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Saturday, 31 March 2012

  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.

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