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The mountain guide from Kazakhstan, Andrey Gundarev
Lviv’s Gothic and Much More
Probably late autumn is not the right time for visiting this city. However, it is this dull weather that cloaks the city with a mysterious atmosphere…
I flew to Kiev from Almaty on a plane of the AeroSvit company: recently this has been the most convenient, fastest and cheapest means of air communication between Ukraine and Kazakhstan. Early in the morning, having arrived in Lviv from Kiev, I was welcomed at the train station by humidity and fog, and the visibility at the station square was not more than 10 meters. A tramway emerged from the fog and carried me to the city center through dormitory suburbs. It seemed as if I was disappearing in the fog, through which castle towers and city hall’s steeples were struggling. I was amazed by the fact that passengers in narrow-gauge tramways had been punching tickets since the Soviet times! On bulletin boards there were posters teaching how to speak Ukrainian correctly.
It so happened that I had already been to Ukraine twice, but in both cases not as a tourist. That is why having been invited by Ukrainian friends to travel across the country, I decided not to miss this opportunity. The itinerary seemed to be rather diversified: it was planned a visit to Chernigov, Kiev, Lviv, Uzhgorod, Lutsk, Khmelnitski and, if possible, Chernobyl. I’d like to point out that emphasis was laid on the western region.
Since the Soviet times, Lviv has seemed to be kind of detached from everything. Time has changed, but the city remains as if it belonged to another world.
So it is Lviv’s center. Emerald green lawns covered with multicolored autumn leaves, grey walls of ancient buildings and fog. For some reason this picture seemed familiar to me. Later I learned that the famous Soviet film The Three Musketeers had been shot there. However, such déjà vu is not very useful when walking around the old town: one can get lost easily, especially in fog. That is why it would be better not to go far from the Ploshcha Rynok (Market Square) and move forward gradually discovering new castles, cathedrals and chapels and absorbing the dank gothic atmosphere of the ancient city.
Have you ever been at a drugstore in which the interior design has remained unchanged for 150 years, including the cash register? Where, instead of glass shop-windows with lying drug packages in them, there are small vials with mixtures and herbs staying along the wall on shabby wooden shelves? Or ridden on a swing with the seat held by the jaws of two realistic cast iron lions (greetings from Lviv)? Or been photographed near the statue of the «founder» of masochism Sacher-Masoch, who was born in Lviv, by the way? If you put your hand deep into the pocket of his trousers, you can find there … What do you think…? Yes, that’s Lviv.
Having viewed medieval buildings long enough, you may go (at least to get warm) to one of the city’s museums. And if you wish to give yourself up to autumn melancholy and absorb the medieval spirit of witchcraft (which I felt in the very same drugstore) you should then start with the Museum of History of Religion located in the Dominican Church. Considerable part of the exhibition is devoted to the history of inquisition, where you can find corresponding attributes and models imitating torture process. It is impressive…
By that time the fog had started to lift, so I decided to observe the city from the Lviv’s city hall (bulding of municipal administration located in the center of the city at the Ploshcha Rynok). Entrance to the city hall is free of charge, on its tower there is a paid observation platform: tickets for adults cost 5 grivnas, for children — 3 grivnas. In former times, near the city hall there was a pillory to which any townsman could use for fastening his quarrelsome wife. For a number of reasons, wives were not allowed to treat their husbands in the same manner. Nowadays, there is no pillar of course.
However there are still a lot of legends, and the city hall is considered to be the most evil place where ghosts appear regularly at night (inter alia there have been preserved «evidences» of the clerks of the last century who saw a black coffin in the city hall many times).
The view of the city from the city hall is marvellous even in bad weather. However, one can have even more exciting views from the Bald Mountain, which is the most iconic hill in Lviv. Everyone knows that witches hold their Sabbaths on the Bald Mountain in the night-time. While in the day-time the mointain has more attractive name — Zamkovaya Mountain (Castle mountain). There is television tower as well and High Castle park with observation platform on the hill of the Union of Lublin. Lastly, you can view the Prince’s Vysoky Zamok (High Castle), to put it more precisely — its ruins.
By the way, the Bald Mountain has its namesake in another part of Lviv. Apart from it, you also can visit several elevations with the names quite corresponding to Lviv’s gothic — Chyortova Skala (Devil’s Rock), Zmeeva Gora (Serpent’s Mountain), Gora Kaznei (Executions Mountain) — welcome to the gloomy fairy tale!
To increase the gloominess (I understand of course that it may be interesting only for gothic-lovers) you can descend one of the hills and visit the ancient Lychakovskoye cemetery with amazingly beautiful monuments, or more modern Lviv Eaglets Memorial where soldiers of several wars are buried.
After this, go to the city center again to discover new castles and even ordinary buildings which may keep spirits of many centuries.
As a matter of fact, the citizens of Lviv do not correspond to the general background absolutely: young people pass time at kavarnyas (coffee houses) and yedalnyas (cafes); coffee at those coffee houses is just as amazing as it was a hundred years ago when Ukraine was a part of the USSR.
Lviv’s coffee houses are a pleasure to the eye thanks to their antique interior design — without plastic, but with abundance of coffee grades and incredible desserts. At cafes, traditional deruns (potato pancakes), carp with sour cream and fried brain are served.
Fog has a special feature — it is cold. Therefore, in the intervals between ascents, descents, discoveries and legends, it would be better to keep to the beaten track and let yourself visit kavarnyas, yedalnyas and simple bars. The more so, prices there are far from being exorbitant.
I’d like to mention separately a bar named Kriivka (which means cache or refuge). There are no any special signboards, but people will lead you through the breezeway to an iron door with a small window in it, behind which there is a man on duty wearing a military uniform of the Ukrainian partisans-banderovtsy. If you knock on the window it will open and someone will ask you about the purpose of your visit and whether or not you are «moskals». After the answer: «Not «moskals» of course!» the door will be opened and you will see a man with German Schmeisser on his belly. Now you must pass the second stage (what if you are a skilful «moskal» after all?): to the password «Glory to Ukraine!» you must answer «Glory to the Heroes!». After that, you will be given glass of mead and finally allowed to enter the building. Having walked down a perpendicular staircase to the basement you will get to a bar imitating a large dugout. On the walls there are old photographs showing banderovtsy, uniform, tridents symbolizing independence and portraits of Stepan Bandera, who is a recent Ukrainian hero. Just imagine, in Lviv a monument was erected to him and one of the streets was named in his honour. Smart waiters wearing military uniform serve simple meals (however not inexpensive this time) — mead and pig salve, fried potato and gorilka (Ukrainian vodka).
It is understood of course that after Kriivka, all the gothic atmosphere will go up in smoke. After that there will be only two things to do: either walk to the Bald Mountain or go back to the hotel (outside the center it is possible to find good rooms for 15-20 dollars per person). If this is the end of our visit to Lviv, then go to the train station again. There is also a legend connected with it, which is deemed to be based on evidences of eyewitnesses. This story took place at the end of the century before last, several years after the first railroad transport appeared in Ukraine. A mysterious train started to appear on the Lviv’s railways, which … passed all the stations at high speed. The culmination happened when it appeared before another train running on the opposite direction from Vienna. However the trains did not collide, the mysterious train vanished in the Vienna express just in front of eyes of the astonished witnesses. It is that after this accident, the railway suffered losses of money because passengers were afraid of the ghost train and refused to buy tickets.
However, in my case, a quite usual comfortable train arrived at the platform and carried me further to the west of Ukraine.
Lviv is located in western Ukraine, in the center of ancient Halicia, about 70 km far from the Polish border. The city used to belong to Poland before the World War II (many Poles consider it to be their own up until now). The population is about 760 thousand people. The first written records referring to the city date back to 1256.
The city was named (according to the most popular version) in the honour of Lev, who was the son of the city’s founder Daniil Galetsky. In Lviv there is a lot of lion statues. In 1998 Lviv’s historic center was included in the UNESCO's World Heritage List.
How much time is necessary to see the sights of Lviv? Taking into account the fact that in the city and its suburbs there are over fifteen palaces and castles and innumerable churches, cloisters and towers, it will take from three days to… well, it depends on your mood.
A few words about communication. Don’t think that in the western Ukraine there live only nationalists. If a person does not speak to you in Russian, it does not mean that he does not want to. The major part of population actually have problems with speaking Russian (even Polish is more popular there), however they understand it rather well. People get accustomed to such manner of communication quickly and start to use Ukrainian words and phrases in their speech.
People living in western Ukraine are considered to be rather tightfisted, however I’d like to point out their integrity, even if it turns out that you are a «moskal», fraud is ruled out. They can only crack some jokes using incomprehensible mix of the Ukrainian and Polish languages.
Remember that prices of many meals on the menu (including carps and brain) are shown not per portion, but per 100 g, therefore you should be careful when choosing a meal.