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.
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.
From the observation deck, I saw a panorama of domes and churches, of spires and statuary. Many of central Lviv's 40 churches, built as Russian Orthodox or Roman Catholic, are today Greek Catholic, following the majority faith of Lviv.
Of Lviv's many old synagogues -- the city was one-quarter Jewish before nearly all its 100,000 Jewish residents were murdered during World War II -- the ruins of only the Golden Rose Synagogue survive.
Just three blocks east of Prospekt Svobody is one of Lviv's oldest churches, the Armenian Cathedral, finished in 1360.
Its dark stone exterior looks forbidding, but in the church's cool, shaded courtyard, young people strum guitars and sing and eat lunches of fat poppy seed-studded buns stuffed with sausages. The Russians shuttered the church in 1953 and turned it into an icon storehouse. After Ukraine became independent from Russia in 1991, the government gave the building to the Armenian Apostolic Church.
The Armenian community, substantial during the 18th and 19th centuries, numbers only 1,000 now. Many left when communism made commerce impossible.
Many of the churches needed a coat of paint, but not the Church of the Transfiguration, the largest one in Lviv. The Baroque church was in beautiful condition -- the golden iconostasis, the purple and blue interior, the stunning light and the dazzling paintings of biblical scenes. It was built by Roman Catholics in the 18th century, then Soviet officials gave it to Lviv's Greek Catholic majority in 1989.
Near the 17th century Gothic Boims Chapel one sunny afternoon, I stopped for lunch with Slav Tsarynnyk, owner of Lviv Ecotours. The restaurant, Amadeus, looked like a bit of Salzburg, Austria: fin-de-siecle oil paintings of crowds at cabarets, etched-glass paneled windows, delicate linen curtains and a big clock with a pendulum.
"Mozart's son, Franz Xavier, was a music teacher in Lviv, when it was Lemberg," Tsarynnyk said. He ordered a typical Lvivian lunch -- vanilla ice cream with blackberries, raspberries, strawberry jam, a mint leaf and lots of whipped cream.
Tsarynnyk was my guide for three of my eight days in Ukraine. I found him on Lonely Planet's online Thorn Tree forum and reserved his services by e-mail from home. For my day tour of Lviv, he charged $80, and for our later two-day excursion into the countryside, it was $100 per day plus expenses.
In a country where English is not widely spoken, not even at customs, a good guide -- and Tsarynnyk was extraordinary, as well as good company -- can be indispensable. Most taxi drivers don't speak English, nor do they know our alphabet.
A night at the opera
THE highlight of my visit was a night at the opera, officially the Ivan Franko Opera and Ballet Theatre. You'll see Franko's name in places throughout the city, including on its university and one of its bigger parks.
Franko, who lived from 1856 to 1916, was a poet beloved by Ukrainians because he was a nationalist and was acceptable to the Soviets because he was a socialist. In 1905, he wrote "Moses," a poem ostensibly about the last days of the leader of the ancient Hebrews but actually about the emancipation of the Ukrainians.
Ukrainian composer Myroslav Skoryk set an opera called "Moses" to Franko's words; its premiere was in 2001, when Pope John Paul II came here. The city's distinguished opera company has performed it periodically ever since at the spectacular opera house. I had a ticket -- front row center for $10.
Crowds gathered day and night in front of the Viennese neo-Renaissance opera house, built by Austria in 1900. It's heavy on the gilt and marble. Among the fine touches: a majestic double staircase, Corinthian columns, a hall of mirrors, huge oil paintings on the walls and ceilings, statues of the Muses and, on top, large bronze statues symbolizing glory, poetry and music. The season lasts most of the year, and you'll find few more ambitious schedules. Typically, eight operas and eight ballets are presented each month, most of them standards.
Inside, the crowd was giddy. Teenagers snapped digital photos of one another. Young couples craned their necks to take in the details on the ceilings. As the lights dimmed, we took our seats, comfortably upholstered in burgundy velvet. It was a full house -- all 1,002 seats were taken. Swells took their places in the boxes overhead and whipped out binoculars. Most in the audience spoke Ukrainian, but I heard French, German and Italian and, here and there, English.
The music was sweeping, stirring and heroic. Skoryk created a mood of historic majesty not so much through melody as through chords, for a 1940s Hollywood epic sound. Costumes and sets were lavish, and dances compelling. Moses sang of a somewhat unfamiliar Promised Land, of "oak forests and green grass."
Opera is an international comfort food for those of us who like it. The rituals are universal: flowers for the soprano and shouts of "Bravo!" In Lviv, though, the bass got the flowers. The applause, a do-your-own thing elsewhere in the world, was in lock-step unison, clap for clap. And the audience rose as one for the standing ovation.
At the opera, at the airport and on the teeming streets of Lviv, I ran into Canadians and Americans who had emigrated from the city and were back in town for weddings.
Traditionally, as the bride in a Lviv wedding leaves the church, she hurls candies -- symbolizing a life of sweetness -- to the waiting crowd. At the Dominican Church, Tsarynnyk and I caught a handful and shared in the dream.
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Open-door policy in Lviv
From LAX, Lufthansa has connecting flights (one change of plane) to Lviv, Ukraine. United and American have connecting service with two changes of planes. Restricted round-trip fares begin at $1,855 until June 25, dropping to $1,765 until Sept. 5.
To call the numbers below from the U.S., dial 011 (the international dialing code), 380 (country code for Ukraine), then 322 (city code for Lviv) and the local number.
WHERE TO STAY:
Grand Hotel, 13 Prospekt Svobody; 72-40-42, www.ghgroup.com.ua. Elegant rooms in a prime location facing the Shevchenko statue. Doubles from $165, including breakfast buffet.
Hotel Dnister, 6 Mateiko St.; 97-43-17, www.dnister.lviv.ua. New York Sen. Hillary Clinton and Vaclav Havel, former president of the Czech Republic, stayed here (separately). Much better service than the Grand. Doubles from $82, including breakfast buffet.
Lion's Castle, 7 Glinki St.; 97-15-63. Friendly boutique hotel, 15-minute walk to Old Town. Doubles from $91, with breakfast.
WHERE TO EAT:
Amadeus, 7 Katedralna St.; 97-80-22. Beside the Boims chapel, just off Rynok Square. Wonderfully seasoned Austrian dishes with lots of fresh vegetables. Dinner with wine from $11.
Veronika, 21 Prospekt Shevchenka; 97-81-28. Haute cuisine in a festive indooroutdoor setting, friendly service offering good wine advice: "Stick with Merlot." Dinner with wine from $13.
Sim Porosyat (Seven Piglets), 9 Bandera St.; 97-55-58. An over-the-top Ukrainian theme restaurant with musical entertainment. Reservations a must. Dinner with wine from $14.
Slav Tsarynnyk, 37 Tiutiunnykiv St., Lviv 79011, Ukraine; (067) 670-0840, lvivecotour.com. In a country where English is not widely spoken, a good guide is indispensable.
TO LEARN MORE:
Ukrainian Embassy, 3350 M St. N.W., Washington, DC, 20007; (202) 333-0606, www.ukraineinfo.us. U.S. citizens can spend 90 days in Ukraine without a visa.
-- Barry Zwick