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.

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.