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The Town of Babe in Zakarpattya
A bastion of the Uzhgorod Castle.
Uzhgorod, the capital of Zakarpatska Oblast, is the smallest town among the capitals of Ukraine’s Oblasts, but it occupies a leading place in Ukraine as far as the number of visitors and tourists per capita of the local population is concerned. Olena KRUSHYNSKA, a traveler par excellence, visited Uzhgorod and now presents her story about her visit.
Zakarpatska Oblast, though small, borders on Rumania, Hungary, Slovakia and Poland (oblast is an administrative territorial division in Ukraine; 24 oblasts, among which Zakarpattya — Transcarpathia — is one of the smallest both in size and in population.
Zakarpattya’s geographical position as well as its history of being part of the states other than Ukraine for considerable lengths of time create conditions for a great influx of tourists and visitors. Uzhgorod is a multi-ethnic city with the locals speaking several languages and professing Christianity in many of its forms, as well as other religions. Among the locals you will find Ukrainian, Hungarian, Slovak, Czech, German, Jewish, Romanian and other ethnics. Occupations that the locals used to be engaged in also varied widely though with the passage of time and changing social and economic conditions this variety has been considerably reduced.
Uzhgorod, formerly Ungvar, sits on the bank of the River Uzh. Because of the mountains around, the climate of Uzhgorod is comfortably mild — it does not get too hot in summer, neither does the temperature in winter falls too much below zero.
Archeological evidence suggests that early human settlements in Zakarpattya date from at least a hundred thousand years ago.
Massive migrations of people in the first millennium BCE and CE saw the Celts, Avars, Uygurs, Dacians, Sarmatins, Burgundians and a host of other tribes and peoples passing through Zakarpattya, but the indigenous population seems to have been Slavonic for centuries. Zakarpattya, or its parts, once belonged to Hungarian and Italian feudal lords; in more recent times, it was part of Transilvania, the Austrian-Hungarian Empire, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, the Soviet Union, and since 1991 it is an oblast of Ukraine.
I found Uzhgorod to be a faithful reflection of what Zakarpattya used to be — and is.
It is probably worthwhile to start a tour of Uzhgorod from the castle that dominates Zamkova Hora. As long ago as the seventh century there was a fortified settlement on that hill, but the first written mention of the fortress there dates from the twelfth century. Very little has survived from those times but archeologists discovered parts of the ancient foundation and unearthed enough artifacts to provide a general idea of what the fortress might have looked like. The Italian lords of the Drugetts, who owned the fortress and the castle that supplanted it, from 1322 to 1691, introduced a lot of changes not only to the castle but also to the city that developed around it. Trade flourished; a hospital and schools were founded. The city’s coat of arms of those times had a shield with vines and grapes on it.
The sixteenth-century reconstruction of the castle took into account the latest developments in offensive and defensive military techniques, fire arms in particular. The defensive walls and towers grew higher and thicker, a deep moat ran around the castle which could be accessed only via a drawbridge.
These days you don’t have to do any fighting and conduct negotiations to gain access to the castle — you just buy a ticket. After you pass through the gate, the first thing that comes into view is a sixteenth-century two-storied palace which used to serve a sort of a dungeon. The palace’s many features — the thick walls, loopholes and the general appearance of the building with once a moat around it — suggest its defensive character. The basement also served as prison complete with a torture chamber. These days, the chamber contains wax figures of a torturer and his victim to scare the young. It does add a somewhat gruesome touch to the place. I was told that the thick walls had secret passages — I thought it would be fun to investigate these passages and make startling discoveries but I did not. I was just an ordinary tourist, not a historian on a special mission.
A thirty-meter deep well in the courtyard provided the besieged with water during sieges. The palace is said to be haunted by a ghost. The local legend has it that the daughter of the Italian lord of the castle fell in love with a Polish nobleman during a siege of the castle in the seventeenth century by Polish troops. The young woman revealed to the Pole some secrets about the castle defenses which were of great importance for the besiegers. When the enraged father learned of his daughter’s treachery, he ordered her to be immured in a wall. Since then the ghost of the girl whose love made her a traitor to the cause of her father, has been walking the corridors of the castle at night, sighing and bemoaning her terrible fate. These signs and moans are said to be particularly loud during thunderstorms.
Close to the castle you can see ruins of a church. It was the first church known to have been built in Uzhgorod. The church was consecrated as that of St George (locally known as St Yury) and the first written mention about it dates from 1248. In 1728, the church was destroyed in a devastating fire.
The castle was besieged and taken many times. At the end of the seventeenth century it came into the hands of the Hungarian Count Miklos Bercsenyi whose wife Kristina was famous for her beauty. The noble couple turned the castle into a place that was nice to live in rather than easy to defend — the interiors were revamped in accordance with the latest European fashion and adorned with works of art. A landscape park and gardens were laid out; theatrical and music performances were given in the palace’s theater hall — alas, all of the eighteenth-century sophisticated glory remained in the past.
Walking but a short distance from the castle, you can find yourself in the open-air folk architecture museum which occupies some space on the slope of the hill which is topped by the castle. The museum, which was opened in 1970, displays peasant houses, a water mill, a wooden bell tower, a chapel, a tavern, a smithy, a church and some other wooden buildings of various purposes. All of these wooden buildings were originally built in various villages of Zakarpattya during several centuries, from the seventeenth to the twentieth. In the late 1960s, they were taken apart, brought to the site of the folk architecture museum and re-assembled there again.
The Church of St Michael, which was originally built in the village of Shelstov in 1777, now graces the museum. It is indeed one of the best-looking churches in the architectural style known as Lemkivsky.
Among other exhibits of the museum, you can see pottery, works of weaving, embroidery, carving and other crafts, but the church is the museum’s top highlight.
On to Koryatovych Square
From the castle I proceeded along the street which was once called Zamkova — that is, “of Castle,” and which now is called Kapitulna. The street paved with large-sized river pebbles, used to be a neighborhood of craftsmen and servants, but at the end of the eighteenth century a number of offices of the Greek Catholic Church of the Mukachiv Diocese were opened in the street, among them Kapitul, a sort of an advisory body to the Bishop. And the street got renamed becoming Kapitulna. Most of the houses in that street date from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries with the Khrestovozdvizhensky (Exaltation of the Holy and Life-giving Cross) Cathedral being the dominant architectural feature not only of the street but of the whole town of Uzhgorod. The cathedral belongs to the Greek Catholic community of Uzhgorod
In 1646, an agreement was signed between the Roman Catholic Church and the local Eastern Orthodox Church on the union of the two churches. The agreement in Ukrainian is known as Uniya (union), and the church that emerged is known as Uniate Church which combines features both Roman Catholic and Greek Orthodox. A new church building was built then; it was reconstructed in the eighteenth century twice and was given the status of a cathedral. The Austrian-Hungarian Empress Maria-Theresa was the august patron of the cathedral. The local bishop Vasyl Popovych supervised the work on the interior decoration, with the then well-known painter Ferdinand Widra doing the murals. Still another reconstruction in 1877 introduced new changes into the appearance of the cathedral. In 1939, the local painter Yosyp Bokshay was commissioned to paint new murals, and among his creations are The Exaltation of the Holy and Life-giving Cross and Fathers of the Church.
Kapitulna Street, so tightly packed with the bishopric and other church-related offices, took me eventually to a large square (incongruously, it is named after a Lithuanian prince, Fedir Koryatovych, who had nothing to do with Uzhgorod). The square is a trade center of the city where annual fairs are held. But even without fairs, the square is a bustling place with shops and banks being the main attractions.
From Koryatovyh Square I walked to Zhupanatska Square where there still stands a building which used to house the local administration in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. All sorts of political events and even revolutions took place in that square. In 1919, it was there that the vote was taken for Zakarpattya to join the Czech Republic (a brief historical reminder: after the war and then the revolutions of 1917, the Russian, German and Austrian-Hungarian Empires collapsed, the militant Bolsheviks grabbed the power in what used to be the Russian Empire; civil wars followed, and some of the fragments of the former Russian empire managed to win independence, while most of the other former parts of the empire were brought together through blood and violence to form the Soviet Union; Zakarpattya chose to join a much more democratic Czech Republic rather than to be swallowed by the blood-thirsty Soviet Russia).
At present, the historical building houses a museum which boasts an excellent collection of Zakarpattya artists, among whom stand out Yosyp Bokshay and Adalbert Erdeli. There was a group of painters who became known as “Zakarpattya Barbizon School of painters”(originally, Barbizon School was a group of French painters, who from about 1830 to 1870 lived in or near the town of Barbizon; they painted the animals, landscapes, and local people; members of the Barbizon group included Theodore Rousseau, its nominal leader). The Zakarpattya “Barbizon” painters painted en plein air, mostly in the area known as Velykobereznyansky kray, north of Uzhgorod.
I said hello to the two friends, Yosyp Bokshay and Adalbert Erdeli, who are now cast in bronze and placed to sit on a bench in the little park near the square, and moved on.
Korzo is the name of the “most European” street in Uzhgorod. The word korzo translates as “promenade.” These days, the most “fashionable” and most expensive restaurants and shops are to be found in Korzo which acquired its present-day look in the early twentieth century.
A short distance from Korzo I spotted a church which proved to be one of the architectural landmarks of Uzhgorod. The Church of St Yury (St George) is one of the oldest in town. It was built in 1619, but later was reconstructed in accordance with the changing architectural tastes.
Walking in that neighborhood brought me to Ivan Olbrakht Street (named so after a Czech writer). It used to be a bustling center of wine shops and wine cellars, but these days there is little to remind the visitor of its past, except for old signs and advertisements. A nice, quiet and cozy botanical garden, located at the end of the street, offered an opportunity of a good rest.
Then I returned to Korzo whence I walked to Yevhen Fetsyk Square (named after a Zakarpattya writer and political figure). I found the architecture of the square which dates mostly to the end of the nineteenth century, very attractive. The square boasts a theater too. As I kept strolling around, I passed by a building which used to be a synagogue. Built in 1904, it functioned as a religious center of the local Jewish community but the Soviets, then the Nazis and the Soviets again made the Jews and their religion very unwelcome — to put it mildly, and in 1950 the former synagogue was given to a philharmonic society.
Then I crossed the pedestrian bridge over the River Uzh — standing on the bridge, I enjoyed the view of the riverside promenade lined with trees.
From 1919 to 1938, Zakarpattya, named then Prykarpatska Rus, was part of Czechoslovakia whose president Tomas Masaryk (1850–1937; the first president of independent Czechoslovakia from 1918 to 1935; his son Jan Masaryk, 1886– 1948, was the foreign minister of Czechoslovakia; after the communist coup, he died falling out of a window) made it a point to develop Zakarpattya economically and socially, introducing new technologies, new businesses and new conveniences for the population. The Czech legacy is still very much felt in Zakarpattya. In the district of Uzhgrord called Maly Halahov, the dominant architectural style is that known as “Czech functionalism” which strove to achieve “comfort and rationality combined an economical approach”. That meant very few decorative elements and maximum functionality.
But at the same time, on a more romantic note, an over a mile long alley, or rather a riverside promenade, was laid out and lindens were planted along it. The trees have grown so tall as to hide buildings behind them.
Strolling along the alley-promenade, I pondered the strange twists of fate and history. My meanders took me to a square with a large, evidently administrative six-storied building in it. Built in the early twentieth century, it now houses the Oblast Administration. I really would not care to mention it, but one curious thing in it, I think, deserves a mention: it has elevators whose cabins have no doors — and the cabins never stop moving from floor to floor. Some cabins are going up, while others are going down. Such elevators were installed in several buildings in Uzhgorod by the Czech authorities in the 1930s and were called “pater noster” (probably because their mechanism reminded someone of the rosary beads). The most curious thing for me was that these elevators in the administrative building, installed in 1938, are still working!
Corso Street has changed but little from the times of old; the ground floors of the two- and three-storied houses are occupied by expensive stores, cafes and restaurants; there is hardly any other place in Uzhgorod where one can find so many buildings which can be qualified as architectural landmarks.
Newlyweds pay a visit to the Uzhgorod Castle to have their pictures taken.
A monument to the prominent Zakarpattya painters Yosyp Bokshay and Adalbert Erdeli.
A postcard of the 1910s when Uzhgorod was part of the Austrian-Hungarian Europe.
Panoramic view of the River Uzh and glimpses of the city on its banks; the promenade – the longest of its kind in Europe that runs along the river is lined with lindens which were planted in the 1920s.
This bridge for pedestrians is one of the seven bridges that connect two parts of the city which is situated on the opposite banks of the Uzh.
The building in Fentsyk Park houses the Philharmonic Society of Uzhgorod; it was built in 1904 as a synagogue.
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