Monday, 4 July 2011

Lviv: Veni, Vidi, Vicit

It's probably wrong, but it's supposed to mean "I came. I saw, It conquered".

To ask about Lvov in Poland is to be enveiled in nationalistic, patriotic and ethnicity mystique. I therefore went with a completely open mind about what it might actually be like as a place, with, if anything, a fear that it would be rather austere and dull.

I was completely smitten. It felt very much like an old Italian town, with the ornately decorated grandeur of the buildings stretching back into the more decrepit parts of the old area. It was unlike so many old cities where, to the extent they exist in such quality and quantity, these quickly disappear outside the main central area. Much more Paris than Warsaw or Krakow. (I thought I was just being fanciful, but I was relieved to see that Wikipedia describes it as the "Little Paris of Ukraine".

Being on a Polish coach trip, the visit was oriented as part of the pilgrimage to what used to be part of the homeland. First stop was at the Lychakiv Cemetery. I long ago gave up trying to withstand the pushing and shoving to get close enough to hear the tour guide - with the added hazard this time of a couple of old ladies constantly pushing their umbrellas into my head to get through the space I had left outside the mob, but it largely seemed to be about legendary Polish characters (all obscure to me without prior research) plus the Polish war grave area. However, it is a beautiful cemetery and a non-aligned guide would make it worth visiting. The busts representing the dead in this particular part gave a particularly strong impression of real people being there - the picture fails to do it justice. They were Ukrainian and didn't even warrant a moment's pause for the tour.

The Italian feeling extended even to the ordinary cafe bars that were plentifully sprinkled around the city - a feature I very much miss in Poland (and was disappointed not to find in Amsterdam old town). Our first stop after the cemetery was to climb to a popular viewpoint, but on a very wet, cloudy and misty day, I couldn't see the point and we went into an ornate tourist cafe at the bottom. It was beautifully decorated inside, but having got up at 4:30 and by now it being afternoon, the first cup of coffee of the day was well overdue - any place would have done.

There was the inevitable church tourism, but Lviv does have beautiful church interiors. The best, at least in overall impression, was the Armenian Cathedral. (Google translated Polish link, as the English version is not very good.) We only had five minutes, but I was completely struck by the painting of the Burial of Saint Odilon, who established All Saints and All Souls days - researched only now. The spirits of the dead walking beside the bier come out more clearly in the picture than when I was there looking at what appeared to be strange unrecognisable lines. I was told that it was an ancient painting that had been restored in the 20th Century, but the features of the middle character immediately drew my attention by being completely modern. Looking it up now, it is an early 20th Century painting by Jan Henryk Rosen. (Indeed, although the immediate impression is of ancient artwork, it may all date from that period - an amazing achievement.)

Chruches still have their monasteries and places of refuge beside them for people like this wild haired and bearded man, standing at least half naked looking out of the window - every inch an eccentric (mad?) holy man.

Our final destination was the Opera.

The Opera is the perfect size for both intimacy and effect (although one of the chorus seemed to have a set of false teeth several times too big for her). La Traviata is not really a wise choice for me, as a non-opera lover, where my greatest fear is that I start to snore: fortunately, I didn't, even though I had had little sleep in the previous 48 hours. Julia Lysenko was excellent in her lead role and the costumes and scenery were impressive.

All in all, it was worthwhile attending the performance. (I'm not allowed to show pictures like this, but I love it.)

I'd love to have time to stay in Lviv and get properly acquainted with it. I completely recommend it to anyone, especially those of us who consider it a rather exotic destination primarily known from Soviet times. (I don't know how English language friendly it would be, but it can't be that difficult to manage.) However, I don't expect to go back in the near future. Although one hears of the politics of opening up the borders, the aim when going by road seems clearly to discourage visitors. It was described to me as the border guard caring only about themselves and not travellers - closing the border for shift changes and booths shutting while the guards go off for a break. However, this can only happen when people in charge don't want it to be any different. (Both sides will explain why the other side is to blame, but that just shows that political willingness to overcome problems has failed.) I've never seen border guards anywhere - even at Dover in the bad old days - try so hard to match faces to passport photographs - Polish and Ukrainian both. (Photo of the closed border for the Polish morning shift change.)

Actually, I was quite looking forward to a long delay at the border. I thought I would be able to sleep in the coach a bit before driving from Zamość to Warsaw. Unfortunately, a nearby passenger, having finished off his large half of a bottle of Ukrainian vodka, got into extremely load discourse/ prompted monologue on the problems of Poland, etc, lasting from around 9:00 in the evening to past 1:00 in the morning. Although he was asked a couple of times not to speak so loud, this had little effect. He just wouldn't shut-up ... until a very rude Englishman told him to: first in Polish and then, when asked, in English. On his prompting, I finally asked him to "please be silent", on which he finished, muttering little more than "shut up" in English to his mate, which was actually what I first heard him doing in the morning when we were first in the bus (and hence my choice of words). Actually he would have been great fun over a few beers in a pub. I would have like to hear more about his view that life is and the people are much better in Zamość than Warsaw. It's also fun when I find that I know more about Poland than the person talking: in this case about the creation of Polish towns. Who else could have created a town but the great Jan Zamoyski? Hundreds of Polish nobles, as it happens. The completely unknown Jan Rusiecki (or something like that, I haven't rechecked my facts) created local Nadarzyn ... under Chełm Law and all that stuff.

Try flying instead.

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