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.

Found In Translation – Baltia-Druk’s Touring Lviv Guidebook (A Trip Around My Bookshelf # 5)

Any traveler to a country where they are unable to speak the language and have little knowledge of the culture is largely at the mercy of a guidebook. Whether that guidebook is from Lonely Planet, Rough Guide, Wikitravel or any of the other innumerable offerings available in either print or digital form these guidebooks pretty much tell a tourist where they are going to go and what they are going to do. This was been doubly true for me the first time I visited Ukraine. I cannot speak the language and have only a rudimentary understanding of the Cyrillic alphabet. The first time I set foot in Ukraine was four years ago when I rolled into Lviv, a stunning city in the far western reaches of the country.  My lone touristic resource when I first arrived was the Lviv chapter of a Lonely Planet guidebook to Ukraine. I had ordered and download this online. The chapter was rather helpful in the discovery of the many must-sees found in the Lviv Ensemble of the Historic Center which is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, but going any further afield or gaining a more in-depth understanding of the city was beyond the scope of that chapter.

Baltia-Druk's Touring Lviv Guidebook - A Rare & Lucky Find

Baltia-Druk’s Touring Lviv Guidebook – A Rare & Lucky Find

An Indispensable Travel Companion
Getting to really know Lviv was going to take a guidebook dedicated solely to the city. Of course, I could have hired an English language guide, but I am a literal learner and wanted something to read as I ventured into a world I knew little about. I found a bookstore just off the Prospekt Svobody (the heart of the city) where I managed to communicate my needs to a sales lady who spoke some broken English. She led me to a small shelf laden with touristic literature. There she pulled a guidebook that came in multiple languages, Polish (the majority of foreign visitors to Lviv), German and most impressively English. This guidebook was called quite simply Touring Lviv Guidebook by a publishing firm known as Baltia-Druk. Within minutes of the purchase, this guidebook became my number one resource not only for the rest of that first trip, but also two ensuing visits back to the city. It was not just informative, but also a good read. I have even found myself back home, thousands of kilometers from Ukraine, being warmed by the guidebooks engaging narrative style on many a cold winter night. I find myself referring to it again and again.

Why is this? Mainly because it dispenses with in just twenty pages the usual reams of information on hotels, restaurants, transport and all other essential, but seemingly endless details that clutter up almost all travel guides and travelers itineraries. This information is located where it should be in every travel guide, at the very end of the book. The publishers get right to the meat of the matter in the guidebooks first section “History In Facts And Figures”. The section title was something of a misnomer – and thank goodness for that!  There were of course facts, less figures (statistical figures), but an astonishing narrative, filled with stories, personages and legends that covered the high and low points during seven hundred memorable years of multicultural and multifaceted history in Lviv, Leopolis, Lwow, Lemberik, Lemberg and Lvov – the multiple personalities symbolized by the many names it acquired through the ages.

Statuary on a grave at Lychakiv Cemetery

Lviv is filled with sites of sublime beauty such as Lychakiv Cemetery

Fantastical & Non-Fictional – A Spectacular Past
The publishers of the guidebook understand what it takes to make history come alive, by using a story to transform a detail from merely interesting to highly fascinating. Take for instance how they introduce the fact that the Poltva River runs beneath the center of Lviv. “Much water has flowed under the bridges since the city’s foundation. And it is the water that poses the most fascinating of the town’s mysteries. Partly, it is attributed to the fact that the only river in Lviv, the Poltva, like the mythical Styx, flows in the darkness of underground crypts under the city’s main street. People say that when it rains, one can find a mysterious house somewhere by the railway station. The water that drips from the right side of its roof runs into the Baltic Sea, and from the left side – into the Black Sea. The legend could be explained by the fact that the city is situated right in the middle of the main watershed in Europe. The city’s very geographical position destined it to be the meeting place for the East and West, North and South.” Not only is that a well told tale, it also sets a scene, with “the darkness of underground crypts” and a “mysterious house”. At the same time it manages to convey crucial facts concerning the intrigue and importance of location in the history of Lviv.

Connections made in the text between factual information and seemingly unrelated subject matter showcase the stylistic powers of the authors. For instance, in a paragraph on St. John’s Church, whose genesis dates back to the 13th century, the reader learns of much more recent history pertinent to the religion and tourism in Lviv during the Soviet era (1944 – 1991). “In the soviet days, if a rare foreign tourist happened to come to the “closed” city of Lviv (under the Soviet rule some cities were closed for tourists for safety purposes; one could visit them only if he had permission issued by military authorities), it was commended he saw, among few other sacral edifices in town, the church of St. John.
The text also makes apt and telling comparisons that link past with present, such as when we learn that “Salt-mine ownership could be compared to owning an oil well nowadays” This statement is made in a sub-section expressing the wealth and power of the gentry during the 14th century. In another paragraph we are introduced to “Northern Rome” the “Eastern Gate” and “the Golden Book.” These terms evoke thoughts of fairy tales and the fantastical, yet they are actually historical. All part of the city’s spectacular past.

Fedorov Statue and Korniakt Tower

A good book can be the best guide – Fedorov Statue and Korniakt Tower

Everything & Everyone – Voices Heard On The Street
And there is more, so much more. The historical multiculturalism of the city is succinctly expressed in just a couple of sentences as, “A Lviv saying goes that when a Greek merchant was trading, two Jewish vendors were crying, but when an Armenian merchant came to the market Greeks would burst into tears. It was the fierce competition and national diversity that formed Lviv’s unique character.” Later we learn how the Ukrainians, who today make up approximately 90% of Lviv’s population, but were treated as second class citizens or worse in the city for centuries on end, made themselves heard in a unique way during the 16th century. “The Ukrainians made their presence in town known by means of the “Cyril” bell, placed on an elegant Renaissance belfry that had been erected by the Greek architect Cyril Korniakt. It was the loudest bell in town and the monks of the Dominican order often complained to the City Rada that the chime impeded them while conducting their services.

The class system was a notable and noticeable trait that affected everyone and everything in Lviv throughout its often fraught history. The following tale, from the time of Austrian rule, illustrates this. “Anyone fluent in German was sure to make a brilliant career and make a handsome fortune even in the poorest province of the Empire. Legend goes that it was then when the following funny story occurred. A local noble lady, accompanied by her friend, an Austrian official was approached by two beggars. One was local, the other – German. The first tramp got a copper, the latter – a silver coin. As she it explained it to her astonished friend, “tomorrow the German beggar might become a high official” and she wanted to make sure he remembered her.” Such stories say more than any number of demographic statistics or heavily footnoted monographs ever could.

As seen in Lviv - this is what the Touring Lviv Guidebook by Baltia-Druk does to visitors

As seen in Lviv – this is what the Touring Lviv Guidebook by Baltia-Druk does for visitors

Born Again – Lviv Into Life
Each time I arrive at the final paragraph of the “History In Facts And Figures” section entitled “Modern Lviv” I feel as though I have been taken on a rousing and illuminating ride, a tragic and triumphant introduction to the city. All done in just twenty short pages, interspersed with color photographs and a timeline adding substance, style and context. I am now primed to walk the cobbled alleyways, wide boulevards and photosynthetic parks, to experience for myself the intermingling of past and present, in one of Europe’s greatest cities. Yes this is Europe, make no mistake about it. As the authors remind us in the section’s final paragraph, “The rash statements made by some Ukrainian politicians, that Europe is a distant land evoke nothing but ironic smirks from Lviv inhabitants. Lviv has always been part of Europe, regardless of all the borders. It is only in Lviv a beggar will address you in several languages.” The high and the low, the possible and the improbable, all of it was, is and – let us hope – always will be a part of Lviv. Baltia-Druk’s splendid Touring Lviv Guidebook brings the city to life, both past and ever present.