In the Ukraine, Part 1
“We are torn between nostalgia for the familiar and an urge for the foreign and strange. As often as not, we are homesick most for the places we have never known” _____Carson McCullers
Lviv, in the Ukraine, is a surprising treasure of a city. A diamond in the rough with a history older and more complicated than your average European destination. The stunning architecture, the literary and artistic heritage is staggering. A classical city, a Paris in the East, it is located in a country divided by wars and political conflicts. This diamond was eons in its genesis. Lviv is situated in the antediluvian territories called Galicia: ancient, proud, and noble with Celtic roots and legacies from a multitude of cultures. Historians are not always objective in the telling of the city’s past and chronology. Reading the churches, the squares, the museums, galleries, palaces and the people of Lviv is a complicated quest. However, Lviv’s allurement and soul is fully evident; a beautiful city that is still lifting the veils of conflict to reveal itself as a tourist destination.
The streets and avenues showcase a busy mélange of gorgeous buildings. Gothic, Baroque, Art Deco and Secessionist styles proliferate. Also on the stage are Beaux Arts, Rococo, and Italian Renaissance. And all this is accented by strains of the medieval. Overall there is a stylistic feeling of time coming to a full stop in the 1920’s or 1930’s. The buildings are not scrubbed clean like the architectural Disney display in Prague. Many buildings stand intact but with scars and dings that speak to their provenance. It feels real. No face-lift here: Lviv is a beautiful, old, magical woman.
Attached to a venerable old townhouse, a courtyard visible through a deeply arched entry is fraught with fantasy. Whenever I found these enclosed little plazas sometimes hidden behind massive, double doors, I felt like Alice peeking into a magical Easter storybook egg. Some of these portals seem unchanged for over a hundred years or more. Timeworn mists float and waiver through the doorways, plazas, staircases, and streets into the restaurants, shops, and hotel lobbies. The broom of the 21st century has not completely swept clean the cow webs. The city center is well deserving of a place on the UNESCO World Heritage List. Lviv celebrated its 750th birthday in September 2006. So many generations come and gone. So many stories. Is it any wonder the city opens a Pandora’s box of déjà-vu experiences?
The term déjà vu literally means, “already seen”. It as an overwhelming sense of familiarity with something that shouldn’t be familiar at all. An extrasensory feeling passes over and causes a fumble in the brain that says you have been present in the place and yet you’ve never been. My sense of déjà vu ran rampant in Lviv as I strolled around with the remembrance of dreams crashing like waves finding an escape out of an oceanic cave. In the evening, down a narrow street framed by stately buildings where yellow globes of light glittered through the wavering panes of a second story window, an unprovoked gentle flashback rushed in uninvited. Stopping inside a 15th century Bernadine monastery church, my subliminal-self proclaims ‘you are returning to an old haunt’. These may be from genealogical roots but they were definitely strange.
For a quick study on Lviv’s impact on history click below: History of Galicia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Galicia_(Eastern_Europe)
History of Lviv: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lviv
A Hotel named Atlas Deluxe
Our hotel was in a historic building. Built in 1909, it projected a Parisian resonance and offered 5-star service. The modern conveniences were all there yet it felt like living in a movie set. In our room, we had a panoramic window filled with sunlight and crisp, white, embroidered lace curtains, purple drapes and vistas on the beautiful baroque building across the way. The rooms and halls have rich, dark wood doors and frames with carved ornamentation that is sedate and stately. The woodwork gleams with a high polish accenting its age and art. Hotel service is impeccable in all areas: front desk, lobby, restaurant, and housekeeping. The location in an old cultural area where artists, writers, actors, and academics have had their homes over the last century and a half was another surprise. There are plaques on some of the building that denote the residences of luminary figures. For two old history buffs, the neighborhood was ideal for lingering strolls.
Before it was the Hotel Atlas Deluxe, it was a meeting place for a mathematics club called Kawiarnia Szkocka (Scottish Café). In the 1930’s, academics from the Lwów (Lviv) School of Mathematics gathered here to work out research problems. They recorded their work in a book at the café known as the Scottish Book. Today, the café is still known as the Szkocka. The special dish of the restaurant is the goose filet and there is a reason for that. Back in the day, a prize was awarded for solving the most difficult, challenging mathematics puzzles. For the solution to one particular thorny math conundrum, a live goose was offered as the prize. As World War II descended and the Russians invaded Poland, that puzzle remained unsolved. Lviv (then called Lwów) was, during that time, a part of Poland. In 1972, that particular mathematical problem was finally solved. In Poland, there was a grand celebration. The promised prize of a live goose was presented to the winner on Polish television. It caused quite a bit of hilarity but I’m sure it was a well-appreciated prize in 1972 under the curtain of communism.
The Szkocka restaurant served up some of the finest meals that we enjoyed in Lviv. The breakfasts were excellent, coffee was amazing, the period surroundings were exquisite, and above all, the old world-class service was beyond expectation. The Hotel Atlas Deluxe is a fond memory and will remain a favorite hotel.
Website for The Hotel Atlas Deluxe: http://atlasdeluxe.com/en/about-hotel-en/atlas-deluxe-en
History of the Scottish Cafe: http://www.polenvoornederlanders.nl/?page_id=4457&lang=en
Wandering About in Lviv
Wandering away from our hotel in the early morning, we turned a corner onto a busy cross-section of streets to discover a warren of older ladies selling wares on the wide sidewalk amidst a hodgepodge of traffic and pedestrians. Like a vignette from time past, there was a makeshift flower market as well as raspberries; corn on the cob, and day-to-day provisions sold from improvised stands on the walkway.
The flower market was bestrewn with buckets of color as the old babcias (grandmothers) in their light kerchiefs, sat on their upturned pails and busily trimmed and tied their bouquets. This was performed in the shadow of an impressive bronze statue of the first king of the Ukraine on horseback; King Danylo who is also known as Daniel, King of Ruthenia, Prince of Galicia, Peremyshl, and Volodymyr. He was crowned in 1253. Mysteriously the pigeons that we see sitting on the heads of luminaries in Kraków are missing here. There should be flocks of them as there are in every other European city but we found Lviv to be mostly pigeon-free. Pigeon was French haute-cuisine, popular in Russia in the pre-revolutionary days. Just saying.
Behind the busy babcia flower-mart stood a decorative hexagonal kiosk that sold only bread. The kiosk smelled wonderful as we walked by and admired a profusion of bread loaves displayed tightly pressed against the glass windows. The old domed tin metal roof on the kiosk showcased one lonely pigeon, perched and waiting for the seeds to fall from the crusts of the customers. A survivor, he knew where he might be able to ‘butter’ some bread before someone buttered him.
Walking the streets of Lviv could never be described as ‘ho-hum’. Every street, every corner, every arch, cobblestone, roofline, steeple, and dome purveys a deep artistry and history. Your eyes never stop moving over the details of the building facades but keep those eyes on the pavement, fellow-trekker! Every step is a potential treachery for an older person. I walked with my walking stick through the streets not wanting to take a chance on a fall. Walking sticks were not widely-seen here as they are in other cities. But I had learned my lesson in Tallinn where the rough, old stones caused the old sciatica to flare, I was taking no chances.
This would be a challenging city for a handicapped person, a wheelchair or bad knees. There is little or no handicapped access available. Elevators in the palaces or museums are really scarce. I did not see any escalators even in the train station. The churches have high stone steps and no ramps that we could find. The streets are very uneven and tricky and not always brightly lit at night. If you have any balance problems, use walking sticks or a cane. Walking is the key way to see the city. However, the Wonder Bus Tour is one good alternative. Work remains to be done on the tourism infrastructure. But when a city holds the adjective ‘unspoiled’, there are those downsides.
About the Wonder Bus Tours: http://chudotour.com.ua/en/excursions/big-centre-wonder-bus/
About the Churches of Lviv
Lviv is a city of churches. We randomly visited many without benefit of guide or book but we had to leave more behind for a return trip. During Soviet occupation, the churches were shuttered to worshippers. These rich, art-laden religious sanctuaries were used as book depots, storage facilities, and furniture stores. It is hard to imagine the floors of these glorious, evocative churches crammed with desks, telephones, accounting books, pallets, and inventories amid priceless frescoes, gold-gilded chapels, and tremendous lighting fixtures. In the dark days of communism, the grand palaces and manors were also transformed into schools or offices in an attempt to erase all evidence of the bourgeoisie and the religious. It was heartening to find restoration in progress after decades of neglect and abuse. In one church, we found scaffolding erected throughout the interior. Frescoes were being refreshed and fine-tuned while folding chairs were being used in place of pews all while Mass was in progress.
In the 17th century Bernadine church, we observed an older woman touching her rosary to a life-size crucifix and kissing the feet of suspended Jesus. There was also a young woman with head covered, kneeling in a small chapel off the apse, praying, with a great deal of fervor by her body language. The priest was saying mass in the old Roman way; facing the altar not the congregation and worshippers were on their knees on the hard floors.
In another part of town, in the Latin cathedral, Mass was underway in Polish, the organ playing old Polish hymns as the organist sung out the simple words in a husky baritone that traveled up into the beautiful painted Gothic ceiling. The monstrance was carried aloft through the church after mass in a procession of richly clad clergy, candles, bells, incense, and acolytes. People knelt as the golden monstrance passed, enrapt, pious, and sincere.
After decades under communism, religion and Ukrainian culture have survived. Currently, it is the erasing of the icons of communism that is underway in this part of the Ukraine. The statue of Lenin that stood in the square in front of the beautiful old opera house was torn down and replaced with a fountain. Cultural events of all genres are being promoted. The cafes are rich, the food is wonderful, the people friendly and eager to converse and help. The city is looking to the west for its identity. Decades of repression were not successful. It could take many more years for this artistic capital to realize it’s full potential.
You Can’t Rush Lviv
Lviv is uniquely different because it has not been smothered by bags of money and the bane of overdone commercialism. In the genre of tourism, it is still raw and new. Even in spite of the boys-only fun bars and clubs which are there, too. As well as the confounding club music in so many of the restaurants and coffee shops.
Lviv is a city that is difficult to see in just four days. There is a lot to absorb that you won’t find in the guidebooks. Lviv-In-Your-Pocket on the Internet came through. The “In-Your-Pocket” family always does a good job of guiding one around a city with humor and accuracy.
There is a large tourist information center through the side entrance of the town hall in the old market square. It has a proliferation of literature and information but information kiosks are rare. Yet the potential is so evident. Go see Lviv before it becomes overrun like Prague and Dubrovnik. Today, a month later, I am still reliving our trip to unique Lviv, which has left an indelible mark on my travel journals. It is a definite on the ‘revisit’ list. People fall in love with Paris. I fell in love with Lviv.
For more of Greg Spring’s photos from our travels in Europe, see Assignment 2017 at the following link: http://bit.ly/2oGmtX6
Wanderlusting Dreams is a blog written and produced by Grace Nagiecka with photos by Gregory Spring. Kraków, Poland 2017. Please let us know how you like our travelogues.
Another link with a bit more of the history of Lviv: