Ghosts In Daylight – The Largo: Sofia’s Spectral Presence (Travels In Eastern Europe #38)

Several stops on the Free Tour were in Sofia’s most famous architectural area, known as the Largo, home to some of the most outstanding examples of Communist architecture to be found anywhere in the world. The buildings themselves dwarfed our group. As our youthful guide, Boykan began to talk about these buildings, I wondered how his generation felt about what they had inherited. He, like other young Bulgarians I had met, were cautiously optimistic. This was totally opposite of the menace expressed by the architecture of the Largo. The future of Bulgaria – even a democratic one – would be decided within the confines of Stalinist-inspired structures. Aesthetically the buildings were impressive, if uninviting. Their style, a megalomaniacal neo-classicism enhanced by the ideological steroid of totalitarianism.

The Largo under construction in the 1950s - Party House in the background

Largo under construction in the 1950s – Party House in the background (Credit: stara-sofia)

The Nightmare Vision – Landscape Of Intimidation
The most magnificent or revolting of these buildings, depending upon one’s political persuasion, the Party Building, reminded me of a gigantic ship that had been anchored in the heart of Bulgaria. While the country sank into stagnation around it, this grim beast of a building stayed afloat. The Party Building was flanked on either side by a pair of sizable monoliths. Presently these structures housed, among other things, offices of the National Assembly of Bulgaria, the President’s Office and the Council of Ministers, as well as a department store, archaeological museum and hotel. Much of the current Bulgarian government worked out of the same buildings that the communist party elite had inhabited less than thirty years before. How much had really changed in the country from a political standpoint was open to debate.

The Largo is both the most enduring symbol of Bulgaria’s communist era and of the post-communist cronyism that plagues the country. The actors had changed, but the setting was still the same. Standing in the cobbled square, I found the inhuman scale of the architecture intimidating. Row upon row of windows lined these buildings. I had the feeling that someone or something was watching me, whether it was or not seemed beside the point. I could not shake the feeling of me versus the massive, a place where the individual did not stand a chance then or now. For all the showiness and symbolism of the Largo, there was a pervasive lack of transparency to the space, a sort of facelessness to these facades. It was difficult for me to envision what went on behind all those windows. Bulgaria was riddled with corruption, there was virtually no separation between government and business, one was used for the purposes of the other or vice versa. How could it be otherwise when the most important governmental space in the country was hidden behind monumental amounts of concrete and murky windows.

Lenin's replacement - The statue of Saint Sophia

Lenin’s replacement – The statue of Saint Sophia (Credit: Bin Im Garten)

Dream Quest – A Tantalizing Transparency
At least there had been a few superficial, yet symbolic changes to the Largo since the fall of communism. The ruby red star of Soviet power that once crowned the Party Building, had now been replaced by a Bulgarian flag unfurling in a gentle, spring breeze. A gigantic statue of Lenin on the western end of the Largo had been removed for a much smaller statue of the city’s namesake, Saint Sophia. Sophia had been selected because she was viewed as a non-ideological figure, symbolizing wisdom. She looked like a miniature goddess, her golden skin covered beneath the folds of an immaculate robe. The utter antithesis of Lenin, erotic rather than revolutionary, open armed instead of close fisted. If the statue of Sophia was viewed at a certain angle, a Unicredit Bank building stood positioned perfectly in the background. Perhaps Sophia was promoting the wisdom of capitalism, the benefits of which most Bulgarians had struggled to acquire amid the scourge of endemic corruption.

The west had won the Cold War and colonized Sofia with capitalism, paradoxically it was also the West that was inadvertently responsible for the Largo’s totalitarian architecture. In 1944, American and British bombers had badly damaged this area of the city. Once the rubble and ruins had been cleared away, the post-war Stalinist government decided to rebuild the area as a symbolic showpiece for the communist ideology. Despite such a gargantuan makeover, one set of ruins were not plowed under. These undergirded a greatness that had not been seen in Sofia since antiquity, namely that of the Roman city of Serdica. When I visited the Largo, the remains of Serdica could only be viewed by going underground. That situation has changed. Now visitors walking along the Largo can look down through glass at them. Ironically, this is one of the only transparent things to be seen in the Largo. It is also a reminder of Sofia’s former importance.

Serdica was made an administrative capital of the surrounding region in the first century AD. Two hundred years later, it gained eternal fame when the Roman Emperor Galerius issued an Edict of Toleration from the city in 311 AD. The edict was the first time Christianity was legalized in the empire. In the coming decades, Rome would increasingly turn to Christianity, but this did not save Serdica or the empire. In 447 AD the Huns destroyed the city, but it was rebuilt by the Byzantines. It would be several centuries later before the Bulgars appeared on the scene. The subterranean ruins of Serdica were impressive to look at, several streets have been unearthed. The remnants of what were once the city’s protective, eight-meter high, stone walls could still be seen in shortened form. I found these ruins interesting, but not much more than that.

Larger than life - The Largo in Sofia

Larger than life – The Largo in Sofia

Staying Power – The Free Tour
I could not help but wonder how Roman ruins had anything to do with modern Bulgaria. Maybe the point was to link Bulgaria and Sofia with the greatness of the Roman Empire. It was a strange, disconcerting connection. The ruins were worth seeing, but the giant buildings now towering over the Largo somehow seemed less worthy. I wondered if, in two thousand years anything would be left of the Party Building. Despite the colossal structure’s size, I doubted it. The Soviets were no Romans, their presence lacked permanence, instead it was spectral. A ghost that could be seen at any time and was just as frightening in the day, as it was at night.

Boykan led us away from the Largo to show us a few more of Sofia’s sights. I eagerly followed, soaking in everything he said. Just a couple of hours earlier, I had barely been able to entertain the thought of doing anything in a city that I felt was forgettable. I had been wrong, Boykan changed my opinion of Sofia. The Free Tour introduced and then interpreted Sofia as a place with a rich spirit, despite or perhaps because of its deep and dark history. All this left me enthralled. When the tour ended I thanked Boykan profusely, then began the walk back to my accommodation. It was not long before that last day travel depression started in on me again. This time it was different though, I felt it not because I wanted to leave Sofia, but because I wanted to stay.


Long Shadows – The Greatest Ill-Fated: Hungarians & The Budapest Metro (Travels In Eastern Europe #26)

Everything I had heard about Budapest, its elegance, style and grandeur would turn out to be true, but my first impression of the city came at the Budapest-Deli (Budapest-South) Train Station. Budapest-Deli is one of those functionalist styled, communist era concrete constructions that give modernity a bad name. It is an architectural step toward oblivion. There are plenty of darkened windows. While the structure’s exterior is mainly in an off white color that suffers from discoloration by grime. The cavernous interior swallows those who traverse its mildew scented corridors. The station’s inner bowels feel like the setting for one of the Death Wish movies. There is nothing remotely pleasant about the place other than the fact that it is safe. To be fair, the station is a byproduct of the horrific destruction caused by the Second World War. During the siege of Budapest, the station and its surrounding area was the setting for a cataclysmic struggle. By mid-February 1945, the Red Army held what was left of the station, which amounted to little more than a giant pile of rubble. It took years to rebuild and it was not fully finished until 1975, during a period that is well known for its architectural low points.

Deli Palyaudvar - another architectural low point

Deli Palyaudvar – another architectural low point (Credit: Attilanagy)

Looming In The Distance – Putting A Name On History
Budapest-Deli connects to Metro 2, also known as the Red Line, which would whisk me from the Buda side of the city, west of the Danube, over to Pest on the river’s eastern side. I only had to go four stops down the line, but each of the names on these stops offered a clue to the tumultuous history of Hungary during the 19th and 20th centuries. The first stop was at Szell Kalman ter, named for a politician that most Hungarians do not even remember. During the Cold War this station had a different name, more indicative of the recent past, Moszkva ter. I later learned that most of Budapest’s citizens still called the station by this name. The long shadow of the Soviet era still hung over some parts of the city. Whether it was in the architecture of Budapest-Deli, a previous name of a metro station or the many tower apartment blocks that framed the city’s outer districts, the looming gray shadow cast by years of communism was never far away.

The next station on Metro 2 was Batthyany ter, named after another Hungarian politician, Lajos Batthyany. Batthyany is much better known than Kalman Szell (the station name is reversed because Hungarian put surnames first), sadly for tragic reasons.  He was Hungary’s first Prime Minister, unfortunately his tenure coincided with the failed 1848-49 Hungarian Revolution. He was sentenced to death by the Austrians for his role in events. Prior to his execution, Bathhyany tried to commit suicide with a small sword that had been smuggled into him by his wife. His attempt resulted in a large loss of blood after he tried to sever jugular veins in his neck. The execution method planned for him was changed from hanging to firing squad. The sentence was carried out in Pest on October 6, 1849. Batthyany is memorialized by, among other things, a mausoleum in the city’s most famous cemetery, an eternal flame at the spot of his execution and having the metro station I passed through named for him. That is all well and good, but his execution is a somber reminder of Hungarian subservience to a foreign occupier.

Széll Kálmán tér station - Metro 2 in Budapest

Széll Kálmán tér station – Metro 2 in Budapest (Credit: Christo)

The Cusp Of Greatness – Kossuth & Deak
From the Bathhyany ter stop, Line 2 rumbles beneath the Danube’s depths before arriving at Kossuth ter, yet another name fraught with historical resonance. Any visitor who spends time in Hungary is confronted by the legacy of Lajos Kossuth. Every city, every town and every village has a street named for Kossuth. Nearly every one of them has a statue of him. It is little surprise that Kossuth’s name was given to the same metro stop as that for the Hungarian Parliament. He is a giant of Hungarian history due to his role in fomenting and then leading the Hungarian Revolution. A brilliant orator, lawyer and journalist, he was the Governor-President of the incipient nation in 1848-1849. Unlike Batthyany, who paid for his support of the revolution with his life, Kossuth escaped abroad. He then spent the last four and a half decades of his life promoting the cause of Hungarian independence abroad. Kossuth’s legacy is in many ways a mirror image of Hungarian history, a meteoric ascent to the edge of greatness followed by a dramatic defeat. Perhaps that is why he has achieved such an exalted status in the pantheon of Hungarian heroes. All Hungarians can see part of themselves in his life.

Deák Ferenc tér - Metro 2 in Budapest

Deák Ferenc tér – Metro 2 in Budapest (Credit: Christo)

My final stop on Metro 2 was Deak ter, named for Ferenc Deak, a famous Hungarian who actually met with great success in his lifetime. He is best known for helping negotiate the compromise which created Austria-Hungary in 1867 and set off a Hungarian golden age of peace, dramatic growth and cultural renown.  It is at the Deak ter stop that the city’s metro lines all converge. This is where the web of Budapest becomes most tightly woven. I navigated this multilevel interchange while dragging a piece of luggage through a crowd of human commotion and energy.  Before long I was taking Metro 3 (Blue Line) a couple of stops to Nyugati Palyudvar (Western Railway Station). It was here that I surfaced in the city.

Nyugati Palyudvar (Credit Bill Dillard)

Nyugati Palyudvar (Credit: Bill Dillard)

A Golden Age – Gilded With Dreams
Nyugati is an unforgettable picture of lost elegance. The Gustav Eiffel designed station still retains the look and feel of its time. Laying my eyes on the station for the first time acted as a wild stimulant to my imagination. If every person in the station had suddenly disappeared and I had been left there all alone, I would have thought time had spun backwards to the turn of the 20th century. Back to that age when Hungary was part of an empire and Budapest was the capital of a Kingdom that stretched from the jagged peaks of Transylvania to the craggy coastline of Croatia. A golden age gilded with the dreams of Magyars reaching for their potential. This station, like the city that surrounded it, aspired to greatness and in that imaginary moment, realized its attainment.


Possessed Only By Imagination – Andrassy Kastely: Floating In And Out Of Another World (Part Two)

The challenge of visiting Andrassy Kastely turned out to be not much of a challenge at all. The gate at the entrance – which on my earlier trip had been guarded by the Lady of No – was now watched by a young man who motioned me onward with a languid wave of his arm. Just past the gate it became quite apparent that the outlying buildings around the Kastely had not been restored. During the long period of communist rule the structures at Andrassy Kastely had been used as part of a children’s home. These still looked the part, with chipped paint and in noticeable disrepair. It was a reminder that not so long ago, this had been home to an institution rather than a noble family, a place for those who did not have a home. The aristocratic and communist era at Andrassy Kastely had one thing in common in that the building was always used for noble purposes.

Andrassy Kastely - view from the rear

Andrassy Kastely – view from the rear (Credit: Balage)

The Sound Of One’s Own Footsteps
I strolled past the many outbuildings, which I surmised had been the servants’ quarters. Suddenly the pointed towers and shiny black roofs of the Kastely came into view. I stopped for a succession of photos, trying to capture the architectural magnificence which met my eyes. There was an ethereal quality to the building. It looked as though it had floated in from another world and landed upon a forest opening close on the shores of the Tisza River. In a sense it had been transplanted from another world, the highly cultured world of Western Europe to the rural wilds of Eastern Europe. The Loire River Valley was a thousand kilometers away and yet right in front of me was an inspired replication of the best architecture that area had to offer. To create and situate such a structure so far from both France and the historic era in which this architecture had first been conceived, was a product of will and imagination.

The will came from Count Gyula Andrassy who commissioned the Kastely in 1880. Andrassy was beginning the last stage of his life, away from high politics. He was spending more time on his rural landholdings. The imaginative force came from Saxon architect Arthur Meinig, a man who often found creative expression through historical antecedents. Meinig looked to the Chateau of the Loire Valley for inspiration while creating the Kastely. It was among the first of eight different palaces he would design for the Hungarian aristocracy. Count Andrassy was also intimately involved in the design and construction process, keeping a close eye on the details. Meinig’s final product was a fantastical, neo-Gothic revivalist structure recently brought back to life by a sparkling restoration.

Approaching the Kastely, I felt as though I was about to enter a fairy tale. The place looked like it had been conjured more by magic than man. That such a superlative structure was on the fringes of a somnolent and somewhat squalid village, close to the eastern frontiers of Hungary, showed that great architecture and culture could be found almost anywhere in Europe. The Hungarian nobility’s impulse to emulate similar features of aristocratic culture in central and western Europe was alive and well almost a century after that culture vanished. The interior of the Kastely showed me what else had vanished from that era. There were few furnishings to be found inside, what little was on display looked out of place. Spacious rooms, largely devoid of material comforts gave the interior a vacant, hollowed out feeling. In one room I had the unsettling experience of hearing my own footsteps. It was hard to get a feel for what life had been like inside the Kastely. Oddly, this was a feeling that Count Gyula Andrassy would have understood. He lived to see the Kastely built, but died before the interior was furnished. This job was left to his youngest child and namesake Gyula Andrassy the Younger.

Andrassy Kastely - a different perspective

Andrassy Kastely – a different perspective

Palace For The Underprivileged, Playground Of The Unwanted
The glory days of Andrassy Kastely were the twenty-five year period prior to World War I. Andrassy the Younger’s family spent much of their time at the Kastely. In her memoirs, one of his daughters Katinka recalled wonderful childhood memories of autumns spent there. One of the more notable events from those years occurred when the Andrassy family’s dining room was moved to the Kastely. It is one of the few original furnishings still located there today. The fact that anything from the pre-World War I era is still left inside is quite remarkable. By the end of the war in late 1918 the Hungarian countryside was in revolt. The army had all but dissolved.  The formerly docile peasantry had taken up arms. Aristocratic mansions and landholdings were in their crosshairs, targeted for destruction. Peasants in the Tiszadob region shot up the Kastely before vandalizing the interior. This was just the start of the violent degradation of the building.

In 1919 the Romanian Army invaded. They smashed mirrors, furniture, windows and took whatever they wanted. Only in 1920, with the institution of the conservative Horthy government in Hungary did law and order return to the area, but the Andrassy family did not. The best days of the Kastely were over. Worse was to come when the Soviet Army occupied the area in 1944. Thereafter, the Kastely became the property of the state. Generations of troubled children called this and the grounds around it their home. The social order had been completely turned upside down in half a century. The aristocracy was but a distant memory and the Kastely a symbol of a vanished way of life. It was now a palace for the underprivileged, a playground for the unwanted.

Abduction - in Andrassy Kastely's boxwood maze

Abduction – in Andrassy Kastely’s boxwood maze
(Credit: Uzo19)

Abduction & Possession – The Elusive Chateau On The Tisza
I pondered all this upheaval while walking through the immaculately manicured boxwood maze directly in back of the Kastely. It was there that I encountered a sculpture known as “Abduction.” A man was grasping a woman who was trying and failing to get away from him. It was a fitting symbol for the chaos that engulfed these grounds during the 20th century. Andrassy Kastely had been possessed by the highest nobility, peasant revolutionaries, foreign armies and a communist government. All those once powerful entities were gone, never to return. It began to dawn on me that here was a place which eluded possession in this world for very long. This Chateau On The Tisza could only ever really belong to one place, the imagination.

Click here for: Possessed Only By Imagination – Andrassy Kastely: Floating In And Out Of Another World (Part Two)


An Hour & A World Apart – Return To Lviv (On The Trail Of The Golden Horseshoe Tour Part Six)

The Golden Horseshoe Tour was all but over except for the drive back to Lviv. I was looking forward to a smooth and relaxing ride back to the city. What was I thinking? My expectations of Ukrainian highways had improved after we took the E40 from Lviv to Olesko, a recently resurfaced road in excellent condition. The same could not be said for the highway we returned on, the H02, the main route between Lviv and Ternopil. Our bus driver did his best to navigate the small craters pockmarking the highway. The shock absorbers on the bus were of little use as the vehicle bounced and slammed around the entire way back. There were a few brief and baffling respites, where the pavement was suddenly smooth for a kilometer. I noticed that such areas looked to have been totally repaved. It was as though the embezzlers of transport funds had decided to steal only 90% of the road improvement money. Maybe they had a bit of shame, then again it was probably the best way not to get caught stealing. The few smooth stretches of blacktop were evidence of a barely concealed cover up. Of course I was making assumptions, but no honest politician could inflict such a road on their constituents. And this was in Lviv Oblast, which was one of the best run provinces in Ukraine. I shuddered to think what the roads must be like in the rural eastern areas of Ukraine.

On The Road - The Lion Awaits in Lviv

On The Road – The Lion Awaits in Lviv

Beyond The Most Dangerous Place In The World –  Back To Normal
Several times I noticed that quaint symbol of rural backwardness, the horse drawn wagon cart, plying side roads. There was one memorable and terrifying scene that involved a cart crossing the main highway we were traveling along. Traffic was moving along at well over 100 kph, despite the severe road induced jolts. On the edge of a small village, a wagon cart was stopped while waiting to cross a road that bisected the highway. As soon as there was a small opening in traffic, the wagon driver lashed his whip furiously, urging the horses forward. They frantically went into action, making a furious dash across the road, while the driver continued cracking his whip. The wagon made it across in time, but if anything had gone wrong, the resulting accident would have been deadly.  It was an unforgettable scene of crazed courage.  Fortunately our bus driver navigated all the unexpected road hazards with skill. I marveled at his ability to stay calm despite the nerve wracking obstacles he was forced to deal with.

A feeling of sadness swept over me at the tail end of the Golden Horseshoe Tour. Everything I had looked forward to with this tour had come to an end. I would likely never pass this way again. This was a part of the world relatively difficult for me to access, due to time and travel constraints. What I had seen and learned on this tour today was already becoming part of the past. Soon this experience would be little more than a memory. What would I remember? What would I take away? While the castles were fascinating, my most memorable experience was going on a tour where I was unable to verbally communicate with anyone. This had allowed me to take notice of the countryside, villages and highways, the state of this land at a unique moment in time. My awareness of the surrounding area was heightened. For many years I had been fascinated by western Ukraine, an area that I had studied as part of the Austro-Hungarian province of Galicia. It had been known for misery and starvation, but it was now almost a century since the empire’s collapse and the catastrophe of two World Wars. An argument could be made that during the first half of the 20th century, this land had been the most dangerous place in the world. Today, the countryside looked surprisingly normal. The past was just that, past. Life and death moved on.

Back to normal - in Lviv and western Ukraine

Back to normal – in Lviv and western Ukraine (Credit: Jan Melich)

The Land Of Getting By – On The Downside
I knew there was poverty all around here, but it was rural poverty which is deceptively benign. Even the poorest usually live in houses. They still have their gardens out back and chickens running wild in the yard. Poverty out here can lead to alcoholism, but also to self-sufficiency. This was the land of getting by, of headscarves and kerchiefs, horse drawn wagon carts and stray dogs. Rural western Ukraine looked much the same as rural Romania and more prosperous than the countryside of Bulgaria. It may not have been rich, it may not have been part of the European Union, but it was Eastern European for sure. Time moved forward here, but at a very slow and deliberate pace. The endemic corruption in Ukraine that I had read so much about, it was only noticeable here by the quality of the roads. People went about their business like anywhere else in Europe.

As for my fellow tour participants, the young man beside me had warmed up significantly, at one point offering up his window seat so I could get a better vantage point on the countryside. By the end of the ride back I was getting a few nods and half smiles out of him. We had the shared experience of being pariahs or at least feeling that way. The tour guide performed a minor miracle by not talking much on the way back even though she did not look a bit fatigued. Every hair was in place, the deep black eyes still burning holes in whatever was in her line of sight. Her facial expression belied an incredible intensity. Despite being unable to understand a word she said, I knew she took her work seriously. She looked ready and willing to do the tour all over again that very day if the situation had demanded it. The same could not be said for the passengers, a melancholic silence had descended upon the bus. This was different from the reverential silence everyone had displayed at the beginning of the tour. The journey was nearing its end. Now it was back to Lviv, back to home or work and in my case back to a few more days of vacation. Everyone was on the downside, with their thoughts fixed on the future. Our day together was now as much a part of history as what we had seen and learned about on the tour.

The Road Is Always Open - Lviv

The Road Is Always Open – Lviv (Credit: Lidiya Vezdenko)

Looking Forward, Looking Backward – The Difference Between Us
As soon as we got into Lviv, a restless stirring began in anticipation of the final stop. People collected their belongings, kids squirmed in their seats and the bus inched its way through the late afternoon traffic. Lviv looked vaguely familiar, but felt very different. The bus halted at the curb just outside the old City Arsenal, the doors flew open. As I made my way to the exit, I turned around one last time to look at everyone and thought to myself, I will never see these people again. Then suddenly I was standing on the corner of a busy street. Lviv was the same city as before, but my perspective had changed. The Golden Horseshoe Tour, with its castles and sleepy countryside had little in common with Lviv. I had never noticed just how much energy was in the city, until I had experienced the surrounding rural hinterland. The contrast between the two was stark. The city at rush hour was moving with energy and dynamism, people were everywhere. The countryside had been stagnant and backward looking. Both places were in the same nation, the same region, the same oblast. They were only an hour and a world apart.

Natural Instincts – Lviv’s Ivan Franko Park: A Land For All Seasons (Lviv: The History of One City Part 35)

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.

Ivan Franko Park during late autumn

The seasons change & the park still remains – Ivan Franko Park during late autumn

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.

Ivan Franko Park in Lviv

The path to contemplation – Ivan Franko Park in Lviv

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.

Ivan Franko - stands tallest at at Ivan Franko Park in Lviv

Ivan Franko – stands tallest at at Ivan Franko Park in Lviv

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.

For Love Or Your Life – The Jalonek Murder in Lviv for the Hand of Anna Wilczek (Lviv: The History of One City Part 31)

The house at Rynok Square 3 is often overlooked, sandwiched as it is between the rich splendor of the Baldinelli Palace and the brooding, iconic Black House. Rynok 3 was first owned by Lviv’s most powerful lawmaker, the city councilor Wilczek, hence the building’s name, House of the Wilczek Family. This house would become his beautiful daughter Anna’s wedding dowry, but it only happened after an unforgettable explosion of emotions and violence between two men who could not contain their passion for her.

House of the Wilczek Family

House of the Wilczek Family at Rynok 3 in Lviv (Credit: Aeou)

Shall We Dance – Two Men & A Beautiful Woman
Urbano della Rippa Ubaldini was part of a wave of Italians who came to Lviv during the 16th and 17th centuries. Many of these men were traders. Due to their wealth and connections they were highly influential in city affairs and were able to acquire citizenship. Ubaldini, a Florentine had come to Lviv for another reason as well, he was an exile. He had been involved in a plot against the powerful Medici family back in Italy. Though he was a relation of the pope, Ubaldini’s life was not safe in Tuscany. Thus he fled eastward, first to Krakow and then on to Lviv.  Ironically, this would also later be the same exile trajectory of Roberto Baldinelli, who would own the palace at Rynok Square 2. No matter how far these men moved abroad, they could not escape trouble. In Ubaldini’s case the trouble  would be romantic, rather than political. A wedding party would be the unlikely setting for Ubaldini’s latest brush with controversy.

Anna Wilczek was just 18 years old and already she was known for her remarkable beauty. Not yet engaged, she was one of the most sought after women in the city. She had drawn the romantic attentions of Ubaldini and a Polish gentleman, Pawel Jalonek. Their dueling passions for Anna collided in dramatic fashion at a wedding party in the year 1580. Almost simultaneously both men asked Anna to dance. She was said to have paused for just a moment and then chose Ubaldini. This was too much for Jalonek to handle. Acting on a combination of wounded pride and crestfallen desire, he reactively slapped Ubaldini. The Florentine then went him one better, stabbing Jalonek with a dagger. The Pole reeled from the blow. Bleeding profusely, he was taken away for urgent medical care. It would do no good, Jalonek was soon dead.

Sculpture at Lychakiv Cemetery in Lviv

Romantic pursuits – a sculpture at Lychakiv Cemetery in Lviv

Getting Off – Ubaldini’s Crime Without Punishment
Ubaldini was arrested and charged with murder. Controversy abounded. Was the Florentine really just defending himself? His retaliatory stab seemed totally out of proportion to the slap he had suffered. Both men had lost all control of themselves because of their passionate love for one woman. Anna Wilczek’s beauty and grace had brought hot blooded passions to the surface and led directly to murder. Would the punishment for Ubaldini fit his crime? This may have been the age of the Renaissance, but it was also pre-Enlightenment. Crimes were punished in the harshest of manners, executions were common. On the west side of Rynok Square men lost their heads not to love, but decapitation. Fortunately for Ubaldini there were many circumstances in his favor. Before he died, Jalonek was said to have forgiven Ubaldini for the violence he had inflicted on him. In addition, Ubaldini was a powerful and wealthy merchant. He had many defenders in both Lviv’s Italian and business communities. It is said that truth can set a person free, but wealth works even greater wonders.

There were a few other key persons supporting Ubaldini, most importantly Anna Wilczek. The fact that her father held the powerful position of city councilor cannot be overlooked. The story also won the hearts of many women in Lviv. There was something deeply romantic about this fight for the love of a woman. According to the local Lviv historian Ilko Lemko, “The wives of the Lviv judges did not give their husbands a moment’s peace – neither during the day or at night, and they even posted pickets at the Town Hall.” With all this in his favor, Ubaldini was soon a free man. It might be said that his acquittal was an inside job. He was beyond reproach and above the law. Freedom was not the only thing he won either as he would take the hand of Anna Wilczek in marriage. The couple moved into Rynok 3 where they lived in happiness and contentment while raising a family.

A Noble Love
Perhaps it was better that Pawel Jalonek suffered a mortal wound rather than have to see his beloved Anna with the man who had bested him. Some might say that a life is too much to give up for love, but there is something endearing about Jalonek. Jalonek lost all self-control in a moment of unrestrained pride fueled by passionate love. He did not just want to dance with Anna Wilczek, he wanted to win her heart and ultimately her hand in marriage. It was not to be, but that does not make his death, like his love, any less noble.