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Lviv: Different Masters, Distinct Identity


 

The author outside the family home 

 

 

By Karen Dabrowska

Islamic Tourism: When my father arrived in New Zealand as a refugee after WW2 he was asked by an immigration official about his place of birth. "Lvov, Poland", he replied. "But Lvov is now in the Soviet Union", the official insisted. My  father refused to acknowledge  that his birth place was now in the Soviet Union and spent most of his life in exile campaigning against the Soviet-installed government in post-war Poland.

When the Soviet Union collapsed Lvov (Lviv in Ukrainian) emerged as the most elegant city in an independent Ukraine. Sadly my father passed on before seeing it but the family's  first-floor flat is still there at number 41 Bandery Street,  a grey dark building with a curious, mysterious medieval quality,  across the road from the polytechnic. The family's coffee shop is no more but the Polish residents of the city, who make up only one percent of  the 900,000 inhabitants, proudly speak Polish. For them Lvov, Poland exists as a sort of mental hyberspace, independent of such banalities as governments and borders.   In 2006 the city  celebrated its 750th anniversary with a son et lumiere in the main square.

Throughout its history Lviv has had many masters but it has always retained its distinct identity.  It is a  proud city where the buildings embody its past incarnations. The city centre is modern but the smaller streets, with their charming cafes, are characterised by  town houses and apartment blocks with graceful balconies and  ornate stonework.  Many are rough and have certainly  seen better days but the romantic decay adds to their charm. Every building tells a story.

Lviv was founded by King Danylo Halytskiy of the the Ruthenian principality of Halych-Volhynia and named in honour of his son, Lev (the Lion). There are thousands of lions on doorknobs,  cornices, gates, keystones and just about every façade in the city centre. The city  was captured by Poland in 1349 and in 1356 Casimir III  brought in German burghers and ensured that all matters relating to local government were resolved by a council elected by the wealthy citizens. 

As part of Poland, and later the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, Lviv became the capital of the Ruthenian Voivodeship. The city prospered and became ethnically and religiously diverse. The 17th century brought invading armies of Swedes,  Hungarians Russians and Cossacks to its gates but it was the only major Polish city which was not captured by invaders until 1704, when Swedish troops entered after a siege.

In 1772, following the first partition of Poland, the city was called Lemberg and became the capital of the Austro-Hungarian Kingdom of Galicia. It was captured by the Russian army in September 1914 but retaken by  Austria-Hungary in the following year.

When the Habsburg Empire collapsed at the end of World War 1,  Lviv  was attacked by Stalin's Red Army but resisted. Between the world wars it was the third largest Polish city. After WW2 a decision taken at the Yalta Conference saw Poland's borders relocated towards the west and the city became part of the Soviet Union to the chagrin of  thousands of Poles like my father, who fought with the allies dreaming of an independent Poland and returning  home. After spending some time in England, where Poles were not immune from racist attitudes, he  chose New Zealand as his future home, supported the Polish government-in-exile which was not disbanded until the collapse of the Soviet Union,  served the Polish community and was an active member of the Polish Ex-Servicemen's Association.

With the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Ukrainians got an independent country for the first time in  history and  Lviv emerged as a main cultural centre famous for its university and polytechnic, the philharmonic orchestra and the theatre of opera and ballet.

The old city was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1998 due to its urban fabric and architecture.  "Lviv is an outstanding example of the fusion of the architectural and artistic traditions of eastern Europe with those of Italy and Germany", UNESCO stated. The building boom which took place in the 16th and 17th centuries was heavily influenced by the Italian Renaissance. Today architecture students from  Europe and America are coming to the city to admire its Italian designs.

Lviv has an international airport, a delightful historic building with no intercom and  one departure lounge. Buy your souvenirs in the market and have a good breakfast - there are no shops and no cafeteria but  flights depart daily  to Warsaw, Frankfurt and Austria. It is also possible to go by rail from  Krakow in Poland and cross the border at Przemysl on a train which has steamed out of Agatha Christie's Murder on the Orient Express.  I arrived  early at the station and the bewildered station master asked if I was in a hurry to get  to see Lviv:  "Not really", I replied. "I have been waiting for 51 years". The 'traders', with mysterious looking boxes which they claimed were full of 'gold bricks',  could not not stop laughing.

Lviv is not a tourist-friendly city. There are no English street names and only the most expensive restaurants  like Amadeus, have an English menu. The modest  Lviv Tourist Board has an excellent selection of maps and the staff arrange tours of the city and beyond.

The two major hotels  in the city centre are the George and The Grand Hotel beautiful buildings synonymous with the buildings tourists come to see. Lviv is a city of historic churches dating back to the 13th century. Its architecture reflects various European styles and periods. It lost most of its gothic-style buildings but  retains may buildings in renaissance, baroque and classic styles. The square box flats left by the Soviets, visible on route to the airport, are thankfully far from the city centre. The functional but heartless Hotel Dnister, with charmining, helpful staff,  is another reminder of the Soviet era, the Ukrainians want to forget.

The historic buildings have many stone sculptures and carvings, particularly on large doors, hundreds of years old. Some three-to-five storey buildings have hidden inner courtyards and grottoes in various states of repair.  Every Ukrainian city has replaced its Lenin statue with a Shevchenko monument. The one in Lviv is a masterpiece: standing behind the poet is a sweeping relief depicting Ukrainian history and religious folk art. The statue was a gift from the large Ukrainian community in Argentina and stands in the Centrea Prospekt Svobody Park.

Lychakivsky Cemetery is a must-see: everyone who was someone  in the past 100 years in Lviv - Polish aristocrats, Soviet soldiers, Ukrainian freedom fighters, Jews and famous writers - are buried  among giant trees. The cemetery is more like a village of the dead with family mausoleums, statues of the deceased and abstract sculptures which would not look out of place in a modern art museum.

In addition to the History Museum, the National Art Museum, the Lviv Art Gallery and the Museum of Folk Architecture and Life,  there is the more unusual Bread Museum with three dimensional installations that reach beyond the traditions of bread-making and qualify as pure art. The Pharmacy Museum is still a going concern: the shop in front has been in business for the past 250 years and looks as it did three centuries ago with coloured bottles and wooden herb drawers. As  well as introducing the history of early chemistry the museum is an excellent example of an old Lviv house with magnificent doors featuring Galician art.

The best view of the city is  from the High Castle (Vysoky Zamok) built by King Casimir (1310 - 1370) of Poland.  Despite its name only the wall of the castle remains and there is no statue to King Casimir,  but the climb up the steep steps in well worth it. Only   a television tower reminds visitors that they are in the 21st century.

The modern world sometimes intrudes into the city where the past is king: scantly lit alleyways with cobble stones and lion statues,  as well as  buildings with a long and distinguished history,  are a stark reminder to would be conquerors that regardless of its 'masters' the city will always retain its unique character.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Lviv: Different Masters, Distinct Identity
Lviv: Different Masters, Distinct Identity

Tourism is slowly coming to the Ukraine's main cultural centre. (27/11/2008)

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