YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections


A liberated Lion City is roaring

Westerners have discovered Lviv, a place of fine dining, Baroque and Rococo treasures and excellent prices.

May 28, 2006|Barry Zwick | Special to The Times

Lviv, Ukraine — SATURDAY along Prospekt Svobody -- Freedom Street -- and here come the brides. Granddaughters of Kulaks, Cossacks and Tatars, they promenade from the grand Hapsburg wedding cake of an opera house down three canopied blocks of chestnut and walnut trees, past chess players, balloon sellers and street artists. They finish at the statue of Taras Shevchenko, Ukraine's most beloved poet and patron saint of the newly wed.

These are the best of times on the cobblestone streets of Ukraine's Lion City, named for 13th century Galician prince Lev Danylovich. In November 2004, the Orange Revolution against Russian influence bore fruit, and Ukraine was free at last.

Lviv, a Polish or Austrian city for much of its history, is filled with Baroque pastel Polish-style town houses, gingerbread-trimmed Austrian university halls, heroic Russian statues and distinctively Ukrainian parks as densely wooded as the thick birch forests to the city's east.

Last summer, Ukraine dropped its visa requirements for Westerners, including Americans, and tourists are visiting now. I came here in September to explore the country where my mother was born.

During prime travel time, from April to September, there's a three-month wait list for the once-a-day 40-minute flight from Warsaw to Lviv. The city's elegant Grand Hotel, flying an American flag, must be booked months ahead. As prices soar in other Eastern European cities, Lviv's $2 taxi fares, $12 five-course dinners with wine and hotel rooms half the price of those in Budapest, Hungary, have become a potent lure.

Lviv, a UNESCO World Heritage Site and home to more than half of Ukraine's architectural treasures, was spared the bombings of World War II. It is the Ukrainian city most often compared to Prague, Czech Republic.

In 1990, when Prague drew international attention, the city was ready for backpackers, but not luxury travelers. Restaurants, for example, were noted more for their Czech Budweiser than for their food.

There's no such problem in Lviv. As I strolled down Prospekt Shevchenka, a broad boulevard lined with turn-of-the-last-century luxury apartments, I found a patisserie called Veronika under candy-striped umbrellas.

Veronika's 40-page English-language menu read like the Escoffier-inspired Queen Mary cookbook: spinach-stuffed breast of chicken Veronique in pistachio sauce, escalope de veau Prince Orloff with liver pate in cream sauce, tournedos de boeuf Rossini with pate de foie gras, a choice of black or red caviar. The chicken was so good -- my plate brimming with burgundy Black Sea grapes -- that I returned the following week and ordered it again.

Finding Ukrainian food in Lviv took more work. At Sim Porosyat (Seven Piglets), a peasant-costumed three-piece band -- violin, accordion and xylophone -- welcomed customers to a Ukrainian country inn. Water streamed from an overturned earthen jar onto a pile of rocks, waitresses wearing dirndls escorted diners to a whole-log balcony, and a giant pig wearing a pearl necklace sat on a saddle, riding a chicken.

As I studied the leather-wrapped menu bound like an Orthodox monk's holy book, the band played "If I Were a Rich Man" from "Fiddler on the Roof." (Sholem Aleichem, the Yiddish-language writer whose tales were the basis for the musical, was born and raised in Pereyaslav-Khmelnitsky, Ukraine.)

The feast had begun long before I ordered. My waiter brought me a glass of honeyed vodka and dishes of marinated mushrooms and dilled onions. As I sipped a bright and fruity Crimean merlot, a steaming platter of chicken Kiev arrived, accompanied with crisp potato pancakes stuffed with veal in a hearty mushroom sauce.

Accessible landmarks

NEARLY all that a visitor would want to see in this city of 800,000 is an easy walk from the center. Rynok Square, just two blocks from Prospekt Svobody in the heart of Old Town, has 44 Baroque and Rococo landmarks -- each with a documented history -- built from the 16th to 19th centuries. Most are three stories high and three windows wide. All belonged to wealthy merchants who tried to outdo one another. Cluttered shops at street level stocked vodkas, antiques, samovars and blown glass. I wandered amid statues, reliefs and intricate carvings. Lions were everywhere, on staircases, balconies and doorknobs.

The most visited mansion on the square is No. 6, the Italian Courtyard, built by the Greek wine tycoon Constantine Kornyakt in 1580. The interior court of this neoclassical beauty is enclosed by gracefully turned arches and sculptured columns and filled with flowers, Greek statues and green shrubs. It's a popular lunch and snack stop.

The top of Town Hall's neo-Renaissance tower, 213 feet high, is the best place to view Lviv.

I followed three giggling teenage couples up the 289 steps. Halfway up was a window and a fine view of Lviv, of red tile roofs amid the treetops and a bit of ramshackle shabbiness as well. This is the city's bell tower, and on the hour we all were in for a surprise.

Los Angeles Times Articles