Running Into Problems – The First Morning In Lviv:  Dawning Of A Darkness (Travels In Eastern Europe #48)

On my first morning in Lviv I woke up with one thought on my mind, I was late, late for my morning run. This was understandable since my train from Krakow had not arrived until almost 11:00 p.m. the previous evening. I did not arrive at the hostel until just before the clock struck midnight and did not fall asleep until a couple of hours later. When I awoke it was mid-morning, hours past my usual dawn run time. It took me a good ten minutes just to figure out where I was at, the disorienting sensation of coming into a new country late at night had yet to wear off. It took me minutes just to put on trainers and sweats for the run. As I walked down the stone staircase which exited the hostel I was overcome by fear. An unsettling question suddenly came to mind, what awaited me outside on the streets of Lviv. A ridiculous notion perhaps, but this was my first visit to Ukraine, a land best known for revolutions, endemic corruption and bad governance. What would I find on the other side of the large, wooden door that stood in the way of entry or exit from this building? I had no idea.

Obstacle course - people and traffic dodging in Lviv

Obstacle course – people and traffic dodging in Lviv

Entering A New World – Uncharted Course
When I had arrived the night before, the city was shrouded in a supernatural fog. The taxi I took from the train station to the hostel was consumed by mist, giving me the sensation that I was being led through a mystical tunnel into another world. Now the morning sun was beaming through the windows and I could hear Lviv just beyond the door. Fear and attraction gripped me. I had no planned running route, knew next to nothing about the street patterns or city layout. My goal was to run for an hour. Where this would occur was a mystery to me. I wondered if this might be my final run, if fate would finally catch up to me in Ukraine. Paradoxically, this thought propelled me out the door. Fatalism offers an alternative path to destiny. It was time to enter a new world, one unlike any I had ever known.

The first thing I did was run the wrong way and it would not be the last time. Within 30 seconds I was running in place at a crosswalk on Prospekt Svobody, the pulsing heart of Lviv, surrounded by groups of pedestrians all looking to cross the street. Judging by their dress, the majority of these Lvivians were either on their way to work or school. Most of them managed to ignore the strange looking American in their midst, bouncing up and down to the internal rhythm of exercise. I have scarcely felt so vulnerable, a byproduct of what those around me likely defined as strange or foolish behavior. Prospekt Svobody was a congested mass of people and traffic. There was little hope of trying to make an illicit crossing. I did not trust Ukrainian drivers to slow or stop for me. When the light changed I picked my way through the crowd to the other side. Only to find that I would have to endure several more crossings.

Following An Obsession –  Crossing Over
I could have decided to stay in the center of Prospekt Svobody, running circles around park benches and old men on their morning strolls, but I wanted to find somewhere that provided a bit of privacy. What I needed was a park, what I needed even more was a plan. That should have been the logical first step when I awoke that morning. Unfortunately, logic is often the first casualty of obsession. I made a snap decision to weave my way through the foot traffic and head into the area known as the Halytskyi District. Approaching crosswalks, I used extra caution. The traffic was chaotic and the sidewalks slender. I was the only person mad enough to go jogging in the city during morning rush hour. It took intense concentration to keep from running into pedestrians or getting run over by reckless drivers. I never considered that I was the one being reckless. The entire time I was distracted by the Cyrillic lettering written on signs, buildings and advertisements. Even though I had previously been in Bulgaria and Serbia where Cyrillic was the alphabet of choice, nearly everything I saw that morning in Lviv was written in Cyrillic script. This made Lviv seem more foreign and exotic.

Eventually I began to make the slow climb up Mykoly Kopernyka street. At the time, I was not aware that Lviv’s city center is situated atop a stretch of the Poltva river. Located in a valley which is imperceptible due to the surrounding urban environment. But the further one gets from the center, the more likely they are to encounter hills. I soon spied some greenery which made my pulse race faster, unlike my running pace, which was suffering from travel lag. There was a steeply forested hillside which I hoped would prove to be a park, saving me from eternal sidestepping along Lviv’s slender sidewalks. Unfortunately, the hoped-for park proved elusive as the greenery turned out to be a clump of woods, but I managed to find a rough path. Scrambling up a steep hillside, I nearly plowed over a man attempting to walk his dog on the twenty-five percent incline.

Running into problems - remnants of The Citadel in Lviv

Running into problems – remnants of The Citadel in Lviv

Running In Circles – Discovering The Citadel: Present & Past
Reaching the summit, I found my way to a clearing occupied by a large brick, circular structure. This was about as good as I was going to get on this run. There was enough of a path that I could run circles around the structure. So that is what I did for the next half an hour. I wondered if this old, worn roundhouse was some sort of obsolete water storage tower. Later I would discover the horrifying truth. The structure was once part of an old Austro-Hungarian imperial fortress known as the Citadel. After the Nazis occupied Lviv (known by its Polish name of Lwow at the time) in the summer of 1941 they used it and other existing buildings within the old fortress to house Soviet prisoners of war who they systematically starved to death. Thousands upon thousands died within the walls that I ran circles around that morning. This was just one of many instances in the deep-rooted darkness of the city’s past. Lviv would turn out to be symptomatic of Ukraine, a place where you can never run away from problems.

Svobody Strasse – Viennese Lviv: Ramparts, Promenades & Prospekts (Lviv: The History of One City Part 47)

In the late 18th century the nerve center of Lviv began to shift. Rynok Square which had once been the city’s commercial and cultural heart slowly lost its centrality to city life. The elegant baroque tenement houses that proscribed its boundaries were still just as beautiful as they had ever been, but the merchants and guilds that had called them home for centuries, exercising power from their immaculately adorned halls, could only watch helplessly as Austrian officials began to remake the city into a Habsburg one. Most of the city walls which had ringed the old town, segregating the haves from the have-nots, were torn down. Now the city’s expansion could radiate outward, the limits of Lviv (Lemberg to the Austrians) were seemingly limitless, the barriers to growth both physical and mercantile were disbanded. The city was administratively restructured into five districts. The insular, monopolistic special interests that had held the reins of power for so long were disbanded or fell under Imperial control in just a few years.

The Austrians had a new “enlightened” vision of what Lviv must become. This meant remaking the city in their image. Building projects would now be approved and administered by a centralized bureaucracy. A new center for the city would rise in the area that today is Prospekt Svobody. This area had formerly been used as a city garden and park like green space. Now it would become the chief rival to Rynok Square (Ploscha Rynok), a public space for a growing city, a place for the masses to socialize and speculate, a city that would reflect imperial ambitions. The reach of the Austrian empire would now be extended into the forlorn frontier of Europe.

Lviv's main promenade in 1853 - before the Poltva River was covered

Lviv’s main promenade in 1853 – before the Poltva River was covered

Promenading the Poltva
The main focal point for Lviv’s makeover was where the Poltva River ran adjacent to the western side of the city walls. In 1776, a scant four years after Austria took control of the city, these walls were torn down.  This area was known as the Hetman’s Ramparts, their destruction opened up new possibilities to expand the city. The ensuing rubble was used to fill in a large defensive embankment that had guarded the area near Saints Peter and Paul Garrison (former Jesuit) Church. This new beginning was not without its problems. The backfill used to fill the embankment proved to be highly unstable and prone to collapse. Such a major public thoroughfare demanded safety and stability. With characteristic Teutonic efficiency the Austrians managed to overcome this problem. Smooth, parallel streets were placed along the eastern and western banks of the Poltva. A promenade akin to the glacis in Vienna was constructed. It was given a thoroughly Austrian name, Karl Ludwig Strasse.  Lviv was being westernized, as the Austrians attempted to bring order and structure to what they saw as a quasi-Oriental outpost.

A series of arched bridges soon spanned the Poltva and poplar trees were planted to line the promenade. Lviv now had its own mini Ringstrasse, with it would come a sense of belonging to something greater than weary, downtrodden Galicia. This all sounds positively romantic. It is easy to imagine women in long, colorful dresses covered in floral patterns, strolling along the promenade twirling pastel parasols. While they walk arm and arm with their husbands dressed in their Sunday best suits, carrying brass tipped canes and sporting bowler hats. There was much of this, but the truth was also quite literally messy. The Poltva was fetid, teeming with sewage. The smell could be overwhelming and created a less than healthy environment.  Commercial businesses in the area were filled with speculators. Loan sharks and confidence men proliferated.

Postcard of the promenade in 1905 - present-day Prospekt Svobody

Postcard of the promenade in 1905 – present-day Prospekt Svobody

Falling Upward: Lviv Unlike Itself
Both the comforts and vices of modernity were on full display.  A new city was born as the center of economic and social gravity moved close to the banks of the Poltva. The promenade became the throbbing heart of what was fast becoming a modern city, one whose population would come to be measured in the hundreds of thousands. In 1871, one side of Karl Ludwig Strasse was renamed Hetmańska, in honor of the Polish Great Crown Hetman Stanislaw Jablonowski, while the other side retained its name. Near the end of the 19th century the Poltva would be covered. It was not so much a river anymore as a culvert. The initial reason for the siting of the city was now hidden by concrete. Nature, in the form of flower beds and several species of trees were added to the urban landscape. In one sense, the promenade was nature made over in man’s image. Grand buildings, such as the Skarbek Theater (Maria Zankovetska Theater) and the Museum of Industry (Museum of Ethnography and Arts and Crafts), were constructed.

Lviv, as the administrative center for the quixotically named Kingdom of Galicia and Lodomeria, was transformed into a showpiece for the Austrian provincial administration. Here was a vision of Habsburg grandeur that happily promoted imperial interests. This was a representation of industriousness with a human face, an imposition of the Habsburgs enlightened self-interest. Here is what the empire did for its citizens, now all they had to do was believe. On a more troubling note, the new center of Lviv could hopefully obscure the dire poverty and endemic hand to mouth subsistence that was the miserable lot for the overriding majority of the province’s citizens. A smoke and mirror substitute for broad prosperity.

Early 20th century photo of the main promenade in Lviv

Early 20th century photo of the main promenade in Lviv

Center Staged – Where The Heart Beats Strongest 
The destruction of the western side of the Old City Walls and that area’s successful conversion, from ramparts to a public promenade and commercial center, can be seen in the fact that in present day Lviv this is still the city’s heart. It is where locals and tourists intermingle. It is a place where pedestrian and automobile traffic competes most fiercely, thousands jostle each day for urban elbow room. It is a public space where the multitudes come to stroll, while just a stone’s throw away business and commerce carries on. It is the place where Lviv’s major protests have taken place on multiple occasions over the past 25 years, where its citizens have found the courage to confront the Soviet legacy. Prospekt Svobody today, like Karl Ludwig Strasse during the 19th century, is Lviv at its most modern and European, filled with energy and possibility, freedom and dynamism.

Mozart In Lviv – Grasping For Greatness, Discovering Love (Lviv: The History of One City Part 38)

There is an odd symmetry to the fact that Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s life and music is most often identified with Vienna and Austria, while his son, Franz Xaver Mozart’s musical career took place in the obscurity of Galicia and Lviv. The son headed off to the most far flung region of the Habsburg Empire, in an effort to both escape and try to live up to his father’s legacy. This was a leap of liberation and desperation.  When he arrived in Galicia, the province had been part of the empire for less than forty years. It was a cultural netherworld, just the place for a Mozart of lesser talents to try and find his own way. Far from the refined music scene and critical hothouse of Vienna, Franz Xaver went in search of artistic brilliance. What he found was paradoxical, artistic failure and the love of his life.

Franz Xaver Mozart in 1825

Franz Xaver Mozart in 1825 – he spent much of his adult life in Lviv (Credit: Karl Gottlieb Schweikart)

A Failure of Epic Expectations
When Franz Xaver Mozart was four months old his father died. He would have no memory of the man who bequeathed to the world some of the greatest music ever written. A bit of the father’s musical talent was passed on to his youngest child, but no one could ever match the elder Mozart’s creative genius. That certainly did not stop the son from devoting a much of his life to trying. His efforts would only meet with limited success. Despite his creative limitations, Franz Xaver was groomed from an early age by his mother Constanze to follow in his father’s footsteps. His early musical training came from none other than the great composer Joseph Haydn. At the tender age of six he was on stage in Prague for his first performance, singing the aria from his father’s opera The Magic Flute. When he was fourteen, he gave a piano recital in Vienna in honor of Haydn on the famous composer’s birthday. While the performance was successful, one review offered a prescient warning that “may he (Franz Xaver) not forget that for now the name Mozart will inspire leniency, in the future it will entail great expectations.”

At some point during his formative years, Constanze Mozart had Franz Xaver’s name changed to that of his father. Henceforth he would also be known as Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart Junior. The weight of carrying his father’s name and legacy forward was an incredible burden for a young man with limited gifts. He was musically talented, but not a genius. As long as he lived in Vienna, the son was destined to be forever compared with his father. In an attempt to allow his own creative instincts to flourish, Franz Xaver decided to try his luck in the farthest reaches of the Imperial lands. At the age of seventeen he moved to the remote village of Podkamien (Pidkamin, Ukraine), in the empire’s poorest province, Galicia. He accepted a job offer teaching piano to the daughters of a wealthy Polish noble. The pay was excellent with a nice salary, in addition to food and lodging. He was now far from the glittering refinement and critical focus of the Imperial capital, but he was also far removed from the newest musical trends, such as the emergence of Romanticism.

Franz Xaver spent four hours each day teaching and the rest of his time stultified by the repressive creative environment of a rural backwater. He alluded to this in a letter written to a friend a year after his arrival. Franz Xaver stated that, “he would perhaps not feel so much the comical contrast between Vienna and a desolate Polish village, if I did not have to be completely deprived of the pleasure of seeing my friends, of hearing good music and of reading the journals and intellectual productions that deal with my own art…” It was not long before he was on the move again to another rural locale in Galicia. This time he gained employment teaching music to the daughters of a leading Habsburg provincial official in the town of Burshtyn. The outcome was much the same, with Franz Xaver mired in a creative stupor. This led him to uproot once again. In 1813 he moved to Lviv, the largest city by far in eastern Galicia. Culturally it was no Vienna, but did offer a more vibrant artistic scene. Franz Xaver would spend most of the next twenty-five years of his life in Lviv.

Franz Xaver Mozart

Franz Xaver Mozart – also known as Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart Jr.

Threesome – Marriages & Affairs of Convenience
During his time in Lviv, Mozart’s life had less to do with music and everything to do with romance. Franz Xaver’s entire life was proscribed by two needs, trying to emulate his father’s musical genius and staying as close as possible to the love of his life, Josephine. He met the latter after being hired by her husband, Ludwig Cajetan von Baroni-Cavalcabò, to give piano lessons to their daughters. Baroni-Cavalcabo, the Habsburg Government’s Chief Councillor in Lviv, was much older than his wife and their marriage was one of social convenience. Franz-Xaver and the beautiful Josephine fell deeply in love. They spent many hours alone rehearsing for musical performances that were to be hosted by the family. Their affection grew through the years and Franz-Xaver stayed as close to her as possible. He kept an apartment close to the present day location of the Les Kurbas Theater, at the time just west of the still uncovered Poltva River. The only extended periods he spent away from her were two attempts at making a fortune on concert tours. In this way he hoped to provide Josephine with a lifestyle and social standing that would allow the couple to marry. It was not to be. His musical ability lacked the genius of his father.

Franz Xaver’s need to stay near Josephine in Lviv, inadvertently led to the stagnation of his artistic development. While the new era of Romanticism was blossoming in Vienna, Franz Xaver was stuck in the past, trying to recreate his father’s magic. While his creative struggles with music usually led to mediocrity, he did have a notable success in Lviv’s musical development. He spent several years conducting a successful choral group with hundreds of amateur singers known as the Brotherhood of St. Cecilia. This eventually led to the creation of Lviv’s first music school. A Mozart had made a name for himself in Lviv, unfortunately few would remember it then or now. The one thing Franz Xaver took away from the city was his love for Josephine, which continued up to the very end of his life. As for his legacy in Lviv, it began to dissipate as soon as he left. A small plaque on the wall at St. Yura’s Cathedral is the only thing commemorating his time in the city.

Grave of Franz Xaver Mozart

Grave of Franz Xaver Mozart in Karlovy Vary Czech Republic – there are no monuments or memorials to Mozart in Lviv (Credit: Juandev)

Deathbed Impressions – Soul Mates
Franz Xaver would spend the last weeks of his life at the spa town of Karlovy Vary in Bohemia, hoping to find a cure for what would turn out to be a fatal stomach ailment. When his condition worsened, Josephine traveled to Karlovy Vary so she could be at his bedside. She was the one person who always thought of him, remembered him and was with him in his final hours. Franz Xaver’s quest to become a famous composer and performer had met with failure, but through that quest he found something deeper and more meaningful. In Lviv he had found Josephine and together they had found love.

Comtesse de Keller

A love like this – Comtesse de Keller (Credit: Alexandre Cabanel)


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.

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.