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Peeping into courtyards of old Lviv


A walk through an old section of a big city is a trip into the bygone ages, with each building being an individual with its own story told in the language of its unique architectural form and decoration. These buildings, designed and decorated by local or foreign architects and sculptors, have been home for many generations of tenants who lived, loved and died there. Some of the dwellers were of noble birth, some distinguished themselves by their exploits, discoveries or contributions to culture  the rest just enjoyed life, suffered, existed and passed away leaving behind their spirits. The courtyards are the places where these spirits tend to appear most often.


In the old sections of Lviv, the houses stand shoulder to shoulder, so close to one another that the whole blocks at first sight give an impression of being one undivided solid structure. If you climb to the top of the tower of the Town Hall, youll see an amazing panorama of the medieval town with twisting narrow streets and compact masses of houses. The city being constricted in its growth by the defensive walls, a lot had to be squeezed into the available space. The walls are no longer there but the old sections are, in all of their colourful confusion, with their eloquent silent stories about the past  some stories are edifying, some are informative, some are humorous, and some are tragic. The courtyards are particularly eloquent.

Probably the best known courtyard in Lviv is Virmensky, or the Armenian. According to tradition, the Armenian church in the Armenian Quarter of Lviv was built at the spot where an orchard used to be. The orchard had a quince tree growing in it  the quince had been brought all the way from Armenia, and once Yurko Ivashkevych, a rich man who lived in the Armenian Quarter, noticed that the fruit of the quince when cut in two, had the shape of cross inside. He thought it was a sign from Heaven and had a church built at the spot where the quince grew. Centuries later, the Soviet authorities turned the church into a storage for objects of religious art with no one, except for a few, allowed to take a look either at these objects or at the courtyard. The Soviet regime fell and the church once again became a house of worship with any one welcome to come in and worship or just take a look around. The courtyard paved with cobblestones is accessible as well. The many tombstones to be seen there bear inscriptions in Armenian, Latin and Polish. In fact, people walk over the tombstones and in accordance with Armenian beliefs there is nothing wrong in that  the other way round, the more the tombstone gets worn under shuffling feet, the more sins of the dead person buried underneath will be forgiven.

But if you still feel bad about stepping on a tombstone in the Armenian courtyard, you should be informed that there are no remains left underneath. All the remains were disinterred and taken to a cemetery out of town more than two centuries ago, at the time when Lviv found itself included into the Austrian-Hungarian Empire. The thing is that according to the sanitary and hygienic laws of the Empire, no cemeteries were allowed inside towns and all those ancient graveyards that were located close to churches and in the territories of the monasteries where to be removed. And they were. This massive removal gave rise to several stories, one of which, the most morbid one, runs like this: The remains from the cemetery in the yard of the Bernardine monastery were the last to be removed, and many people saw wagons loaded with bones rolling out of the monastery gates. It so happened that the monastery well was being cleaned at that very time and the two absolutely unconnected events merged into one tall story which has been passed from generation to generation and continues to be told even by the tourist guides. Gullible tourists are told that during the last plague in Lviv centuries ago, the dead bodies were thrown into the Bernardine well; another variant of the same story tells of the Cossack heads chopped off when the Cossacks of Bohdan Khmelnytsky were taken prisoner by the Polish who held the city; still another version has it that the bones were of the unbaptized babies born in sin  there is a nunnery, St Clarissas, just across the road, and the close proximity of a monastery and a nunnery kept adding fuel to this preposterous story.

There is a less gruesome story connected with the yard of the Bernardine monastery. There was a sort of a canopy over the well, with a little statuette of Saint Yan from Dukla on its top. A similar statue of a much bigger size once graced the top of a column that stood near the monastery church but soon after the Soviets established their power in Lviv, the statuette fell apart, for no apparent reason. The saint whose relics were buried near the altar of the monastery church was believed to be the protector of Lviv  during a siege, the saint appeared in the clouds above the beleaguered city and made all the cannon balls and slugs fired by the enemy turn back without doing any damage to Lviv but wreaking havoc on the enemy troops. The enemy troops were so horrified that they lifted the siege and hastily retreated.

The Restoration Workshop housed in one of the buildings of the monastery had for its unofficial emblem the stylized representation of St Yan  the restorers, among whom there were many dissidents of anti-Soviet leanings, regarded themselves to be protectors of Lvivs architectural and artistic heritage from Soviet vandalism.

The Dominican nunnery which is located almost next door to the Bernardine monastery, has its own romantic tale albeit of much woe. Once upon a time there lived a beautiful young woman, Halshka, heiress to the title and immense riches of the Ostrozky Princess. Prince Simeon Slutsky proposed to her and the proposal was accepted. But there was another suitor, Voivode (Governor) Luka from Hurka, a violent man of a bellicose disposition who wanted to marry Halshka for her riches rather than for her beauty. He was so aggressive and insistent that in 1559, the princess sought and found refuge in the Dominican nunnery in Lviv. She patiently waited for her fiance, taking walks in the yard of the monastery among the flower beds. Simeon did manage to slip into the nunnery in the guise of a mendicant nun and see his beloved. She was prepared to leave the nunnery and marry Simeon, but Voivode Luka, on learning where she was hiding, was so enraged that he brought an army to Lviv demanding that the princess be surrendered to him. At first he was told through a messenger that Halshka was under the protection of the nunnery and thus was inaccessible. Luka cut off the water supply and the nuns were forced to turn the princess to the city authorities, and later, by the order of the Polish king, she married the Voivode. It was a very unhappy marriage, the princess succumbed to her misery and died. The Voivode failed to lay his hand on her riches which had been distributed among Halshkas close and distant relatives.

Next to the Dominican nunnery stands the Uspenska (Assumption) Church. It is so tightly surrounded by the buildings that an access to it can be gained only through the yard rather than from the street. In the same yard, you can see the Tryokh Svyatyteliv Chapel which leans against the churchs wall. It was built in the Renaissance time and is considered to be an architectural landmark. Among the stone carvings of the portal an attentive eye can see two human heads which, as scholars have discovered, represent the spirits of the pagan ancestors who were believed to have lived under the threshold. One may find it a bit surprising that the Christian chapel built in the 16th century should have representations of heathen spirits on its portal, but arent many of us in the twenty first century superstitious enough to take care that nothing be passed from hand to hand over the threshold? Neither are we surprised to see a groom carry his bride over the threshold of their house after they arrive from the wedding ceremony.

In the same street, called Ruska, we find a representation of a lion made of stone. Lviv was named after a kings son, Lev, that is Lion, and the lion was thus an animal much portrayed in Lviv. The one in Ruska Street is the oldest, dating from the earliest years of Lvivs existence (the city is believed to have been founded in the 13th century). Maybe, this ancient lion had been brought to Lviv from a distant land. It is known that after a major fire of 1527 when much of the oldest parts of Lviv was burned down, this lion that had survived the fire, was installed in the wall of a house in Ruska Street. In the nineteenth century, the face of the lion looked out of the wall above a knaypa, a little tavern, which today, in the twenty-first century, is a coffeehouse Pid synyoyu plyashkoyu (Under a Blue Bottle). The proprietors of the coffeehouse gave it the name of the first ever coffee shop in Vienna, which was founded by Yury Kulchytsky, a man from Halychyna in Western Ukraine.

Probably the most visited of all Lviv courtyards is the one which is referred to as Italian. For tourists its a must to go and have a look at it. It acquired the present look, with its handsome arches and galleries fully revealed, fairly recently  since the early twentieth century they had been growing increasingly hidden from view and were fully exposed again only during the recent restoration work. Several Lviv artists had a coffee shop opened in the yard and in no time it became a popular place to go to  in addition to coffee drinking, you can enjoy chamber music and art shows frequently held right there, in the Italian yard.

Its medieval appearance attracted film makers and theatre producers. Several times, Shakespeares Romeo and Juliet was performed in the Italian yard which has its own tragic love story associated with it: Two young lovers died during a plague but at first the authorities refused to have them buried in the same grave since they belonged to different religious confessions; only after a protracted legal battle, the permission was given and the inscription on the gravestones that cover them says, What has been united by love cannot be disunited by death.

There are so many stories  humorous, tragic, trivial and romantic  associated with Lviv courtyards that even a hefty volume would not have enough pages to contain them all. Restoration and new construction keep revealing things that have been hidden from view for the last five centuries (since most of the city was destroyed in the devastating fire of 1527, only a few buildings have survived up to our days from earlier times). Inscriptions and graffiti that are being continually discovered on the walls of the Lviv yards are written in many languages, reflecting the multiethnic character of the Lviv population. When one of the former pubs was recently revamped to be turned into a coffeehouse, a skeleton was discovered bricked up in the wall. A private investigation revealed that in the 1920s, one of the members of the Al Capone gang ran a casino in that place. It was not for nothing that an Al Capone gangster came to Lviv to run a business  in the 1920s, Lviv resembled Chicago as far as the criminal situation was concerned.

In the twentieth century alone, Lviv changed hands seven times, with each successive state claiming jurisdiction over it, setting its own administration and establishing its own rules. But it hardly affected the appearance and the spirit of this city. To discover this spirit, all you have to do is to look into some of the Lviv courtyards with your eyes peeled and your ears pricked up  youll see the history unfold in front of you and youll hear enchanting stories.


Nataliya Kosmolinska peeps into the courtyards

of Lviv with Roman Shyshak taking pictures.



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