hidden europe 55

Between East and West: The Ukrainian City of Lviv

by Nicky Gardner

Picture above: Fading Habsburg style on Lviv’s main square (photo © hidden europe).


The city of Lviv, located in the western reaches of Ukraine, is in many respects a classic central European city, a place which has more in common with Wien, Trieste and Budapest than with other cities in the former Soviet Union – of which Lviv was of course a part. We report from a city which has a complex and layered history, something which makes Lviv all the more interesting.

From time to time, one of the upper windows of the town hall in Lviv is thrown open and a trumpeter plays a short melody. It is a ritual which reminds us of the hourly bugle call from the tower of St Mary’s Basilica in Kraków’s graceful market square. The main square in Lviv, with its rainbow array of coloured buildings presided over by statues of Greek goddesses, doesn’t quite match that in Kraków. But Lviv’s rynok does have its own special charm, and the introduction of the trumpeter in 2012 is just one indication that the one-time Galician city of Lviv is keen to upstage its rival Kraków, which in Habsburg days was the other great city of Galicia.

Lviv and Kraków share a common history as part of the same Austrian Crownland and after the First World War their fates were intertwined as Poland’s two most important southern cities. But things changed after 1945, with Poland ceding a swathe of territory in its south-east corner, including Lviv, to the Soviet Union. Cyrillic signs replaced the Latin alphabet in the Lviv streetscape. But in the past years the Latin script is very much back in fashion, at least on Lviv’s showpiece rynok and in other parts of the city much frequented by visitors. And Lviv, in Habsburg days so influenced by the mainstream currents of European life, is now reasserting its status as the most cosmopolitan of Ukrainian cities.

“We’re keen to attract visitors,” says the young man in the tourist office located in the town hall. “And one way to do that is by using an alphabet and signage with which visitors feel comfortable.”

The poster in the tourist office proclaims a message written in English. Not a hint of Cyrillic. It reads: “Lviv. Open to the World.”

“Getting people to come here is not always easy,” the young man continues. “It’s hard to persuade would-be visitors that Lviv is another world from Donetsk and the other troubled places in eastern Ukraine.”

A country at war

In the old Jesuit Church, just a short walk from the town hall, the war in the east seems rather closer at hand. The Jesuits are long gone and these days the church, which is dedicated to Saints Peter and Paul, is run by the military chaplaincy of Ukraine’s Greek-Catholic Church. This 17th-century building has a predictable feast of baroque extravagance, including some very fine frescoes by Moravian artist Franz Eckstein and his son Sebastian. One of Eckstein’s murals depicts Turkish forces laying siege to Lviv, while a Muslim soldier holds a burning torch above the city’s buildings.

Below that mural are rows of photographs of Ukrainian soldiers who have died in the battles against separatists in the Donetsk and Luhansk provinces. It is these images, rather than the Eckstein murals, which command the attention of the faithful.

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