“I cannot tell you, my dear, how happy I am to leave this place; I am dreadfully weary of it. All my life I shall remember the month of October 1823.” – Prince Klemens Von Metternich, private letter to his wife, written from Lviv on October 21, 1823
To get sick in a foreign country is an experience that I do not wish upon any traveler. There is nothing that can bring about such a longing for home and the comfort of familiar surroundings as illness in a faraway land. Waiting to get better demands an excruciating patience. The illness abates only with rest and the passing of time. Sickness warps the traveler’s perspective, prejudicing opinion against the place where they are inconveniently situated. The course of suffering runs ever so slowly. I know this from personal experience. My opinion of Riga, Latvia has never recovered from a terrible cold I caught while visiting the city. It was likely brought on by flying from a warm and dry autumn climate in Kiev to a wet, cold and blustery Riga. I woke up on the first morning of my visit with a throat so sore that I could barely swallow. I made my way to a pharmacy for what would turn out to be a thrice daily cocktail of Robitussin and Tylenol. For several nights I awoke with cold shivers followed by drenching sweats. Congestion, an endlessly runny nose and a dull, relentless headache are my most enduring memories of Riga. Another memory concerns melancholy walks through the old town while nursing cough syrup and trying to appreciate the beauty and history of the largest city in the Baltic region. It was not to be. I longed for the familiarity of home. Sleeping in my own bed was a nagging desire, an unrequited dream among those nightmarish restless evenings spent in a hostel. I missed my mother terribly. There was no one to take care of me other than me.
Laid Low In Lviv – Metternich Takes To The Bed
Why do I bring this experience up? After all this is an article concerning Lviv. I have never been sick in Lviv, one of the many reasons I hold warm thoughts and feelings for it. If I had been taken with illness there, perhaps my attitude toward the city would have been irreparably altered. To be sick in Lviv, I cannot quite imagine. That is until I came across the experiences of a famous Austrian laid low there by illness. In the autumn of 1823, Prince Klemens von Metternich, the statesman par excellence of his time was waylaid by a bout of rheumatic fever in Lemberg (as Lviv was officially known at the time) for nearly a month. During this time Metternich’s opinion of the city deteriorated. His state of mind can best be summed up as hypochondria infused with a healthy dose of crass egotism. His health would eventually recover, but it is doubtful that his opinion of the city ever did.
In 1823 Metternich was making his first trip across Galicia. This was not a familiarization visit, but a diplomatic trip. He was traveling to Czernowitz in the Bukovina where he was to join Emperor Franz at a meeting with Russian Tsar Alexander I. Franz was trying to convince the Tsar to negotiate peace with the Ottoman Turks and avert a Russo-Turkish war. This bit of international diplomacy would take place without Metternich. The master diplomat never made it beyond Lviv. He arrived in the city after midnight on September 28th in a state of ill health. This became the main subject of a series of letters he wrote to his wife over the next four weeks.
September 28th – Lviv – “Here I awoke with one of those rheumatic feverish attacks which keep me in bed for two or three days without rhyme or reason. The doctor does not think my pulse bad, but I am in a continual perspiration. Today I am better that is to say, I perspire less. I shall, however, remain in bed for three days, to prevent a return of the malady. I can tell you nothing of Lemberg, for I have seen nothing”
Metternich would only see a very limited amount of Lemberg over the coming month. His opinion of the city was influenced by his illness from the very start. He spent much of his time bed ridden. When the local aristocracy invited him to attend a social gathering, his sickness became a convenient excuse to not venture forth. An element of snobbish condescension was detectable in his attitude.
September 29th – “I remain in bed, however, for two days; first to make sure of my recovery, and then to avoid being overdone with audiences, presentations, and fetes of every kind. (Countess) Potocki made a point of my passing the Rubicon. I only just escaped having to get up from my bed to be present at the ball, by means of the most vigorous protestations.”
It can be inferred from Metternich’s own words that he could have attended the ball, but he had little interest in Lviv’s high society. Meeting and greeting local notables was not why he had traveled the to empire’s eastern fringes. The only reason he ended up in Lviv was due to rheumatic fever. Sickness had stranded him in the city and sickness would make him a veritable prisoner to the house he occupied throughout the visit. He also seemed to suffer from hypochondria.
October 2nd – “I have not written to you for the last two days, for I have nothing to say but to complain of annoyances here… You can understand how this accident annoys me. My illness is nothing, and I must take it patiently, for it seems to be part of my nature periodically to pass through these crises. I only suffer from annoyance, for I have not even any fever; but business weighs upon me, body and mind. No one else can do what has to be done, and this thought is in itself enough to cause fever.”
Metternich’s self-centered nature manifested itself in egotism. How could diplomatic compromise be achieved if he was not present in Czernowitz? Everything depended on him or so he wanted to believe. He scarcely mentions Lviv because he is so self-involved. He has greater matters to worry about. Peace or war depended on him or so he wanted to believe. What did that have to do with Lviv?
October 10th – “I was fortunate enough to fall into the hands of a straightforward, practical physician. I feel that he at once seized on the peculiarities of my nature, and especially on the singularities and anomalies caused by so trying a life. My illness was partly from cold and partly the consequence of the anxieties of the Congress. Now, to cure the first of these maladies is very possible, but I defy any physician in the world to cure the second; so that my nervous system fell into a state of febrile agitation.”
Reading passages such as these is painful. Metternich craved power, enforced imperial absolutism, yet here he complains of how his role places an immense burden on his health and welfare. He sees everything through the prism of his personality. The reader is also left to wonder, where is Lviv?
October 17th – “I am quite myself again now. My illness was one of those tiresome affections, catarrhal or rheumatic, which always send me to bed for ten days or a fortnight. In the usual state of things the incon- venience (for it is not a real illness) would have passed off as on former occasions. But just imagine my situation. Alone the only man knowing anything of the business in bed at Lemberg, and the two Emperors tete a tete at Czernowitz. Two results only possible, immediate war between Russia and the Porte or immediate peace; and I, holding peace in my hands, and alone knowing the means of securing peace, ill in bed ! I swear to you that no common strength of mind and will was needed to keep me from giving way. I did not succumb morally, but my physique received a terrible shock. I was fifteen nights without sleeping, and I was on the brink of a nervous fever. Now I have told you everything. I am still weak, but as my appetite is returning I shall soon regain my strength. Heaven has protected me in the midst of these troubles and anxieties.”
Only after matters are settled to his satisfaction in Czernowitz does Metternich’s health recover in earnest. This also leads him out into the city where he casts a critical eye. His impressions are influenced as much by prejudice as experience.
October 21st – “I have never seen people so in love with their native town as they are here. The road to the right is said to give a view like that of Naples; that to the left is like the Briihl near Vienna. A nearer view shows a town in a hole, and this hole wants both water and trees. The town is half fine and half ugly. There are many houses in it better constructed than those in Vienna, for there is some architectural style about them; then intervals either empty or crowded with barracks. The Eastern aspect begins to make its appearance.”
He compares Lviv to Vienna. The provincial city has a bit of architecture to recommend it, but this is corrupted by its more unsightly areas, which are blamed on the “Eastern aspect.” He infers that the city is Oriental in design, a byword for backwardness. Metternich also condescends about the locals for their love of the city. It is rather obvious that he feels superior to this provincial outpost. Yet it was the same outpost where he could have died. That thought probably crossed Metternich’s mind during his self-imposed quarantine. Such fears would have made him loath Lviv. This would be his last letter to home from Lviv, less than a week later he was gone from the city.
Goodbye With Extreme Prejudice
For Metternich, Lviv was little more than a setting for his illness. In the end his visit there only served to confirm his prejudices about the east. This place was not for him, it was backward, provincial and irritating. Much of his attitude toward Lviv was undoubtedly due to his sickness, but it was also a stinging indictment of his elitism. Metternich was better than Lviv or so he thought. He escaped from the city with his health and prejudices intact. He was never to return.