One of the strangest and most enthralling aspects of travel happens to me long after a trip is over. I go back home and begin to research the place I just visited. This is where a sort of trip planning in reverse. It might be termed “trip learning.” Because I almost always travel in Eastern Europe, in countries where I do not know the language and sometimes not even the alphabet, I usually end up with several travel experiences where all I really know is the name of the site I was visiting and little else. Signs are unintelligible, the statues portray alien figures and the locals generally keep to themselves. For me, such places become a sensual rather than an intellectual experience.
I had one such experience at the most popular city park in Lviv. All I really knew at the time was that the park was named after Ivan Franko, a writer and great Ukrainian national hero. The park took up the better part of a sloping hillside with a series of nice walking paths, shaded by large, thick trees with broad canopies of fiery autumn leaves. The atmosphere was calm, serene and quite lovely. The kind of place one could walk meditatively for hours, lost in thought, reflecting on life. Ivan Franko Park made enough of an impression that it slowly rematerialized in my memory after I returned home. That was when I began to do research in an effort to find out more about the park. I wondered whether there was any information available. What did I discover? A park that was more than just a place to relax and recreate, it was something of an outdoor institution for Lviv. A place that has a long and storied history, reflective of the city’s past.
A Renaissance Birth – The Start of Ukraine’s Oldest City Park
At just a five minute walk from the city center, Ivan Franko Park is the most popular green space in Lviv. Though surrounded by an urban environment, it offers a refuge where citizens can get away from the noise and bustle of modern Lviv. Beneath the venerable oaks, maples, chestnuts, elms, firs and linden trees, lovers embrace, citizens stroll and pensioners hold hands. The park acts as an urban oasis, a peaceful place to contemplate life and nature. Dating back to Renaissance times, it is the oldest city park in Ukraine and one of the oldest in Europe. It is almost impossible to imagine such a span of time here, because the place seems to stand outside of time, an eternal aesthetic pervades its sheltered pathways. This is deceptive, as Ivan Franko Park has underwent massive changes throughout its history. This makes it just as much a part of the city’s multicultural and conflicted past as the rest of Lviv.
Just as Lviv’s Old Town was built at the behest of its wealthiest citizens, so too was the land that would become Ivan Franko Park shaped by the preferences of the upper echelons of society. Before it caught the eye of one wealthy man, the land was a cornfield. This all began to change in the late 16th century when a Silesian émigré by the name of Jan Scholz-Wolf purchased the property, paying the exorbitant sum of 1,600 gold pieces to have the land turned into a park. This was one of his many holdings in the city. The most famous of these was a German Renaissance style residence that still can be seen today at 23 Rynok Square. Perhaps Scholz-Wolf wanted to create a park that his large family could enjoy. One of his twelve daughters – he also had twelve sons – married another resident of Rynok Square, the Venetian Consul, Antonio Massari, who was given ownership of the park. Massari oversaw its reconfiguration in Italian style. The Renaissance affected not only paintings and architecture, but also grounds. The Renaissance eventually went out of style in Lviv. What followed for this parkland turned out to be much worse. With the park a fair distance outside Lviv’s city walls, this meant that in times of war it was occupied by various marauding armies besieging the city. The location, as part of the Lviv Heights, made the park an excellent staging ground for the Moscow Artillery which shelled the city during Bohdan Khmelnytsky’s siege in 1655. Seventeen years later the Turks did the same thing again.
Nature Calls – A Park Finds Its Place
During periods of sustained peace in the 17th and 18th centuries the parkland was under the control of the Jesuit monastic order. Up until 1919, the park would be known as “Jesuit Gardens”, but in reality the order made it much more than that. Among their enterprises were brick works and a brewery. Peasants were brought in to cultivate the land. These profitable activities would likely have continued except for the reign of Habsburg Emperor Joseph II (1780 – 1790) who forcefully promulgated the enlightenment throughout the empire by confiscating the monastic properties. This included the Jesuit Gardens complex, which was then given to the citizens of Lviv. It soon fell into disrepair before being leased to an ethnic German entrepreneur, Joseph Hocht. Whereas the Jesuits saw the parkland’s purpose as encouraging good works, Hocht saw it as a form of entertainment. He arranged the grounds in French style, then added such forms of entertainment as a carousel, an open-air theater and constructed the two-story “Hocht Casino”, which hosted among other things masquerade balls. Hocht’s efforts first met with success, but soon his businesses foundered. Parts of the park slowly became submerged in a murky swamp due to poor drainage. Few realized at the time that the overgrown and dilapidated park was on the verge of realizing its true potential.
In the aftermath of the failed uprising of the Revolution of 1848, Lviv’s Habsburg administrators were searching for a way to build good will with Lviv’s citizenry. They hit upon the idea of recreating the park as a place of comfort, leisure and relaxation while it could also act as something of a botanical garden. In 1855, the accomplished Lviv botanist Karl Bauer began what would turn out to be the most successful and longest lasting makeover of the park. This time it was reorganized in an English style, with over fifty specimens of trees planted. Many of these trees still remain today. Rare plant species from such far flung regions as Asia and South America were given a home. The park slowly became what it still is today, a place of beauty, unrivaled nature and recreation for a growing urban middle class. This did not occur without several upheavals. Among these was a nasty storm in the late 19th century that uprooted many trees. The park was not immune to the tumultuous politics of the 20th century in Lviv. During interwar Polish rule, it was renamed for that nation’s exalted revolutionary hero Tadeusz Kosciuszko. The Soviet occupation from 1939 to 1941 greatly damaged the park’s flora. In response to the post-war Ukrainian ethnic majority in the city, there was a final renaming of the park for Ivan Franko, along with the erection of his statue there in 1964. Today that statue faces a world class university also named for Franko.
Urban Refuge – A People Find Their Place
Despite centuries of change, the park remains a repository of nature in one of Europe’s great cities. It is almost as though this land was set aside as much by fate as by man. Whether in Italian, French or English style, for devotion or contemplation, recreation or meditation, Ivan Franko Park has been and will continue to be Lviv’s urban natural refuge.