yoke of communism was lifted in 1991.

One afternoon we met at the National Szechenyi Library, his (alternate) place of employment where he is a full-time IT director. After showing me around the impressive library with thousands of muli-lingual books and historic manuscripts, Miklos and I had an informal, cafeteria-style lunch with employees deep inside the palace complex. Upon departure I caught the changing of the guard at nearby Sandor Palace, which takes place hourly.

During my stroll along the narrow, winding streets of Old Town on Castle Hill, I visited the 14th century medieval Jewish House of Prayer, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Abandoned for 350 years, it is now an active synagogue. I passed through the Vienna Gate, the port which connected the castle to the highway to Vienna, making a steep descent to the more residential area where Miklos and Agnes live.

Agnes, a successful artist, invited me to walk with her up a few steep hills to her art studio one morning. It was located in an area of the Castle District where many stately homes had been converted to apartments. Natural light flooded the apartment where she worked in one of these houses.

Miklos and I spent our last morning together at the local farmer’s market which he goes to each Saturday morning to get fresh produce for the following week. Agnes had gone overnight to Vienna, Austria, to do some business so she wasn’t able to join us.

Agnes’ overnight visit to Vienna, and the short walk to Miklos’ and her flat via the Vienna Gate on Castle Hill, brought home to me how close the two great capital cities of Vienna and Budapest are. They both straddle the mighty Danube and are approximately 100 nautical miles apart.

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*Servas is non-profit international organization of hosts and travelers. http://www.Servas.org

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Soaking in the Thermal Baths of Budapest

The famous mineral-rich medicinal baths of Budapest mostly lie on the Buda side of the city along the Danube River in the shadow of the Buda Hills. The waters come from two major systems of thermal springs.

Finding two of the historic Turkish baths was an interesting challenge. It was the distinctive Turkish dome rising slightly above the rooftop of a picturesque old building that helped me find the Kiraly Baths. The discovery of several domes of various sizes buried among old trees behind a building revealed the location of the Ruhas Baths to me.

I found the 500 year old Turkish hamams with their distinctive octagonal pools intriguing. While soaking under the steamy domes with their tiny skylights, it felt like the Turks had just left.

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The first baths in Budapest date from the Roman era. The Turkish baths were constructed during the Ottoman Turkish occupation in the 16th century. Public baths became the mainstream of Buda life in the 18th century. At the turn of the 20th century there was another wave of bathhouse construction. Grand, classical revival buildings were built around baths and swimming pools during this time. This is when the monumental, ornate baths of Gellert and Szechenyi were constructed. Bathhouses in Budapest have always served as a place for communal gathering and information exchange. This was especially true during the repressive years of communism in the 1950’s.

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The two largest spas in Budapest, Gellert and Szechenyi, had outdoor pools which were open this time of the year. Watching the sheer number of people walking around outside in their bathing suits between dips in the pool made me shiver, given the outside temperature was around 35 degrees Fahrenheit.

While soaking in the thermal waters, the sound of rushing water which surrounded me was hypnotic. It came from the pipes which fed the pools, the small waterfalls that cascaded into the pools, and the taps and basins along the walls.

Maneuvering throughout the various thermal baths was not without its challenges.  One challenge was getting a space under the waterfalls or fountains in each pool in order to enjoy the refreshing waters plunging over my body at different temperatures. Understandably, these were favorite place for bathers to congregate. I learned to perch myself nearby and make a quick move when someone left the spot I wanted.

Getting lost in the labyrinth of the pools, saunas, steam chambers, showers, toilets, changing rooms, lockers, and restaurants or cafes, was part of the experience, especially in the larger spas. Fortunately an English-speaking, friendly attendant always seemed to appear at the opportune moment, just when I was feeling lost and frustrated.

In the un-restored Kiraly Baths, everything was written in Russian, German, and Hungarian (no English). The other baths I visited had everything written in Hungarian and English. It appears the Russian legacy hasn’t been completely eliminated from Budapest yet!

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My experience with the thermal baths of Budapest brought to mind a very different experience I had in the hammams of Morocco several years ago. Since the Ottoman-Turks never reached there, the public baths of Morocco are of Arab origin and design, not Turkish. The main difference is that the Turkish baths focus on water to achieve various temperatures, whereas the Arab baths focus on steam.

You can read my blog about my adventure in the world of Morocco’s hammams on the following link:  It’s a Man’s World, Except in a Hammam in Morocco

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Servas in Hungary Revisited

I spent a lovely couple of days with *Servas Hosts Emese, Tomas, and their 12 year old daughter Tanka, while staying in their small, efficient flat which is tucked away in the rolling hills of Buda. 

One evening we dined on some of Emese’s delicious Hungarian cooking followed by tea and some traditional treats in front of a crackling fire. All the wood they use in their fireplace is found on the ground in the nearby forest or at the home of Tomas’ Mother who lives in the countryside.

This special Servas visit I had with Emese and Tomas brought to mind the stark contrast of experience I had in Hungary with Servas several decades ago when the country was under communist rule. The organization was banned during that time in Hungary. It operated underground. I had been instructed by Servas International never to mention the word “Servas” in writing or in person to any Hungarian Servas Host.

A Servas couple I visited during that time was very careful about not letting anyone know they had a foreign visitor. We never socialized beyond the walls of their small rented flat. Each night I stayed with them they closed all the windows, pulled the blinds down, and then tuned into Voice of America on their radio.

Soon after the Soviet forces withdrew from Hungary, Servas became legal. When I discussed this experience I had with Tomas, he chuckled and said that everything in Hungary was underground then. He proceeded to tell me of the numerous clandestine meetings around town that he knew about when Hungary was a communist state.

Tomas and Emese are happy with many of the changes brought about by the end of the communist state. They are especially pleased that they can now own their own flat, that they can travel freely overseas when the opportunity arises, and that their daughter is able to attend a semi-private alternative middle school.

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One morning Emese and I took a walk in the forest near her flat. She pointed out a few things along the dirt path which were the direct result of WWII. A small stone bunker which had been constructed to hide Hungarian soldiers from the enemy was camouflaged among the trees. There was a huge stone in the shape of a lion’s head that used to stick out in the path. The Germans broke off the front part of the head so they could get their vehicles through the path.

Just before the end of our walk where the forest suddenly gave way to the endless grass-covered rolling hills of Buda, we came upon a pile of stones with a cross on top. A fresh rose was jutting out from the stones. Emese said this grave was a tribute to the unknown soldier during WWII. She said it is constantly attended to by local people because they realize the person buried there might be one of their own family members.

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Tamas and Emese invited me to join them on an afternoon excursion to visit Tamas’ Mother in Martonvasari, a small town about 30 kilometers outside of Budapest. Tomas spent his childhood there.

Martonvasari is a popular tourist destination for Hungarians because of the Brunszvik Palace, built in 1785, where Beethoven often stayed and composed music. Every summer concerts in his honor are held on the castle grounds on the island in the middle of the lake.

Tomas shared some of his fond childhood memories as we walked around the picturesque, historic town. Tanka loved climbing on the huge branches of centuries-old trees. We enjoyed a traditional Hungarian meal at his Mother’s home before heading back to Budapest.

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The country’s politics have changed drastically since the Soviet era, but the spirit of Servas in Hungary, as I experienced it, has not changed. It’s members are still welcoming international Servas travelers with open arms and open hearts – but now without fear.

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*Servas is non-profit international organization of hosts and travelers. http://www.Servas.org