A Secret That’s Been Passed Around – The Discovery of Lviv: Mass Tourism (Travels In Eastern Europe #49)

When I think back on my first visit to Lviv, I find it almost impossible to consider that trip without also reflecting on the last time I visited the city, three more trips and four years later. During the interim, Lviv had hosted matches for the Euro 2012 Football Championships, been buffeted by the economic and political tumult of the Maidan Revolution, seen remarkable growth in its burgeoning Information Technology industry and become a major tourist destination. It was the latter change that would become most visible to me. The Lviv I visited in 2011 was still a rather sleepy place for foreign visitors. I remember thinking “everyone should see this place.”

When I would tell friends or family to visit Lviv, they would recoil in shock at the mere mention of Ukraine. They could hardly believe I had been brazen enough to visit that ill-fated land. I told them Lviv was different from stereotypical Ukraine, it had more cultural and historical connections with Mitteleuropa than Moscow. It was the furthest eastern extent of the Renaissance, the old Polish Kingdom and Austria-Hungary. It was a new and different Ukraine, one filled with hope and possibility, leaning towards the west. Of course, I said all this in the knowledge that my advocacy for Lviv was falling on deaf ears. The city could not escape Ukraine and its dangerous reputation or so I thought.

A sense of direction in Lviv

A sense of direction in Lviv (Credit: Buka – Власна робота/)

Charm Offensive – The Old Town Imagined Anew
In the fall of 2015 I found out the meaning of be careful what you wish for because you just might get it. I said everybody should see Lviv and it this wish had been granted. Lviv was packed with tourists on the weekend of my arrival in the latter part of October, not a time usually known for heavy visitation. At certain points in the Old Town I was standing elbow to elbow in crowds. I heard as much Polish as Ukrainian being spoken. The cafes and coffee houses had a refined, sleek veneer. The cobblestone streets and sidewalks were pristine, some of the trams looked as though they had been transported from the space age and the smart, immaculately kept shops could just as easily have been in France or Germany rather than Ukraine. Lviv had been “discovered”. To find any hint that only twenty-five years before Lviv had been part of the Soviet Union, I would have had to flee the city center. Most tourist establishments used Latin as well as Cyrillic script in their signage now. Lviv’s Old Town looked so smart, tidy and trendy that I wondered if it had ever or never looked this way. Lviv was managing to charm the masses with a reinterpretation of itself.

The Lviv I first visited in 2011 had yet to realize its full tourist potential. Outside of the Old Town, signage in Latin script or written in English was scarce in the extreme. The amount of English spoken was even rarer. The Old Town at that time was evocative rather than electric. The range of accommodation on offer was limited, with few good hostels. Tourist information in English could be found, but only after searching. Except for the locals, I felt as though I had the city to myself back then. Mass tourism was a thing of the future. 2011 was a time when I could stroll the narrow streets, four years later I would jostle my way through them. I could hardly blame Lviv for this transformation, it was cultivating Old World charm in a bid to boost its economy. A reminder of this came blaringly loud at strange intervals, as a trumpet played a few notes that seemed to signify some sort of medieval sounding call. I had heard much the same thing in Krakow four years earlier, Lviv was becoming more like its bigger, more well-known Galician sister city.

The Logo Says It All

The Logo Says It All

Come Together – The Lure Of Lviv
In the interim, Lviv had inadvertently managed to gain from the instability in Kiev and unrest in the eastern part of Ukraine that started with Maiden. Through no fault of its own, Lviv was some 1,200 hundred kilometers away from the violence consuming parts of the Donbas region. This made Lviv one of the safest places to live, invest or visit in Ukraine. When the Hryvnia (Ukraine’s currency) plummeted in the wake of Maidan, Lviv became one of the best values for domestic and foreign tourists. Domestic tourists could no longer afford to go abroad, so instead they traveled to the most European city in Ukraine which also happened to call itself the most Ukrainian. The weekend of my arrival there was a living history reenactment of the street fighting which occurred during the 1918 Battle of Lemberg (Lviv’s Austrian name) following World War I.

The reenactment took place in Rynok Square which was packed with Ukrainian and Polish tourists looking on. It was strange watching a battle reenactment in a country that was currently at war. It was stranger still that Ukrainians and Poles stood side by side watching. Once blood enemies, they were now united in their fear of a resurgent Russia or quite possibly they were just looking to be entertained while on holiday. Tourism and marketing had brought hundreds of people into Rynok Square that day. City leaders are hoping to lure tens of thousands more to follow in their footsteps.  As much as I selfishly would like Lviv to be the way I found it in 2011, there is little hope of that. The same year of my last visit – 2015 – the city hosted two million visitors for the first time ever. Such increases led to the creation of 30,000 jobs in the tourism sector over the last several years. With much faster rail links to Krakow and Kiev, the tourist numbers are only going to increase.

Waiting on the future in Lviv

Waiting on the future in Lviv

A Selfish Desire – Old World Beauty
My memory of that first visit to an uncrowded Lviv is still vivid, wandering around a spacious Rynok Square, the churches empty except for the locals and restaurants hoping for a few more patrons. That moment is now as much history as anything else in Lviv. I had been fortunate to visit the city before millions of tourists smoothed the cobbled streets with their foot traffic. Yet my perspective has become skewed by a selfish desire to want Lviv all to myself. If I am honest, I was just as much a part of the increase in tourist numbers as the masses I profess to loathe. By the time I arrived in Lviv, it had been transformed from a crumbling, neglected Ukrainian provincial city, to a vibrant Old World beauty. A city that millions would come to visit, just as I did. My “discovery” of Lviv was like learning a secret, only to later learn that it’s been passed around.

The Things That Mattered Most – Baedeker’s Guide to 1911 Lemberg (Lviv: The History of One City: Part 22)

Baedeker, the name is still spoken with reverence when it comes to travel guides. Prior to the First World War, Baedeker’s travel guides were as much a part of European travel as steam locomotives. The guides acted as the go to source of information for legions of travelers. Kept readily at hand, they were unmatched in detail and breadth of coverage, a direct reflection of their characteristic meticulousness. As A. P. Herbert once said, “Kings and governments may err, but never Mr. Baedeker.” The founding father of the Baedeker guidebooks was Karl Baedeker, born at the turn of the 19th century in Essen, Germany. By his mid-twenties Baedeker was firmly ensconced in the world of book publishing. At the age of thirty-one, he bought a bankrupt publishing house. With this transaction he acquired the rights to a scholarly book that focused on the history and art of the Rhine region. Three years later, Baedeker published an update to this volume, adding practical information, such as the lodgings and restaurants in each city that were best suited to serve a traveler’s needs. Today this type of information can be found in almost every guidebook, in Baedeker’s day this was a path breaking innovation. At the time, no one imagined that he was just getting started.

Karl Baedeker

Karl Baedeker – the man who helped guided millions all over Europe

Touring Lemberg –  Guided By Baedeker
Through the latter half of the 19th century, Baedeker and his family published guidebooks covering much of Europe. The Baedeker brand benefited from being at the right place, at the right time. The 19th century brought the industrial revolution to the European mainland. This meant a growing middle class and mass travel by railroad which beget the birth of modern tourism. The whole of Europe was now within reach by rail travel for those with a good income. This included the multinational Austro-Hungarian Empire. In 1896 the Baedeker firm published its first guidebook covering the Empire, Austria : including Hungary, Transylvania, Dalmatia, and Bosnia; handbook for travelers. This included coverage of the far flung reaches of the empire including the province of Galicia, focusing on Lemberg (the German name for Lviv). Between 1896 and the outbreak of World War One, Baedeker’s would publish two more updates of this guidebook. The last one in 1911 was called Austria-Hungary : with excursions to Cetinje, Belgrade, and Bucharest ; handbook for travellers. It provides a fascinating glimpse of Austro-Hungarian Lemberg, a city that just a few years later would undergo a process of upheaval that would change it forever. Baedeker’s coverage of Lemberg in the 1911 guide was two pages in length and chock full of detailed information. An additional two pages was devoted to a map of the city center and its immediate surroundings.

Reading through the entry, it is hard not to notice that the city’s name is given in three languages, German, French and Polish. In retrospect, a specific omission stands out. The Ukrainian name of the city, Lviv, is nowhere to be found. The use of Polish place names is pervasive throughout the entry, befitting a city that at the time was dominated politically and culturally by Poles. A close study of the two page pullout map for Lemberg reveals that the city’s street and boulevards all had Polish and German language names. Svobody Prospekt, the Ukrainian name for the urban heart of the city today, was then known as Waly Hetmanskie. The Marien-Platz – a decidedly German name – which is right in front of the Hotel George, is now named Miskevchya Square. Though the name has been Ukrainianized it still recalls the fervently nationalistic Polish poet, Adam Mickiewicz. The first point of arrival in Lemberg, the central Railway Station, is termed the Hauptbahnhof. While the Polish translation of the name, Glowny dworzec, is listed directly below it in parenthesis. Five hotels are deemed worthy of a stay. This of course includes the famous Hotel George which can still be visited. Only one restaurant that was not part of a hotel is mentioned, the Stadtmuller which could be found on Ulica Krakowska (Krakow Street). The Stadtmuller no longer exists, but Ulica Krakowska does. The street’s name has been changed to the Ukrainian language Krakivska.

Postcard of fin de siècle Lemberg

Postcard of fin de siècle Lemberg

Shadows of the Past – Fin de siècle Lemberg
There are other differences between fin de siècle Lemberg and present day Lviv that are more noticeable and with hindsight quite shocking. The population is listed as 11% Jewish, a cumulative total of 22,700. Today Lviv’s Jewish population is about one-tenth that figure, though the city’s population has increased by 250% since 1911. The decline of the Jewish population is due almost entirely to the devastation wrought by the Holocaust. A visitor to the city in 1911 would have experienced a thriving Jewish presence in hotels, restaurants, markets, synagogues and street life. That has all since vanished. Baedeker’s also notes that the 11th Army Corps of the Imperial Army was headquartered in the city. That too disappeared, much of it lost in the surrounding countryside just three years later in the Battle of Galicia, a devastating defeat from which the empire never really recovered.

Reading Baedeker’s makes one realize that some things in the city have not changed. Among the major attractions listed are such famous religious buildings as the Roman Catholic Cathedral (Latin Cathedral), the Boimow Chapel (Boim Chapel), the Dominican, Armenian and Greek Catholic (St. George’s) Cathedrals. The Rathaus (Town Hall, now known in Ukrainian as the Ratusha) is also noted for “its tower 213 feet high – good survey of the town from the top.” Looking out from the pinnacle of the Rathaus at the skyline of the Old Town in 1911, a visitor would have much the same view as today. There are two present day attractions in Lviv that Baedeker’s did not deem worthy of mention for good reason. Lemberg’s famous Opera House was just over a decade old in 1911. Its newness was probably the reason that it was overlooked.

Baedeker's Guide to Austria-Hungary

Baedeker’s Guide to Austria-Hungary

The Ultimate Omission – Lemberg Without Ukrainians
The other notable absence concerns the famous Lychakiv Cemetery. The lone mention of Lycakov (Lychakiv in Ukrainian) comes as one of the city’s four main suburban distrcits. The cemetery is nowhere to be found. To understand this calls for a bit of historical context. The Lychakiv Cemetery of today is given much of its meaning by the loss of multi-cultural Lviv in the first half of the 20th century. In 1911 no one could envision that the city was on the cusp of multiple cataclysms that would wipe out almost all of its Polish, Jewish, German and Armenian citizens. Each one of these groups is mentioned in Baedeker’s 1911 Austria-Hungary guidebook entry for Lemberg. The only group missing happens to be the one that dominates the city today, the Ruthenians (as Ukrainians were then known). It turns out that Baedeker’s guidebooks were not as thorough as many believed.

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.