Until 1919, Krakow and Lviv (Lemburg) were Polish and part of Austro Hungary’s province of Galicia since the partition of Poland in 1772. Lemburg was the capital. Now Polish Krakow is in Nato and the EU and Lemburg (Lvov/Lviv) is in the Ukraine. Their common roots are easy to see from churches to coffee houses. All too apparently Austro-Hungary permitted the Poles their national identity in the arts and this paid off with wonderful Art Nouveau and Art Deco in both cities. In the case of the other two partitioners, Prussia and Russia, this was not so.
Trade routes of amber and salt, in the later Middle Ages, bought fine universities, exquisite architecture, open squares, collections of art and a polyglot population of Jews, Armenians, Poles, Germans Ukrainians and others. These two beautiful cities were a hub of Central Europe.
Krakow is now firmly on the tourist route and no surprise. I had last been there 40 years ago. I remembered the magnificent Renaissance architecture which even the greyness of Communism could not blunt. The Kazimierz founded by King Kazimierz the great in the 1330s, for the Jews, is now lively and full of small trendy shops. I remember it as a blackened grimness and one or two sad inhabitants.
The Wawel Castle is a must, with the Cathedral its greatest building. The monuments alone are worth a good hour. The State Rooms have been reconstituted to a high standard and fine Polish craftsmanship is everywhere. Go to the Oriental museum to see trophies from the Turkish wars to really put this part of the world in context. Danger always came from the East. At present the great Leonardo ‘Lady with an Ermine’ is shown here as the Czartorsky Museum is presently closed.
The churches are richly diverse and visits to as many as possible are advisable. Faith is still strong here and many are full of religious and lay congregations. A few ‘must sees’: St. Mary’s, of course, with the stunning Viet Stoss Altar; the Franciscans’ church frescoed by Stanislaw Wyspianski, one of the greatest of Poland’s 20th century painters. His too are the stained glass windows. The Poor Clares were singing out of sight when we visited. Through the screen is one of two remarkable boat pulpits – an apparent reference to St Peter. However, one of the most beautiful of the Baroque interiors is the University Church of St. Anne, the favourite of Pope John Paul. He was a graduate of the university and the admiration for this brave devout man is everywhere in the city.
For all the sophistication of good restaurants and cafes, look out too for the wealth of traditional crafts, in small shops in and around the Cloth Hall and elsewhere. A welcome feature of the Austro-Hungarian regime are the coffee houses, many with original interiors to say nothing of the quality of the cakes.
Enroute for the border I suggest a halt in Tarnow. The church has magnificent tombs and in one of the Canons’ houses is the little Church Museum. Close by is a rare museum of Enthnography dedicated to the Roma and the Jews.
Our main visit, along this new excellent road to the border, is the Castle of Lancut belonging until the end of the war to the Potacki family, whose town house is in Lviv and now houses that city’s art gallery.
The family managed to remove many valuables before the advancing Soviet army. There are rumours that the family are trying to get Lancut back. It is wonderful inside with genuine Rococo rooms alongside their 19th century counterparts. Especially fine is the sculpture gallery, not so much for the marbles themselves – although Canova’s statue of the ‘adopted son’ of Isabella Potacki causes a stir – but for the wonderful decorations of faux ruins on the walls. There is a perfectly good tape in English but you must be there by 15.00 at the latest.
Leave 1 to 2 hours to get through the border. Our journey was fraught, as the civil war in the East, over one thousand kilometres away, was rumbling on. Our Ukrainian driver came from Lviv to pick us up, on time, at the Stary hotel at 9 a.m. and then we drove back towards the border to find it closed. A WWII bomb had been found and it had to be defused. Was this true or was it the NATO exercises on the other side of the border? We will never really know but the area had been fought over by the Soviets, the Nazis and the Soviets again between 1939 and 1944. Our detour took several hours.
Both cities were physically undamaged in the last war. In 1939, in Lviv (Lvov), 10,000 ‘enemies of the people’ were killed by the Soviets. The Nazis decimated the Jews. Lviv’s remaining Poles, in 1945, refusing to become Ukrainian, decamped in open trucks in winter to bombed out Wraclaw (Breslau) complete with university professors and library.
There is a buzz in Lviv, the streets are busy, live music is played from many corners, and groups play chess and dominoes in the sun. The cafes, with their famous patisseries, are full but here and there are collecting centres for the war. Volunteers, young and old, are being sent with the most basic training to fight the separatists in the east of the country who are well supplied by Russia. There was shock when Putin took the Crimea on a fudged referendum. “Scotland did not have soldiers with guns in the voting booths” it was pointed out to me. His propaganda machine is in full swing.
Putin needs a corridor to the Crimea which otherwise is difficult to sustain. East Ukraine is a land grab with emotional baggage. The Russians have not enjoyed losing their empire and the West has been slow to realise this. Meanwhile the Ukrainians, who are often linked by family and linguistic ties to Russia, also fear its encroachment. “I think the East should be allowed devolution as long as Russia does not take more land.” Another whispered in the Art Gallery “all we want is peace”.
The 18th century cemetery on the outskirts of the town is, not only the burial place for those who contributed to Lviv’s rich heritage (there are 13 languages involved on the inscriptions) but, also the war memorial. Poles, Ukrainians (civil war for 1919/20) as well as those killed fighting on the Austrian side as Galicians in 1914-18, again in WWII – row upon row all ordered and dignified. There were a group of Polish children being taken around. It was not always so – in 1971 Brezhnev ordered its destruction and rubbish filled the space. No one was allowed in. There was a hole in the fence and gradually the rubbish was removed bag by bag. The whole was restored in the 1990s after Ukraine broke away from the Soviet Union. Now there are fresh graves of those that were killed in the recent protests in Maiden Square in Kiev and more of those recent deaths in the East. To understand the difference between East and West Ukraine look at the neighbours. Lviv remains one of the most enchanting of cities. Visit when you can.
Hotel – The Stary
Restaurants – Pod Aniolami
Guides – Christine Rickards Rostworowska
Restaurant – Zamkowa
Hotel – Astoria
Restaurants – Seven Piggies (wonderful musicians) and Mons Puis (Armenian – delicious)
Guides – Galyna Zadorovska – arranged by Marina Kondokova of New Logic Company