The War Moves West – Yavoriv & Lviv Under Attack (The Russian Invasion of Ukraine #18)

Anyone who has ever spent time in western Ukraine will recall the devotion people there show to the Greek Catholic religion. The churches are busy with services each day, both women and men enter the churches at will, bow their heads and pray. It is a common site to see people during their lunch hour enter these churches for strength and solace. I have personally witnessed countless people make the sign of the cross as they enter or exit the churches. It is a stunning sight for westerners like me who live in nations where much of the population is indifferent to religion. On Sunday, March 13th, many in western Ukraine probably planned on visiting a church that church that day, but long before the sun came up and anyone could prepare for even the earliest church service, sirens began to scream out across the cities and towns in the region. Warnings that a bombardment from the air was about to begin.

Back in the United States, it was still Saturday evening, when I noticed the warnings cast across Twitter. When I saw Lviv was one of the cities I could not help but feel an even more painful lament than usual. Lviv was where I first set foot in Ukraine. Where I returned not once, but twice. It is said to be the most Ukrainian city in Ukraine and I would agree. Now it was joining a long list of Ukrainian cities under attack from Russian bombardment. I messaged one of my friends from there who now lives in Berlin a message about the attack. Her family lives in the city. There was no reply. I understood perfectly well why. This attack was hitting too close to home. Or was it? It turns out that Lviv was spared. Instead, missiles from Russian warplanes struck even further west, close to the Polish border, opening a Pandora’s box of sinister possibilities that the war might be spreading westward.

Aftermath of an attack – Damage at the Yavoriv Military Base

Fiery Flashes – Attack on Yavoriv Military Base
Silence and darkness engulfed much of western Ukraine as late night gave way to early morning. The sirens may have been screaming across western Ukraine, but Lviv and Lutsk were not the targets this time. Several hours earlier, Russian aircraft had taken off from Saratov in southern Russia. Once a Soviet secret city on the Volga, it was the embarkation point for a mission that would strike closer to Ukraine’s border with a NATO country than ever before. The aircraft skirted the Sea of Azov and Black Sea. Their pilots may have looked down at the flames consuming parts of Mariupol, a city where civilians are suffering gravely from artillery and airstrikes. The planes moved further west and north. Soon they would be within range of the Yavoriv Military Base which held their specific target, the International Center for Peacekeeping and Security which housed foreign fighters who had signed on to fight for the Ukrainians.

The Russians were looking to send a message. They were going to strike the base at Yavoriv because of the foreign fighters.  A video of the ensuing missile strikes showed total darkness, then a rumble, followed by the scream of a missile descending and the resulting fiery explosion. Eight missiles struck the base, killing 35 and wounding another 134. Those on base never saw the attack coming, neither did many analysts. It was a chilling signal, as much as it was a deadly blow. The message was clear, foreign fighters are prime targets no matter where they are located. And in this case, they happened to be located a mere 15 kilometers from the Polish border. Poles on the other side of the border heard the rumble, that distant sound of thunder that acts as the precursor to a breaking storm. Some may have seen fiery flashes in the early morning sky.

Always aglow – St. Andrews Church in Lviv

Too Close For Comfort  – Ever Closer To NATO
Fifteen kilometers is the closest Russia has come to bringing a full-scale war to Europe. The Ukraine-Russia war keeps creeping ever closer to NATO territory. If one of those missiles that targeted Yavoriv Military Base had gone a bit astray and landed on the Polish side of the border there would likely have been hell to pay. And hell is just what this war has brought to NATO’s doorstep. The Russians show the will, if not much skill, in breaking norms. Bombing civilians, targeting non-vital infrastructure, firing on humanitarian corridors, accusing Ukraine of genocidal plans, and harboring chemical weapons labs is all in a day’s business for the Russian political and military leadership. Do they want a wider war involving NATO countries? That is probably not the correct question. A better question is do they (Vladimir Putin and his closest confidantes) believe war with NATO is inevitable? If so, they might just make it happen. By any standard, a war with NATO would be a disaster for the beleaguered Russian army. That never stopped Putin from starting a war anyway.

Truth be told, a war is already being fought between NATO and Russia. Currently, it is a proxy war. Make no mistake, the weapons pouring into Ukraine are an attempt to bring Russia to its knees. The NATO policy towards the war thus far can be summed up as better to fight and defeat (or irreparably weaken) the Russians in Ukraine, than be forced to fight them on NATO territory. The Russian perspective is that they are already at war with NATO. If not, then the Ukrainians would not stand a chance. The Russians are very wrong about that, as they have been about so many other things during this war.

The missile strike on Yavoriv was a shot across the bow aimed at NATO and for that matter, any other foreign nation that might try to intervene in the conflict. It was a calculated risk which worked as planned. The attack was also an outlier, not because of its location, but because it is just about the only thing that has gone according to plan during the Russian invasion of Ukraine. The situation from Russia’s perspective is bad and getting worse. Frustration is mounting among both soldiers in the field and the upper echelons of leadership. The war has become toxic and unwinnable. Bolt out of the blue air strikes like the one that hit Yavoriv will not change that.

Too close for comfort – Map showing location of Yavoriv Military Base proximity to the Polish border

Keeping The Faith – Prayers For Peace
On the same day of the Yavoriv attack the sun still rose, the churches still opened, and Ukrainians prayed for peace. One day church bells will be the only sounds that pierce the Sunday morning calm across the country. Until that day arrives, the war will continue. It may spread beyond Ukraine’s borders. Let us pray it does not. Let us also pray that war ends within Ukraine’s borders and its citizens can once again live in peace. In the meantime, they will keep the faith.

Click here for: Unseen Forces – Ukraine & The Logic of War (The Russian Invasion of Ukraine #19)

Going Back & Going Beyond – The Power of Pecs, Lviv and Thessaloniki (Part Two)

The delights of a provincial rather than a capital city is an acquired taste, one that I have been lucky enough to gain in an Eastern European nation on three memorable occasions. My experience was all the better for it and not just with my first love in Pecs, Hungary. The first time I traveled to Ukraine, I did make it a point to visit the capital, Kiev. That was my second stop though. My first one was Lviv, a sparkling jewel of a city in western Ukraine. Lviv colors my opinion of Ukraine to this very day, even nine years after my first visit I cannot help but have a fondness for Ukraine because of that initial experience. It pains me when I hear people discuss Ukraine as though it is a dangerous country that should be avoided. Ukraine may have dangerous regions (the Donbas where an asymmetric war continues to rage is to be avoided by tourists) and endemic corruption (signified by the national government in Kiev), but Ukraine for me is a charming place full of magic rather than malevolence.

Street Art - Lviv

Street Art – Lviv

Lusting After Lviv – Falling For A Ukrainian Super Model
Lviv was then, what it still is today, the historical hub of Ukraine, a place where I could reach out and touch the past. On my return trips to the city I felt a sense of nostalgia, not just for Lviv’s past, but my own past in the city. The friends I met and kept over the years, the mystical churches that deepened my curiosity for the mysterious sensuality of the eastern world and the sheer exoticism of finding renaissance architecture in far eastern Europe. Kiev on the other hand, was a raucous and at times, menacing metropolis. I am fortunate that I avoided making it my first stop in the country. I have never been back and have no plans to go there again. I enjoyed certain aspects of the Ukrainian capital and the city center was well worth visiting. Conversely, there was something impersonal and at times outright inhuman about Kiev.

Perhaps it was the Stalinist architecture to be found on its most famous avenue or the hectic pace or the pushing and shoving on the metro that remains so vivid in my memory. Whatever the case, I could hardly wait to leave. I sensed then what I can still feel today, I would be unlikely to come back for a visit. If I did, it would only be to pass through the city. Bigger is rarely better and Kiev bore that truth out for me. Lviv is my idea of a Ukrainian super model, sleek, seductive and spectacular. Voluptuous in its charms, my eyes ogled its many beautiful buildings. I felt a pathological sense of romance in its city center. If there is such a thing as lusting after a city, then I fell for Lviv with uninhibited inclination. And I hope to get back to Ukraine, to visit Uzhhorod and Mukachevo, the type of provincial cities that are likely to give me a Lviv sized experience. Now when I look at a map of Ukraine, Kiev has vanished and all the smaller cities in the country are magnified. To lust like this, is to live travel forever.

The Dawn of a New Day - The Old Byzantine City Walls in Thessaloniki

The Dawn of a New Day – The Old Byzantine City Walls in Thessaloniki

Anywhere But Athens – Beyond The Obvious
My first visit to Greece last year was made with one thought in mind which can be summed up as “anywhere but Athens.” The capital of the classical world has never appealed to me. Perhaps it comes from disappointment at its failure to host the 100th anniversary of the Olympic Games. When Athens lost out to Atlanta, it lost something else, my respect. Then there are the stories I have read about the congestion and pollution that clogs and clouds the city. I have never heard a single person ever say anything nice about its modern iteration. The Parthenon, the Acropolis and a clutch of world class museums filled with astonishing artifacts do not provide enough an allure for me. This is snobbery in reverse, I find a perverse pleasure in the provincial when it comes to Greece. I cannot see the appeal of Athens. That is likely the product of my imagining throngs of tourists crowding me out. These feelings and an affinity for Byzantine and Ottoman history led me to first set foot on Greek soil in Thessaloniki, a city whose modernity is unsightly in the extreme.

What I found was another Greece mostly unknown to the western world. One with deep multi-cultural roots. Thessaloniki had more in common with Balkan culture than modern Greece, a place where digging in the dirt had unearthed entire worlds that existed before the blight of fires, wars and unchecked development smothered whole swathes of antiquity. Thessaloniki was an acquired taste, one that did not come easy. It asked visitors to look beyond the obvious or the famous, to the obscure and the infamous, to the Ottomans, the Sephardic Jews, the Byzantines and to the Rome of late antiquity. I want to believe that the difference between a visit to Athens and one to Thessaloniki, is like the difference between staying in a former five star hotel and staying in someone’s home. There is hospitality in search of your wallet and hospitality in search of your heart. Thessaloniki for me, was all about the latter.

A Lasting Memory - Pecs Cathedral

A Lasting Memory – Pecs Cathedral

Crossing Frontiers – My Wildest Imagination
At some point during my visit to Thessaloniki, I began to look further afield. My eye was not drawn to the obvious in Greece, neither islands nor Athens caught my attention. Instead, it was the hinterlands that I began to focus on. Those provincial outposts of interest that no sane tourist would take time to visit. This would be my Greece in the future. Thessaloniki made all of Thrace suddenly seem possible. The region, a Balkan borderland holds a magnetic attraction for me. I know not a single person who has traveled in its more obscure parts. I have not been back to Greece since my visit to Thessaloniki, but I already know what will come next. Crossing frontiers in my mind, as much as on the land.

The frontier between Greece and Bulgaria, Greece and Turkey, Greece and North Macedonia, the frontiers that only exist on a map and now appear in my mind. At one time these frontiers were as unfamiliar to me as any other lines drawn upon a foreign land, now I want to become as familiar with them as the lines on my hand. My future travels in Greece, will be like my past ones in Hungary, my future travels in Ukraine will be like my past ones in Hungary and my future in Hungary will be a place like Pecs, and in Ukraine a place like Lviv and in Greece a place like Thessaloniki. I could never have imagined the day I set foot in Pecs, that I was entering a whole new world, one that led the way down a path of endless possibilities. Soon it will be time to go back and go beyond my wildest imagination.

Facelifting Lviv – Where The Streets Had So Many Names (Lviv: The History of One City Part 52)

In 1991 Ukraine became an independent nation. For the first time ever in its long and conflicted history it had finally achieved statehood. Casting aside the yoke of foreign rule led to many changes in the nation, nowhere more so than in Lviv. Soviet symbols were quickly removed. Tourism became one of the major economic engines. The historic Old Town was renovated, along with several other areas in the city. The changes have accelerated since those heady days following the Soviet collapse. The Orange and Maiden Revolutions were acutely felt in the city as citizens spilled into the street, protesting for weeks on end to combat bad governance and corruption. Lviv gained a nickname, “the most Ukrainian city in Ukraine” due to its role as a major force in creating a national identity. One transformation brought about by Ukrainian statehood and that has surprisingly lasted has been street names. The fact that most of Lviv’s streets have kept the same name given them following Ukrainian statehood is characteristic of a degree of stability lacking in other areas of the nation, especially the East. It also just might signal the end of a centuries-long process – accelerated during the chaotic 20th century – where Lviv’s streets underwent a withering number of name changes.

Lviv directional signpost

All signs point to change – In Lviv the names have rarely stayed the same

War Changes Everything, Especially Street Names
It has been said that war is a great innovator. In the case of Lviv’s street names, war has been both a great degenerator and regenerator (portmanteau words). The degeneration occurred when street names were changed to reflect the heroes of Nazism and Stalinism. The regeneration took place as new names reflecting the dominant Ukrainian presence in the city came to grace the streets.  These name changes were far from the only ones. The situation regarding name changes has been fluid over the last couple of centuries as conquerors, whether by treaty or military force, occupied the city and proceeded to put their own superficial stamp on the city. Nowhere has this been as true as in heart of the city center.

Prospekt Svobody, the grandest boulevard in Lviv has undergone no less than 17 name changes over the past 200 years. Transliterated the current name means Liberty Avenue which seems appropriate since the boulevard was the setting for mass protests to liberate Ukraine from cronyism and corruption twice in the last twelve years. Yet for thirty-one years (1959 -1990) Prospekt Svobody was named Lenin Avenue, after a man who stood for the opposite of liberty. The same was certainly true of Adolf Hitler. The Nazi dictator’s name was given to the boulevard for much of the German occupation of Lviv during World War II. The names of these blood soaked ideologues were added to the boulevard in due course as a symbolic reminder to Lvivians of the ideological force exercising control over the city. The first German names given to the boulevard following the invasion, Museumstrasse then Opernstrasse, were likely dropped because of their banality.

Name Calling – The Forgotten & The Famous
In prior decades the Polish presence in the city informed two martial names for the boulevard, first Hetmanska then Legionow. While both were serious and forceful names, they were much more ideologically moderate than the names of those tyrants that were to soon follow. The Habsburgs named the boulevard after a lesser light of the ruling family, a figure who today is all but overshadowed by his son. Archduke Karl Ludwig was once a name on the lips of every Lvivan who strolled along Karl Ludwig Strasse. He was the brother of Emperor Franz Josef and for a short time was part of the Galician provincial government that called Lviv home. If Karl Ludwig is remembered for anything today, it is as the father of Franz Ferdinand, the man whose assassination sparked the First World War.

Another famous street in Lviv has managed to have more name changes than Prospekt Svobody. Ivan Franko Street, including separate parts of it, has gone by no less than 28 names since the late 19th century. Today it is named for one of Ukraine’s most beloved sons. It is fitting that Franko, who was born in Galicia and spent part of his life in Lviv, ended up with one of the city’s most important streets named after him. Less known is the fact that Franko died lonely and impoverished in the city. Interestingly the street was named for him not after Ukrainian national independence, but following the Soviet reoccupation of the city in 1944. Franko was one of the few individuals considered a hero to both the Soviets and nationalistic Ukrainians. The Soviets recognized him for his promotion of socialism and worker’s rights. Ukrainians revere him today because he advocated for their rights, against the oppressive rule of aristocrats, capitalists and Polish elites. He received the honor of having the entire street named for him. This is unlikely to change.

Sign for Ruska Street in Lviv

One thing that has never changed – Sign for Ruska Street in Lviv (Credit: Yarema Dukh)

The Unchanged – A Place & A People
Speaking of street names unlikely to change, the endurance of Krakivska Street in the Old Town goes against the trend of name changes in Lviv. Despite the virulence of anti-Polish forces during World War II, culminating in the expulsion of ethnic Poles from the city in the war’s immediate aftermath, the street has maintained this name since the mid-15th century. In medieval times, the name denoted that this was the street which led to Krakow. The only changes to the name have been the various transliterations of it into the languages of the ruling authorities. Even the Germans called it Krakauerstrasse.

One other Old Town Street that has only experienced a bare minimum of changes is the short – both literally and physically – Ruska street, which extends from the southeast side of Rynok Square to Pidvalna Street. The name was first given in 1472. This was the main street going through the Ruthenian (a pre-20th century term for Ukrainians) section of the Old Town. There is poetic justice in the continual use of this name. It staying power is representative of the unbroken presence of the Rus’/Ruthenian/Ukrainian people throughout Lviv’s history and their ability to survive the changes both superficial and geo-political which have transformed the city. Though names, loyalties and identifications have constantly changed in Lviv, the Ukrainian people have always remained.

A Transcendent Vision – Lwów’s Ossolineum: Triumph of the Intellect (Lviv: The Story of a City in Ukraine #6)

The cultural destruction wrought upon Eastern Europe by war and revolution is not well publicized in the west.  Hundreds of thousands of books, manuscripts, maps and artifacts have been stolen or destroyed as a direct result of conflict. Consider for instance, the successive Soviet, Nazi and Soviet occupations of Lviv during World War II. While the human destruction has been largely documented, the loss of cultural wares and institutions has been almost forgotten. In the aftermath of World War II, the city’s Polish culture, like its majority ethnic Polish population was uprooted. Much was lost in the upheaval, but fortunately some parts of the Polish intellectual legacy were so important and prominent that they managed to be at least partially saved. Chief among these was the renowned Ossolineum (National Ossoliński Institute), an intellectual powerhouse of Polish literature and learning.

Statue of Józef Ossoliński

Statue of Józef Ossoliński on a buidling in present-day Lviv

The Immense Legacy of What Was Almost Lost
Prior to World War II, the Ossolineum held hundreds of thousands of books, manuscripts, autographs and maps, many of which were the rarest of their kind. The material losses of the Ossolineum in Lwów (the Polish name for Lviv) can be somewhat quantified, but the intellectual loss was incalculable. The library survived in another form, in another city, in a new part of Poland. Today it is a storehouse of Polish culture in Wrocław (formerly Breslau, Germany). Meanwhile a new institution was created in the exact same place where the Ossolineum once stood, the Lviv National Vasyl Stefanyk Scientific Library of Ukraine. The library, like the city, became Ukrainian focused.  Nevertheless, it is something of a miracle that both Ukrainian and Polish intellectual traditions still survive at these institutions today. This would not have been possible without the immense legacy of the original Ossolineum and the strong vision of its founder, Józef Ossoliński, a man who had also lived through geo-political changes which his love of learning had managed to transcend.

Józef Maksymilian Ossoliński was the scion of Polish nobility. The Ossoliński family’s aristocratic roots stretched all the way back to the earliest days of the Polish Kingdom. Over the centuries they acquired estates across the eastern parts of the kingdom. One of these, Krzyżtopór, was home to the largest castle in Europe before the construction of Versailles. The family’s wealth and splendor was threatened by the late 18th century in one of the most turbulent periods in Polish history as the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth disappeared during three partitions. The Ossoliński family estates were now in lands ruled by the Austrian and Russian Empires. It was during these times that Józef Ossoliński came of age. Because of his homeland’s geopolitical situation Ossoliński developed hybrid loyalties, straddling the lines between Polish nationalism and adherence to Austrian rule.

Józef Maksymilian Ossoliński

Józef Maksymilian Ossoliński – the visionary who founded the Ossoliński Institute

A Gift Of Knowledge – Creating the Ossolineum
At the time when the Commonwealth suffered through its third and final partition in 1795, Ossoliński was living in Vienna where he was head of the Austrian Imperial Library. He was known to be a voracious reader and researcher with a love for learning that has rarely been surpassed in Polish history. Ossoliński was able to use his cleverness to great personal advantage, co-opting Austrian policies to expand his own personal library holdings. When Emperor Joseph II dissolved the monasteries, Ossoliński took the opportunity to expand his holdings through acquisition of many rare books and manuscripts. In his later years, he decided to transform his personal library into an institution to promote Polish literature, learning and history.

Ossoliński had earlier been involved in the reestablishment of the University of Lwów in Austrian ruled Galicia. This helped lead him to a decision years later that the city would become home to the Ossoliński National Institution (Ossolineum). To house the institution he acquired another asset from a shuttered monastery, an abandoned convent building. Within these walls, where spiritual enlightenment had once taken place, the enlightenment of intellect would now take precedence. Sadly Ossoliński did not live to see this happen. As a matter of fact, during the last years of his life he could not see at all. Ossoliński had lost his vision, but his love of learning was so great that he employed Polish students to read aloud to him. Ironically, this took place far from Lwów and Poland, Ossoliński lived out his finals days in Vienna where he died in 1826. The Ossolineum opened the next year.

The Ossolineum Institute in its pre-World War II heyday in Lwów

The Ossolineum Institute in its pre-World War II heyday in Lwów

From Polish Intellectual Resistance to Renaissance
At the time of its founding, the Ossolineum was an island of Polish culture beset by sweeping tides of Germanism. The Austrian authorities had imposed the German language on Polish Lwów. The city’s was given a German name, Lemberg. The language on public signage was changed from Polish to German. The professional classes were completely dominated by Germans. The Poles were reduced to second class status in a city where they held a majority. The Ossolineum acted as a bulwark of Polish intellectual resistance. This alarmed Austrian authorities to the point that they took harsh measures against the Ossolineum during its early years. A director and his closest associates were imprisoned for treasonous activities. At times the entire facility was shut down and catalogs of its holdings taken away.  During the Revolution of 1848, an Austrian general openly regretted that the building had not been subjected to artillery fire.

It was only in the late 1860’s, following the Austrian loss in the Austro-Prussian War and the Habsburgs historic compromise with Hungary, that Polish culture was finally given room to blossom in Galicia. The Ossolineum was in the vanguard of this Polish intellectual renaissance. Illustrious Polish aristocratic families, such as the Lubomirski’s, bequeathed their entire personal museum collections to the institution. A famous publishing house developed, known as the Ossolineum Press. World War One delayed progress, but this turned out to be only a temporary setback. During the interwar period, the Ossolineum’s holdings expanded to over 220,000 works with everything from rare tapestries to coins to the largest newspaper collection in Poland. It was an incredible accomplishment of Polish intellectual achievement, but then the World War II began and everything changed.

Vasyl Stefanyk Lviv's National Scientific Ukraine Library

Vasyl Stefanyk Library now on the former site of the National Ossoliński Institute

Worst Was Yet To Come – The Ossolineum on the Brink
In 1928 an article entitled “The Centenary of a Great Home of Research in Poland, The Ossolineum, 1828 – 1928” in The Slavonic Review by Roman Dybosko stated, “the Ossolineum, now entering, in a free and reunited Poland, on the second century of its existence, we behold – and I think must admire – a house which has outlasted the earthquakes of a tragic national history, and proudly stands as a monument to the power of self-sacrifice and endurance, in the service of high ideals of culture and progress.” The author wrote this a little too soon because the worst earthquakes, from both east and west, were yet to come.

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.

How A Resurrection Really Feels – Lviv’s Lychakiv Cemetery

The most instructive textbook covering the last two-hundred and twenty-five years of Eastern European history is not written on paper, but in stone. The western Ukrainian city of Lviv, home to some of the most atmospheric architecture in all of Europe, is also the location of one of its most fascinating necropolises, Lychakiv Cemetery. Cemeteries are built to memorialize the dead and Lychakiv is full of mournful statuary and sculptures, but it is also a place filled with the passions of life. These passions exhibited good and evil, idealism and radicalism in unwavering fervor to the most extreme ends. There are perpetrators buried here who were party to unspeakable crimes in the service of empire, royalism, nationalism, fascism and communism. There are victims buried here who suffered in the name of these same ideologies. Heroes and villains, the famous, infamous and anonymous all ended up together in Lychakiv. Their lives and deaths have become a lesson to the living of what human beings can become. A walk through Lychakiv is not just a stroll through the past two centuries of this fated city’s history. It is also a window into the soul of humanity, for better and worse.

You Will Never Walk Alone - Into Lviv's Past at Lychakiv Cemetary

You will never walk alone – into Lviv’s past at Lychakiv Cemetery

Where A Whole World Resides
The arched neo-Gothic entranceway to Lychakiv is a portal into a world of kaleidoscopic diversity. Plots and graves, tombs, chapels and mausoleums of every size, shape and configuration imaginable are packed together as thick as the foliage which consumes many of them. Many of these graves are architectural wonders in their own right. The juxtaposition of good and evil, vanished magnificence and depraved fanaticism can often be found interred and sometimes memorialized within a whisper’s distance of one another. Up and down uneven pathways, shaded by gigantic trees, illuminated by shafts of sunlight are the graves of Polish aristocrats and Soviet apparatchiks, Polish and Ukrainian nationalists, Ukrainian soldiers past and of the near present, soldiers of the SS Galician Division and the Red Army, all opposing each other in silence. Ukrainian and Polish literary heroes, Armenians, Orthodox acolytes, Greek Catholics, Roman Catholics and the Lwow Eaglets, that flower of Polish youth who fought for Lwow in the hopes and dreams of the Second Polish Republic. Victims of Fascism and Communism now rest side by side with little to distinguish them. For all of this haunting presence there is also the disturbing, ever present absence of Lviv’s once thriving Jewish community. And so it goes on and on. This is the way of Lychakiv, a way the world of Lemberg, Lwow, Lvov, Lviv once was and still is to a limited extent. The diversity of souls is much like itself, where patterns appear and disappear. A world where colleagues became enemies and cowards were turned into heroes, a space filled with dashed hopes and soaring dreams. Lychakiv is a place that is present inside all who live and breathe. This is where a whole world resides.

Stepping out of death and into life at Lychakiv

Stepping out of death and into life at Lychakiv

Beginnings Of An End – The Creation Of Lychakiv
Lychakiv, like all cemeteries is supposed to be about ends, but what separates it, is that it can cause an examination of the means that were used to achieve those ends. Yet this cemetery also had to have a beginning.  Despite its ancient and timeless feel its start occurred in neither medieval nor renaissance times. This seems a bit odd in a city that is known for its antiquated, rustic architectural aesthetics. Central cemeteries for the city’s dead were first conceived in the early modern age of the late 18th century. Up until its conception, the dead were buried adjacent to churches. The idea of large cemeteries away from the city’s urban areas was conceived to help protect the living from the dead. Bodies left in the open or given improper burials often lead to periodic epidemics which could demographically devastate the populace. At this time Lviv (then known by its German name Lemberg) was under the rule of the Austrian Habsburgs. They had taken control of Galicia in 1772. One usually does not relate cemeteries to modernity, but Lychakiv was a way to clean up and modernize Lviv. It would help bring the city up to standards of urban hygiene that were the rule in central and western Europe. In 1783 a decree was issued by Lviv’s authorities that banned burials within the city limits. Three years later, designated areas were set aside for burials, one of these was Lychakiv. In 1787 the first burials took place at what was then known as Lyczakowski Cemetary. The name was Polish, as were most of the inhabitants of the city at that time. Poland was in the process of being partitioned and would no longer exist as a political entity by the end of the 18th century. The city and cemetery were overseen by Lviv’s authorities. Many of these authorities would be Poles themselves, they continued to dominate the city even after Poland ceased to exist as a political entity.

In silences they speak - statuary outside a tomb in Lychakiv

In silences they speak – statuary outside a tomb in Lychakiv

Speaking In Silence
Death of empire, republic and ideology has been as much a part of life in Lviv, as the Lychakiv cemetery has been part of death in the city for over two centuries now. Poles may have been a majority in the city for much of this time, but they like so many others have now all but vanished from Lviv. This is nothing new or out of the ordinary for this place. No one ethnic group or nationality has been able to hold sway over Lviv in either living or dead form since Lychakiv came into existence. Just the same as no one group holds power over the past here. In this cemetery, permeated by so many silences, everyone seems to have a say. In Latin or Cyrillic, in German, Polish, Armenian, Ukrainian and Russian the names engraved in stone are what is left of the dreams, passions and folly from the vast waves of humanity who tried to control this astonishing city in an accursed region. Lychakiv today is a testament to the fleeting nature of power and passion. It exists, not so much to memorialize death, but to remember and contemplate life. Here in Lychakiv, is how a resurrection really feels.

Buried Beneath – Lviv’s Underground River: The Poltva

The old city center of Lviv seems to have it all. Medieval  and Baroque architectural wonders, a magnificent Neo- Renaissance opera house, cobblestone streets, fashionable coffee houses and eye popping, colorful buildings. This ensemble was deemed worthy of UNESCO World Heritage Site status. The cliché that you have to see it to believe it holds true for this marvelous city. The beauty, romance and delicious architecture also serves as a distraction. It keeps visitors from noticing the one thing that is actually missing in Lviv, flowing water. Search all over Lviv, but a river or a creek will not be found. This is quite strange, since the landscape surrounding the city is lush. A climb up Zamkova Hora (High Castle Hill), the city’s highest point offers a commanding view over the city, but no water source can be spied from this prominence. Where is the stream which quenches the city and the surrounding landscapes thirst?

The Poltva River - buried beneath Lviv

The Poltva River – buried beneath Lviv

The River That Gave Life To Lviv
A surface glance demonstrates that Lviv is an outlier among central and western Ukrainian cities when it comes to waterways. Kiev, Dnipropretrovsk and Zaporizhia were built up along the Dnieper River. Smaller cities like Chernivtsi and Ivano-Frankivsk are set on banks of the Prut and Bystrytsia Rivers. It is fascinating to imagine how Lviv could have grown to such size and stature without being on or near a river. Such a leap of imagination is not required, because Lviv is set on a river, one that is now buried just beneath the city. The Poltva River can neither be seen nor heard along the streets and squares of Lviv’s old town. There is no trace of its existence. This is deceptive because the river is still an important part of the city today, just as it has been since Lviv’s founding in the 13th century.

Medieval Lviv grew up along the banks of the Poltva, a short yet important river in western Ukraine. While the Poltva is a mere 60 kilometers in length, it drains over 200 creeks and streams before entering the western Bug River. It is hard to imagine the modern urban environment of Lviv once had a river flowing through the middle of it. The river was a lifeline for security, commerce and trade. The Poltva delineated the northern boundary of the city, its waters creating a natural moat. Ships would ply the river while bringing loads of goods from as far away as the Baltic Sea. Mills once lined the river banks. Conversely, the Poltva brought many natural, but undesirable things to the city in the form of disease. Its murky waters were a breeding ground for pestilence. Swarms of mosquitoes and flies were often accompanied by an unbearable stench. The fetid waters caused mildew and rot.

Vault of the Poltva River on Mickiewicz Square

Vault of the Poltva River on Mickiewicz Square (Credit: Lviv Historical Museum)

The Lifeblood Of A City Goes Underground – Burying The Poltva
By the 19th century Lviv was a fast growing hub city for the eastern fringes of the Habsburg Empire. As the city began to modernize, officials decided that something needed to be done with the Poltva. It had long caused public health problems, such as outbreaks of malaria. It was thus decided to encase and cover over the Poltva, routing the river through the city sewer system. By 1870, fifteen kilometers of the river flowing through the main part of the city had been covered. Despite World War, revolution and the city falling under the rule of multiple empires and nations, work on covering the Poltva proceeded apace. Just before the turn of the 20th century designs were vetted for a grand opera house in Lviv. Due to space concerns in the inner city it seemed all but impossible to locate the building in that area. The buildings designer, Zygmunt Gorgolewski, struck upon a novel idea. In his proposal, the Opera House would be located where the Poltva flowed, but the river would be covered over. The building would have a concrete rather than earthen foundation, which would allow the necessary stability.

Gorgolewski’s idea was a stunning success. In 1900 the magnificent new Grand Theater (known today as the Lviv Theatre of Opera And Ballet) was opened. There were reports that the building sunk in the years that followed its opening, but finally stabilized. Local legend says that the Poltva can be heard flowing from the orchestra pit of the opera house. The covering of the river throughout the greater Lviv area continued in the decades that followed. By the outbreak of the Second World War, 150 kilometers of the Poltva had been covered. Famously, the Poltva tunnels became a hiding place for a handful of Jews who had escaped the Nazis during the war. They survived by hiding in these tunnels and through the efforts of two Polish sewer maintenance workers Leopold Socha and Szczepek Wróblewski. The 2011 award winning film, In Darkness, by the Polish director Agnieska Holland was an award winning recreation about this story of survival in Lviv’s sewers. After the war ended work on covering the Poltva was renewed. By the end of the 20th century the river was completely covered throughout nearly all of the Lviv area.

The Poltva River outside of Lviv as it looks today

The Poltva River outside of Lviv as it looks today (Credit: Mykola Stepaniv)

An Invisible Presence
The Poltva River is now underground, an invisible presence in the life of the city. Modernity demanded that the river be subdued. Technology and the minds of man completed the process. What once gave life to Lviv has been reduced to a collection point for rainwater and sewage flowing through a labyrinth of tunnels. The river still exists, only now it is out of sight and out of mind. Imperceptible in the consciousness of the city it helped create.

Ukraine Is At War – Things You Do Not Want To Know About Eastern Europe (#2)

Every time I tell someone that I recently traveled to Ukraine they suddenly go quiet and look at me with raised eyebrows. In their facial expressions I can tell what they really want to say, “Are you crazy?” Before they say anything though, I mention that I was in Lviv, that sparkling cultural and economic capital of the western Ukraine, hundreds of miles away from the fighting in the eastern Ukraine. I tell them that Lviv is in the “European” part of Ukraine. Of course, they have little idea of what that actually means. “European” in the context of Ukraine is code for a safe and civilized part of the country. The truth is that despite bad governance, endemic corruption and a reputation for lawlessness, for the traveler almost anywhere in Ukraine with the exception of the Donbas region is really safe, much safer than almost any American inner city.

The Ukrainian flag flies over the Ratusha (Town Hall) in Lviv

The Ukrainian flag flies over the Ratusha (Town Hall) in Lviv

Lviv (& Ukraine) Looks West – War Comes To The East
For those who have traveled extensively in Eastern Europe, they know that the city of Lviv is the epicenter of both Ukrainian nationalism and support for joining the European Union. These two ideas, on the face of it would seem to be incompatible. After all, nationalism is usually aligned with a yearning for sovereignty. Ukraine is already a sovereign nation and wants to keep it that way vis-a vis-Russia. For many years, the majority of Ukrainians in the western portion of the nation have favored joining the European Union. They would gladly give up a bit of sovereignty in the hopes of prosperity and security. Following the Russian takeover of Crimea and their continued aggression in Eastern Ukraine it is hardly surprising that the central portion of the country, especially the capital of Kiev also views the EU with favor. The European Union gives Ukraine the best opportunity for collective security. They cannot hope to defeat the nuclear arms wielding Russian military forces in a straight up one on one contest, but association (or membership) with the European Union would provide them a counterweight which might keep the Russian bear at bay.

Presently though, Ukraine is at war. It is a war between west and east, between western values and Putinism and most tragically between fellow Ukrainians whatever their ethnic or linguistic backgrounds. It can be called a border war, a guerilla war, a rebel war or Putin’s war, but Ukraine is at war with itself and also with Russia. There are those who will say that Ukraine is really at war with the Donetsk People’s Republic. At times over the past year that has been true, but this past summer when the “People’s Republic” was left to fight alone, the Ukrainian armed forces pushed them back. If not for Russian support the rebellion would most likely have been snuffed out and the whole sordid conflict ended. Tragically, the opposite has occurred. The war looks to continue and may well escalate. Slowly, the European Union, the United States and the popular media have come to recognize that this is a war. It is difficult to get specific figures for the casualty totals, but estimates now are given of over 5,000 people killed with many more wounded. The fighting continues to escalate with no end in sight.

A poignant reminder at the Taras Shevchenko Monument in Lviv

A poignant reminder at the Taras Shevchenko Monument in Lviv

Signs of Life, Signs of War – States of Tension
What does traveling in Ukraine while is at war mean for the traveler? A state of limbo is pretty much what I saw and felt in Lviv this past December. The war is there and it is not there. On one hand, there were men in combat fatigues at the train station getting ready for deployment to the war zone. On the other hand, people were still going to work, shops were open and there was even a Christmas market in the city center. Of course what else are people going to do? They have to go on working and living. Day to day life only stops during a modern war when the shelling and shooting comes to the front door. For Lviv the war is still hundreds of kilometers away.  Nonetheless, there are many signs of war in the city. They include pictures of Vladimir Putin with a Hitler moustache, a young lady asking for donations to support Ukrainian soldiers and memorial wreaths in the color of the Ukrainian flag laid at the Taras Shevchenko Monument in the city center. A man with no legs holds a cup to collect coins from passersby only a stone’s throw away from the famed Opera House. Was he a wounded war veteran or an invalid? Makeshift memorials have cropped up at the Lychakivkse Cemetery honoring those native sons of Lviv, many of them volunteers, killed fighting in the Donbas.

Then there are signs that the war is also felt on a much more personal level. I saw long lines in many of the banks, with none of the customers looking happy. More than once I noticed people feeding Euros into machines at banks, trusting their deposits to a machine rather than a human. There was always a husband or wife, friend or relative standing very close to them while they did this. Perhaps they were being guarded not so much from their fellow citizens, but from bank employees. The banks are running exceedingly low on Euros and dollars. Ukraine’s currency, the hryvna, has plummeted as the war in the east drags on. There is also a weird sense of strained normalcy that is just as disconcerting. A nation is at war, the people are struggling and the traveler is perfectly fine. The city and nation can use the income from tourism, thus they put their best foot forward. The citizens are helpful and pleasant. The hotels and restaurants are extremely cheap by western standards, but what kind of traveler wants to benefit from a nation’s misery?  A strange feeling of quiet guilt consumed me while I was there.

In memory and recognition of those who have fought for Ukraine

In memory and recognition of those who have fought for Ukraine

Life & Death In Lviv
This was the situation I experienced in relatively prosperous and cosmopolitan Lviv. It made me wonder what it must be like further to the east, closer to the war zone. The signs of war in Eastern Ukraine must be more visceral and violent. Nonetheless in Lviv the war is leaving its own scars. The bodies are being brought back home, volunteers for the army keep heading to the train station, the war continues. Who knows where and when it will end? Life and death go on. An entire city is in a state of perpetual tension, waiting for something horrible, miraculous or matter of fact to happen.


Collapse & Creation By Committee – Lviv’s Ratusha: A City & Its Lost Symbols

It is a truism in government that if you want to avoid getting something done than form a committee. And so it was regarding the state of Lviv’s Ratusha (Town Hall) in 1826. In that year, there was concern that the Ratusha – which stood in the middle of Ploscha Rynok (Market Square) – suffered from structural problems. A committee was formed to study the problem, which they did with chilling incompetence. Like so many committees, they came to the conclusion that doing next to nothing was the preferred option. They even went so far as to proclaim that the Ratusha was in good enough shape to last another hundred years. They were soon proved deadly wrong.

Calamity – An Icon Comes Crashing Down
The committee’s lone recommendation involved opting for minor, superficial upgrades to the exterior, a sort of architectural beautification project. Unfortunately, adding decoration to the facade turned out not to be the answer for more critical problems. Once that decision was made, the committee then started to haggle over the cost of the proposed cosmetic surgery. These proceedings were suddenly interrupted by a town official who rushed in to the meeting and informed the committee that the Ratusha had just collapsed. Several people had been killed, including the city’s beloved bugler. Lemberg (the official name of the city during that time as it was under Austrian rule) was in shock. The committee looked foolish and self-serving.

Model of the Lemberg Town Hall as it looked in 1826

Model of the Lemberg Town Hall as it looked in 1826 at the time of its collapse                (Model: Lviv History Museum; Image: zobacz zasady)

It is both ironic and telling that the officials had chosen not to hold their meeting in the town hall, which subsequently collapsed. Perhaps they had their own doubts about the structure’s foundational weaknesses, if so, than they had been complicit in a crime of willful neglect. What had caused the collapse? The Ratusha was basically three different buildings of varying dimensions that had been fused together into one. This seemingly unwieldy, yet quite elegant design, included a tower that had been added in the previous century. At its tip was a crowned lion set atop a dome, the tower underneath had a gallery of eight pillars shaped like lions. It was this tower which collapsed sending nine stone lions, along with the rest of the tower crashing 58 meters (190 feet) on to the square. Following this cataclysm, the remaining part of the Ratusha was deemed beyond repair.

Lemberg Ratusha Collapses

An engraving of the Lemberg Ratusha’s Collapse in 1826

Monstrosity – A Huge & Hideous Chimney
The city officials in Lemberg were now tasked with the construction of a new Ratusha. Quite understandably public confidence in the city’s leadership was lacking at this point. It was here that another truism of government came into play, use a crisis as an opportunity. The city’s leadership took the opportunity to have the next Ratusha designed in a very different style than its predecessor. It took eight years to erect what was to be the new and supposedly improved town hall. Structurally the new building would turn out to be fine. After all it is still standing today, nearly two centuries later. Aesthetically though, the new Ratusha was lacking. Here was an opportunity to impose an Austrian influence upon the most celebrated public space in the city. The result was a huge structure of overbearing prominence at the center of the square, conspicuous by its girth rather than style.

The new Ratusha was done in Viennesse Classicist style, reflecting Austrian ideals. Soon citizens of Lemberg were heard to quip, that the new town hall was “a huge and hideous chimney.” Huge it was and still is today, with no less than nine floors and 146 rooms. The best that can still be said about its design is that it is really nothing special. Not good, not bad, just sort of there. Perhaps if the rest of Rynok Square and the historic center of Lemberg had not been so strikingly beautiful, no one would have much noticed. The best thing about the Ratusha as it stands today is the view from the top. After climbing an exhausting three hundred stairs, visitors get an incredible bird’s eye view of the city. It says something about the building’s aesthetics that it’s most memorable aspect comes from the top. There visitors are looking away from rather than at the building. From this vantage point, the Ratusha is hardly noticeable. Then again what would more could be expected from the same city leadership that had failed to anticipate the calamitous state of the previous Ratusha. They of course had been the main decision makers when it came to the new one.

Ratusha (Town Hall) in Lviv

Ratusha (Town Hall) in Lviv – locals once referred to it as a huge and hideous chimney (Credit: Lestat (Jan Mehlich) –

Sculptures Can Be Recreated – People & Personality Cannot
This version’s structural qualities have been problematic as well. In 1851, less than two decades after it had been erected, the new Ratusha’s clock tower collapsed. Fortunately, this did not mean the wholesale replacement of the entire structure. The clock tower was soon replaced. The newest version of the Ratusha has stood the test of time, as two World Wars, communism and fascism have failed to make much of a dent in the building. One of the nicer more noble adornments on the present Ratusha, are two lions holding shields set on each side of the entrance to the building. Having the lions only a few steps from the square ensures that there will be no repeat of lions crashing to their ruin, as happened one hundred eighty-eight years before. The lion is the symbol of Lviv and something of a legendary guardian of the city, but in this case the city has safeguarded its lions, at least those ones made of stone.

Lion holding a shield with the coat of arm of Lviv outside the Ratusha (Town Hall)

Lion holding a shield with the coat of arm of Lviv outside the Ratusha (Town Hall) –           (Credit: Бахтина Дарья)

The lions could be replicated in stone, but the flesh and blood bugler never returned to the Ratusha after the last one’s fatal fall in 1826. Historically the bugler’s role included watching the horizon from on high, in order to warn the city of any would be invaders. The bugler also kept watch for fires, sounding the alarm if one was spied. The bugler’s call had been part of the daily ritual of life, providing the sound of security each hour for decades on end. When the new Ratusha was completed, the bugler position was left vacant. As the years, turned into decades, the bugler was all but forgotten. Modernity made the bugler’s traditional role obsolete.

Lviv's Old Town as viewed from the tower at the top of the Ratusha (Town Hall)

Lviv’s Old Town as viewed from the tower at the top of the Ratusha (Town Hall)                 (Credit: Attila Varga)

Last Call of the Bugler – A City Loses A Symbol
In a sense the bugler was the last casualty of the fall of the old Ratusha. The bugler’s role was individual and superseded officialdom. The bugler never needed to form a committee while making split second decisions that might decide the life and death of the city. Instead a bugler relied on instinct to discern signs of danger. It is a pity that the city committee did not ask the bugler’s advice when they decided that the old Ratusha was in good repair. The bugler might have informed them otherwise, but then again, the committee might have to take action and be decisive, the very opposite of why committees are formed. In this case, as in so many others inaction and indecisiveness had fatal consequences.

To Watch The World & Yourself Fade Away – Banksa Stiavnica

When you end up in the middle of a place you never could have imagined, in a town whose name you have never heard of, when you learn fascinating details about the place that they probably should have taught you in history class but never did and never will, then you know you are in Banska Stiavnica.

In Defiance of Disbelief – All the Banska Stiavnica’s
There are countless Banska Stiavnica’s and you never even noticed them. They can be discovered hiding throughout Eastern Europe. That’s because Banska Stiavnica is representative of all the Gyors and Soprons, the Sibius and Clujs, the Veliko Tarnovas and Plovdivs, the Lvivs and Uzhhorods that exist outside both historical and travel consciousness. They are all uniquely distinct cities, both large and small. Secret finds and fascinating surprises that capture, first your imagination and then steal your heart. They punch above their weight in atmospherics and aesthetics. Delightful in the way they soar through you and then seep back into your memory many months later. They are the delights of the selfish traveler, all yours and only yours because the people you keep company with back home would not even begin to consider visiting them.

One World Fades Into Another - A scene looking up and out from a corner in Banska Stiavnica

One World Fades Into Another – A scene looking up and out from a corner in Banska Stiavnica

Banska Stiavnica is a hallmark example for these types of places. It has a quaint grandeur all its own. This little city, with a population of barely ten thousand, has an outsized history which is betrayed by its current size and lack of prominence. A potted history of Banska Stiavnica goes something like this: It was a mining mecca starting in the early Middle Ages. First declared a royal free town in the mid-13th century by King Bela IV of Hungary (Hungarians call the city Selmecbanya), the town grew quickly into one of the most important mining communities in the world. Skilled German miners (Germans call the city Chemnitz) were invited by the Hungarian kings to provide the expertise and labor to excavate the vast silver and gold reserves in the area. The city enjoyed a series of recurrent booms spurred on by the ingenuity of miners and engineers.

Historic & Forgotten Firsts – The Hidden History of a Five Hundred Year Boom
Among the historic firsts that happened at Banska Stiavnica include the first use of steam driven mechanisms to expunge water from mining areas and the world’s first polytechnic university. Incredibly the good times ebbed and flowed for over five hundred years. By the late 18th century Banska Stiavnica was the third largest city in the Kingdom of Hungary, ahead of even Buda and Pest in population at that time. Strangely enough, while the population was at its pinnacle with 40,000-odd residents in 1782, the mines had already been in terminal decline for several decades. Lacking economic diversification, Banska Stiavnica soon faded into obscurity.

Stary Zamok (Old Castle) in Banska Stiavnica

Stary Zamok (Old Castle) in Banska Stiavnica

The city’s rich (quite literally) past is still physically represented by the superb architectural wonders straddling its serpentine streets. There are two castles within a ten minute walk of one another. The most impressive of these, Stary Zamok (Old Castle), is a three nave Romanesque style, part spiritual, part military fortress. What had started as a church had been fortified to fend off the Turks during the 16th century. It is an intriguing synthesis of the religious and the martial. In Namestie sv Trojice (Holy Trinity Square), at the city’s heart, stands a very large Baroque plague column. It attracts the eyes and humbles the heart, a monument to those who suffered the scourges of centuries past. Either side of the square is lined with Romanesque and Renaissance era burgher’s houses. Further afield the colorful buildings continue.

The Baroque Plague Column in Namestie sv Trojice (Holy Trinity Square)

The Baroque Plague Column in Namestie sv Trojice (Holy Trinity Square)

A Lifetime’s Worth of Discovery – Glory of the Faded & Forgotten
The city’s setting, in an expansive wooded valley with hills rising on several sides, lends an air of dramatic natural beauty. Taking it all in, the traveler gets the sense of a deep and penetrating history that pervades Banska Stiavnica. It is enough to make the traveler want to settle in for what might become a lifetime long sojourn of sipping coffee and reading historical tomes in sleepy cafés. Another alternative is just as inviting, to use Banska Stiavnica as a stimulus to continue teasing out all the hidden in plain sight places that lie in between the more well-known places on the map of Eastern Europe. How many other Banska Stiavnica’s are out there, likely a lifetime’s worth. For those who say that everything has been discovered, Banska Stiavnica and cities like it put the lie to that cliché. Discovery is not about some vague historical personage stumbling on the New World. Instead discovery is something deeply personal, finding a place where you find yourself.

The crazy thing is that for the completely curious, those who cannot wander far enough, who have to keep pushing into the deeper recesses of the atlas, there are always going to be more remote spaces and unimaginable places with semi-pronounceable names to discover. The idea that they are all out there waiting, is enough to set the pulses of wayward travelers racing. They are an avenue into a wider world, stretching across thousands of invisible kilometers, space and time captured by a wandering heart. True discovery lurks in these in-between spaces. The places you were never required to know or consider but forever exist in a state of suspended anonymity.

A window into the present and a reflection of the past - the allure of Banska Stiavnica

A window into the present and a reflection of the past – the allure of Banska Stiavnica

Stay (Faraway, So Close)
There is this idea with travel that if you go long enough and far enough, you will eventually have seen it all or at the very least exhausted your curiosity. Then abruptly the affair will end and you will retire to a cubicle and life of disciplined domesticity, climb the ladder into middle management, live a nice quiet life sleeping in on Saturdays and one day telling the grandkids you visited Banska Stiavnica. They will look at you like the crazy old man you have become, dreaming of the days when you owed the world nothing and tramped into parts unknown. There is another way this comfortingly sad tale might end. What if you went to Banska Stiavnica and never left. Decided to stay there and watch the world along with your life slowly grow old and familiar until, like this slumbering old mining city, it finally fades away.