The main market square in Kraków
© Dagmar Schwelle

Finding Galicia

  • TEXT JAN RÜBEL
  • PHOTOS DAGMAR SCHWELLE
  • ILLUSTRATION CRISTÓBAL SCHMAL

… but not the Spanish one. This Galicia is a historical region in Poland and the Ukraine, was once a kingdom at the heart of Europe. In search of its legacy, we find a magical stone, goose variations and the results of higher math.

It all started with a meal at a restaurant in Berlin, the Marjellchen, to be exact, an old Berlin joint in the west of the city. I was lapping up Beetenbartsch (red beet soup) and Schmandschinken (ham in a sour-cream sauce), when my companion began to rave about the old meals from East Prussia, Silesia and other places. “What we call ‘east’ today, is actually the center of Europe,” he cried, possibly under the influence of the highly potent Danziger Goldwasser liqueur he had been knocking back. He spoke of a fallen realm in the middle of Europe. It sounded magical – I immediately wanted to go there.

Galicia came into being in 1772: Poland was divided and Austria annexed the territory. The Economist once described Galicia as “a successful Austrian invention” that existed until 1918. Poles and Ukrainians lived here on an equal footing with many other minorities – and 10 percent of its 10 million inhabitants were Jews. To them, Galicia was a creative center, the “Mother of Israel.” I want to see how much of it all remain.

I gain my first general impression in Kraków, where I climb alongside a red brick wall and up to Wawel Castle, once the residence of Poland’s kings. Dazzled by the gold of its altars, I step out of the cathedral next door and into a courtyard, where Polish couples are walking with their children, a couple of Mexicans are admiring the cloisters, and three Indians are holding their hands against the wall in the left-hand corner – for minutes at a stretch. According to a Hindu legend, the god Shiva breathed magical power into seven stones and threw them to Earth. One of them is said to be hidden here, far beneath St. Gereon’s Chapel. The castle guards don’t approve but they leave the Indians alone and shoo a few hippies away instead.

Scenes from Lviv, formerly called Lemberg

Scenes from Lviv, formerly called Lemberg

© Dagmar Schwelle
Scenes from Lviv, formerly called Lemberg
© Dagmar Schwelle
Scenes from Lviv, formerly called Lemberg

Scenes from Lviv, formerly called Lemberg

© Dagmar Schwelle
Scenes from Lviv, formerly called Lemberg
© Dagmar Schwelle
IT expert Kris Kosyk

IT expert Kris Kosyk

© Dagmar Schwelle
The lobby of the George Hotel

The lobby of the George Hotel

© Dagmar Schwelle

 I turn away to see the Vistula River glittering enticingly. On the opposite bank, I lose my way in a newly developing district, where cranes are hoisting windows into the air for upmarket townhouses. A bedsheet five meters long suspended above a backyard bar has these words embroidered across it in large letters: “Poland! Still a struggle…,” as a passerby translates for me. What could it signify? Someone gives me the address of the artist, Monika Drożyńska, and I set off to see her. “It’s one of my urban installations, “says Drożyńska, 38, in her studio, “it’s an appeal to see Independence Day as something to celebrate and enjoy, not just a day for deadly serious processions.” Drożyńska is an activist, battling the patriarchy and the smog hanging over the sooty city, and fighting for a Europe of mutual respect. So how would she describe Galicia? “A word, it’s there. But what it means….” She shrugs.

Early next morning, a man weighed down by a bag of red beets strolls through Stary Kleparz covered market, eyeing bunches of sorrel and horseradish. “Of course Galicia exists,” he says, “in our culture – and it’s growing stronger by the day.” His name is Wojciech Ornat, and he invites me to his restaurant, for which he is shopping. “Galicia was the prototype for the EU, a kind of modern school for politicians,” he explains as he pushes open the door to the Klezmer-Hois. When Ornat, today 54, learned from his parents 30 years ago that his great-grandfather was Jewish, he began to delve into the history of Kraków. “Food is part of every culture,” he says, “so I pored over 19th-century Galician cookbooks and asked old folks for recipes.” In 1992, he became the first person in Kraków to open a restaurant serving Jewish-Galician food, and many have since followed his example. Galician cooking is currently coming into its own again now that the fast food and international trends that dominated after Communism ended in 1989 are waning. The old name, Ornat believes, points to the future. “Galicia represents the inquisitive, cosmopolitan Poland,” he says.

All stitched up: Krakówian artist Monika Drozyńska with a sheet of artwork

All stitched up: Krakówian artist Monika Drozyńska with a sheet of artwork

© Dagmar Schwelle
Dancer Oleksandr Bogachuk strikes a pose outside Potocki Palace in Liv

Dancer Oleksandr Bogachuk strikes a pose outside Potocki Palace in Liv

© Dagmar Schwelle

 Kazimierz, the surrounding district, is buzzing with life. In the basement of the Alchemia bar, a band called aeriel rain is playing “U.S. apocalyptic folk,” while outside, young Poles queue at the zapiekanka stands, the local version of ­croques. The revival of Jewish culture in Kazimierz is not just about food. There’s the new Galicia Jewish Museum, a community center founded in 2008, as well as a slew of new bars and clubs. Late into the evening, Ornat serves up an orgy of goose: boiled goose stomach in onion sauce as a starter, followed by goose pastrami – the original form of pastrami with salted, spiced, smoked meat. The main course is stuffed goose neck, fried goose-liver sausage and pasta. The food may be old-fashioned but it tastes like the latest creation of a hipster chef.

Galicia is continually in evidence in Kraków. It’s not just hotels that use the name; you see it on posters advertising a Galicja band’s next show; a Galicja event agency is recruiting spectators, and a company called Berolina Galicja is offering IT services – quite a lot for a country that no longer exists. There’s bound to be less of this further east, I think to myself, and board the bus for Lviv, formerly Lemberg.

The road to the center of Europe is rocky

The road to the center of Europe is rocky

© Dagmar Schwelle

 You can’t simply cross the border between southern Poland and western Ukraine, which is bang in the middle of Galicia. Lines of cars stretch back kilometers, announcing the gray border post. Some people wait here for a day or even two. Galician-born author Joseph Roth described the country as an “in-between realm,” a pendulum between underdevelopment and progress; for some, profoundly provincial, for others, a cultural melting pot, and after oil was discovered and made Galicia the center of the oil industry, an Eldorado. This border is also an in-between realm: the EU Schengen area ends here.

I am not prepared for the beauty of Lviv and its abundance of Renaissance, Baroque, Classical and Art Nouveau buildings. The city’s old town is a harmonious ensemble with a very western look, meaning that it served as the backdrop for Soviet films that were supposed to be set in Paris or Rome. There are mostly young locals on the streets, hardly any tourists. Joseph Roth described Lemberg as a “city of blurred borders,” but it is also a city of blurred memories, shaken up time and time again and always in search of an identity.

Maria sells bottled mushrooms from a roadside stall

Maria sells bottled mushrooms from a roadside stall

© Dagmar Schwelle
A bowl of steaming joy: borscht soup at the Baczewski restaurant in Liv

A bowl of steaming joy: borscht soup at the Baczewski restaurant in Liv

© Dagmar Schwelle
One of the road at the Alchemia bar in Kazimierz district of Kraków

One of the road at the Alchemia bar in Kazimierz district of Kraków

© Dagmar Schwelle
Man with food
© Dagmar Schwelle

 The battle between nationalisms spelled the provisional end of the notion of Galicia. Many Ukrainians moved to the city from the provinces and the east after 1945, and also many Russians. Over the decades, people there have begun to see the city’s checkered past in a different, more discriminating light.

A man with soft eyes and a mischievous face is waiting for me outside Café Virmenska. “Our grandparents took a pragmatic approach to Lviv,” he tells me. He is Ostap Slyvynsky, 39, a poet who gives lectures on literature at the university. “That only began to change in the 1970s, right here in this spot.” The café hasn’t changed since then; the waiter still makes strong Turkish coffee in containers that stand, as in the old days, in a bed of electrically heated sand, a Soviet invention. The people of Lviv love coffee, an Austrian tradition they were glad to adopt. “The first hippy communes formed here in the 1970s. They attracted people from Russia and other Eastern Bloc states,” says Slyvynsky. “It was the first attempt anyone made to identify with the city, to see it as natural.” The Virmenska was an important meeting place.

Illustration: Map
© Cristóbal Schmal

Kraków

Lviv

Dilove

 A lot has happened since. “Our generation is asking more questions about the past. We are learning about the city, reviving memories,” he adds. He shows me streets that were deserted three years ago but are now alive with cafés and bars: “An irreversible development; I am very optimistic.” In a nameless bar, we drink powerful staryi rynok, a brandy-based nut, honey and spice liqueur. We visit the 14th-century Armenian cathedral. In the sunlight streaming through the window, Slyvynsky points out inscriptions in several languages. “When this place was called Galicia, the people of Lemberg could travel as far as the Adriatic without crossing a border. From a western viewpoint, we are the eastern rim, from Moscow’s perspective, the western; in other words, we are bang in the middle of Europe.”

Outside Potocki Palace, brides in pastel dresses and children in embroidered vests pose, as if trying to blend in with the 19th-century building. “The beauty of this palace seems normal to us locals,” says Kris Kosyk, “but there is another Lviv.” We drive to the south of the city. The European flag is flying outside the glass facade of a modern tower block. She takes the elevator to the seventh floor, where glass cabinets with huge screens stand on colorful rugs. SoftServe, a company started in 1993 by former students, is the largest IT service provider in the Ukraine today and employs 3000 people in Lviv. Kosyk also started out here as a student and is now the company’s vice president. “Lviv has a tradition as a science center,” she says. In Galician times, the city was, in fact, a center of mathematical research – and it still is today. Every year, 4000 IT specialists graduate from Lviv’s universities. This has resulted in a psychological shift in the city, says Kosyk: “We see Lviv with modern, cosmopolitan eyes.” And yes, there certainly is a sense of being “Galician.” “The Ukrainian we speak also has a Polish element to is – and we love our old city.”

Out and about in Kraków: View from the town hall tower across to St. Mary's Church

Out and about in Kraków: View from the town hall tower across to St. Mary's Church

© Dagmar Schwelle
Kazimierz, an autonomous district in the 18th century, has become a colorful and popular area

Kazimierz, an autonomous district in the 18th century, has become a colorful and popular area

© Dagmar Schwelle

 Before I return to the George Hotel, a building reminiscent of an opera house, I pass a hill within the city. It forms the border to the European watershed: North of it, all rivers flow into the Baltic Sea, south of it, into the Black Sea. I’m finally headed for the geographical center of Europe! It’s said to be just outside Dilove, a small village in the Carpathian Mountains. After a seven-hour journey over pothole-pocked asphalt, past impenetrable undergrowth and wooden cabins, our road, until now following the Tisza River, veers suddenly; in the bend, there’s a stone memorial surrounded by mountains. “Eternal place,” the Latin inscription reads, “determined with great care.” Now the silence is roaring in my head. How urbane were Kraków and Lviv, central and vibrant. So much history, so many new beginnings. I feel I have learned a lesson. It began as a journey into the past, but what I have found is a vision of a new Europe.

Tips for Kraków and Lviv
Illustration: Sleep
© Cristóbal Schmal


SLEEP

Luxuriously appointed with spacious rooms and right on Kraków’s market square: the Wentzl Hotel.

wentzl.pl

Illustration: Indulge
© Cristóbal Schmal


INDULGE

The Baczewski Restaurant in Lviv serves Galician fare and fine vodka.

kumpelgroup.com

Illustration: Learn
© Cristóbal Schmal


LEARN

The Galicia Jewish Museum in Kazimierz, Kraków, retraces Jewish-Polish cultural history.

galiciajewishmuseum.org

Illustration: Listen
© Cristóbal Schmal


LISTEN

The Dzyga in Lviv is both gallery and music club and boasts an eclectic program.

dzyga.com

GETTING THERE

In November, Lufthansa flies four times daily from Frankfurt (FRA) to Kraków (KRK), up to three times daily from Munich (MUC) to Kraków (KRK) and six times weekly to Lviv (LWO), Use the app to calculate your miles: www.miles-and-more.com