The New York Times: Lviv, Ukraine: Local Dumplings and International Sensibility

11 January 2011

The New York Times: Lviv, Ukraine: Local Dumplings and International Sensibility

It was the airport in Lviv, of all things, that first charmed me. Regional airports across the former Soviet Union tend to be a dreary lot, with all the appeal of a 24-hour bus station. But the one in Lviv, the largest city in western Ukraine, had wood paneling and ornate columns and the feel of a grand old railway station in a 1950s film.

I was there last winter to cover the Ukrainian presidential elections, tromping through the snow to watch the candidates on the stump and to pester voters for their opinions. But I soon discovered that this city on the edge of the Soviet empire, at a crossroads of Europe, was a cobblestoned find. The unexpected beauty of the airport terminal was a hint of what Lviv offered — winding streets that reflected the influences of centuries of overlapping cultures.

Lviv has gone by many names, thanks to its many rulers, from the Soviets to the Germans to the Poles. But it is the Austro-Hungarian Empire that seems to have had the strongest influence. As I roamed, I was reminded more of Vienna and Prague than Moscow. The beer was tasty and cheap, and many of the meals had hearty Central European staples, including sausages and root vegetables.

Of course, it was not hard to locate Ukrainian specialties, like the dumplings known as varenyky (pronounced va-REN-ee-kee), filled with potatoes or cabbage, sweet cheese or cherries. And there are restaurants that embrace local history, including a provocative one that celebrates Ukrainian partisans during World War II, and is chockablock with anti-Soviet slogans.

Still, what really distinguished Lviv was its decidedly international sensibility, more evident than in any city that I have visited in the former Soviet Union. This was obvious from the range of cathedrals making up the city’s skyline: Ukrainian Orthodox, Russian Orthodox, Armenian Orthodox and Roman Catholic.

Lviv is also base for the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church, which in itself speaks to a melding: the church is loyal to Rome, but allows some priests to marry and follows the Eastern ceremonial rite. Lviv was also home to a thriving Jewish community before World War II, and I wandered past the ruins of one of the main synagogues. Not many Jews remain, but plans are being developed to rebuild the synagogue.

And so it went: I tried to work, but the city kept pulling me away. I went to interview an official at City Hall, but ended up at the observation deck on the building’s tower, admiring views of Lviv’s splendid architecture — classical, Baroque and other styles.

An official told me that the city is getting a bit of a makeover before it welcomes the 2012 European soccer championship, for which Ukraine will be co-host with Poland. Though a new international airport terminal is under construction, he assured me that Lviv’s historic character will be preserved. (With luck, the old airport will live on.)

Before departing, I made one final stop. The Lviv Chocolate Workshop beckoned with shelves of handmade treats and the smells of sweet, molten liquids. I purchased several boxes of chocolates to take to my family in Moscow, which I planned to use to convince them that someday, we should all return.

© Clifford J. Levy, The New York Times, 2011
photo: Joseph Sywenkyj for The New York Times

A version of this article appeared in print on January 9, 2011, on page TR7 of the New York edition.


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