The House-Castle In Lviv’s Kastelivka: Joszef Sosnowski’s Incredible Creation (Lviv: The History of One City Part 46)

Lviv seems to have everything a visitor could possibly want. A diverse and fascinating history, an Old Town filled with delicious Renaissance and Baroque architecture, cobblestone streets, atmospheric alleyways, pedestrian only areas made for strolling and beautiful urban parks. What more could a tourist ask for? Well there is one blind spot amid all of the city’s historical, cultural and architectural glory. The great unseen happens to be a castle. Of course, there is famed Castle Hill, a lush green space rising above the Old Town. Unfortunately, hardly anything is left of the famed medieval castle that once figured so prominently in the city’s history. The scant ruins consist of a small portion of the south wall and a few humps in the ground. Even the most fertile imagination is unable to conjure much of an image from this residue of royalty.

A fine artistic panorama from the 17th century shows what Lviv (called by its Latin name Leopolis) looked like at the time. A detailed rendering of the Old Town is shown with Castle Hill in the background. Atop the hill soars High Castle, a grand spectacle crowning the highest point in Lviv. Sadly this image only serves to remind what has been lost to history. If it did still exist, it is easy to imagine visitors by the thousands snaking their way up Castle Hill for a visit. Alas, that will never happen, but all hope is not lost. There is a castle to be found in Lviv, quite unlike any other in Europe. A good distance away from Castle Hill, a spectacular discovery awaits those who venture further into the vast cityscape.

Panorama of Lviv in 1616

Panorama of Lviv in 1616 (Credit: Braun & Hogenberg)

A Castle In Kastelivka – Joszef Sosnowski ‘s House
Kastelivka is one of the most fascinating neighborhoods in Lviv. Located in the southwestern part of the city, it is filled with wondrous structural concoctions, an exhibition of art nouveau architecture in all its varied iterations. Kastelivka became a trendy area during the latter part of the 19th century. Many of Lviv’s artisans and growing middle class moved into the district. An incredible array of villas and eclectic housing sprung up along it streets. The chief architects behind Kastelivka’s most famous houses were a Ukrainian by the name of Ivan Levynsky working with the famous Polish architect Julian Zachariewicz. These two men brought folk décor, the arts and crafts movement and indigenous forms to bear on their creations. For his part, Levynsky started a firm for construction and buildings materials. The materials company produced such materials as ceramic tiles to would adorn his buildings. He was also a father figure to other aspiring architects. This led him to a role as an adviser in the design of the one structure in Lviv that comes closest to a castle in form and fashion.

A Fantastical Funhouse & Castle in Lviv's Kastelivka District

A Fantastical Funhouse & Castle in Lviv’s Kastelivka District

Standing at 50-52 General Chuprynky Street is the House-Castle (Joszef Sosnowski House).  The main architect, a Pole by the name of Joszef Sosnowski designed the structure partly for himself. He received advice from Levynskyi. The building gives new meaning to the saying, “a man’s home is his castle.” One side – the house – was to be leased by a tenant, while the medieval style castle part would become the Sosnowski family’s home. Because of this, Sosnowski could allow his imagination to run wild and that is exactly what he did. What he created is both shocking and inviting, arresting and alluring, a paradoxical structure that looks part manor, part fortress, all in the midst of a neighborhood environment. Nothing to be found before or after it architecturally on General Chuprynky can quite prepare the viewer for what they are about to see. The building seems to just suddenly appear. The effect is disconcerting, so much so that it is difficult to imagine that the building’s main use is residential. The House-Castle imposes its presence on the immediate area to the point that its surroundings seem mundane by comparison.

A Fantastical Funhouse – Fortress, Castle, Palace, Home
Sosnowski’s architectural confection stretches the imagination. It is as though he set out to create the city’s most fantastical funhouse by assembling a range of dramatic styles all under one roof. He integrated Romanesque and Gothic styles in the design. Parts of the House-Castle, including the overhanging balcony, were derived from Venetian palazzo style. The castle tower with its crenellations is reminiscent of a crusader fortress. Who would have imagined that by standing on a sidewalk in an outer district of Lviv, a viewer could be transported to the battlements of Krak Des Chevaliers in western Syria. This is the stuff dreams are made of with one major difference. The House-Castle is now as it was then an unforgettable reality. Sosnowski made the impossible possible and in the process created a home unlike any other in Lviv. It has since been converted into many homes. The House-Castle is architecture at its most transformative.

The House-Castle at 50-52 General Chuprynky in Lviv

The House-Castle at 50-52 General Chuprynky in Lviv

The House-Castle can easily be viewed by taking a short 10 minute ride on Tram #2 from Rynok Square to the Hospital #5 tram stop. Better yet, it can be visited along with other hidden wonders on the “Lost Lviv” Kumpel-tour. Those looking for a more intimate experience are now able to enjoy it as an accommodation. A recent, seemingly innocuous advertisement on AirBNB stating “APARTMENT IN LVIV Wi-FI” revealed a remodeled and fully furnished apartment available for rent in the House-Castle for only $24 per night. While castle stays have become increasingly popular with tourists all across Europe, staying in the House-Castle would be an otherworldly experience. A visitor could become king for a day, a night or a week. A traditional touch of Lviv awaits arrivals at the entrance, a stone lion. An added bonus for those who stay for several nights is the opportunity to explore Kastelivka. This architecture rich district is filled with eclectic villas. The houses are expressive of a self-confident and booming Lviv at the turn of the 20th century, an imperial city expanding outward and upward, pushing the architectural and residential boundaries to the outer limits.

Like Life Itself – St. George’s Cathedral in Lviv: The Architecture of Belief (Lviv: The History of One City Part 40)

During each of my three visits to Lviv, I have found myself at St. George’s Cathedral. One would imagine that by this point the cathedral would have exhausted my curiosity. On the contrary, I am planning to go there again on my next visit. The more I have read about the church, the more fascinated I have become with its architectural and spiritual importance, both to the Ukrainian nation and to the individual. It is more than a church, it is a national shrine, but it also works on the deepest of personal levels. I became intimately aware of the latter during my first visit to the Cathedral in 2011.

St. George's Cathedral in Lviv

Illuminating – St. George’s Cathedral in Lviv (Credit: Rbrechko)

Three Hills Above Lviv
There are three famous hills in Lviv, each known for being the site of a memorable building. As the city was set out along the Poltva River valley, these hills flanked that valley. The most well-known of these was a hill on the eastern side of the river that was once the setting of High Castle, the princely residence and fortification which towered over medieval Lviv. Today there are only scant ruins and faint traces in the earth where the castle once stood. On the western side of the river valley, the Austrian Habsburg rulers built a fortification known as the Citadel in the mid-19th century. This site would later become infamous for its role during World War II as the scene of an internment camp where as many as 100,000 Soviet prisoners of war starved to death. Today one of the Citadel buildings houses a luxury hotel, while the others are derelict.

Not too far away from the Citadel stands St. George’s Hill. This prominence is home to the most important Ukrainian structure in the city, St. George’s Cathedral. It was once the administrative and still is the spiritual home of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church. The cathedral is a bastion of the Ukrainian nation and one of the premier architectural wonders in Lviv. It stands above much of the city, on a 321 meter high hill. The cathedral’s placement on this hill has made it a prominent symbol of the enduring faith of the Ukrainian people who call this land and its most famous city home.

Portal to St. George's Cathedral

Portal to St. George’s Cathedral (Credit: Klymenkoy)

The Ascent To St. George’s
Making my way up St. George’s Hill and to the cathedral for the first time was not very simple. It was a good twenty minute walk from Lviv’s Old Town, a fair distance away from the city’s main attractions. The church was built far outside the old medieval city walls. Despite being an outlier, the cathedral was placed in a prominent spot, atop one of the highest hills in the city. Its lack of protection, distance from the city and strategic setting meant it would become a target in wartime. This led to the first church on the site being destroyed by Polish forces in 1340. When I first walked up St. George’s Hill I did not immediately recognize its prime position. The city has grown up around it, so much that the surrounding development serves as a distraction from its unique hilltop setting. Only when I made the final ascent to the Cathedral did I realize that St. George’s was at the pinnacle of a hill.

I entered the complex through a gate displaying allegorical figures from the Greek and Roman Catholic Churches. It immediately became apparent that St. George’s was only one of the architectural wonders located on the site. An ensemble of buildings stood before me. These included the Metropolitan’s Palace, where no less a personage than Pope John Paul II stayed in 2001, along with the Curia, which houses the administration and a monastery. The complex also contains a garden and bell tower. Due to its golden dome, eye popping yellow exterior and rococo architecture, I sensed a festive aura. As I got closer this changed to a more serious and subdued feeling. Above the entrance I noticed a sculpture of St. George slaying the legendary dragon. Flanking either side of the portal were sculptures of Saints Leo – the namesake of Lviv – and Athanasius – the great champion of Catholic belief. This was an inkling of the reverential symbolism to come.

Interior of St. George's Cathedral

Interior of St. George’s Cathedral (Credit: Антон Супруненко)

The Architecture Of Belief
Entering the church, my senses were overwhelmed by the smell of burning incense. I was astonished by the charismatic nature of the interior’s iconography. Spending my formative years in the dour and comparatively austere Presbyterian Church did not prepare me for the sensuality of spiritualism that pervades Uniate churches, such as St. George’s. The rituals, the allegorical meanings inscribed on the altar, the devotion etched on the expressive faces of the many women who filled the church on this weekday morning was astonishing. Everything in the Cathedral was meant to reveal deeper meanings, from its design in the shape of a Greek Cross, to the four-tiered iconostasis and the wonder working icon of the Virgin Mary covered in silver plating, St. George’s lends itself to greater contemplation and meditation. One could not help but feel reverential. Here was the architecture of belief. A deep and penetrating stillness overwhelmed me. I felt that my role here was as an observer, documenting in my memory this shattering sensory experience. My idea of a church had always been as a house of worship, nothing more and nothing less. Yet the magnetic symbolism of St. George’s gave me a new and mind altering perspective, a spiritual formulation of something deep in the human soul. The church was eternal and timeless, like life itself.

Each time I have returned to St. George’s Cathedral a sense of peacefulness takes hold of me as soon as that architectural ensemble comes into view. On top of a hill, overlooking a shimmering city, in a beaming cathedral, that is where the eternal lives on. For me St. George’s has become more than a cathedral. It is an architectural representation of a feeling, a deep and abiding sense of faith, a faith that can be found not so much in religion, but in the spiritual experience of being human.

 

A Relic Housing Relics – The Church of St. John the Baptist In Lviv (Lviv: The History Of One City #21)

Rynok Square (Market Square) is undoubtedly the epicenter of Lviv’s Old Town. For most of the year, throngs of tourists roam around the square, devouring Gelato, gazing at Renaissance and Baroque facades, taking hundreds of thousands of digital snapshots and soaking up the vibrant energy that pulses from the heart of Ukraine’s most European cityscape.  This is the intersection of new and old Lviv, where modern tourism and the city’s historic heart intersect. Not surprisingly, very few tourists will take a 15 minute walk to the north, where they can visit Staryi Rynok, Lviv’s first market square. This was the epicenter of what might be called “ancient” Lviv. It was where the city first prospered and began to grow. Of course, the market square was eventually moved to its present tourist packed site, but a semblance of “ancient” Lviv still exists on Staryi Rynok, in the form of the Church of St. John the Baptist, an architectural relic that today also happens to act as a museum of relics. This church is where the antiquity of Lviv is best experienced.

Church of St. John the Baptist in Lviv

The Church of St. John the Baptist in Lviv – also home to the Museum of Ancient Lviv Monuments (Photo: Wikipedia)

From the Mists of Myth to Solid Evidence – “Ancient” Lviv
“Ancient” Lviv is shrouded as much in myth as it is in fact and the Church of St. John the Baptist is a representation of this. The church’s beginnings are vague, with stories and facts intermingling. Popular legend states that Princess Constance of Hungary, the wife of the city’s namesake Prince Lev Danilovich, commissioned the building of the church in the latter half of the 13th century. Constance was born in Hungary and was a devout follower of the Catholic faith. As the story goes, she invited Dominican monks to the city, who then proceeded to construct the church shortly after their arrival, making it Lviv’s first Catholic Church. This legend also states that following her death, Constance was buried in the church’s crypt. The veracity of this tale is open to debate, but does seem plausible if for no other reason than the church stood on Staryi Rynok just below High Castle (Vysokyi zamok), home of Lev and Constance.

Conversely, the church’s physical structure offers evidence of a later construction, specifically during the 14th century. Armenians arrived in Lviv as traders and brought their Uniate faith with them. The architectural basis for this theory concerns the masonry walls of the church, which resemble other examples from the same era. Whether this fact based theory or a story based legend is true, no one is likely to ever know the full story. What is known for sure is that the church suffered abandonment and neglect by the 15th century, as Lviv’s commercial and spiritual center moved away from Staryi Rynok. For two and a half centuries the church was left to crumble. It was not until the 18th century that it underwent the first of four reconstructions. The first of these did not last long, as a fire gutted much of the church in 1800. This led to another period of dormancy, lasting 36 years. Several 19th century reconstructions created most of the Neo-Romanesque structure that stands today.

Plaque commemorating Prince Constance

Plaque commemorating Prince Constance – legend says that she was the founder of the Church of St John the Baptist in Lviv (Credit: Wikipedia)

Neglect as a Form of Preservation
A third period of neglect began with the first Soviet occupation of the city in 1939 as the church was closed for any type of religious function. An argument could be made, that the church was once again being preserved by neglect. Interestingly, during the second period of Soviet rule (1944 – 1991), the communist authorities did not entirely ignore the church. They allowed it to be viewed as a cultural set piece. Communist era visitors to the city were given a list of recommended must-sees, these included the Church of St. John the Baptist. This odd bit of promotion probably had something to do with the church’s deep roots in the “ancient” history of Lviv. Unfortunately during this time few tourists were allowed to visit. This was because Lvov (the Russianized name for Lviv) was a “closed” city. Tourists would have to get permission from the military authorities just to visit. This “closed” status, coupled with decades behind the Iron Curtain, meant the city and the church had few tourists during Soviet times.

In the 1990’s the situation slowly began to change. The Church of St. John the Baptist became part of the movement toward modern tourism. The Museum of Ancient Lviv Monuments was setup inside part of the church in 1993. The museum displayed everything from archeological findings to such sacral relics as a venerated 14th century icon, “Lviv Virgin and Child”, one of the oldest Ukrainian icons to be found in the western part of the country. In a strange post-Iron Curtain twist, the church was for many years only used as a museum. This changed in the spring of 2009 when it was officially reopened for religious services as the Archbishop of Lviv performed a ceremony blessing the church’s altar. Now it would open its doors to parishioners and visitors.

A view from the other side - the Church of St John the Baptist in Lviv

A view from the other side – the Church of St John the Baptist in Lviv (Credit: Wikipedia)

A Sense Of Discovery – Ancient and Justified
The “ancient” history of Lviv is today represented by the church, with its accompanying museum. It is a shame that more visitors do not take the time to explore this dual attraction. The church offers a window into the earliest days of Lviv. This was a place both mythical and factual with the church’s founding still open to speculation. This makes the history of ancient Lviv more intriguing and worthy of discovery. Much of that discovery now takes place within the walls of the Church of St. John the Baptist.

Ancient & Anonymous Roots – The Church of St. Nicholas In Lviv (Lviv: The History Of One City #18)

I have now made three trips to Lviv and plan on making more. Some might ask, why return, haven’t you seen everything? My reply is simple. I have barely scratched the surface. Take for instance, churches. I have visited only ten of the city’s churches. I say only, because there are still at least ninety more churches to visit. Lviv is nothing, if not a city of churches. There are over one hundred churches, cathedrals and monasteries of every size, shape and architectural style dotting the city. Many are world renowned. A comprehensive tour of Lviv takes in several of these.

Church of Saint Nicholas in Lviv

Church of Saint Nicholas in Lviv – the oldest church in the city (Credit: Wikipedia)

Back To The Start – Foundations Of A Church & A City
Every standard photo collection of Lviv includes an image of the Old Town’s skyline with the soaring steeples, domes and bell towers of churches. Textbook examples of Gothic, Renaissance, Baroque and Neo-Classical architectural styles are all to be found in these churches, often within short walking distance of one another. For all the magnificence of the city’s most notable houses of worship – St. George’s, the Latin, Dominican and Armenian Cathedrals, the Dormition and  St. Michael’s Churches – one church, almost always overlooked, goes all the way back to the very beginnings of Lviv. This church contains the city’s oldest existing physical remnants. It only makes sense that the Orthodox Church of St. Nicholas, what is considered Lviv’s oldest building, stands only a block away from Staryi Rynok Square, the old city center.

At one time Staryi Rynok was the commercial and political heart of the city. Today, it is just another urban square in a city full of them. The anonymity is deceptive, for this was where a great city actually took root. The proximity of the Church of St. Nicholas to the square was not a coincidence. Some historians state that the church was founded by Lviv’s merchant community. There are two reasons for this theory. First, that the church was located in close proximity to the gates of the old city market. Secondly, the fact that it was named for St. Nicholas, a patron saint of merchants, hints that the commercial class was behind the founding. Construction on the church took place in the late 13th century, during the initial laying of the city’s foundations. A straight lane connected it with the city’s political nerve center, High Castle (Vysokyi zamok). In 1292 Prince Lev Danylovych, the city’s namesake, granted perpetual land ownership of the site to the church. In a city with a history of constant change and upheaval, the Church of St. Nicholas managed to always retain its place. Because of the royal privileges granted to the church, some historians believe that St. Nicholas acted as the court church and burial place for the Princes of the Kingdom of Halych-Volhynia. Yet the princes and their kingdom were short lived, as was the centrality of the church to the spiritual life of Lviv.

Interior of the Church of St. Nicholas in Lviv

Interior of the Church of St. Nicholas in Lviv (Credit: Alex Zelenko)

A Church & A People – Ruthenians & Ukrainians
The original church was modelled on Byzantine-Ruthenian architecture of the time, with a uniquely Orthodox twist. It was arranged in the shape of a Greek equal armed cross, designed with three apses, three naves and topped with two cupolas. Later reconstruction in the early modern era introduced Baroque elements. While the church has stood in the same spot for over seven hundred years, the structure itself did not escape Lviv’s usual catastrophes. Floods, fires and pillaging by a host of invaders laid waste to the city time and again. The church was badly burned in 1623 and 1783. It had to be reconstructed in 1800. The frescoes that adorn both the church’s facade and its interior were added in the 20th century during a restoration. Thus, the church as it stands today is a much revised representation of its oldest self.

So what makes the Church of St. Nicholas special? How can it be the oldest building in Lviv after multiple restorations? The answer to these questions is twofold. The uniqueness of the church lies in its staying power. The fact that the church in some form or fashion has lasted from the city’s inception to the present is incredible. This is a tribute, not just to the power of the Orthodox faith, but the fact that the church represents more than just a religion. It also represents the original Eastern Slavic inhabitants of Lviv, the Ruthenians. They were the ancestors of today’s Ukrainians. The church, like the Ruthenian/ Ukrainian people, spent centuries in a city that was controlled by others. Yet, the church like the people has endured.

Side view - Church of St. Nicholas in Lviv

Side view – Church of St. Nicholas in Lviv (Credit: Wikipedia)

City of Churches
As to the question of whether or not the Church of St. Nicholas is the oldest building in Lviv, the answer is ambiguous. Of course, the church as it exists today is largely a product of reconstruction. Nevertheless, it still retains the hewn white limestone slabs that were laid at the time of its initial construction. These structural remnants are from the church’s earliest days making it the oldest building in Lviv with some of its original material. Slabs of limestone may not sound like much, but when contrasted with the fact that there is nothing else in the city this old, it is apparent that the church contains Lviv’s most ancient physical history. Thus it can be concluded, that the city and its deepest history is inseparable from its churches, starting with the Church of St. Nicholas.

Nothing Like…What The Past Was Really Like – The High Castle of Lviv (Lviv: The Story of a City In Ukraine #3)

History can be as much about forgetting as it is remembering. This idea came to me while I was researching the High Castle (Vysokyi Zamok) of Lviv. Today the area is heavily forested and acts as an urban green space known as High Castle Park. A lone wall surrounded by woods and footpaths is all that remains of High Castle. Every tower, every bastion, every other fortification has been totally obliterated. In a city known for its protection and preservation of historic structures High Castle is the most prominent architectural loss suffered by Lviv. This shows that even in a place where so many historic structures are protected, just as many or more have been lost. There is a tendency to look at Lviv as a uniquely preserved city, that somehow managed to survive hundreds of sieges, two of the most destructive wars in human history along with numerous smaller ones, multiple natural disasters and several urban renewal projects with much of its architecture intact. Perception may inform reality, but in this case it also distorts the reality.

Ruin of Lviv's High Castle

The lone remaining ruin of Lviv’s High Castle

That Which Must Be Forgotten – Inducing Historical Amnesia
The Lviv that survives today was almost entirely conceived following the cataclysmic fire of 1527 which destroyed the city. Any structure that existed before the fire might as well be ancient history without the ruins to show for it. Trying to recapture a part of Lviv’s history from the founding in 1256 through 1527, even something as renowned as High Castle, requires both a leap of the imagination and a conscious act of amnesia. To understand the medieval High Castle I had to forget the forested park that covers the area today. I had to forget the walking paths, the roads and a grotto which was built long after the castle was gone. I had to forget the glittering fall foliage which had greeted me on my morning runs through the park. The process of forgetting required me to distance and detach from the memory of recent visits. Trying to come to terms with High Castle the way it was in the late Middle Ages is difficult, but not inconceivable. Documentation and chronology, words and numbers helped me create a picture. An outline to recall a vital piece of Lviv’s past that might be recaptured. There are also drawings, but none of the ones I was able to access were done before 1618. Information and interpretation of that information would have to suffice.

The first castle was built on the order of King Danylo Romanowych (Daniel of Galicia), the city’s founder, who ordered a fortress built on a steep sided hilltop above the Poltva River valley. This site for High Castle offered a formidable defensive position. The first castle held a commanding position, but offered hardly any protection to its occupants from whims of nature. Icy winter winds buffeted the hilltop as bone chilling conditions persisted for months on end. After just one winter King Danylo decided that he would relocate to another castle, better protected from the natural elements. This became known as Low Castle. The wooden High Castle was abandoned as a residence, but continued to act as storage for items in the Royal Treasury, including a couple of solid gold crowns. This was a good hiding place for such crown jewels, but unfortunately not good enough.

17th century engraving of High Castle towering above Lviv

17th century engraving of High Castle towering above Lviv – by A Gogenberg

Tending Towards Destruction – Besieged By All Sides
In 1340, the Polish King Casimir III the Great took control of Lviv as well as the treasures stored in High Castle. Only thirteen years later marauding Lithuanian troops put High Castle to the torch. This was not difficult since the first version was made of wood. The Polish King soon had another High Castle built on the same spot. The difference now, was that High Castle was made of stone. For the next three centuries the castle saw off countless sieges. The terrain coupled with the fortifications surrounding it made the castle too much for would be conquerors. Finally in 1648, the castle fell to an invasion force, under the command of Bohdan Khmelnytsky. Several ironies surround Khmelnytsky as the conqueror. He was a Ukrainian, he had attended university in Lviv and though his forces took the castle, they failed to seize the city. The conquest of 1648 was the beginning of a slow, yet steady decline for High Castle.

In 1704 Swedish forces took both the castle and the city. The first time this had been done in ages. The castle was abandoned. It became a home for low lifes, bandits and those who preyed upon the city’s inhabitants. Leaders of the city came to see it as a place to banish those citizens suffering from the plague. High Castle’s decline mirrored that of the Polish Kingdom. Just as the Kingdom suffered dismemberment by foreign powers, so too did High Castle. In the late 18th century the city’s Austrian overlords oversaw its final destruction. Under the direction of imperial administrators what was left of High Castle was disassembled so the stones could be used in new buildings being constructed in the city. These pieces were blended into other structures to the point that they cannot be discerned. In a historical twist, High Castle had helped start Lviv, to sustain it and was obliterated by a newer version of it.

High Castle Park on a misty November morning

High Castle Park on a misty November morning

Cease to Exist – The Depths Of Lviv
After my researches into the distant past of High Castle I began to have a creeping suspicion that many visitors to Lviv probably feel the same way I did during my first visit. This is when I was in awe of its rustic Renaissance and color coated Baroque architecture. Back then I felt as though the city had been destined to preserve the past. In my mind the same phrase, “this is what the past must have been like” was stuck on repeat. Now I know better. The past presented by Lviv is from the 16th century forward. It is informed as much by what it isn’t, as by what it is, more by what has been lost and can never be recovered. This is Lviv without the Gothic, without the early Middle Ages, detached from its own ancient history. To find this history I needed multiple trips, many walks and runs and readings and a healthy dose of counter-intuition before I realized that to fathom the depths of the past I would have to forget. Forget everything that I had ever seen and experienced in the High Castle and Old Town areas. It required the obliteration of so many memories. It was almost impossible, except for brief moments and trace glimpses. Then and only then was I able to understand all that had been lost at High Castle.

Animal Instincts – The Lions of Lviv (Lviv: The Story of a City In Ukraine #2)

During my week long stay in Lviv I was stalked by lions. Lions were on every corner in the old town, they could be found at High Castle, protruding from the facades of business and glowering at the entrances to residential buildings. Some of these lions were sleeping while others looked fierce and determined, supersized stone statuary demanding attention. These lions are lasting remnants that recall the very earliest days of Lviv. Scarcely any structural remains of 13th century Lviv still exist, but symbolically lions are everywhere, a symbol of the city that goes back over 750 years.

Lion sculptures on facade of Lviv residential building

Residential instincts – lions can be found on many facades in Lviv

Leo and the Lions – The Name Of A City & Its Eternal Symbol
It has been at least 5,000 years since lions roamed the land that is today Ukraine. Fossils found near the Black Sea regions of the nation have been identified as belonging to lions with manes. These wild, magnificent and deadly creatures likely roamed all across Ukraine, including Galicia in the western part of the country, during the final (and also current) geological epoch, the Holocene (12,000 years ago to the present). Human settlement and population growth eventually brought the era of wild lions in Ukraine to an end. Nonetheless, lions are an ever present part of Lviv. They can be found laying and lounging, guarding or greeting at buildings and parks across the city. These lions are not alive in a biological sense. Instead they act as the living embodiment of the city’s majestic history. These static sculptures may not be able to roar, but their presence can still be felt today as a lasting symbol of the city’s most ancient history.

Lviv has been associated with lions since its founding in 1256. This is because the city was named after Lev Danylovych, or as he was otherwise known, Leo I of Galicia. Leo I was the King of Galicia-Volhynia (King of Rus’) and Grand Prince of Kiev during the latter part of the 13th century. Leo in the Latin language means lion. Latin was a much preferred language of royalty, while lions were often used as an enduring symbol of royalty. They symbolized courage, dignity and grandeur. These were traits Leo I would certainly want to be known for. They are also symbolic of attributes a city might want to reflect both its past and present. A person or a city symbolically aligned with lions evokes a certain powerful image. Leo I lived up to his name in many ways. He was certainly brave when it came to martial affairs. He was on the warpath for much of his reign. He attacked westward in attempts to take control of parts of Poland, Lithuania and Hungary. During a 14 year period beginning in 1375, he led no less than six military campaigns against his kingdom’s foes. By the end of his reign he had expanded the Kingdom of Galicia-Volhynia to its greatest territorial extent.

Lion on a gate in Lviv

Lions in Lviv guard many a gate

What’s In a Name? – Legacies Of Ambition, Legacies of Failure
The power and territory he acquired would seem to cast his name and the city that bore his name in a radiant glow. Leo I had moved his capital to Lviv in 1274. The capital city continued to grow and bask in glory, after his death, but Leo’s legacy soon faded. It was never that solid to begin with. His costly military campaigns brought as much failure as success. The territorial gains achieved were relatively small compared to Leo’s ambitions. A half century after Leo’s death, the Kingdom of Galicia-Volhynia, including Lviv, was subsumed under Polish rule.  The truly lasting legacy of Leo I came to center around the meaning of his name and what it came to symbolize for his namesake city. Lions and Lviv became inseparable, a powerful image of a city’s grandeur and status.

Every empire and every conqueror of Lviv incorporated the lion into disparate city seals and coats of arms. For instance, during the late 16th century the papal coat of arms was added to Lviv’s. The lion on these was no longer passive, but now rampant. During the Soviet era – an empire that was virulently anti-aristocratic and anti-royal – the coat of arms was redesigned to add the hammer and sickle. The traditional trio of towers above a city gate was colored red, while a lion rampant stood in the entrance. This could be seen another way. The lion, like the people of Galicia and their traditions were caught against their will by the red menace of Soviet Communism, but they were trying to fight their way out.

Lviv lion on a manhole cover

Lviv’s lions lurk everywhere – even on manhole covers

Symbolic Recognition – The Lion Lives On
When the Soviet Union disintegrated and Ukraine declared independence, the coat of arms and city seals reverted back to their original form from the late Middle Ages. The towered gate was still there, but now covered in yellow, as was the lion. All of this was done on a blue background, colors symbolic of the Ukrainian flag. This reversion to the earliest design hearkened back to the Kingdom of Galicia-Volhynia, one of the very few times in the city’s history that east Slavic peoples were in control of the city and surrounding region. The lion had managed to survive all the iterations of empires that had now vanished. The same was true of Lviv’s Ukrainian citizenry. The lion, that quintessential symbol of Lviv, has now become an inseparable representation of the city as well as its people.

A City Created By Flames Of Fire (Lviv: The Story of a City In Ukraine #1)

Fire has brought more cities to an end, than to a beginning. The opposite is true for the western Ukrainian city of Lviv. Fire brought the Lviv into historical existence. Yet multiple times fire threatened to extinguish the city forever, only for Lviv to rise from the ashes, created anew.

No one can say with certainty when the area that would become Lviv had enough population to be called a settlement or village. Archaeologists have found traces of human habitation in the boggy valley of the Poltva River going all the way back to the 5th century AD. Excavations have yielded a vague outline of early settlement in the area, but they only offer fragments of evidence rather than a clear picture. It would not be until the late Middle Ages, in the middle of the 13th century, that the city known today as Lviv was formally created. As the story goes, King Danylo Romanovych (Daniel of Galicia) founded the city and then bequeathed it as a gift to his son Lev (Lev I of Galicia), from which the name Lviv comes, meaning belonging to Lev. While this story is often repeated as the beginning of Lviv it was not what confirms the historical existence of the city. Instead, the actual historical beginning of Lviv starts in 1256 with a fire seen in the distance. This is ironic considering that on numerous occasions fires brought the city to ruin.

A flame of pure fire

A flame of pure fire – creator, destroyer, illuminator & Transformer of Historic Lviv

Coming Into History – The Emergence of Lviv
Lviv surfaces into history not through deeds but words, specifically written words. The Galician-Volhynian Chronicle mentions that a major fire was seen “from Lviv” in 1256. This must have been quite a fire to be seen from afar. Witnesses of this conflagration may well have been standing on the High Castle or Lysa Gora areas, a couple of prominent hills which rise on a ridge that can be found to the east-northeast of today’s Rynok Square. Wherever the blaze was spied from, it would be the first of innumerable occasions in which residents of Lviv would witness major fires. Unfortunately, these fires were found in the city itself, with often disastrous consequences. Almost all the structures in Medieval Lviv were constructed out of wood. The threat of an all-consuming fire was a constant danger. Several safeguards were put into place to mitigate the possibility of a raging inferno.

Watchmen walked the city streets throughout the night to make sure that the citizenry did not leave a single light on in their homes. Obeying these watchmen was a matter of both structural and self-preservation. If someone was found guilty of causing a fire that resulted in deaths, they could end up having their arm severed. Even worse, some accidental arsonists were tossed into the flames and burned alive, in a bit of retaliatory justice. Such cruelty seems excessive, but in light of the calamitous destruction that could result from a fire the city needed the strongest deterrent possible. Stopping people from causing fires was one thing, but nature also threatened fiery destruction. In 1510, three bolts of lightning struck the city in succession. This led to many houses burning down in residential areas.

Lviv in the 17th century

Lviv in the 17th century – a product of reconstruction

All Consuming Fires – Destructions & Reconstructions
The famously destructive fire of 1527 illustrates how a conflagration could lead to both utter ruin and paradoxically the re-creation of Lviv. Following an inordinately, dry spring season the city was a virtual tinderbox. A hot, windy day in early June set the stage for what would become the worst fire in Lviv’s history. The blaze began in of all places, a small brewery situated in the heart of the walled city on Virmenska Street (Armenian Street). Soon the flames spread out in every direction. Nearly every wooden structure in the city burned to the ground. Only two buildings were left intact, the City Hall and a house in an outlying suburb. Church bells and artillery pieces were melted by the extreme heat. Even stone buildings were destroyed. Lviv was left a smoldering ruin. Interestingly, this turned out to be a watershed moment in the architectural history of the city. Gothic Lviv was forever gone.

New buildings were raised in the Renaissance style and made mostly of stone. In 1540 wooden construction was banned. And yet the fires still continued. In 1556 another conflagration burned parts of the city. A mere fifteen years later, the entire Jewish district of the city was totally destroyed by a fire. It was not until the mid-19th century after the city was firmly under Austrian rule that a professional firefighting squad was created. Modernization brought the development of city fire departments. Eventually fires became rarer, just as building materials had become less flammable and more permanent. If not for such changes Lviv would be devoid of the stunning architecture which garnered the old city center protection as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Conversely, if not for fire the Lviv of today would not exist.

Putting Out Flames - The Fire Department in Lviv

Putting Out Flames – The Fire Department in Lviv

A Fire In The Distance
The city’s unique Renaissance and Baroque, architectural styles rose from the ashes of many different Lvivs that existed and were subsequently extinguished. Fire reshaped Lviv in ways that would have been impossible to imagine when the city was first conceived. Fire also brought Lviv into the historical conscious. A fire in the distance brought the city that was rising from the valley of the Poltva into the pages of history. Lviv and its history started, but never ended with fire. Instead it was to be consumed, transformed and illuminated by fire.