Tourists who want to see the gems of Central and Eastern Europe include Prague, Budapest and Krakow in their itineraries. Few go to the western Ukrainian city of Lviv, which glitters as much as any city in the region. Lviv, only a few hours” drive from Krakow, has often been compared with it. Both cities have unquestionable charm and beauty, and both share similar histories. But, unlike Krakow, the tourist industry has yet to spoil Lviv, a city of about 800,000. You see tourists from all over – especially Poles in the summer – but not the throngs of visitors elsewhere.Wandering along the beautiful cobblestone streets or riding an old tram, you can get bewitched by the relaxed atmosphere.
Complex history and present diversity
Lviv is only 80 kilometers from the Polish border town of Medyka. Danylo Halytskiy, one of the most powerful princes in east-central Europe, founded it as a fort in the 18th Century. He named it after his son Lev, which meant Leo, a lion.A lion is still the symbol of the city. You see stone lions everywhere.Lviv was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire for two centuries and of Poland for 500 years. It was also a melting pot of ethnic and religious groups. Greeks, Italians, Serbs, Armenians, Hungarians, Russians and Jews were among those who settled there, contributing to today’s variety of traditions and architecture. After the Russians, Austro-Hungarians and Prussians partitioned Poland at the end of the 18th Century, Lviv, then known as Lemberg, became the capital of the Austrian kingdom of Galicia and Lodomeria. Although the Austrians changed the official language of the city to German and put most of the city’s administrative posts in Austrian hands, Lviv remained an important center of Ukrainian and Polish culture. As in Krakow, Austrian rule was liberal. Most of the time, residents of Lviv could develop both culture and science freely.With the collapse of the Habsburg empire at the end of World War I, the Ukrainian population proclaimed Lviv the capital of the West Ukrainian People’s Republic.The Poles, who constituted a majority in the city, took up arms to ensure that Lviv and the surrounding region were Polish. They soon took control of most of the city. The Ukrainians then attacked the Polish irregular forces defending Lviv, including a group of boys known as the Eaglets. Heavy fighting did not end until July 1919. In 1920 the Ukrainians signed an agreement recognizing Polish control of Lviv.Both Polish and Ukrainian victims of the fighting are buried at the picturesque Lychakivskiy Cemetery. Conflict between Polish and Ukrainian officials about the inscription on a plaque commemorating the fighters, and about other cemetery issues, have erupted many times over the years. In 2005 the sides finally reached agreement on the inscription. It simply says: “Polish and Ukrainian soldiers killed in the years 1918-1919 are buried here.”
An uneasy dialogue
Conflict about the Lviv Eaglets Cemetery still strains relations between the city’s Polish and Ukrainian residents. “We are a minority now,” said Zbigniew Jarmiolko, vice chairman of the Society of Polish Culture in Lviv, an organization that the Polish government finances. “Currently there are only between 12,000 and 20,000 Poles in Lviv.”Jarmiolko added: “Local authorities in Lviv ? in fact, in all Ukraine – simply ignore Poles. There is no cooperation between us and the City Council.”When the occupation of Poland ended after World War I, Lviv became part of an independent Polish state. That led to a surge in Polish immigrants, further reducing the minority Ukrainian population.Roman Catholics, the majority of them Poles, accounted for 64 percent of the population in the 1920s. Ukrainian Orthodox followers were in second place. After World War II, all of what is now Ukraine, including Lviv, became part of the Soviet Union. The Ukrainians expelled most of the Polish population to Poland.The population transfers altered the traditional ethnic and religious composition of the city. The Ukrainians converted most of the Catholic churches into Orthodox.The Soviets pursued a policy of Russification in Ukraine – forcing Russian culture and institutions on the Ukrainians. Although communism was atheistic, the Soviets grudgingly allowed some religious activity. But they wanted it Russified. So they ordered the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church abolished. Its parishes were transferred to the Ukrainian division of the Russian Orthodox Church. After the death of Soviet dictator Josef Stalin in 1953, the policy of Russification in Ukraine was relaxed. Lviv again became a major hub of Ukrainian culture.Three gorgeous cathedrals – Roman Catholic, Greek Catholic and Armenian – are among the city’s biggest tourist attractions today. Their beauty masks a tension among the branches of Catholicism, however.The Roman Catholic bishop of Lviv, Marian Buczek, noted that “Lviv has for ages been a city of multicultural dialogue but now relations between Roman Catholics and Greek Catholics aren?t a model.” Although the Roman Catholics built the Seminary Church, he pointed out, an agreement between the Roman Catholics and Greek Catholics led to both Latin and Greek masses being held there. “However, to our surprise, the Greek Catholics built an iconostas next to the main altar, which prevented us from saying mass at the main altar.” An iconostas is a partition on which icons are placed. It separates the main altar from the rest of the church. The iconostas is only used by Greek Catholics. Roman Catholics use the main altar. After the Greek Catholics built the iconostas in the church, Roman Catholics could no longer say their masses from the main altar.
Andrzej Cirog is a carpenter for the Roman Catholic parishes of Lviv. He is Polish but has a Ukrainian wife and is proud of his dual identity.”My two daughters were brought up to respect both religious traditions, Roman and Greek Catholicism,” he said. Cirog has for years been head of the ethnic-Polish Boy Scouts in Ukraine.Another of his volunteer activities has been donating blood. He has done so almost 50 times. Only once has he come across xenophobic feelings related to the donations. It happened not in Lviv, but in Poland.”Some time ago, when I was in Przemysl, I heard on the radio that blood was needed for victims of an accident,” he said. “I went to a hospital and wanted to donate blood. They asked me where I was from. When I replied Lviv, they said they didn’t need my Ukrainian blood.”He noted sadness that before 1918 Poles and Ukrainians were like brothers. The conflict over Lviv changed that.Has he ever considered moving to Poland? “No,” he said. “I feel happy here in Ukraine, and I am proud of my Ukrainian citizenship as well as of my Polish nationality.”
Wandering around the myth-city
Many Poles consider Lviv a kind of mythical city, a bridge between the Western and Eastern civilizations, the Latin world and the Orthodox. Polish tourists find traces of Polish, Armenian and Jewish culture throughout the city. Some wish wistfully that Lviv was still Polish. Today’s Lviv is not only a Ukrainian city, however, but also the heart of the Ukrainian independence movement and Ukrainian culture. Thousands of Lviv residents traveled to Kiev to lead the Orange Revolution that prevented the pro-RussianViktor Yanukovich from stealing the presidential elecition of 2004. Although many Polish tourists spend only a weekend in Lviv, the city is worth a four- or five-day stay. It takes that long to explore the city’s unique atmosphere and its treasures from the past.Some of its architectural, historical and cultural wonders date to the 13th Century. Lviv boasts more than 30 museums of history, ethnography, art – and even arms. The city has also always been an important educational center, led by its famous Ivan Franko University and its Lvivska Politekhnika (Lviv Polytechnic University). In 1998 the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization added the historical center of Lviv to its list of World Cultural and Heritage sites.The historical city center of Lviv is bigger than Krakow’s Old Town. From the city’s highest vantage point, Wysoki Zamek Hill, you can see a vast area of the Old Town with many church towers. Around it are a lot of lovely Western European-style buildings, many built by the Austrians. It isn’t until you get beyond those that you find the ugly, typical Soviet blocks of apartments.The city’s key attractions include a Renaissance-style Market Square with a big 19th-Century Town Hall in the middle, a 14th-Century Armenian Cathedral, a 500-year-old Roman Catholic Cathedral, Boim’s Chapel, St. George Cathedral, an Opera House that rivals the one in Vienna and the 19th-Century Stryj Park. It’s easy to get to Lviv from Krakow. One way is a night bus. The drawback is long lines getting through Ukrainian Immigration at the border at Medyka.Another way is to take a train to Przemysl and then a 20-minute minibus ride to Medyka. The fastest way to get to Ukraine is to cross the border on foot in Medyka at the border post with all the Ukrainian and Polish cigarette and alcohol smugglers. This is also an interesting attraction to see. On the Ukrainian side you simply catch a minibus to Lviv. The whole trip shouldn’t take more than six hours.