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New Europe

Day Seventy-seven: L'viv

Michael Palin - New EuropeAny idea of L'viv being a casualty of a promiscuous past is dispelled as soon as we're into the heart of town, which is full of beautiful buildings and generous squares in an unexpectedly rich mix of Baroque and Renaissance styles. Its centre is intimate and perfect for walking and exploring, except that it's pouring with rain and the whole of the Old Town is being dug up and relaid.

This hasn't put off the organisers of a sizeable political rally which has attracted a few hundred umbrellas onto Svobody (Freedom) Square. Ukrainian politics is still volatile after the Orange Revolution of 2004 raised hopes of a new era of reform and Western-style democracy. Since then the liberalisers have split amongst themselves and the more conservative Russophile parties are recovering ground.

L'viv feels European. There's an Opera House as strikingly neo-classical as anything in Paris or Vienna, both Catholic and Orthodox churches, and on Rynok Square, a glorious collection of merchants' houses, with names like Venice House and the Italian Yard. The town hall has a neo-Florentine tower. This was a city on the lucrative route between Europe and Asia, a prosperous city which thrived on trade and tolerance. But there is evidence in the remains of the old Jewish quarter, still unrepaired, of what happens when both trade and tolerance break down. In the pogrom between 1941 and 1944 the Germans, aided by Poles and Ukrainians, emptied the city of its entire Jewish population, most of whom were killed in local concentration camps.

I walk around in the rain, lured by a seductive network of courtyards, stairwells and back alleys, struck by the detail on the walls and facades and cornices. Lions everywhere, of course, L'viv, Lvov and Lwow being derivations of the Latin, Leo. I poke my nose down dark passageways, at the end of which are dimly lit bars, which, for some reason, I'm wary of entering.

L'viv is proving to be a mysterious and intriguing gateway to the second-biggest country on my journey. As far as new Europe goes, Ukraine, I feel, will offer more questions than answers. But just over sixty years ago there was a meeting on what is now Ukrainian soil that provided me with a reason for making this journey. Over a few days in February 1945, Churchill, Roosevelt and Stalin met at Yalta in the Crimea and shaped the Europe that my generation was brought up with. This is somewhere I have to see.
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  • Series: New Europe
  • Chapter: Day Seventy-seven: L'viv
  • Country/sea: Ukraine
  • Place: L'viv
  • Book page no: 182

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