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Heritage Survives a Complicated Past in Lviv, Ukraine

New York Times, By JEFF SCHLEGEL, Published: July 23, 2006

OUT of the blue, my nine young companions broke into a folk song, their plaintive melody sung in Ukrainian and delivered slightly off-key. I hadn’t a clue what it was about, but the cognac-fueled tune was moving.

It was around midnight at a cafe in Lviv’s historic city center, and we were the only customers in the house.

Earlier that evening, Katarina, a woman with auburn hair and one of this clique of early 20-something artist types, had described the burgeoning arts scene in Lviv. Yuriy, bright-eyed and happy-go-lucky, wanted to practice his English and wrote down each slang word I uttered. Several others were curious about what I thought of Ukraine and their city.

Such friendliness was in short supply during my prior four days in Kiev, the capital of this Eastern European nation. But this was Lviv, a city of 830,000 people, the so-called capital of western Ukraine, an architectural gem of a city that’s the hub of a culture in a country that, in many ways, still feels Russian.

Roughly 45 miles from the Polish border, Lviv has a polyglot past and precious few years of independence during its 750-year history. In the 20th century alone it changed hands between Austria-Hungary, Poland and the Soviet Union, and was called Lemberg, Lwow and Lvov depending upon who was in charge.

With its ornately handsome buildings and its gala Viennese ball, Lviv still bears vestiges of its days as part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. But behind the Old Europe vibe is a city that has reclaimed its Ukrainian heritage in a bi-polar country still trying to find its identity after gaining independence from the Soviet Union in 1991.

The Orange Revolution in 2004 installed a West-leaning government with aspirations of European Union membership, but the nation’s predominately Russian-speaking eastern half wants to maintain strong ties with Russia. The peaceful, populist-driven Orange Revolution essentially was a free marketing campaign that raised Ukraine’s profile and helped attract more tourists to one of Europe’s last travel frontiers. The attention, coupled with Lviv’s proximity to the West, provide the city a spotlight to shine alongside better-known Eastern and Central European cities similarly rich in history and architecture.

Lviv’s medieval layout can be a warren of confusion, as I discovered last May soon after I arrived and tried to find breakfast at Café Veronika, one of the city’s more popular restaurants. But my meandering along cobblestone streets lined with shoulder-to-shoulder buildings and centuries-old churches of various faiths was a pleasant way to meet the city’s people and its history.

My wanderings took me through a downtown market where old women in scarves sold flowers and vegetables from the countryside. I ambled past the trove of old buildings in Renaissance, Baroque, Rococo and neo-Classical styles in central Lviv that make the district a Unesco World Heritage site, and stopped at the bronze statue of Danylo, a 13th-century Galician prince who founded the city as a trade route fortress and named it for his son, Lev.

Lviv’s location along trade routes made it a gathering place of Germans, Poles, Austrians, Hungarians, Bulgarians, Armenians, Jews and others. But its east-west straddle also left Lviv vulnerable to military and political invasions over the centuries.

Yet, somehow, Lviv maintained its Old World charm. Unlike Kiev, which was devastated by both the Nazis and the Soviets during World War II and, some might say, devastated even more after the war by Soviet architects, Lviv survived its conquerors with its old structures intact.

I arranged a tour with Oleksandr Ruchko, an artist and tour guide. Alex, as he’s called in English, looked to be in his mid 30’s and bore a resemblance to the late Clash frontman Joe Strummer. He took me to Plosha Rynok, or Market Square, the heart of the old city where the 210-foot-tall Town Hall is ringed by 44 three- and four-story buildings in earth tones and charcoal that were once 16th-century town houses for the nobility and wealthy merchants. Over the centuries, the buildings have been refurbished and reflect various styles, including Baroque, Gothic and Renaissance. Fountains with statues of Greek gods and goddesses frame the four corners of the square.

Here, German and Polish tour groups wandered about, and at the cafe in front of the Town Hall people sipped beer under the green and white Lvivske beer umbrellas.

During our tour, Alex and I looked up at many ceilings. “We have the most beautiful frescos in our town,” said Alex as we gazed upon those in the Armenian Cathedral, one of the city’s oldest buildings. But Alex seemed more of a street-level person with his finger on the pulse of Lviv. We stopped at an outdoor cafe near Market Square, ordered a round of Lvivske Premium Lagers, a potent local brew, and Alex talked about his participation in the Orange Revolution, of how the throng that was jammed into Independence Square in Kiev drummed its feet to create an earthquakelike effect he believes rattled the powers that be.

Lviv has become “an open-minded place that’s good for creative people,” he said. “Those over 40 years old here don’t interest me because they’re too old to change. They complain too much and they’re too complacent. My 20-year-old friends here are very optimistic and are trying to do good things.”

It was here, at a cafe on Shevska Street called Bookva Punkt, or Letter Point, that we met up with his young friends who would give me a taste of Ukrainian folk music as we drank late into the night.

The next morning I returned for breakfast at Café Veronika, a Vienna-style coffee shop and restaurant on Shevchenka Street. The day before, I had dined downstairs in the dark, cozy brick grotto lighted only by Tiffany-style lamps. This time I dined alfresco on homemade pastries and an omelet full of veggies. My meals there were delicious, but the service — like that just about everywhere in Ukraine — was very slow.

Later I returned to a museum that Alex and I visited the day before on Virmenska Street, a narrow thoroughfare that encapsulates both old — the 1363 cut-stone Armenian Cathedral, for instance — and new.

A couple of blocks up is the Dzyga Cultural Center, a museum of contemporary art housed in a former Dominican monastery of an 18th-century Baroque church that is currently showing the ceramic artworks of two local artists, Lesya and Oleksandr Ros. The indoor cafe displayed a portrait of the former President Leonid D. Kuchma dressed as a peasant woman.

DZYGA, or “spinning top,” is the nexus of bohemian life in Lviv. It’s run by an association that puts together music and ballet performances and art events across the city. A few people wandered through the gallery; others sipped beverages in the indoor cafe or sat, as I did, under an umbrella on the patio. From my vantage point, I could see that Lviv was showing its age. Virmenska Street, for instance, is lined with 19th-century buildings painted rust, tawny, yellow and pale green. Some were pockmarked by crumbling cement and frayed cornices. The cobblestone street itself was sunken in spots. Although outwardly attractive, Lviv is a relatively poor city, and many centuries-old buildings that seem in need of a little plastic surgery will have to wait because the city has other pressing needs, like trying to provide a 24-hour water supply to the outlying sections of the city.

“It’s hard to make money here,” said Katarina, one of the artists I had met the night before, as we walked along Prospekt Svobody, or Freedom Avenue, the main thoroughfare.

Tough economic conditions aren’t as evident on the avenue’s wide, chestnut-lined esplanade, which is usually crowded with strollers and lined with packed benches, some with chess matches going on that never fail to attract spectators. Nearby, the plaza in front of the Lviv Opera and Ballet House, a majestic 1900 building with a richly decorated, neo-Renaissance facade, is a busy playground of horseback rides and kiddie go-karts. At night, people cram the restaurants and outdoor cafes along Prospekt Svobody, and ubiquitous Eurobeat dance music is everywhere.

The following day at dusk, I was near Prospekt Svobody when I heard the throaty, operatic roar of beautiful singing coming from what I thought was an outdoor performance at the Opera House. Instead, it came from a crowd of older people standing informally farther down the esplanade. They sang a song, stopped, chatted and lingered, then sang again. And on it went for an hour or so.

“You have seen people who enjoy their independence and they prefer to demonstrate it by singing folk songs,” Alex, my guide, explained later. “This is possible to see quite often.”

VISITOR INFORMATION


GETTING THERE Direct flights from New York to Kiev cost about $1,100. The overnight train from Kiev to Lviv costs $30 a person in a four-person compartment.

The country dialing code is 380; the city dialing code, 322.

WHERE TO STAY


The Grand Hotel, 13 Prospekt Svobody; 72-40-42 or 72-76-65, www.ghgroup.com.ua. The Grand, in the heart of Lviv, is the city’s most upscale hotel. Built in 1892, it reflects the ornate stylings of turn-of-the-last-century Austria-Hungary. Doubles from 795 to 1,590 hryvnia (about $170 to $340 at 5.35 hryvnia to the dollar).

Hotel George, 1 Mickiewicz Square; 72-59-52, www.georgehotel.ukrbiz.net. Also in central Lviv, this 1901 Neo-Renaissance structure combines Viennese charm with amazingly affordable rates. Doubles range from 185 to 535 hryvnia, including breakfast.

Apartments in or near central Lviv are a slice-of-life alternative to hotels. I rented a comfortable apartment for $50 a night through Astro Travel, 2204 Bloor Street West, Toronto, Ontario, M6S 1N4; (905) 804-8826; www.ukrainetour.com.

WHERE TO EAT


Café Veronika, 21 Shevchenka Street; 97-81-28. Best breakfast in Lviv, including fabulous pastries. Full-scale dinner menu, too. Dine outdoors, or choose from two downstairs dining rooms. Entrees from 25 to 100 hryvnia.

Videnska Kavyarnya, 12 Prospekt Svobody; 72-20-21. Fine food, with ground-level and rooftop patios. Entrees 25 to 75 hryvnia.

WHAT TO SEE AND DO


Dzyga Cultural Center, 35 Virmenska Street; 75-21-01. A contemporary art space with a music hall and bar.

The National Museum in Lviv comprises two buildings: the original museum at 42 Drahomanov Street, 72-57-45; and the newer museum at 20 Prospekt Svobody, 74-22-82 or 72-89-60, across from the Grand Hotel. Highlights includes Ukrainian icons from the 14th through the 17th century.

The 220 spiral metal steps of Castle Hill, northeast of the city center, lead to the crumbling remains of a castle that is supposedly on the spot where Danylo founded Lviv. Here you’ll find spectacular views of the city and the distant Carpathian Mountains.

Oleksandr Ruchko, 75-59-35 or 38 067 9243309 on his cellphone, www.guides.lviv.ua, serves as guide and interpreter in and around Lviv. Very reasonable prices and reliable service.