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A City That Time Forgot

It is 6:30 in the morning and my train, which has been laboring westwards all night from Kiev, Ukraine, is approaching the suburbs of Lviv, just 70 kilometers from the Polish border.

I peer sleepily through the rain-streaked windows: wooded hills, cobbled streets, backyards and filthy, half-ruined baroque facades are running by. It could almost be Transylvania — which of course is not so very far from here. Soon the train is sliding into a cavernous hall and I disembark to face a damp Carpathian morning.

Lviv (population 800,000) lies in the ancient but little-known region of Galicia, which was once a principality of Kievan Rus, the original Russian state.

The area has been contested for centuries by various powers, leaving it with a wonderfully diverse cultural and architectural inheritance which is now easily accessible, after Ukraine abolished visa requirements for U.S. and EU citizens in 2005.


I start my tour by hiking up Lviv’s Castle Hill to get my bearings. The hill is the highest point in the city (409 meters), although no castle has stood here since the 18th century.

Today the summit is marked only by the blue and yellow Ukrainian flag, proudly marking Ukrainian independence since 1991, when the country formally seceded from the Soviet Union.

The hill offers a marvellous view of the spires and roofs of the old city, nestling between the forested Carpathian foothills.

A friend from Kiev has provided me with a contact in Lviv, Andriy, a local politician, and we have agreed to meet in front of Lviv’s Opera House.

While I wait, I admire the exquisite building, ostentatiously adorned with columns, balustrades and sculptures, and considered one of the finest examples of its kind in Europe.

Andriy turns out to be a genial, neatly-dressed man in his late thirties, and after brief introductions he is soon steering me down Prospekt Svobody, a broad, tree-lined pedestrian avenue. He gestures to the wide, paved area in front of the opera house.

“A statue of Lenin used to stand here,” he says. “It was the first Soviet monument to be pulled down when Ukraine declared its independence.”

I glance at the empty space; there is nothing to indicate that any such monument ever existed. We stroll beneath the trees, past groups of men transfixed by games of chess and girls gossiping on benches.

Andriy explains that in medieval times this avenue marked the edge of the city, and the ramparts were encircled by a moat which once ran beneath our feet.


After passing a monument to Ukraine’s national poet, Taras Shevchenko, we wander beyond the line of the vanished ramparts into the heart of old Lviv, along streets where parts of Spielberg’s Oscar-winning film “Schindler’s List” were shot. As we walk, Andriy gives me a synopsis of the city’s history.

Lviv (‘Leopolis’ in Latin) was founded in the 13th century by Prince Danylo of Galicia, who named it after his son Lev (Leo). Although the city quickly grew as a result of its location on major trade routes, Galicia was not able to muster enough strength to fend off aggressors.

Poland conquered it in the 14th century, and the city flourished as one of the principal cities of the Polish-Lithuanian Duchy. Austria-Hungary took over Lviv in 1772, and it remained a Hapsburg city until the end of World War I.

By then Lviv was a cosmopolitan city of Poles, Jews, Ukrainians and other nationalities, and had become the crucible of the Ukrainian national movement, whose leaders had been biding their time waiting for the moment to rise.

With the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian Empire in 1918, they declared an independent Republic of West Ukraine, but the fledgling country was promptly annexed by re-emergent Poland, then fell under Soviet control in 1939 when Stalin and Hitler partitioned Poland.

Nazi occupation swiftly followed, resulting in the deportation and execution of most of Lviv’s 100,000 Jews. The end of the war brought renewed hope to Lviv’s inhabitants, but the city came again under Soviet control, and it was to be another 46 years before Ukraine finally gained independence.

By now we have arrived at Rynok (Market) Square, the heart of old Lviv, adorned with lines of marzipan Renaissance facades competing to outdo one another despite their decrepitude. There is a curious calm here that belies the city’s size.

I look around for the usual brash banners of the tourist industry which clutter old squares throughout Europe, but there is nothing. Not a sunshade or postcard rack in sight. Apart from a few Polish tourists, the beautiful square is almost empty.

Andriy points out the curious individual features visible on many of the facades. The building in the north-east corner, besides being the city’s oldest functioning apothecary, is also an Apteka Museum and the building in which the kerosene lamp was invented in 1853.

Nearby, building No. 4, known as the “black house,” boasts a fabulous 16th century Renaissance faÍade; as does No. 6, which houses the Lviv History Museum, and also hides a beautiful inner courtyard with a cafÎ and a three-tiered gallery which is pure Italian Renaissance.

We enjoy a black, unfiltered coffee, Lviv-style, before continuing our tour with a visit to the Armenian Cathedral, once the spiritual centre of Lviv’s large Armenian merchant community; then the elegant baroque Dominican Monastery nearby.


We end the day by visiting the Lviv book market, appropriately dominated by an imposing statue of a bearded man clutching an enormous tome. Andriy explains that this is Ivan Fyodorov, a Muscovite responsible for the printing in 1564 of The Apostle, the first book in Russia and Ukraine, and who died in Lviv. The market itself is a collection of stalls selling second-hand books, paintings, antiques and Soviet era bric-a-brac.

On my second day in Lviv, Andriy has arranged for his colleague Rostislav to show me the Museum of Folk Architecture. Having been shown a photograph of the man, I have to identify him at the Shevchenko monument.

I spot him quickly, a big-boned, bespectacled character in a jacket and trousers. Having introduced ourselves, the first thing Rostik does is to show me the same invisible Lenin of the previous day in front of the Opera House.

However, there is a surprising twist to the story: Rostik himself was one of those responsible for dethroning Lenin, and was imprisoned along with his co-conspirators.

“They threw me in jail for a few days,” he chuckles, and furnishes me with the details on our way to the museum.

The Lviv Museum of Folk Architecture is a charming outdoor museum (or skansen) hidden away in a forested part of the city known as Kaiserwald. Timber houses, churches and even a school have been erected in leafy glades and clearings, and show the diversity of styles in traditional Ukrainian folk architecture.

The beautifully-preserved buildings are original habitations, and were sought out in villages across Galicia and Carpathia, then taken apart and painstakingly put together again after transportation to Lviv.

Rostik proves to be quite an authority on folk culture and architecture, and we spend a pleasant few hours exploring the museum before I catch a tram back to the city.

I get off at Pidvalna Street, outside a still-intact portion of the city’s medieval fortified wall, complete with a tent-roofed gate tower.

This wall forms part of the defensive fortifications of the 17th century Bernadine Church and Monastery, whose tower is a distinctive Lviv landmark. The church’s interior is a dark, heavy Catholic excess of golden ornamentation, gilt edging, and a menagerie of cherubim clambering over the columns.

Outside again, I go in search of the Boyim chapel, named after the wealthy 17th century Hungarian merchant who constructed it. The exterior of the chapel is made up of a stunning two-tiered fascia of stone carvings of various scenes in the life of Christ (curiously represented by figures in 17th century dress), broken up by pilasters and two double-arched leaded windows.


Turning the corner, I find myself back on wide Prospekt Svobody. After all this walking, a coffee is called for, and I find it nearby at the Videnska Kaviarnia (Vienna cafÎ). I sit down at one of the outdoor tables, order a coffee, and then grin upon noticing my bronze neighbor.

Sitting at the next table, pipe in one hand and beer mug in the other, is a familiar figure in uniform. One of the more colorful characters in Central European literature, the irreverent Czech soldier Svejk has his very own corner of Lviv here.

In Hasek’s “The Good Soldier Svejk,” Svejk arrives in Lviv on his way to the front in World War I, shortly before misguidedly donning a Russian uniform and comically being captured by his own troops.

I return to Rynok Square. Women are leaning from windows; people are boarding a tram on their way home from work; a man is walking his dog beneath the trees.

I am reminded of provincial cities in the Czech Republic, Poland and Romania during the early 1990s, when I first explored the region.

And suddenly, with wistful nostalgia, I realise what has captivated me since my arrival. Not only is Lviv a truly beautiful city, but it is a city that still belongs to its residents, saved from the assault of mass tourism by a quirk of history which placed it outside the Central European orbit which it had occupied for centuries.

Come to Lviv for a precious glimpse of a vanished world, and come before it is too late.

Source: The St. Petersburg Times

Старий М
5,285 Posts
Great walkthrough made me happy and made me sad at the same time.
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