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

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

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

A sense of direction in Lviv

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

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

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

The Logo Says It All

The Logo Says It All

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

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

Waiting on the future in Lviv

Waiting on the future in Lviv

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

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.

Lviv: A Stranger Following (On The Trail Of The Golden Horseshoe: Part One)

It is a surreal feeling to come face to face with your past. A past that you hardly remember and really have no reason to recall. On a day that was supposed to be all about something new, I found myself confronted with someone I had briefly met four years before. It was a sunny and crisp autumn morning last November in Lviv as I stood outside a building at 2 Cathedral Square (Ploscha Katedralna). This was supposed to be the meeting place for the Golden Horseshoe Tour. A guided tour that would take me to visit Olesko, Pidhirtsi and Zolochiv castles in western Ukraine. The building I stood in front of was not yet open, no one else was around and it was almost 8:00 a.m. I started to get a little worried since it was already the tail end of the shoulder season for castle tours. Perhaps no one else had signed up. The tour might have been canceled, but how was I to know. Then slowly a woman began to walk toward me. Her hair and clothing was a bit disheveled and she had a sleepy eyed, languid look. There was something about her that was strangely familiar. An odd sense of déjà vu came over me. I had seen this woman before, but where. Slowly it began to dawn on me.

Townhouses in Lviv's Rynok Square

Townhouses in Lviv’s Rynok Square – cast in a different light (Credit: Бахтина Дарья)

Time Changes Everything – Except For Memories
The tour I had signed up for was organized by Old City Hostel, the place I had stayed at on my first trip to Lviv in September 2011. The same sleepy eyed woman had been working behind the front desk when I checked in at midnight on a foggy autumn evening four years before. Other than a taxi driver, she was the first person I had met in Lviv and the first one that spoke English, albeit quite badly. What made her memorable was her perpetual dreamy eyed look, as though she could fall asleep at any moment. Her only other memorable trait was a smoking habit. Four years had passed and she was still holding a cigarette. Why did I remember her? Other than being one of the first people I met in the city, there was really nothing else notable about her. Two chance encounters usually are nothing more than a quirky coincidence, but this case was different. An uncanny feeling came over me. A sense of “I cannot believe I am back here four years later.”

Had anything really changed during the intervening years? Of course it had, but at that moment time seemed frozen. We recognize the passing of time not by looking in a mirror, but by looking at someone we have not seen in years. In this case, that truism was reversed. Seeing this woman again made me feel like time had not passed at all. It was a disturbing feeling. Between these two chance encounters my life had been filled with unique experiences, but as far as my visits to Lviv went, little seemed to have changed. When she made it over to the building I told her what I was there for, she unlocked the door and told me to wait outside. Her English was still relatively poor. She looked like she had just crawled out of bed. Inside the building she made a quick phone call, then came back outside and told me to follow her. But to where? “Just come with me” I was told and was soon to find out.

Olesko Castle

Olesko Castle – the first of three castles on the Golden Horseshoe Tour (Credit: Mykola Swarnyk)

From The Outside In – A Stranger Following
Anytime I am in a foreign country and someone tells me to follow them, I immediately get suspicious. Visions of thugs pummeling me in vacant alleys immediately come to mind. Whether this paranoia is logical or not is beside the point. Paranoia is not logical, traveling in a country where you can hardly speak a word of the language nor read the alphabet is not logical. Following strangers who give you few indications of where you are going is not logical. Now putting your trust in another person you hardly know may seem logical to some, but it is certainly not common. When traveling in western Ukraine, I am not looking for a near death experience I am looking for an adventure. Most importantly, I am not looking to get robbed. After all, getting robbed at eight in the morning would make for a very bad start to the day. In this case, there really looked to be no chance of that, but one never knows.

Pidhirtsi Castle

Pidhirtsi Castle – the first of three castles on the Golden Horseshoe Tour (Credit: Jan Mehlich)

The sun was out, birds were chirping, Rynok Square was coming to life as I dutifully followed this woman. She did not so much walk, as aimlessly wander. Attempts at conversation were futile. We proceeded northward from the square down Krakivska Street until we came to the mesmerizingly unpronounceable Knyazya Yaroslava Osmomysla Square. There stood a man outside a large bus with slightly tinted windows. The woman said a few words to him in Ukrainian. He looked at me, nodded his head toward the open door of the bus and said “Get in.” Where was everyone else? I soon found out as I walked up the steps into the bus, there were at least thirty Ukrainians staring straight at me. I have scarcely felt more foreign in my life. There was only one open seat left. Thankfully it was close to the front. I felt everyone’s eyeballs move with me as I made my way forward. While taking an aisle seat, I noticed that the teenage boy who would be in the window seat beside me, moved as close as he could get to the window pane. His head was resting on the pane of glass. The poor lad looked scared and miserable. He was going to spend a whole day sitting beside a strange foreigner. We were now inseparably linked, both in the dreaded position of being outsiders.

Zolochiv Castle

Zolochiv Castle – the thrid and final castle on the Golden Horseshoe Tour (Credit: Natari)

Down An Unknown Road
The strange thing is that in these moments, I feel most alive. To be heading off down an unknown road, with people I have never met, to look at castles I know little to nothing about, this is what I live for.  As the bus began to pull away from the curb, I realized that this was going to be a day to remember, a day spent on the trail of the Golden Horseshoe.


The Will To Control – The Austrians Reimagine Lviv’s Rynok Square (Lviv: The History of One City Part 34)

Austrian architecture and culture is often equated with magnificence. Anyone who visits Vienna cannot help but marvel at its many beautiful Baroque buildings, the grandeur of the Hofburg palace, the exquisite culture that gave the world Mozart and Strauss. An air of refinement is pervasive. Conversely, Austrian rule was something altogether different, especially on the empire’s fringes during the 18th and 19th centuries. There was a rage for standardization and control, the imposition of imperial culture, all in the name of civilization. Austrian officials believed it was their mission to bring order and structure to Eastern Europe, no matter the cost in human or financial terms. This was especially true in the newly acquired province of Galicia, which was annexed following the first partition of Poland in 1772. The Austrian rage for order can be understood in the changes that Habsburg rule brought to Lviv (Lemberg in German). This happened most prominently in Rynok Square during the decades after the Austrians took control of the city.

Zukhorovychivska Townhouse at 40 Rynok Square

Zukhorovychivska Townhouse at 40 Rynok Square (Credit: Aeou)

The Will To Create Versus The Will To Power
Today the buildings on the northern side of Rynok Square are lively and colorful, they add to the festive atmosphere of the square. It is hard to believe that by the mid-18th century most of these buildings were in various states of disrepair, with many abandoned and several on the verge of collapse. Then the Austrians took charge, bringing a much needed boost in new ideas. Slowly the northern side came to back life. An architectural rebirth with the Baroque style began to take hold. Take for instance the building at Rynok 40, known as the Zukhorovychivska Townhouse. In 1771, a year before the onset of Austrian rule, the house was bought by a postmaster named Anton Dejma. The following year, a reconstruction of the townhouse took place, updating it with Baroque architectural elements. Four doors down at the Boczkowiczowska Townhouse at Rynok 44, another Baroque restyling got under way in the early 1770’s. This took place after one of the richest men in Lviv, a physician by the name of Boczkowicz, bought the townhouse. These badly needed upgrades helped revive the square’s northern side, but it would be wrong to assume that the Austrian inspired architectural revival was always a shower of festive enlightenment.

The will to control was greater than the will to create when it came to Austrian power in Lviv. The tendency toward standardization influenced the very color of the buildings on Rynok Square. Those brightly painted facades that exist today on the northern side of the square are a throwback to medieval Lviv, when each building had its very own color. This trend was known as Lviv Polychromy. The Austrian administrators banned this aesthetic sensibility and required that all the facades be painted in a dull gray color. The point was to change the look and feel of the city from its former Polish dominated self to a “civilized” Austrian one. Today, this kind of domineering standardization is more associated with Lviv’s Soviet era, but though their ideologies greatly differed, both empires shared an urge to impose their will on many aspects of the city’s look and feel.

Adonis Statue at Rynok Square

Adonis Statue on the northwestern side of Rynok Square (Credit: Jan Mehlich)

It Is Nothing Special – The Austrian Rage For Order
Trends change and so do empires. Unlike the Soviet era which only lasted forty-nine years in Lviv, the Austrian period was three times as long. At nearly one-hundred and fifty years, this time span meant that the dynamic influences of changing artistic and architectural movements such as Neo-Classicism could take hold in the empire. Such trends made their way to Lviv and were showcased in Rynok Square. A series of sculptures featuring classical mythological figures and elegant fountains were installed there in 1815. They adorned the same exact places that the square’s wells had been located. The limestone sculptures allegorically portrayed Diana and Adonis representing earth, and Neptune and Amphitrite representing water. The Imperial Austrians were aligning themselves with the classical world. They saw themselves as the modern version of a higher form of western civilization. This was to be shared or some might say imposed upon the most far flung provincial cities of the empire such as Lviv.

The saying that every crisis is an opportunity aptly describes the cosmetic surgery Austrians did at the heart of Lviv. The Austrians took full advantage of the greatest disaster Rynok Square experienced in the 19th century to give it a transformative makeover, one that continues to inform how Lviv’s most important public space is seen and experienced today.  On a mid-summer’s day in 1826, the Rathaus, (the German word for Town Hall) collapsed. The most important building in the city was destroyed. The nerve center of the Austrian administration had to be rebuilt. The next iteration would be reimagined in an imperious and imposing style. Today, locals in Lviv often refer to the Ratusha (the Ukrainian word for Town Hall) as “a huge and hideous chimney.” As a friend of mine, a native of Lviv, once told me while pointing out the Town Hall (Ratusha in Ukrainian), “it is nothing special.” Architecturally speaking that is true, but Austrian officials were thinking in terms of administration, rather than aesthetics.

The Rathaus was and still is today an embodiment of Imperial Austrian bureaucratic architecture. The construction took eight years, which is not all that surprising since the building contains 156 rooms and 9 meeting halls. Each of its four sides have symmetrical façades. Its square tower, like the rest of the structure, has little to recommend it from an aesthetic viewpoint. The building was meant to be big, not bold, to be functional, not fashionable and act as a symbol of Austrian authority. It did all of these things rather well, a triumph of substance over style.  The construction of the new Rathaus also meant a reconfiguring of the area surrounding it. Houses that had once stood close to the northern side of the old City Hall were leveled as was the square itself. New cobblestones were laid. Rynok Square was now more manageable, more controlled. To the Austrians, order had been made from chaos. The square was now a civilized public space.

Lviv's Ratusha (Town Hall)

“That Huge Hideous Chimney” – Lviv’s Ratusha (Town Hall) (Credit: Oleksandr19)

The Austrianization of Rynok Square
The first Habsburg Emperor to visit Lviv was Joseph II in 1773. On August 1st he wrote his mother and co-ruler, the Empress Maria Theresa, a letter from Lviv in which he said “I already see in advance that the work will be immense here.” And so it was. It took the Austrians over sixty years before they finally got the look and feel they wanted in Rynok Square. By the 1830’s it had been brought into the early modern age and was now an imperial city at its heart. Rynok Square had become Austrianized, its look and feel has largely stayed that way ever since.

A Summer House In the Middle Of Paradise – Rynok Square’s Eastern Side (Lviv: The History of One City Part 32)

Rynok Square is the touristic heart of Lviv. In the spring, summer and fall it is packed with thousands of visitors. Most arrive by walking up from Katedralna Square, approaching the southwestern side of Ploscha Rynok. Visitors are magnetically attracted to the towering presence of the Ratusha (Town Hall). From there they begin strolling around the western and southern side of the square, but a much better place to start a walking tour is at Rynok Square’s northeastern corner, with a walk down the eastern side. Here can be found four magnificent palaces, the iconic Black House and history covering a wide swath of Lviv’s glorious Renaissance, imperial and nationalist pasts. When the 16th century German traveler Martin Gruneweg referred to Lviv as “a summer-house in the middle of paradise” he may well have had the Eastern side of Rynok Square in mind.

The Black House - Rynok 04

The Black House – Rynok 04 (Credit: Юрій Кононенко)

The Black House – Appearance of Deception
Looking at the buildings on the eastern side for the first time, there is a noticeable aesthetic symmetry, despite their differences in color, size and shape, as though the structures were meant to be a cohesive whole. Much of this has to do with the Renaissance architectural style that is common among them. The most eye catching structure stands at Rynok 4, the iconic Black House. After many centuries of exposure to the wind and rain, the building’s sandstone brick façade has turned a grayish, charcoal black. This gives it an ominous appearance, as though there might be a medieval torture chamber inside.  Historically it was a much happier place, at one time home to Lviv’s first pharmacy. The facade also displays a sculptural composition of St. Martin sharing his cloak with a beggar. Who would have thought that the Black House correlates with the ideals of charity and benevolence? A sublime and revealing benevolence. While the exterior facade is distinct, within its interior the Black House has much in common with several other buildings on the eastern side of the square. The Black House is home to a branch of the Lviv History Museum. Uniquely, the museum’s exhibits are located in several buildings centered around the square, including five on the eastern side.

Korniakt Palace in Lviv

Korniakt Palace in Lviv (Credit: Maciej Szczepańczyk)

The Korniakt Palace/Royal Townhouse – The Past Comes To Life
The most famous branch of the museum can be found within the Korniakt Palace/Royal Townhouse at Rynok 6.  The structure itself contains examples of nearly every building style found in Lviv prior to the 20th century. From the Gothic vaulted ceiling of the cellar to Baroque elements in the attic, the Renaissance and Empire styles on the façade and the grand splendor of the reconstructed neo-Renaissance Italian Courtyard, the palace is a veritable house of architectural history. Its human history is no less fascinating. This was once the home of Lviv’s richest man, the Greek trader Konstanty Korniakt, who moved to the city and made a fortune dealing in wine, cloth and fur. He had the palace constructed upon the foundations of two buildings, this accounts for the fact that there are six windows on each level of the structure, rather than the usual three to be found on most of the townhouses surrounding the square.

The palace was a place fit for royalty, quite literally as it came into the ownership of Jakub Sobieski, father of famed Polish King John III Sobieski whose military prowess helped defeat the Turks at the siege of Vienna in 1683. King John III inherited the palace and spent many days in the maze like rooms sprawling across all three floors. These recall the era of Polish royalty with palatial furnishings in the King’s and Queen’s rooms. The refined and stately decoration of the Audience Hall was where the controversial Eternal Peace Treaty of 1686 was signed between Russia and the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. In return for Russia agreeing to join the anti-Ottoman Turk alliance, Poland ceded left bank Ukraine (east of the Dneiper River) along with the city of Kiev to Russia. Poland kept control of right bank Ukraine (west of the Dnieper River). Today, over three hundred years later, echoes of this division still resound, in the vast political and cultural differences between eastern and western Ukraine. Within the walls of the Audience Hall history becomes present and palpable.

Interior of former Archbishops Palace at Rynok 9

Living space – Interior of former Archbishops Palace at Rynok 9 (Credit: Aeou)

Former Archbishop’s Palace – A Poisoned Situation
Of the nine buildings that line the east side of Rynok Square, four are now residential, including the former Archbishop’s Palace at Rynok 9. With 68 rooms it is easy to see why the palace is now used as residences. Though the building was constructed during the Renaissance, its façade is covered with a rather bland neoclassical décor, a product of a mid-19th century reconstruction. Like the Korniakt Palace, the Archbishop’s Palace was also built on the foundations of two buildings, thus it also has six windows on each of its upper levels. While the architecture is interesting, the human stories that took place at the palace are nothing short of fascinating. This is a place where the past and present intersect in everyday life. Imagine what it must be like for those who make Rynok 9 their home today. An individual or family goes to bed each night in the same place where Polish Kings Sigismund III Vasa and Wladislaw IV once slept. Residences also inhabit the area where King Michael I was poisoned to death in 1673. This well planned conspiracy was carried out by his erstwhile supporters. It led to fatal food poisoning. After he died, King Michael’s remains were parceled out to places near and far with his heart buried in Warsaw, his body in Krakow’s Wawel Cathedral and his bowels within the walls of the nearby Latin Cathedral, a few hundred meters from where he had expired. What other tales, past and present, lurk within the walls of the former Archbishop’s Palace that might serve to stimulate the imagination.

Lubomirski Palace - Rynok 10

Lubomirski Palace – Rynok 10 (Credit: Kugel)

Lubomirski Palace – The Art of Possibility
The final building along the eastern side of Rynok Square is most certainly a product of the imagination. The Lubomirski Palace was where successive owners imagined and reimagined the palace for their own imperial, national or provincial needs. The palace’s namesake was a powerful Polish noble, Stanislaw Lubomirski. He commissioned a two decade long overhaul of the existing structure during the mid-18th century that recreated it as a Baroque magnate’s palace. The partition of Poland in 1772 changed the buildings history. For the next fifty years the palace served as a residence for the Austrian governors of Galicia.  In 1868 the Prosvita society was founded in Lviv to promote Ukrainian language and culture. Soon thereafter the Society purchased the palace where efforts were undertaken to raise Ukrainian national consciousness. Prosvita was a key player in the slow, fitful progression of Ukraine’s movement toward statehood. The movement reached a false summit on June 30, 1941 when at the former palace Yaroslav Stetsko proclaimed a Ukrainian state. It would soon be shut down by the Nazis. A new era of tyrannical totalitarianism would take hold. This was just the start as the Soviet would eventually occupy the city and attempt to transform its history, but Rynok Square’s architectural wonders would outlive another empire.

Eastern Side of Rynok Square

Looking down from the Ratusha (City Hall) at Eastern Side of Rynok Square (Credit: Jan Mehlich)

Bringing It Back To Life – Rynok Square
Ukrainians would have to wait until 1991 for an independent Ukraine. The nation is now home to the heritage symbolized and memorialized by the remarkable buildings that line the eastern side of Rynok Square.  Renaissance, Baroque and Neo-Classical architecture is alive in these structures, as are the stories of the multiple cultures that have infused Rynok Square with so much of its beauty and history.

For Love Or Your Life – The Jalonek Murder in Lviv for the Hand of Anna Wilczek (Lviv: The History of One City Part 31)

The house at Rynok Square 3 is often overlooked, sandwiched as it is between the rich splendor of the Baldinelli Palace and the brooding, iconic Black House. Rynok 3 was first owned by Lviv’s most powerful lawmaker, the city councilor Wilczek, hence the building’s name, House of the Wilczek Family. This house would become his beautiful daughter Anna’s wedding dowry, but it only happened after an unforgettable explosion of emotions and violence between two men who could not contain their passion for her.

House of the Wilczek Family

House of the Wilczek Family at Rynok 3 in Lviv (Credit: Aeou)

Shall We Dance – Two Men & A Beautiful Woman
Urbano della Rippa Ubaldini was part of a wave of Italians who came to Lviv during the 16th and 17th centuries. Many of these men were traders. Due to their wealth and connections they were highly influential in city affairs and were able to acquire citizenship. Ubaldini, a Florentine had come to Lviv for another reason as well, he was an exile. He had been involved in a plot against the powerful Medici family back in Italy. Though he was a relation of the pope, Ubaldini’s life was not safe in Tuscany. Thus he fled eastward, first to Krakow and then on to Lviv.  Ironically, this would also later be the same exile trajectory of Roberto Baldinelli, who would own the palace at Rynok Square 2. No matter how far these men moved abroad, they could not escape trouble. In Ubaldini’s case the trouble  would be romantic, rather than political. A wedding party would be the unlikely setting for Ubaldini’s latest brush with controversy.

Anna Wilczek was just 18 years old and already she was known for her remarkable beauty. Not yet engaged, she was one of the most sought after women in the city. She had drawn the romantic attentions of Ubaldini and a Polish gentleman, Pawel Jalonek. Their dueling passions for Anna collided in dramatic fashion at a wedding party in the year 1580. Almost simultaneously both men asked Anna to dance. She was said to have paused for just a moment and then chose Ubaldini. This was too much for Jalonek to handle. Acting on a combination of wounded pride and crestfallen desire, he reactively slapped Ubaldini. The Florentine then went him one better, stabbing Jalonek with a dagger. The Pole reeled from the blow. Bleeding profusely, he was taken away for urgent medical care. It would do no good, Jalonek was soon dead.

Sculpture at Lychakiv Cemetery in Lviv

Romantic pursuits – a sculpture at Lychakiv Cemetery in Lviv

Getting Off – Ubaldini’s Crime Without Punishment
Ubaldini was arrested and charged with murder. Controversy abounded. Was the Florentine really just defending himself? His retaliatory stab seemed totally out of proportion to the slap he had suffered. Both men had lost all control of themselves because of their passionate love for one woman. Anna Wilczek’s beauty and grace had brought hot blooded passions to the surface and led directly to murder. Would the punishment for Ubaldini fit his crime? This may have been the age of the Renaissance, but it was also pre-Enlightenment. Crimes were punished in the harshest of manners, executions were common. On the west side of Rynok Square men lost their heads not to love, but decapitation. Fortunately for Ubaldini there were many circumstances in his favor. Before he died, Jalonek was said to have forgiven Ubaldini for the violence he had inflicted on him. In addition, Ubaldini was a powerful and wealthy merchant. He had many defenders in both Lviv’s Italian and business communities. It is said that truth can set a person free, but wealth works even greater wonders.

There were a few other key persons supporting Ubaldini, most importantly Anna Wilczek. The fact that her father held the powerful position of city councilor cannot be overlooked. The story also won the hearts of many women in Lviv. There was something deeply romantic about this fight for the love of a woman. According to the local Lviv historian Ilko Lemko, “The wives of the Lviv judges did not give their husbands a moment’s peace – neither during the day or at night, and they even posted pickets at the Town Hall.” With all this in his favor, Ubaldini was soon a free man. It might be said that his acquittal was an inside job. He was beyond reproach and above the law. Freedom was not the only thing he won either as he would take the hand of Anna Wilczek in marriage. The couple moved into Rynok 3 where they lived in happiness and contentment while raising a family.

A Noble Love
Perhaps it was better that Pawel Jalonek suffered a mortal wound rather than have to see his beloved Anna with the man who had bested him. Some might say that a life is too much to give up for love, but there is something endearing about Jalonek. Jalonek lost all self-control in a moment of unrestrained pride fueled by passionate love. He did not just want to dance with Anna Wilczek, he wanted to win her heart and ultimately her hand in marriage. It was not to be, but that does not make his death, like his love, any less noble.



Love In Lviv & Lithuania: From First To Last Sight – The Romance of King Wladyslaw IV & Mistress Jadwiska (Lviv: The History of One City Part 25)

Change, it seems like it will never come and then suddenly it arrives all at once. It is a cliché that life can change in a matter of moments, but improbably it happens. After the change occurs, it becomes hard to imagine what life was like before then. That brings us to a famous Eastern European love story, a romance that involved a monumental change in circumstances for one young lady. A break with her past that set her and her exalted lover on a star crossed course. On a spring day in 1648 at Merkine Castle in the woods of southern Lithuania, the King of Poland and Grand Duke of Lithuania Wladyslaw IV Vasa was clinging to life. He was suffering from kidney stones and a dose of medication had made the problem much worse.  At his bedside was his longtime mistress Jadwiszka.  The King was dying and a romantic dream was going to die with him. When Wladyslaw finally succumbed after several days of suffering, his life and legacy moved into history. Jadwiszka lived on, but after her lover’s death she disappeared from the scene. What happened to her next is left to the imagination, but the romantic dream she had lived with King Wladyslaw would live on forever in the heart of a city 600 kilometers (372 miles) to the south, that city was Lviv, the hometown of Jadwiszka.

House at 30 Rynok Square

House at 30 Rynok Square – where Jadwiszka Luszkowska looked at King Wladyslaw for the first time (Credit: Сергій Криниця)

A Conquest Of Love
In 1634, during the second year of his reign, King Wladyslaw IV visited Lwow (Polish name for Lviv). The city, one of the most important and prosperous in the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, was a hub for East-West trade. The King and his entourage made their way straight to the city’s commercial heart, Rynok Square. As Wladyslaw strode past the houses and mansions which lined the square a woman caught his eye. Looking out from one of the windows of the house at 30 Rynok Square was a beautiful young lady. She, like so many others that day, was paying her respects to the monarch. Her beauty immediately grabbed the King’s attention and possessed him. Wladyslaw was enraptured from the moment he laid his eyes on her. The lady was Jadwiszka Luszkowska, the daughter of an impoverished merchant. They fell deeply in love. That first glance spawned an unlikely romance. It upended Jadwiszka’s formerly mundane life. As for the King, she not only melted his heart, but also sent the royal court around him into an uproar.

King Wladyslaw IV Vas

A Love Supreme – King Wladyslaw IV Vasa (Credit: Paul Peter Rubens)

The king’s courtiers attempted to cure him of love sickness. The powers that be in the Roman Catholic Church sprinkled Holy Water upon him to no avail. The archbishops believed that Jadwiszka might hold supernatural powers. She did not possess any otherworldly powers, but she did cast a spell, one known as love. The would-be lovers were from different classes and backgrounds. Jadwiszka was seen as inferior to Wladyslaw. How could the King stoop to such a level? This just goes to show that the churchmen and courtiers did not understand the power of passion and an all-consuming love. Nevertheless, they were able to ensure that Wladyslaw did not marry Jadwiszka. The court arranged a traditional marriage of royalty, whereby the King wed Archduchess Cecilia Renata of Austria. The archduchess was pious, polite and a woman who treated those around her as equals. What she was not known for…her looks. Portraits from the time show the Archduchess sporting an outsized chin. The marriage was a political one, done to keep the royal blood pure and Wladyslaw under control. There was still the problem of what to do with Jadwiszka.

Archduchess Cecillia Renata of Austria

Archduchess Cecillia Renata of Austria – first wife of King Wladyslaw IV Vasa (Credit: Peter Danckerts de Rij)

Of Romantic Affairs  – Arranged Marriages & the  Madness of Love
Cecilia Renata, with help from the King’s courtiers, arranged for a marriage between Jadwiszka and the Lithuanian nobleman, John Wypyski. She moved with him to a large landed estate in the beautiful Trakai area of Lithuania which he had received from the court as a gift for the marriage. This estate, a hunter’s paradise, was then frequented by Wladyslaw who went to spend time with Jadwiszka there on numerous occasions. As for the King’s arranged marriage, Cecillia bore him three children, none of which lived past the age of seven. The last one was stillborn, with the Archduchess dying of an infection a day after labor. The King was said to have taken the loss very hard, but it did not keep him away from his beloved Jadwiszka, even after he married again. Wladyslaw’s second marriage was to a French Princess Marie Louise Gonzaga, a lady who would achieve a rare feat, marrying not one but two Polish Kings (after Wladyslaw’s death she would marry his brother John Casimir II). Marie Louise was not exactly a beauty queen. In Justus Van Egmont’s contemporary portrait of her, she has a second chin and arms that look about the size of her shoulders. This was also a political marriage, conjured up by French royalty to inflict grievous harm to the alliance between the Austrian Habsburgs and Poland.  Marie Louise bore Wladyslaw no children. The King would not take political advice from her. He was a man known to follow his own course stubbornly, no matter the outcome. Of course he continued seeing Jadwiszka.

Marie Louise Gonzaga

Marie Louise Gonzaga – second wife of King Wladyslaw IV Vasa (Credit: Justus van Egmont)

Much is known about the political affairs of Wladyslaw, but hardly anything is known about his private world with Jadwiszka. She was probably the closest anyone ever came to being his true soul mate. Perhaps her beauty, romance and grace eroded his legendary stubbornness. He was known to be self-centered and vain. This is not surprising since men who are in love with themselves often fall under the spell of beautiful women (unfortunately no pictures exist of Jadwiszka).  Maybe Jadwiszka acted as a reflection of his vanity. No one can say for sure. The only thing certain is that from the first time their eyes met that day in Rynok Square in Lviv, a fourteen year whirlwind of romance ensued. Fourteen years is a long time, but not long enough for those who are madly in love, yet unable to be together for extended periods. The periods of absence from each other may have served to further stoke the fires of passion or remind them how improbable their romance actually was. The fact that they were unable to be together on a consistent basis likely made them savor their intimate moments even more. In this case, absence made hearts grow closer.

Merkine mound in southern Lithuania

Merkine mound in southern Lithuania -site of the castle where King Wladyslaw IV Vasa died (Credit: Arz)

Love At Last Sight – To End As The Beginning
It is said that in the days prior to his death Wladyslaw was coherent. This gave him time to set his affairs in order. He would have had much to ponder regarding the royal line of succession and what would happen to his policies, peoples, castles and lands. All of this was of importance, as it pertains to the realm of high politics, but what about the realm of the romantic heart. This realm was where the King and Jadwiszka had lived together, away from the courtiers, arranged marriages and intrigues, away from all the whispering campaigns tried in vain to thwart their relationship. They had been able to overcome all of the petty political obstacles because theirs was a true, lasting romance.  This was the kind of love that changes a man and a woman irreparably, to the point where they cannot imagine the world before they knew one another or without each other. A romance that makes a clean break with the past and in the process creates a reality unto itself. This was not the story of a fairy tale. It was the story of two people destined to be together, to begin the wedding of their hearts at the very heart of a great city. And to end in a castle amid the woods of Lithuania, with the dying King looking at his beloved mistress for the last time, just like the first time in Lviv when the King saw that beautiful young woman looking at him.

A Relic Housing Relics – The Church of St. John the Baptist In Lviv (Lviv: The History Of One City #21)

Rynok Square (Market Square) is undoubtedly the epicenter of Lviv’s Old Town. For most of the year, throngs of tourists roam around the square, devouring Gelato, gazing at Renaissance and Baroque facades, taking hundreds of thousands of digital snapshots and soaking up the vibrant energy that pulses from the heart of Ukraine’s most European cityscape.  This is the intersection of new and old Lviv, where modern tourism and the city’s historic heart intersect. Not surprisingly, very few tourists will take a 15 minute walk to the north, where they can visit Staryi Rynok, Lviv’s first market square. This was the epicenter of what might be called “ancient” Lviv. It was where the city first prospered and began to grow. Of course, the market square was eventually moved to its present tourist packed site, but a semblance of “ancient” Lviv still exists on Staryi Rynok, in the form of the Church of St. John the Baptist, an architectural relic that today also happens to act as a museum of relics. This church is where the antiquity of Lviv is best experienced.

Church of St. John the Baptist in Lviv

The Church of St. John the Baptist in Lviv – also home to the Museum of Ancient Lviv Monuments (Photo: Wikipedia)

From the Mists of Myth to Solid Evidence – “Ancient” Lviv
“Ancient” Lviv is shrouded as much in myth as it is in fact and the Church of St. John the Baptist is a representation of this. The church’s beginnings are vague, with stories and facts intermingling. Popular legend states that Princess Constance of Hungary, the wife of the city’s namesake Prince Lev Danilovich, commissioned the building of the church in the latter half of the 13th century. Constance was born in Hungary and was a devout follower of the Catholic faith. As the story goes, she invited Dominican monks to the city, who then proceeded to construct the church shortly after their arrival, making it Lviv’s first Catholic Church. This legend also states that following her death, Constance was buried in the church’s crypt. The veracity of this tale is open to debate, but does seem plausible if for no other reason than the church stood on Staryi Rynok just below High Castle (Vysokyi zamok), home of Lev and Constance.

Conversely, the church’s physical structure offers evidence of a later construction, specifically during the 14th century. Armenians arrived in Lviv as traders and brought their Uniate faith with them. The architectural basis for this theory concerns the masonry walls of the church, which resemble other examples from the same era. Whether this fact based theory or a story based legend is true, no one is likely to ever know the full story. What is known for sure is that the church suffered abandonment and neglect by the 15th century, as Lviv’s commercial and spiritual center moved away from Staryi Rynok. For two and a half centuries the church was left to crumble. It was not until the 18th century that it underwent the first of four reconstructions. The first of these did not last long, as a fire gutted much of the church in 1800. This led to another period of dormancy, lasting 36 years. Several 19th century reconstructions created most of the Neo-Romanesque structure that stands today.

Plaque commemorating Prince Constance

Plaque commemorating Prince Constance – legend says that she was the founder of the Church of St John the Baptist in Lviv (Credit: Wikipedia)

Neglect as a Form of Preservation
A third period of neglect began with the first Soviet occupation of the city in 1939 as the church was closed for any type of religious function. An argument could be made, that the church was once again being preserved by neglect. Interestingly, during the second period of Soviet rule (1944 – 1991), the communist authorities did not entirely ignore the church. They allowed it to be viewed as a cultural set piece. Communist era visitors to the city were given a list of recommended must-sees, these included the Church of St. John the Baptist. This odd bit of promotion probably had something to do with the church’s deep roots in the “ancient” history of Lviv. Unfortunately during this time few tourists were allowed to visit. This was because Lvov (the Russianized name for Lviv) was a “closed” city. Tourists would have to get permission from the military authorities just to visit. This “closed” status, coupled with decades behind the Iron Curtain, meant the city and the church had few tourists during Soviet times.

In the 1990’s the situation slowly began to change. The Church of St. John the Baptist became part of the movement toward modern tourism. The Museum of Ancient Lviv Monuments was setup inside part of the church in 1993. The museum displayed everything from archeological findings to such sacral relics as a venerated 14th century icon, “Lviv Virgin and Child”, one of the oldest Ukrainian icons to be found in the western part of the country. In a strange post-Iron Curtain twist, the church was for many years only used as a museum. This changed in the spring of 2009 when it was officially reopened for religious services as the Archbishop of Lviv performed a ceremony blessing the church’s altar. Now it would open its doors to parishioners and visitors.

A view from the other side - the Church of St John the Baptist in Lviv

A view from the other side – the Church of St John the Baptist in Lviv (Credit: Wikipedia)

A Sense Of Discovery – Ancient and Justified
The “ancient” history of Lviv is today represented by the church, with its accompanying museum. It is a shame that more visitors do not take the time to explore this dual attraction. The church offers a window into the earliest days of Lviv. This was a place both mythical and factual with the church’s founding still open to speculation. This makes the history of ancient Lviv more intriguing and worthy of discovery. Much of that discovery now takes place within the walls of the Church of St. John the Baptist.

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.

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.