Bonjour de Paris! Flew here on Monday from Ukraine’s beautiful capital. Staying at a friend’s house while she is visiting family in the US. Yesterday we went to Conflans-Sainte-Honorine. There is a community of retired barge owners and workers, and the boarding school for the children of same, still in operation. There are lovely views of the Seine as well as some neat old buildings. Barges continue to operate on the Seine and other rivers of France.
Kiev is a beautiful city and a center of industry, science, education, and culture. it has a thriving high-tech industry and quality universities. There is an extensive public transportation (a bit inconvenient from our location however), including a metro system. What struck me right off is the large number of superb buildings.
Russia underwent an industrial revolution in the late 1800’s, as a result of which Kiev became a center of trade and transport. Sugar and grains were main products of the trade and the transport system, mainly the Dnieper River and rail lines. During the Soviet industrialization the city also prospered, when as it happened the city population switched from Russian to Ukranian in large measure due to migration within what was then the Ukranian Soviet Socialist Republic.
It suffered heavily during the Great Famine when millions died, and Stalin’s purges eliminated much of the intelligentsia. The Nazis murdered at least 34,000 Jews, with another 70,000 civilians meeting a like end. An astounding 8 million died during WW2, when both the Nazis and Soviets engaged in scorched earth policies. The city is just 100k/60 miles south of Chernoybl, barely escaping fallout due to the prevailing winds at the time.
Perhaps the most famous of its landmarks is the 11th century Byzantine style Saint Sofia Cathedral, named after the 3rd century Hagia Sofia church in Istanbul, to which there is little if any resemblance. There are 5 naves, 5 apses and 13 cupolas and original mosaics and frescoes. From the late 12th c until the early 17th it was in poor repair, when it was renovated in the distinct Ukrainian Baroque style. It and the Kiev Cave Monastery were Ukraine’s first World Heritage sites.
Kiev dates from as far back as the 5th century, with signs of habitation from the Stone age. It has been ruled by Khazars, Vikings, Mongols (who destroyed the city in 1240), Lithuania, Poland and Russia until 1918, then after three years of independence, in 1921 it was taken by Soviet Russia, remaining under its thumb until the iron curtain rusted away other than the Nazi occupation.
Today, here we are again with Russia, which took Odessa, an important port on the Black Sea. The country’s residents, other than perhaps the Russian minority, look nervously at its large, militarily powerful and increasingly aggressive neighbor. In the capital, at least, there is much pro-EU sentiment, which in its turn makes for nerves in Moscow.
Despite appearances, at least in the capitol, Ukraine is a poor country, with a per capita income of just $8000 (2013), versus about $11,000 in Russia and $50,000 in the US. Militarily there is a huge Russian advantage, of course, as well as in population – 42 million versus 145 million. It gets all its natural gas and transport fuel from Russia. The natural gas pipeline from Russia to Europe goes through the Ukraine, making it strategically important both to the EU and Russia and thus to the US.
The Soviets destroyed the cathedral in the 30’s, and in a telling moment, the Ukrainians rebuilt it to match the original after the fall of the rust ridden Iron Curtain. We can see it in all its glory today.
The interior is almost as astounding as the exterior
In 2013 protesters took refuge here after a rally against the then President Viktor Yanukovych. The next day they emerged and were joined by more than 1 million Ukranians, who then chased ole Viktor from office for his pro-Putin policies. Guess who was advising Viktor on his pro-Putin policies and did the same for some guy who is now living in the WH.
This band played in our neighborhood last night. I would call their music Klezmer, although I do not know what they call it. Klezmer is a musical tradition of the Ashkenazi Jews of Eastern Europe dating to the Renaissance. We do not possess musical notation of the earliest forms, however when Jewish musicians came to the US their music was influenced by jazz. To strictly define Klezmer is difficult but I like to say I know it when I hear it, although it is rather difficult at times. These days bands often consist of a clarinet, sax, fiddle, drum, accordion and a trombone. Last night there was a bass guitar and a flugelhorn. Hammer dulcimer and bass fiddle are traditional. I have never seen a horn mounted on a fiddle, but I have now!
The friendly crowd was enthusiastic, dancing, enjoying some of the excellent beer you find everywhere in Poland. A good time was had by all.
The Royal Castle served as the official residence of the King of Poland starting with Segismundo starting in the 16th c, before that serving a ducal palace since the tower was built in the 14th c. The lower part of the tower still stands. The Nazis destroyed the rest subsequent to the uprising of 1944. Segismundo was Swedish and a Catholic in what was then a Protestant country, and his statue remains with us today at the top of the new column in the palace square. The Nazis collapsed the original column, the remains of which sit at the side of the castle today.
The Poles rebuilt the palace and its sumptuous rooms starting in the 1970’s. They did a superb job of it, and are proud of the accomplishment. There is a substantial film about the works just as you enter, which the bossy guards make sure you see. I’d never seen how they did the wall and ceiling appliques, which they showed in detail. While it’s not the most impressive palace I have ever seen -Versailles, Hermitage and the Palacio Real in Madrid both outrank it – but there’s certainly much to be proud of with regards to the workmanship.
In addition to the interior there is a good collection of paintings, including two Rembrandt portraits.
Today we took our 3rd walking tour of Warsaw. In the first we went to various locations in the Stare Miasto, Old Town. The second was about Communist Warsaw, led by a woman who grew up during that era. She had to stand in line for everything, and witnessed the suppression and growth of Solidarity, leading to the downfall of the Iron Curtain. This afternoon we took the tour of WW2 Warsaw. It takes you to the Jewish ghetto and the location of some of the sites of the uprising in October 1944.
The ghetto was set afire by the Nazis to defeat the 1943 uprising. Today its location is marked on the pavement- they speak to you of the nightmare the Nazis created. Rations were a mere 200 calories a day for Jews, and 500 for Poles. Jews were allowed no medicine. If anyone helped a Jew, the penalty was death for that person and the entire family.
The resistance used the sewers to move from several areas in and near the old town. The sewers were in use at the time, unlit and required one to walk bent over. Movements had to be in complete silence. Eventually these were closed down by the Nazis.
In preparation for the 1944 uprising, the underground raised money for weapons and supplies by robbing a bank. Money was transferred from the Polish central bank by armored car. They raised the about $10 million in today’s dollars. The uprising took a heavy toll on the city and the population. The Nazis killed 200,000 people, destroyed about 90% of the old town and 65% of Warsaw as a whole.
These two uprisings were the largest of occupied Europe. The 1944 uprising not only hoped to help defeat the Nazis but to keep Poland out of Soviet hands, whose invasion of Poland made no friends in the county. The result of the Yalta conference as well as their defeat in the uprising, while the Soviet army watched from across the river, led to post war deportations and murders by the Soviets and 50 years of bad governing.
The train carried us for a bit over two hours in a full six person compartment, my 20 kilo suitcase perched precariously above our heads. We are going from Poznan to Wroclaw. Wroclaw has a complex history. It was born in Poland, later controlled by the kingdoms of Bohemia, Hungary, Austro-Hungarian Empire, Prussia. and Nazi Germany. It was founded circa 950, like Poznan on an island in a river. Also like the other cities we’ve visited it was a member of the Hanseatic League (1387), which helped make it a wealthy city. Among its famous inhabitants are a director of the Clinic of Psychiatry, Alois Alzheimer. A professor named William Stern developed the concept of IQ in the same turn of the century era.
During the war there was no fighting until February, 1945. The Germans decided to hold the city and did so until after the fall of Berlin. About 50% of the city was destroyed, some by the Nazis who did so in their efforts to fortify the city and the rest by Russian carpet bombing, with 40,000 civilians killed. By that time refugees from Germany and elsewhere had increased the population to nearly one million, including some 50,000 slaves and 30,000–60,000 Poles relocated after the end of the Warsaw Uprising. After the war the German population of 190,000 was forced out. Poles ejected from its eastern territory, mostly around Lviv now in Ukraine but then in the Soviet Union, then moved in.
Wroclaw, called Breslau when it was in Germany, is jam-packed with notable architecture of various styles including the predominant Gothic, some significant examples of the Baroque, at least one Bauhaus (the bank building in the Rynek), Art Nouveau, and of course some Soviet era concrete block.
. The Rynek is spectacular, a large open space surrounded by fabulous buildings in various styles
The Brick Gothic Old Town Hall in the Rynek dates from the 13th c. You can visit the original council chambers, with period furniture.
Also in the Rynek is the Gothic style St. Elisabeth’s Church (Bazylika Św. Elżbiety). It has a 91 meter/300′ tower. St. Mary Magdalene Church (Kościół Św. Marii Magdaleny), dating from 13th c, is not far.
The city was founded on an island now called Ostrów (island) Tumski (Cathedral) in the Oder River. Wroclaw Cathedral dates from circa 950. There are several islands and altogether there are hundreds of bridges making it among the highest number in the world, just barely behind Venice.
We paid the extra to see the chapels, rewarded by the superb sculptures of the Giacome Schianzi chapel. I later learned that the St. Elizabeth is by Ercole Ferrata, a student of Bernini, and that the cardinal’s tomb is by another Bernnini student, Domenico Guidi. Bernini! No wonder I was so floored.
The unemployment rate is just 2.2%. People from around Europe come here looking for work as a result. This is inflating wages and prices generally, although it is quite inexpensive still compared to France, UK and even less than Spain. We have had lunches for two with a beer for from $10, in Valencia lunches start at $12 with wine, in Paris closer to $18 plus wine.