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Saturday, 31 March 2012

VI Poland: On Her Majesty's Sauerkraut Service


There was a definite little thrill at having made it as far as Poland. On the way out of Zgorgelec i took a snap of a futuristic Church, then made my way a few kilometres along a major road, seeing the first storks of my trip, before settling down to sleep in a field. Next morning, the 4th of March, St Casimir’s day, i had a fair old trek before enjoying coffee at a roadside restaurant, and arrived in Boleslawiec just in time for evening Mass and Benediction at the Church of Our Lady of the Rosary. Visiting a grocery shop i was kindly given free bread, water and aspirin, armed with which i elected to soldier on towards a place called Okmiany. That leg in fact was one of the most arduous of the whole journey, which only made it all the more heavenly to arrive after midnight at a nice warm 24-hour diner. Sitting in view of a crucifix, as one so often does in Poland, i enjoyed two mugs of delicious hot chocolate.

  A pair of rather gruff members of the local constabulary woke me up very early in my bus shelter next morning, but once i’d explained myself they let me lie in for a bit longer. After a coffee back at the diner i charted a course for Chojnow, where i acknowledged the same two policemen as they drove past in their motor. In the evening i reached the medium-sized city of Legnica. The youth hostel to which a helpful English-speaking fellow pointed me was fully booked, so i opted for a mid-priced but very comfortable hotel bed, and caught up with some laundry. After Sunday Mass at St James’ Sanctuary, as it was called, nearby, that day’s stroll was a pleasant one in sunny weather through undemanding terrain to Sroda Slaska. The police who quizzed me there felt i should go to a hotel, but they didn’t insist, so i walked on to the far edge of town and spent the night in another field, by a cola packing depot.   
Tomb of Blessed Jerzy Popieluszko, Warsaw
  On the morning of the 7th of March, dedicated to SS Perpetua and Felicity, i enjoyed a free cup of coffee from a little packet given to me by the lady in a shop down the road. I then made tolerable strides to the huge city of Wroclaw (pronounced, opaquely, ‘Vrotswav’), though it took a very long time to reach the central station, from where i was hoping to go on a little excursion to Warsaw. Conveniently a train left at 10.45pm and i arrived in time to attend Mass at a Church with a statue of Pope John Paul II outside. On leaving i asked someone the way to the Church of St Stanislav Kostka, where one can pay one’s respects at the tomb of one of the most important figures in 20th century Polish history, Blessed Jerzy (George) Popieluszko. Born in 1947, he became a chaplain to the Solidarity trade union in 1981, and won fame (and notoriety in some circles) for his patriotic, overtly anti-communist ‘Masses for the Fatherland’, broadcast on Radio Free Europe. Moscow’s placemen in the communist government failed to silence him with repeated threats of violence and arrest, so in October 1984 the fateful decision was made finally to rid themselves of this ‘turbulent priest’. On the 19th of that month he was kidnapped, then brutally beaten and murdered by the secret police, at the age of 37. A quarter of a million people turned out for his funeral. Among his best-known sayings was “Overcome evil with good” and;

“A Christian’s obligation is to stand by the truth, even if it were to cost a great deal, because one pays a great deal for truth; only chaff costs nothing.”

Old Town, Wroclaw 
  Though each suffered terribly in the war, both Warsaw and Wroclaw are possessed of beautifully restored Old Town quarters, which i was happy to explore, albeit fleetingly, on the afternoon of Shrove Tuesday and morning of Ash Wednesday respectively. After Mass at St Adalbert’s Church in Wroclaw i made for Olecnica, ‘spurred on’, you might say, by the faint prospect of finding a bar with a telly to watch Champions League football. No such luck; but i slept quite well under a sort of balcony next to a park, until the police arrived at about 6.15am and (politely enough) said i’d better move on. Consequently, by 7.30 i was at the resplendent Minor Basilica of St John the Evangelist, in time for Mass, after which i found a place for a coffee, and made a stab at repairing my bright yellow poncho thing, with tape i’d found next to the road. Up to then in fact, especially considering the flimsy nature of my kit, i had reason to be very grateful for mostly wonderfully dry weather, but that day was marked by more or less steady rain. After dark i made it a short distance past Namyslow (where i could see several more impressive Churches) to a village called Kammenal. Short of options i reluctantly settled for a place to sleep under a slide in a playground, but had to admit defeat c. 3am, not least because local dogs were barking, and slunk off down the road. About a kilometre away it was a relief to find an empty drainage duct, underneath the road, where i could sleep until morning without disturbance.

Nuthatch, just visible in centre of picture
  On the 11th of March, the memorial of Blessed Thomas Atkinson, i reached Walcya just before 6pm and attended a Mass celebrated by Franciscans in the Church of St Therese of Lisieux. Being a Friday in Lent, it was so well attended as to be ‘standing room only’; my suspicion is that this can only happen in Poland. That night was spent quite successfully in a bus shelter on the way to the town of Kluczbork, which i reached in bright sunshine next day. In the afternoon i stopped at a nice outdoor ‘grill’ place near Stare Olesno, where a nuthatch, in a radical departure from the behaviour i’d always associated with them, could be seen hopping about on the ground, near enough to my table for me to take a photo. The two guys running the joint were mildly amused by the idea of my pilgrimage, and decided to give their curious client, calling me “Mexico”, a couple of nice rolls as well as a free coffee. Stretching the limits of my Polish i began to list a few illustrious names from Poland’s recent history: ‘Jan Pawel II’; ‘Zbigniew Boniek’ (1980s soccer legend), to which one of them added, humouring me, ‘Walesa’.
  
  Having passed through the bigger town of Olesno without finding a Church in time for Saturday evening Mass, after a picnic supper i pressed on in the dark to the next village, where a little green neon sign betokened an inn. It was busy inside but a young lady customer kindly volunteered to help with English, and i readily agreed to pay for a mid-range, very comfortable room. In the morning i went to 8 o’clock Mass a short distance away, where the Gospel was the temptation of Our Lord in the wilderness, then came back for breakfast. As i was enjoying that delicious spread, the manageress came by, and asked a few questions in excellent English. She said she too was a Catholic - and tearfully insisted on reimbursing the money i’d paid for my stay! I could hardly refuse such kindness, and assured her, of course, of my prayers and hope to write, but thankfully was also able to leave a little card with an image of St Maximilian Kolbe*, from a stained glass window at the Church of Our Lady of Ostrabrama, Bristol.

*The Polish Franciscan priest who famously accepted martyrdom, by starvation and then lethal injection, in the place of another at the Auschwitz concentration camp.

  That afternoon it was nice to stop for a service of Benediction at the Church in the village of Przystajn. I then walked as far as a bus shelter on the eastern fringe of Wreczyca Wielka where, sure enough, ‘Starski and Hutch(ski)’ arrived to wake me up and be advised of my business. As usual, explaining myself wasn’t too much trouble, though they didn’t seem as used to dealing with itinerant pilgrims as i’d expected, given our proximity to Czestochowa.

  An ancient tradition relates that the Icon of the Black Madonna of Czestochowa was originally painted, from life, by St Luke the Evangelist. Another legend has it that the wooden panel was at one time a table-top belonging to the Holy Family. What is certain is that for centuries it has held, and continues to hold, a unique place in Poland’s spiritual and cultural imagination, and that it derives this privileged status chiefly from the honour due to Our Lady of Czestochowa as Queen of Poland; her solemn coronation took place in the Cathedral of Lvov, in the company of King Jan Kazimierz, on April 1st 1655. Millions of people visit the city each year, the vast majority pilgrims to Our Lady’s Chapel at the monastery of Jasna Gora (‘Bright Mountain’) where the Icon is housed. I made a bee-line for this Basilica on the morning of Monday 14th of March, Commonwealth Day, arriving in time for 11am Mass - “I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life” were words i could make out from the priest’s homily. I then tried vainly to track down some things that were supposed to be arriving for me at the Post Office, but had a happier experience at the main library, going onto the internet for free, and managed to get some more photos developed. Deciding to stay overnight, i returned to Jasna Gora to say prayers in front of a very affecting life-sized Crucifix to the right of the sanctuary. After dark i tried a youth hostel but there were no beds, so i opted for quite a good place on wooden boarding under a sort of gangway, where thankfully i wasn’t disturbed. After 8am Mass i tried the Post Office again with no more joy, then the library, and then returned to the Shrine in time for a most impressive spectacle; the solemn ‘unveiling’ of Our Lady’s Icon, in which a screen is mechanically lifted, to the sound of a drum roll and piercing trumpet solo. In the afternoon i had some trouble threading my way through Czestochowa’s residential and industrial suburbs, then found myself on a road through a forest after dark, before settling down to sleep under a ‘big-but-bare’ old oak tree near a petrol station (it didn’t rain, thanks be to God). On the next day, Wednesday the 16th of March, i took a bus from the village of Zrebice back to Czestochowa again, attended another 11am Mass (followed by a ceremonial ‘veiling’ of Our Lady, no less stirring than the ‘unveiling’), and put a tiny little Sacred Heart pin among the innumerable mementoes on the wall of her chapel. At Mass the priest was talking about being ‘children of Mary’, and the desirability of fasting on bread and water on Wednesdays and Fridays. He also mentioned that such a practice is good for the ‘organism’, words which struck a chord after i opted for something suspiciously more like cake than bread to eat for lunch, and suffered indigestion next day. In the early afternoon i shuttled back to the village of Zrebice, having finally been able to pick up some nice things which my Mum had sent to the Post Office.
Centre: tiny Sacred Heart pin, Our Lady's Chapel, Czestochowa  
  On Thursday the 17th of March, St Patrick’s day, after sleeping next to a well under a little roof, the weather took a turn for the worse, though an evening let-up enabled me to get a few kilometres past Szczekociny. There were no hotels so i had to settle for another bus shelter, where the locals provided a bit more ‘entertainment’ than usual; a firecracker went off very nearby at around midnight, and a lady of a certain age saw fit to shake me from my slumbers at around 6.45 – but at least that was good for progress. Actually by this time i was already trying to minimise the use of ‘stagecoach weather protectors’, because one is too easily noticed and there’s always the chance you could be impeding someone. Later that day, at a place called Naglowice, after resisting a temptation to take a nap by the side of the road, i found a public library and at long last was able to post my first entry on the blog (An 'e', not an 'a'!) before it closed.

  For some time i had hankered after the opportunity to spend a night in the shelter afforded by a concrete gangway running along the side of a building, and in Jedrzejow it presented itself, though on arrival i was miffed that again there were no hotels. Then to my surprise, snow was falling on the morning of Saturday 19th of March, St Joseph’s day. Leaving Jedrzejow i actually had a pretty awful time, getting lost and finding myself walking along a stretch of motorway, and was in a rather black mood, but i must never forget the feeling of ‘hope restored’ when, as i finished saying a prayer to St Joseph*, glorious rays of sunlight punctured the cloud cover for the first time that day, in what seemed a powerful intimation of God’s paternal love. Not long after, in a village called Imielno, this sense of restoration was complete, when i was kindly invited into an elderly gentleman’s house for delicious hot tea and a sandwich; i left him and his wife a thank you note, written on the back of a photograph of the tomb of Blessed Jerzy Popieluszko.

*“O St Joseph, Guardian of Jesus, most pure spouse of Mary, who spent your life in the perfect fulfilment of your duties, providing with your own labour for the Holy Family of Nazareth, protect us with favour who with trust turn to you. You know our desires, our anxieties and our hopes; to you we have recourse, for we are confident in your protection. You too have experienced trial, hard work and fatigue, but your soul, filled with the greatest peace, was full of joy for your intimacy with the Son of God entrusted to you, and with Mary, His most sweet Mother. Help us to understand that we are not working alone, to know how to discover Jesus near us, to welcome Him by grace, and to keep Him faithfully as you have done. And grant that in our family all may be sanctified in charity, in patience, in justice, and through the seeking of what is good. Amen.”
  In the evening i reached a town on a lake with a pleasant aspect called Pinczow, but tracking down a place to stay there was no picnic; faintly reminiscent, even, of Mary and Joseph’s harrowing, deeply distressing experience, when they could find no room at the inn in Bethlehem. Unlike them however, i was eventually taken in by an excellent, modern sort of non-commercial place for visiting teachers, and told that, since the only available room had used sheets (i had a sleeping bag anyway), i could stay for free.

   The Gospel reading at Sunday Mass in the nearby Church of St John, Apostle and Evangelist, was the Transfiguration, after which i covered the requisite distance in dry weather to a service of Benediction at a Church in Busko-Zdroj, with an especially beautiful painting of St Mary, the Mother of Jesus. After dark the road was lent an alluring lustre by a confident full moon, which incidentally is often associated with and symbolic of Our Lady; perfectly reflective, rather than the source, of divine light. Late-ish i arrived in Stopnica, and decided to check into an affordable motel rather than pit myself against the elements. On TV there happened to be a very ‘1980s’ Jackie Chan film, in which i made out the words ’capitalism’ and ‘communism’. On one level it was clearly western propaganda, and it seemed interesting to speculate whether such films might appear on Chinese TV nowadays – almost certainly not, i suppose.

   On the morning of the next day, Monday the 21st of March, i put off my rising from bed, which led to recriminations in the evening, because just past Polaniec i found i’d missed the last crossing of Poland’s iconic river Vistula (on a little car ferry attached to a cable) by 45 minutes. A sort of armoured ‘tank’ thing had been abandoned nearby, but you couldn’t get inside it, so i went back into town and checked into another motel. On the next morning, Tuesday 22nd of March, i felt like a bit of a wimp for having stayed in yet another comfy bed, and still peeved at having missed the crossing, but it was nice to attend Mass, and i consoled myself with these words, paraphrased from a little book called I Am With You, by Fr John Woolley, which bills itself as ‘Divine help for today’s needs’;  

“No combination of circumstances can defeat the purposes of the Architect of the Universe.”

The weather was dry again as i made my way through suburban scenery to a library in Mielec, where i spent some time on a computer replying to emails etc. Then regrettably on the way out of town yet another little collection of toys was cast from the proverbial pram, as i realised i’d gone a kilometre or two in the wrong direction, but i was glad to find my way along a ‘Benedictynska Ulitsa’ and clamber over a railway line to get back on track. After a long stretch of road through forest it was good to reach Przylek at about 11pm, where i spent a reasonable night in, of all places, a bus shelter.

   Next day i was given a lovely free coffee at a ‘mini-bar’ in Kosowa, then visited another library in Kolbuszowa where the internet meant i could write the next entry on the blog among other things. After stopping for a drink and mentioning my walk to the staff at a pizzeria in Dzikowiec, on the road afterwards an employee caught up with me in his car to give me a generous take-away portion of tasty dumplings and bottles of drink. At dusk i fancied i might have spotted a nightjar, but later checked its description on the internet and it wasn’t one. They’re a bit like bitterns – no real person has actually ever seen one in the wild. I spent the night in a half constructed building just off the road, discomfited only by a chill wind, and got away quite early, in case someone was going to come and continue work on it. At a petrol stationlater that morning i was given free hot drinks, delicious toasted sandwiches, little cartons of milk, and wasn’t allowed to pay for some crisps – before i’d even brought forth my Mary’s Meals brochure! After sunset, on the way between Sokolow Mlp. and Czarna i saw a star shoot with a fizz like a firework, and by this stage there were frogs and toads on the roads, not all dead.

  “Emmanuel”* was a word i could make out from the first scripture reading at a packed Mass for the Annunciation on the morning of Friday the 25th of March in Lancut, after i’d spent a pretty good night under a concrete walkway about a stone’s throw from the Church. I stayed for the Stations of the Cross, then traipsed off to a nice cafe in Kosina, where my offer to pay the going rate for a tea and coffee was declined. I then hot-footed it to a town called Przeworsk, visiting another Church and another library. I passed the night in a bus shelter on the western edge of Jaroslaw.

   On the morning of Saturday the 26th of March i visited Our Lady’s very dignified Basilica there, in whose sombre, dimly-lit interior my attention was drawn to a portrait of a priest called Blessed Michal Czartoryski – more than anything because the name ‘Michael’ doesn’t seem to feature very often among the ranks of Saints and ‘Blesseds’. It turns out that he was a Dominican, born into a noble family in Jaroslaw in 1897, who during the war was an activist in a youth organisation called ‘Rebirth’, in Lvov. He was killed by German troops while serving as a chaplain to the Armia Krajowa (Home Army) during the Warsaw Uprising on September 6th, 1944; one of 52 priests among the 108 Polish martyrs of World War II, beatified by Pope John Paul II in June 1999.

   As i was having breakfast on the eastern edge of Jaroslaw, what should it do but start snowing again. Not nice, delightful snow mind you, but nasty, slushy, rainy snow, driven by a strong wind. I shuffled along to a restaurant near Munina, stopping long enough for the weather to become a bit less dispiriting, then headed off towards Radymno. At the Church there i joined a group of middle-aged and elderly ladies, in praying a prayer of great historical, cultural and religious significance – the Rosary. The Gospel reading at Mass which followed was the parable of the Prodigal Son, after which i was hoping to take a photograph of an Icon of the Virgin Mary, unusual for having a crown of thirteen, rather than twelve stars.** It’s possible i suppose that the nun who refused my request to do this, ushering me towards the exit, was thinking i might wish to make fun of this peculiarity, but actually i was brought to mind of the special connection of ‘13’ with the story of Our Lady of Fatima.*** In the dark i headed off again, aiming to get as near as possible to Korczowa, on the border with Ukraine. At about 11.30pm i settled down to sleep in a bus shelter on an empty stretch of road, which was fine except for cold feet again, and i had to get up hastily at 7am (by my watch – in fact the clocks went forward without my knowing), because snow on the roof was melting and dripping through onto my sleeping bag and head. As it was a beautifully sunny Sunday morning, the idea was to find a Church in Korczowa but there didn’t seem to be one, so i elected to make a bid for the ‘wild east’ frontier, undismayed by a guard who explained that i couldn’t cross over on foot. I set about hitching a lift, and was soon whisked off to the passport control area by a personable Ukrainian fellow in his early thirties.

*meaning “God is with us”.
**“And a great sign appeared in heaven: A woman clothed with the sun, and the moon under her feet, and on her head a crown of twelve stars.” [Revelation 12:1]
***In 1917 Our Lady is understood to have appeared to three young shepherd children in Fatima, Portugal, on the 13th day of several consecutive months. It has been suggested that there is an echo here of the climactic moment in the Book of Esther when, on the 13th day of the month of Adar, the disaster which was prepared for the people of Israel falls instead on those who had plotted against them.

VII Ukraine: 988 and All That

Citizens of the EU, thankfully, can visit Ukraine for up to three months without a visa, so the border formalities were pretty straightforward. Dropping me in Krakovets on the other side, my escort wouldn’t accept the 5 euro note i’d promised him, so i gave him a little prayer card with a Nativity scene instead. After changing some money into greven, the local currency, i was hoping to visit a Church, but an aging little wagon pulled up and a posse of teenagers in regulation black leather jackets started asking what business i had in these here parts. First one then another more senior fellow, possibly the local sheriff, arrived. I was able to explain about the pilgrimage in Russian,* and they were soon pretty relaxed about the idea, but it was decided that in fact i should be on the next coach out of Krakovets, bound for Lvov (Lviv to most of its Ukrainian-speaking inhabitants). The younger guys dutifully took me via the nearest Church in their car, though it was closed, then to the bus stop. Before departure we had time to visit another Church, with a very beautiful Iconostasis, on which was inscribed the words; “Z Nami Bog” (similar to the Russian), meaning “God is with us”. Having been seen onto the bus, i decided not to get out before Lviv because, after all, the folks there in Krakovets might get wind of it if i encountered police in other places. Or to put it another way - i didn’t offer much resistance to the idea of being driven 75 kilometres and saving myself at least 3 days walk! Before grabbing forty winks on the bus, as we passed a Church i noticed a lady near my seat make the sign of the cross, and marvelled at encountering such overt piety, given the aggressively atheist history of this country.

   Lviv appeared to have had a makeover since my previous visit a few years before; it was suggested to me that this was because of the European football championships, due to take place in the summer of 2012. It really is a ‘metropolis mirabilis’, in the premier league of beautiful cities which lay hidden from western view behind the Iron Curtain for so many years. After arrival i had a late lunch, and was hoping to find Mass, but could only manage to arrive during the homily of a Byzantine-rite (aka Ukrainian Greek-) Catholic service. Then a little sheepishly i made my way to the house where i had stayed on my previous visit, belonging to a Catholic order called Miles Jesu (Soldiers of Jesus). I’d been in touch by email, but they weren’t expecting me until two or three days later; the only thing that salved my conscience on this score was that for some time i had been making regular contributions to them from my bank account. I was given a delightful welcome, had a great bowl of porridge and a nice conversation (mostly in English) with one of the guys, and was shown to my very comfortable quarters.

   The next morning, Monday the 28th of March, dedicated to St Hesychius of Jerusalem, i strolled to the Latin Cathedral in the Old Town, dedicated to the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary. Mass was celebrated an hour later than i’d expected, so i took the opportunity to pray before a large crucifix for the intentions of Our Lady of Guadalupe, and not least also for the intercession of the Servant of God Pope John Paul II, for a favourable outcome to the visit i was hoping to make afterwards to the Russian consulate**. Once there i had only a short wait on the street outside before being ushered in, by a fellow who seemed perfectly unfazed by the idea of my applying for a visa – more or less as i’d expected, having obtained them here before. After another brief interval i had an interview with a friendly young consular official, to whom i showed a handy Bristol Evening Post article about the walk. The procedure was explained to me; he gave me a card of a travel agency in the city centre, through whom i needed to apply for an invitation, so off i went. The lady there was a little bit curt, and it wasn’t going to be very cheap, but soon we struck a deal, and i agreed to call in again with my passport on Thursday morning. Tuesday and Wednesday were spent in happy holiday mode, taking snaps of beautiful Lviv landmarks like St George’s Cathedral in the spring sunshine, and re-acquainting myself with Miles Jesu people, some of whom work at the orphanage-school in Bortniki, about 80km to the south.

*Ukrainian is the mother tongue of most people in this extreme western part of Ukraine, but virtually everyone knows Russian, the proximity between the two languages being analogous perhaps to that of Dutch and German. Also notable is the fact that Ukrainian would claim to be the closer of the two to the ancient language spoken by those who called themselves Rus’, with their capital at Kiev, from the 10th to the 13th centuries.  
**At an event connected with the World Youth Day in Cologne in 2005 i heard a young Russian lady give an account of arranging the paperwork for her group of Russian pilgrims. When all seemed lost, and the correct visas looked like they’d never be forthcoming, she had an inspiration to visit a Church and pray for the intercession of Pope John Paul II – feeling absolutely confident that this would have the desired effect. Sure enough, when she went back to the relevant authorities the visas were ready for collection.
I was also interviewed by a journalist who would later put an article about me in a local paper, and spoke with a Dominican priest, relocated to Lviv, who i recognised from his time at the parish of St Catherine of Alexandria, in St Petersburg. Touching on the question of Christian Unity, he surprised me by saying that prayers were needed not only for Catholic/ Orthodox relations, but also for better ties between the Latin-rite and Byzantine-rite Catholics. This latter flock, predominant among Christians in this part of Ukraine, returned to the Roman fold soon after the demise of the Soviet Union, but retains several key Orthodox traits, most obviously in their liturgy, but also in observance of the Julian calendar, and in allowing clergy to be married. An American priest, of Miles Jesu but also of this Byzantine rite (he’d had to master the Ukrainian language), explained to me the official hope that it can serve as a ‘bridge’, across which Catholic/ Orthodox reconciliation might one day be accomplished, with God’s help.      

   On Thursday morning there was embarrassment when i left the house, forgetting i’d left some beans boiling on the hob; i phoned home and they’d been discovered, but of course potentially it was not a funny story. At the travel agency i handed over my passport and was told i needed to be back on the following Monday. I then left some excess baggage at the house before striking southwards and, following a tip-off, visited an army surplus shop where i invested in an excellent German-made khaki poncho. I also felt i had to brandish my camera for the sake of a billboard with a photograph of an unborn child, appealing on behalf of little girls and boys like this for respect of their dignity as human beings. To an unborn child, abortion is the end of the world. In a satellite town called Davydiv i settled for a half-constructed building to sleep in, thankfully rising early enough not to be stumbled across by workmen. I was also more than usually keen to evade the long arm of the law, as i was carrying only a photocopy of my passport. This was one reason in fact why i had decided to chart a course (though it was slightly out of my way) for yet another famous centre of devotion to Our Lady, called Zarvanytsia. If asked by a policeman i could easily tell them my destination, a place to which thousands of pilgrims do walk, if not usually at quite that time of year.

   At around mid-day on Friday the 1st of April, ‘atheists’ special day’,* i came to a village called Shpilchina and visited the Church, where a well-attended service was in progress, and numerous offerings of bread and milk were laid out on the altar. Afterwards a succession of friendly ladies from the congregation came up to me, followed by the priest. In order to verify that i was Christian he held a crucifix in front of me to kiss, then supplied me with two loaves of bread and a large bottle of milk. One of the women then accompanied me a short distance along the road to her home, where she and her two young daughters treated me to wonderful hospitality; hot drinks and a delicious lunch of fried potatoes, cabbage and aubergines. I was also given a proper ‘Little Red Riding Hood-esque’ warning about the danger of wolves in the foothills of the Carpathian mountains. We swapped email addresses, and i left them a photo i’d taken of a red squirrel in the park below Jasna Gora, in Czestochowa. Later on a sky-lark seemed to be putting on a special performance for me, directly above the road which led after dark to the unlit streets of Novi Strelishcha. At length i found lodging in a derelict house, but a departure from the script came when two young fellows returning from a night on the town shone their torch through the entrance, directly at me. I can only assume that they saw me, but happily i was not further incommoded.

   The next day, Saturday 2nd of April, could easily have been blighted by the loss of a battery-powered device called a ‘Dazer’, which ingeniously deters dogs with an inaudible high-pitched noise. It worries wolves in the same way, so from the village of Pidkamin i decided to catch a bus back to a little chapel dedicated to Our Lady next to a spring, near Fraga, where i fancied it had fallen out of my pocket. Thanks be to God, there it was. It made a great difference knowing that i had a secret weapon with which to tackle confrontational canines, and i made a mental note to send an email to the kind owner of Dazer International who had donated it for my previous pilgrimage.

   In bright afternoon sunshine i made it to Rogatin, and picked up a couple more large bags of ‘pryaniki’ biscuits (like the ones i’d bought in Germany), for the folks at the orphanage in Bortniki where i was hoping to spend the night. It turned out that the last bus had gone, so i took a taxi as the sun set on the springly scenery. On arrival i was shown to a very comfortable bed in a store room, where a box carried the legend ‘Banane de Guadeloupe et Martinique’ (my italics) - i had to take a picture, as it so happened that this French spelling had wreaked havoc with my first attempts at blogging. All in all it was an idyllic stay there, in which i was made to feel as if i was among friends – not least by an English chap, who reminded me in the morning that it was Mothering Sunday, and let me use his phone to leave a message. Before leaving i exchanged little portraits of birds with a boy called Victor, who i had met on a previous visit. My side of the bargain was a photo of a Polish nuthatch, after he gave me a robin with a verse from St Matthew’s Gospel, in Ukrainian;

Look at the birds of the air, for they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns; yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they?” [Mt 6:26]

*”The fool hath said in his heart, ‘There is no God’” [Psalm 14:1]
After attending the Byzantine-rite Sunday Liturgy in their chapel and enjoying a delicious bowl of borsch for lunch, under another sunny sky i was off again, though for much of the way to Xhodoriv i hitched a ride with another Victor and his daughter, then took a very crowded bus back to Rogatin. After a stop for a drink there in a cafe ‘Victor’ i trooped eastwards, reaching a village by the name of Lopushna at about 10pm. Stopping there to rummage in my bag for a pair of gloves, a woman in her thirties came by and asked if she could be of any help. After further questioning she very kindly invited me to stay at her house, which she shared with her mother and brother. As it was Sunday (therefore not one of the forty days of Lent), the thought of joining them for a few glasses of vodka and some nice food didn’t trouble my conscience, and we discovered a common fondness for the village of Bortniki, where my hostess’s grandfather still lived. She also insisted on giving me a Russian language book of prayers to Our Lady, and her mother gave me a beautiful Ukrainian image of the Madonna and Child, from an old calendar. In the morning, after a great sleep on their sofa, i left them a card with a Russian Icon and a Miraculous Medal, besides promising to write.

   Being Monday i had an appointment at the travel agency, so i took a minibus back to Rogatin, then a larger but slower vehicle from there which wended its way past a giant state-of-the-art football stadium, under construction on the southern outskirts of Lviv. Needing to get to the centre i took another taxi, whose driver was a Liverpool and Karpaty (Carpathian) Lviv fan. Among other things our conversation turned to the air of inevitability hanging over Tottenham’s impending clash with Real Madrid at the Bernabeu. Alas, having overcome the mighty AC Milan in the previous round, they would not escape very close scrutiny from Mourinho’s fearsome Galacticos. The lady at the travel agency said the visa in fact would be ready for collection on Friday, so i spent part of the afternoon collecting things from the house, went to a Mass in Polish, and pinged off some emails to various people and places. I also came across a discarded but very usable winter police uniform, which was too heavy to take with me, so i put it in a bin liner and stashed it in a space under a building, in case i had an opportunity to retrieve it. The best way to resume the walk to Zarvanytsia from where i’d left off, i decided, would be to take a late train to the city of Ternopil, which left the station in Lviv around midnight. I got a few hours sleep before its arrival at 3.50am, and thankfully could grab a few more in an out-of-the-way place in the station there. Two bus journeys later i was in an attractive if slightly unkempt town called Berezhani, not far from Lopushna, which i’d reached on Sunday night. After attending a service in the baroque Church of the Holy Trinity on the main square, at a nearby cafe-restaurant a formal lunch was in progress, attended by two priests, one of whom recited a prayer, at which the diners kept a reverent silence. In Lviv and around it was not unusual to see people of all ages cross themselves as they passed a Church, and a favourite greeting in this part of Ukraine is a hearty “Glory to Jesus Christ”, to which one replies “Glory forever!” Not however that there wasn’t a full complement of social problems in evidence, many of them related to the abuse of alcohol.

   I set off from there, past the remains of quite an impressive castle, and reached a village called Lityatin, where i was kindly given a free coffee and pryaniki at the shop. Inside the adjacent Church the ceiling was being painted exquisitely by a pair of artists who turned out to be identical twin brothers. They made their living from bigger commissions, but were doing this work for free, Lityatin being their home village. Feeling quite weary, after a brief chat in which i explained about the pilgrimage, i gladly accepted a kind invitation from one of them to come to his home, just over the road, for something to eat. Back at the ranch, his wife and daughter were instrumental in putting some lovely hot food in front of me, and he clarified a very important difference between this western region and other parts of the Ukraine. The extraordinary degree of religious observance is chiefly explained by the fact that, until 1945, it was in Poland. In other words, like Lithuania for example, it had been part of the (atheist) USSR for only 45, instead of 70 years, and moreover it was the great Polish tradition of Christianity which communism had tried (and clearly failed) to extinguish here. I was also told that the ruined castle in Berezhani was at one time the home of Polish nobility. Asked if there was anything else they could do to help, i replied that i would love to lie down and rest for an hour, which was fine, but it was decided that in fact i should also stay overnight! After the nap i enjoyed a most congenial evening, with more nice food, and was shown an album of some of the twins’ frankly magnificent previous commissions. Kiev has a long established school of superb ecclesiastical painting, and my hunch was that these brothers are among its greatest living exponents. I also spoke briefly with the second of the brothers in my first ever ‘Skype’ conversation - a confusing experience as initially i thought i was looking at a video of my host! Then i saw on the internet that Spurs were trailing 2:0 to Real Madrid; later i learnt that they suffered a 4:0 defeat.   
After a splendid sleep on their sofa bed, before getting away early next morning i put a message in a little card depicting a statue of Our Lady of Fatima which, interestingly, i don’t think my host was too keen on. Not having fully twigged up to that point, i deduced that in fact they must be Orthodox Christians, who generally frown on the idea of three dimensional representations of the Saints. Bright sunshine and the lie of the land were ideal for good progress to Pidhaitsi, from where i had to try to find a special short cut for pilgrims, covering the last 10km or so across fields and through a forest to Zarvanytsia. While checking my directions i was noticed by a middle-aged woman, who kindly escorted me past another ruin of a Polish manor house, to the beginning of the inconspicuous palmers’ pathway. Accompanied only by sundry butterflies and a half-identified falcon or two i arrived at the new Church complex of Zarvanytsia in the early evening, praying first in a small chapel, then in the impressive Cathedral of the Mother of God.

   
  In the year of Our Lord 1240AD the Icon of Our Lady of Zarvanytsia is said to have appeared miraculously to a fugitive monk, making his escape from Kiev in the wake of the Mongol invasion led by Batu Khan, grandson of Genghis. The following description, of an Assyrian offensive, from the Book of Isaiah, written in the 8th century BC, seems eerily to forecast the devastating impact of the Mongols on the peoples of central and eastern Europe;

"He hoists a signal for a distant nation,
He whistles it up from the ends of the earth;
And look they come, swiftly, promptly.

None of them faint or weary,
None sleeping or drowsy,
None of them with belt loose,
None with sandal-straps broken.

Their arrows are sharpened,
Their bows all bent,
The hoofs of their horses are like flint,
Their chariot-wheels like tornadoes. 

Their roar is the roar of a lioness,
Like young lions they roar.
They growl and seize their prey,
They bear it off, and no one can snatch it back. 

Growling against it, that day,
Like the growling of the sea.
Only look at the country: darkness and distress,
And the light flickers out in shadows.”
[Isaiah 5:26-30]

   One might even bring to one’s mind’s eye a different monk (or, at a pinch, the same one) in that terrible year, sitting in the candle-lit scriptorium of an as yet un-preyed upon monastery, poring stony-faced over this passage of Isaiah, just as its prophetic words were being fulfilled in his own day. We learn of our monk that he stopped on his long journey to drink water from a spring in a secluded valley. After saying a prayer to the Blessed Virgin, the story goes that he fell into a deep sleep, in which Our Lady appeared to him in a dream. On regaining consciousness he found the Icon, next to the spring, and was moved to stay there and begin construction of a chapel to house it. Such dreams of course are a frequent motif of Marian apparitions, but there is nonetheless an echo here of the story of Our Lady of Walsingham (see footnote, page 2). I, meanwhile, was put in mind particularly of Walsingham – and heartened – when i discovered that the day after my arrival in Zarvanytsia, the 7th of April, would be the Orthodox (and therefore Ukrainian Greek-Catholic) Annunciation, the festival whose remembrance of course is so intrinsic to the spirituality of England’s national shrine.    
While at prayer in the Cathedral i was approached by a solicitous young priest, who went to the trouble of arranging for me to check in to the nearby guest house/seminary, costing only about 5 euros for a very comfortable room. In the morning the Cathedral was brimming with people for the 9 o’clock Eucharist, after which it was a short hop to the 18th century Holy Trinity Church, to pay my respects to the Holy Icon of Our Lady of Zarvanytsia. Having spent a few moments in prayer there for the intentions of His Holiness Pope Benedict XVI, in showery conditions i made my way to a cafe in Zolotniki, where a policeman was satisfied with my photocopied passport, and i got a free tea. I then walked for a few more hours before catching a bus to Ternopil at around 6pm, and then the first train to Lviv. Friday the 8th of ApriI, memorial of Blessed August Czartoryski, was a useful one, sandwiched between sleeps of so-so sufficiency in the train stations of Lviv and, again, Ternopil, respectively. After catching the tail-end of a service in the beautiful Church of St Andrew in central Lviv, i collected a 20-day visa from the Russian consulate, to start on the 9th of May, and on the way to the Miles Jesu house caught sight of a Ukrainian edition of Robert Louis Stephenson’s ‘Treasure Island’ in a shop window, which i commandeered for the boys’ library at Bortniki.  An additional morale boost came from two packages, containing dried apricots, cashew nuts and other goodies, which had been sent to the house from home. I also got another reasonably successful film developed, but decided against retrieval of the winter police uniform for the time being.

   On Saturday the 9th of April i set off from Ternopil in some pretty awful sleety weather, the stiffest test yet of my new poncho, with its little German flag on the side. In fact the cape coped admirably well, but the sudden sodden state of my walking boots, which i’d bought from a charity shop, was enough to curb my sense of jubilation. At a place called Zbarazh there was a sign to a castle, so i asked if i could leave my rucksack in the care of some young people in a shop while i nipped off to investigate. On route i got talking to a friendly middle-aged gentleman, who insisted a) that i needed at least half an hour to visit the castle, and b) that i should come back to his nearby house afterwards, for a coffee. In fact one should allow at least an hour in order to do the castle justice. The seat, like other stately dwellings in the region, of Polish aristocracy, it was built in an Italianate ‘palazzo’ style in the 17th century (rebuilt in the 18th century), but also boasts a very deep moat and impressive dungeon to give it an authentic ‘knights in shining armour’ feel. In the mid 17th century it took centre stage when besieged as part of the uprising led by Zaporozhian Cossack Bogdan Khmelnitsky. Of especial interest is its excellent museum, housing among other things a collection of mediaeval and early modern Icons and devotional statues, traditional clothing, a mediaeval armoury including swords and 13th century chain mail, and a room full of impressively sculpted wooden figurines, mostly Cossack soldiers. At 5pm i met up with the fellow i’d spoken to earlier and came to his house, where i was introduced to his wife and, they both being physics teachers, a former student of theirs, who was visiting from his home in the Crimea. I was plied with delicious hot food as well as coffee, over which our conversation ranged from Zarvanytsia and football to the Crimea’s semi-autonomous status, which i realised i needed to brush up on.

   Their son soon arrived home so, gauging that they didn’t really have room in the house to put me up, i decided to say my farewells and make tracks, in spite of some very dark grey clouds which started discharging their watery payload shortly afterwards. I made do with a bus shelter in Sinyava to spend the night in, which was OK if a bit on the cold side, then walked to the village of Vyshhorodok, which notably gave the year of its foundation in the late 10th century. With the refrain “Seek ye first the Kingdom of God” in my head, i scaled a hill to the Church, where a well-attended Sunday service was about to start. Then a middle-aged chap asked if there was anything i’d like, to which i replied ‘maybe a cup of tea’, thinking this would be after the liturgy, but since it went on for over two hours, a short time later i was spirited away to the church hall for a great cuppa in mid-service! He outlined the history of the village Church, how it had been boarded up and neglected in soviet times, but things appear to have begun changing in about the year 1988, when Kievan Rus’ – and therefore Russia – marked one thousand years of Christianity, dated from the baptism of St. Vladimir the Great in the year 988AD.*

*A celebrated legend has it that, in the years 986-87, Grand Prince Vladimir, who inherited the paganism of his father Sviatoslav (though his grandmother St Olga was Christian), embarked on a wide-ranging consultation, in order to discern which of the available religions he should adopt. Islam was at a clear disadvantage for its proscriptive stance on alcohol; "Drinking is the joy of the Rus', we can't go without it" he exclaimed. He gave a hearing to Jewish representatives but felt their loss of Jerusalem pointed to their being out of divine favour. When the field was narrowed to a choice between Roman Catholicism and the Byzantine Church, his envoys were apparently underwhelmed by the gloomy Churches of Germany, but in contrast were enthralled by the spectacle of Christian worship in the Cathedral of Hagia Sophia in Constantinople; “We no longer knew whether we were in heaven or on earth,” they reported, “nor such beauty, and we know not how to tell of it.” Mind you, with the Greeks on their southern frontier, and the importance of the Dnieper river as a trade route linking the Baltic and Black Seas, it’s probably fair also to say that an alignment with Byzantium made sound political and economic sense.
Returning to the Church, when the service came to end, people were almost queuing up to furnish me with kind gifts of money or provisions including fruit and chocolate. In my turn i was at least happy to point out a colourful ‘Our Lady of Guadalupe’ electric lamp among the things which happened to be inside the Church. There were no leaps or bounds in the walk from there along a medium-sized, fairly straight country road, but the day was distinguished by yet more squally snow showers; particularly galling, i imagined, for our amphibian friends – in fact they must have been hopping mad! In early evening i came to the small town of Lanivtsi, where an inquisitive fellow gave me a loaf of bread, after which i enjoyed a nice hot bowl of borsch and coffee at a little guest house place. Rooms turned out to be very inexpensive, partly because they had no heating, so i opted to stay the night, then in the morning went to the town library, hoping to have a go on a computer. The two lady members of staff were friendly and helpful, and asked if they could call two journalist friends of theirs, which was fine by me. Two more women arrived soon afterwards, and we recorded an interview in Russian, part of which was taken up with an impassioned litany of historical grievances suffered by Ukraine at the hands of the Russians, not all the details of which i could understand. Apparently the recording was to be used for a local radio broadcast. Before leaving the journalists insisted on going to buy some lovely provisions for me, including a smoked fish, sweets, chocolates, jam and bananas; and i was obliged to accept a little glass of very sweet red wine from the librarians, before photos were taken and i got underway.

   In the next village, Krasnoluka, at the shop i was given free coffee and some pryaniki, which the lady kindly swapped for a Lenten variety – i might not usually have asked, but a lady on a TV talk show was just that minute talking about the benefits of fasting. Then in overcast but dry conditions i trekked quite a long way through uninhabited countryside to a place called Yampil’, where it was a surprise to see a statue of Vladimir Ilyich Lenin. You see him in Russia, but i thought he would have gone from Ukrainian towns. Later i realised i must have crossed from a district (‘Ternopilski’) which was in pre-war Poland, to a region inside the boundaries of the pre-war Soviet Union, named after Khmelnitsky, who of course rose up against Polish rule. And not co-incidentally, i learnt that this was the beginning of territory which calls itself Orthodox; one seldom saw any other type of Church.
  
  At a cafe restaurant there called ‘Shance’ (Chance) i wasn’t allowed to pay for two cups of tea, and was treated to a delicious bowl of soup and a very useful bottle of drinking water. Walking on one got a sense that the town had aspirations to be a sort of miniature Las Vegas. The only hotel was self-consciously plush, and quite expensive by Ukrainian standards, but still much less than one would expect to pay even in Poland, for example. I checked in and had a very comfortable night, then set off next morning ‘ponchoed up’ to deal with the showery conditions. In mid morning a fellow, who turned out to be a pharmacist, pulled over in his van and insisted on taking me “just 10 or 15 kms”, so i accepted, but soon after dropping me off down the road he was back, and basically telling me i had to be taken quite a lot further(!), about 70km in total. To be honest this made sense, as i had no chance of walking all the way across Ukraine before the start of my Russian visa on the 9th of May, and pilgrimage is not an exact science. He also told me about a much revered pilgrimage destination for Orthodox Christians to the west called Pochaev Lavra (monastery), whose foundation legend is quite similar to that of Zarvanytsia (Kievan monks in flight from the Mongols, a revered Icon of the Theotokos*). It remained Orthodox within the pre-war Polish Republic, though for a spell earlier in its tempestuous history, it was in the hands of Ukrainian Greek Catholic monks, who won recognition for the miracle-working properties of the Icon from the Holy See. This region, then, lies on the historical frontier between the competing claims of Catholicism and Orthodoxy, claims which have usually been coterminous with territorial feuding between Poland and Russia**. The particular relevance of this concept of frontier, moreover, is underlined by the meaning of the word ‘Ukraine’ itself; approximately ‘on the frontier’ (or sometimes march in English). But i was struck by the way in which generally, nowadays, all linguistic as well as religious differences are powerfully overridden by a very strong sense of Ukrainian national identity. Ukrainians are not Poles – and neither are they Russians.

*meaning ‘God-bearer’ – an appellation for Our Lady which is frequently found in Orthodox Christianity.
**allowing for various complicating factors, among them Habsburg Austrian dominion over Southern Poland (including Lviv) from 1772 until 1918.    

On the morning of Wednesday 13th of April, dedicated to Pope St Martin I, after spending the night quite successfully underneath a concrete platform for traffic police cars next to the road, i made my way towards Lyubar, scene in 1660 of a major battle between Polish-Lithuanians, with their Tatar allies, and Russians, with the Cossacks. I was surprised to find that an isolated roadside residence with a weather-beaten sign, ‘Chumatski Shlyakh’, was in fact a cafe with an attractive wood-panelled interior – and open for business. Even better, the kind lady inside relocated me to a table underneath a super electric heater, and wouldn’t hear of me ordering only the bread which i customarily eat on Wednesdays. I was presented with another free bowl of tasty hot soup and a plate of biscuits to go with my tea. Memorable also was a calendar on the wall with the popular Russian saying: “Without work you will not catch so much as a little fish from the pond.” Trundling past the prominent statue of V.I. Lenin on a wet and windy afternoon in Lyubar, i eventually found the office of Ukraine’s telecom company, in order to go onto the internet for an hour or so. I then set off in the direction of Krasnosilka, snapping a photogenic pair of nesting storks on the way.

   “Porridge. A great way to start your day”. By means of slogans like this, advertisers have ever endeavoured to shift their stuff. Well, take it from me, a kick, followed by more kicks, in the back, from a would-be ‘Dick Turpin’ highwayman at six in the morning, when you’ve spent the night in a bus shelter, is not a great way to start your day. Having said that, thanks be to God, it could have been much, much worse. For one thing, although he had fairly new overalls, my assailant was only wearing a very battered pair of trainers. And before going to sleep i had taken just one half-baked precaution, locking my bags together with a little cable/padlock, by which he was sufficiently deterred from simply making off with my stuff, which could have spelt the end of the road. He didn’t have a weapon of any kind and he was drunk and/or drugged, for which reason i was able to fob him off with some foreign currency which was worth less than he realised; he even gave some Russian roubles back to me. Among the notes he did keep were Israeli shekels left over from the previous year’s trip to Jerusalem, which lent the whole episode a curiously New Testament quality.* Thankfully though – Thank You Jesus - i was never really in danger. We even had a half friendly conversation, in which i learnt that he was 21 years old, had lost his parents, and had been turned out of his grandparents’ home in Belarus. When i told him i was English he gave me a fable about how, in reality, he was American, a notion which clearly held a tremendous romantic appeal. But he also gave me an indication of some of the terrible things which can befall feral young people and children, not only in Ukraine but in all countries. It brought home to me the incalculable importance of a charity like Mary’s Meals (which incidentally has been actively addressing child homelessness in Ukraine for several years), and of course a place like the wonderful orphanage-school in Bortniki, which fundamentally shares the same philosophy.

   My own Good Samaritan was a driver who kindly responded to my arm-waving, as i was trying to fend off the inebriated young robber. In fact, to give him his due, although he cottoned on to my having short-changed him, he actually indicated to me that a van had stopped behind me and was waiting to pick me up! I was offered a lift all the way to Kiev, but instead asked to be dropped in a town called Chudniv, about 15 kms down the road. I found another internet place there, then eventually a nice place to drink coffee and count my blessings. That night there was a special satisfaction in finding somewhere relatively safe to sleep; inside a small, abandoned, presumably soviet-era observation tower, in a village called Miroslavska, a name which incorporates the words for ‘peace’ and ‘glory’. It was marvellously comforting from there to hear the horn and then the whistle (especially) of trains as they approached a nearby railway crossing.
*“Jesus replied, ‘A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell into the hands of robbers, who stripped him, beat him, and went away, leaving him half dead. Now by chance a priest was going down that road; and when he saw him, he passed by on the other side. So likewise a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. But a Samaritan while travelling came near him; and when he saw him, he was moved with pity. He went to him and bandaged his wounds, having poured oil and wine on them. Then he put him on his own animal, brought him to an inn, and took care of him. The next day he took out two denarii, gave them to the innkeeper, and said, “Take care of him; and when I come back, I will repay you whatever more you spend.” Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbour to the man
who fell into the hands of the robbers?’ He said, ‘The one who showed him mercy.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Go and do likewise.’” [Lk 10:30-37]                                  
  On the morning of Friday 15th April, dedicated in some calendars to St Mstislav I of Kiev**, there was bright sunshine as i made my way to a town called Berdychiv. On a steep elevation in the centre and visible from several kilometres away, i was amazed to come across a great baroque, unmistakably Catholic-looking Church. In fact it is a monastery of the Discalced Carmelites, not least notable for its very imposing defensive walls. Founded in the early 17th century, it was a target for capture and plunder by Bogdan Khmelnitsky in 1647; most of what one can see today survives from its reconstruction in the 18th century. This paragraph in English was on a noticeboard inside the entrance;

"In the 18th and 19th centuries the monastery at Berdychiv became the centre, not only of religious life and the cult of Our Lady in Ukraine, but also of culture and charity. By means of its printing press and school it played a very important role in promoting culture and education. The Shrine of Our Lady became the spiritual capital for the Roman Catholics of Ukraine. It was considered a holy place, a place of the Lord and a point of pilgrimage for those wishing to give honour to Our Lady as well as those wishing to do penance in the hopes of reconciliation with God."

The premises were converted into an atheist museum and cinema in soviet times, but it has now been returned to the Carmelites, and a large cross with the letter ‘M’ beside it, taken from the insignia of Pope John Paul II, is painted above the main entrance. While restoration of the main Church continues, worshippers congregate in a large chapel in the crypt, where i followed the Stations of the Cross, before exploring the small museum which covers the history of the town and its monastery. It is important to note that for many years Berdychiv was also a great cultural and commercial centre of Judaism, Jews comprising 80% of a population which stood at around 50,000 in the second half of the 19th century - there were as many as 80 Synagogues. In a pattern repeated in so many other eastern and central European towns and cities however, the lives of thousands of its inhabitants were tragically cut short by the Holocaust. Berdychiv was also the birthplace of Polish novelist Joseph Conrad, author of ‘Lord Jim’ and ‘The Secret Agent’. The original Icon of Our Lady of Berdychiv was lost in a fire in World War II, but a beautiful replacement hangs in a side chapel, where i prayed a decade of the rosary for the intentions of Kate and William, whose wedding was to be celebrated a fortnight later.

Our Lady of Berdychiv
  From there, after firing off a few emails and posting to the blog at the Ukraine Telecom office, i plodded on for a few hours in the gathering gloom, before settling for a suitable drainage duct under the road in which to sleep. On the next day there was nary a cloud in the sky as i arrived in a village called Kashpirovka, and gratefully accepted the ministrations of a very kind farmer and his family – delicious pancakes with jam and ‘smetana’, a sort of cream; not quite ‘Lenten’ fare perhaps, but never mind. The road then took me eventually to Vchoraishe, where a nice lady in the shop, overcoming her instinctive feelings of suspicion, gave me two free cups of tea and a loaf of bread, and asked me to write and let her know how i got on.

  To the soundtrack of a very industrious woodpecker, at the crossroads in the middle of the village i went about trying to hitch-hike back to Berdychiv, hoping to find an affordable place to stay and attend Sunday Mass next day. Eventually i was picked up by two guys returning from a lake where they ran some kind of fishing business. They were amused when i reminded them of the proverb about “catching little fish from the pond”, but regrettably, after dropping me at an ideal sort of hotel near the train station, they made off with rather more than i’d had in mind to contribute towards petrol, disappearing under the pretext of changing a high denomination note which the hotel receptionist couldn’t change. Very kindly however, she insisted on taking partial responsibility for this, and halved my liability by reducing the cost of my room. Before going to sleep there was Serie A football to watch on the television, specifically Parma vs Inter Milan, the same two sides i’d seen in a place called Benizolle, Italy, on the previous year’s pilgrimage.
  It was a comfortable night, and the uplifting Palm Sunday Mass at the Carmelite monastery conferred a sense of spiritual revitalisation. Afterwards a young man noticed me trying to hitch a lift back to Vchoraishe from a place where i didn’t really have a chance, so he led me via a series of back alleys to the omnibus station, from where an applicable vehicle was just about to leave. From Vchoraishe i followed a signpost for ‘Andrushivka’, thinking it was the ‘Andrushki’ marked on my map – lexically, you’ll notice, quite close to each other, but geographically, i can assure you, quite far apart. By the time i realised, however (my compass told me that i was actually heading west), it didn’t seem worth heading back, and the lack of traffic made hitching unrealistic. As darkness fell i settled for a good place to sleep on a bench in a picnic hut next to the road, though a nearby owl did its best to keep me awake. Then at dawn one could hear an extraordinary ‘conversation’, in which a crow seemed to be angrily protesting about a woodpecker’s noisy drilling. Incidentally, the greater spotted woodpecker is something of a dark horse. Until i saw one in dramatic pursuit of a rival (or mate) later that morning, i hadn’t realised that they are in fact among the most gifted flitters in the forest.

**Grandson of St Vladimir the Great, who married Gytha of Wessex, a daughter of the Earl of Wessex, Harold Godwinson, briefly King Harold II of England.

Approaching the outskirts of Andrushivka i made a first, rather satisfying use of my Dazer (teaching a little hound to come snapping at my heals), then visited an attractive Orthodox Church in the centre. Before leaving i bought a few little prayer cards of St Andrew, which i was glad to have at Yaropovichi in the evening, as i could give one each to a group of inquisitive children who found me resting next to a big marsh on the far side of the village. After a spectacular sunset, as i walked on from there the full moon was crimson red, as if sore and inflamed.

  I spent the night quite successfully in a field in Khodorkiv, then attended part of a service in the Church, before enjoying a hot drink in the cafe opposite. Getting away in yet more beautiful weather, as i filled a bottle with water from a well i exchanged pleasantries with a devout Orthodox woman, who invoked the protection of my Guardian Angel, reminding me how important they are in the eastern tradition. Then i met a lady who absolutely insisted, after i’d said a few words about the pilgrimage, on giving me 50 greven, saying the Lord had given it to her to give to me; unforgettable especially, because this exact amount made up for the money i’d lost in Berdychiv! In the evening i reached a town called Brusyliv,* went to the police station to hand in a mobile phone i’d found next to the road, then settled down to sleep in a room on the second floor of a half-built multi-storey building. On the next day, Wednesday 20th of April, dedicated to St Beuno of Wales, both a single lane track alongside the main highway to Kiev, and yet more fine weather, were most conducive to walking. Having begun fasting at 6pm the previous evening, just after six on that evening i allowed myself a supper of Lenten pryaniki biscuits and a box of terrifically tasty, cep** flavoured potato crisps. After dark, in the vicinity of Kalynivka i shopped around for an affordable place to spend the night; at one hotel a kind woman explained that she couldn’t offer any reduction on her rooms (i’d merely mentioned that i was a pilgrim), but she confided that i’d need to pay only half the price at the next place down.

  Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II’s birthday, the 21st of April, falling on Maundy Thursday that year, found me setting off from the motel at about 9am, after a very good sleep. Quite keen to check my emails i came off the main road into the small conurbation of Kopyliv, but there was no internet anywhere. When i asked directions back to the main road i was told i’d have to retrace my steps, never an enticing prospect, so instead i elected to take a more rustic route towards Kiev. When neither the next village nor the one after had a library or Telecom office however, i decided not so much to cheat, as to be economical with the rules. Another well-known Russian saying, “Your tongue will take you to Kiev”, clearly pre-dates the invention of the minibus.
  Arriving in a busy western suburb of Kiev, i soon found an internet cafe place, where at last i could check my precious emails. Furnishing myself also with the address of a backpackers’ auberge, the weather was ideal for an evening stroll from there along Prospect Peremogi to the centre. Thankfully there was spare bed at the space-age hostel, which overlooked the very impressive Respublikanski Stadion, still at that time being made ready to host the final of the 2012 European Championships. After dropping my stuff i went out to find the nearby Catholic Cathedral of St Nicholas the Wonderworker, an attractive if somewhat incongruous-looking 19th century gothic structure with soaring twin spires. I’d been hoping to attend a Mass for Holy (Maundy) Thursday, but at least learnt that there would be a Good Friday service at 10am the following morning. Back at the hostel i had a conversation with a Swede and a Dutch couple, to whom i showed photos of my passage through the Netherlands. They were there principally for one of the surprisingly popular excursions to the ‘zone of alienation’ around Chernobyl, a short drive to the north of Kiev, where radiation levels have made it inadvisable to spend more than a few hours since 1986.

   Early on the morning of Good Friday i used the free internet in the hostel to write a post for the blog, desisting though from giving it a gently humorous title i’d thought up; ‘Kiev Dwellers’. After the service in the Cathedral it was almost hot, and sunny as i made my way to a major bus station near the bank of the river Dnieper. Being Good Friday, i didn’t at first intend to try applying for a Kazakh visa, but passing a number of embassies on route i realised it might be worthwhile after all, since Kazakhstan is a predominantly Muslim country. Soon after 3 o’clock, the solemn moment for recollection of Our Lord’s saving death on the cross, i found the address at an internet place, and decided to head over by metro. Al Hamdu li la-ah!*** - it was open, the young woman on duty was friendly and helpful, the paperwork was easy and the expense, at least in comparison with Russia, was minimal.

*named after the famous Russian World War I general Alexei Brusilov – ‘Brusyliv’ is the Ukrainian spelling.
**a kind of wild mushroom.
***’Praise the Lord’ in Arabic.
After nipping out to change some money into dollars at a bank, i was told that my passport with the visa should be ready for collection on Monday. Encouraged by this turn of events, i rode back to the bus station on the metro, and then set about traversing the mighty Dnieper. Aptly for a river which usually features, even in outline representations of this vast country, it has a huge girth, which took the best part of an hour to cover, using a narrow pathway between traffic and tracks on a road and railway-bridge. Enchanting golden cupolas could be seen glinting in the evening sun on the bank i was leaving behind, making clear that i had unfinished cultural as well as procedural business to attend to on my return, Inshallah.

  In the course of scouting around for a suitable place to sleep in the prosperous eastern suburbs of Kiev i saw no less than four Kiev-dwelling hedgehogs. The place i found was ideal, below ground level under the balcony of a ground floor apartment in a tower block. On the morning of Holy Saturday, which was also St George’s Day, 23rd of April, i got up fairly early and made my way to Kiev’s far eastern fringe. The multi-lane highway heading east from there had a wide grassy verge, and once again the sunshine made walking quite pleasurable. At a petrol station, after saying a few things about the walk, i was awarded a complimentary carton of pineapple juice, then reached the satellite town of Borispil in mid afternoon. After visiting an Orthodox Church fronted with a large portrait of St George the Bringer of Victory i asked directions to and eventually found the Catholic Church, a new building dedicated to Our Lord’s Ascension. In the time available before the Easter Vigil it was good to pray, and make a fist of reading a Russian language book on the Divine Mercy. I also picked up some postcards of Pope John Paul II, with serviceable quotations, translated into various languages:

“Taking human life indicates that man has doubted the value of his existence”, and;

“You must demand of yourselves, even if others demand nothing of you.”

  The Church was in the charge of very youthful, mostly Polish Franciscan friars, who conducted the service in slightly halting Ukrainian (though Russian is usually the first language of people in this part of Ukraine). It is often noted that in eastern Churches, in contrast to many places in the west where it is eclipsed by Christmas, Easter takes its rightful place as the pre-eminent Christian festival of the year. Part of the tradition at Easter is to bring one’s painted eggs and other seasonal comestibles in little baskets to the Easter service, for blessing by the priest, in anticipation of the end of the ‘Great Fast’, as Lent is called. At around midnight when the service ended there was a little succession of members of the congregation wishing to give me some of these things, and a few questions in English were put to me by a girl of about 13. Soon she was joined by one of the Holy Spirit Missionary Sisters attached to the parish; to my relief i was then offered a place to stay at their convent. That meant a short drive, in which we saw another hedgehog, and i was shown to a splendid sofa – though we all had to be up again at 5.30, to keep up with the busy Easter schedule. The nun who found me on the previous evening though, also Polish and a fluent English-speaker, had prepared a really lovely breakfast, and delicious sandwiches for me to take on the onward journey – and it turned out that she had lived for a while in Bristol!

  After the service and procession, at about 7.30am i said my farewells, assuring the sisters of my hope to send a postcard. At a larger Orthodox  Church on the edge of town it slipped my mind that the Rosary i was praying would mark me down as a Catholic, but after one lady told me testily to put it away, i was  glad to exchange the customary Easter greeting with her friend; “Christ is Risen!” – “He is Risen indeed!” The Resurrection of Christ is no fairy story, as Pope Benedict XVI has reminded us.

  In bright sunshine i pressed on, catching glimpses of the first lizards of my walk - beasts which, like ground-hogs, tend to lie in long enough to avoid the frosty projectiles of winter’s final throes. At a cafe-bar in a place called Ivankiv i was reminded that in the company of Armenians, it never goes amiss to mention that theirs was Sir Winston Churchill’s favourite cognac. The fellow also clarified the senior place of Armenia’s Church in the history of Christianity; it was the first country where Christianity became the state religion (301 AD), though not the first place where Christianity was tolerated. We also discussed the tragic deportations of his people in the last days of the Ottoman Empire, in which perhaps a million or more Armenians lost their lives. That Turkey has never been obliged to acknowledge the gravity of these events is arguably due to her importance within a certain western military alliance.