Evening dancers in Lviv’s main square
Well, maybe not. You may have picked up on the fact that the country isn’t in a particularly good way right now: a new chocolate-king president, a lost peninsula and a very real war-zone in two of the country’s eastern regions. The fighting in Donetsk and Luhansk has been a news-reel staple since it began in March and it’s a common – and not necessarily unjustified – assumption that the entire country is on the brink of disaster. But the western city of Lviv is carrying on as normal, albeit clouded by the same nervous tension as we encountered in the Baltics, where people fear that Putin’s desire for expansion won’t stop at the Crimea and eastern Ukraine.
This was my third visit to Lviv, a city which seems to have become an annual destination for me. And it doesn’t seem to have changed much since last year, despite the Maidan protests and all the aftermath. The historic town centre is still just as full of tourists, although the balance now tips much more heavily towards those from the East than the Westerners I had previously encountered. The cafes are still buzzing, transport is still running like clockwork and the hostels are still almost full. The biggest changes we saw on a surface level were that the famous Lviv chocolate shop is now running a line of chocolate Putins (that customers can dismantle at their leisure) and television sets show a steady stream of gunfire on the local news channels.
A new arrival on Lviv’s chocolate shop shelves: chocolate Putin
According to Iryna, a friend of mine we visited in the small town of Horodok near the Polish border, the only way you know that there is a war on in the country is that eastern Ukrainian refugees are arriving in the West and young men are leaving to fight in the East, and sometimes they don’t return.
Nonetheless, the night bus we caught from Krakow was full of Polish and Ukrainian passengers, even if we were the only Brits aboard. The border crossing went slowly, with our passports being taken away twice and mysteriously, before being returned with a new orange Ukrainian stamp. We arrived in Lviv over an hour early, in a part of town I had never seen before – the two previous trips I’d been on had started at the airport and the train station respectively. The coach station is further out, located a good half an hour’s bus ride from the centre in the middle of a huge expanse of nondescript 1950’s Soviet apartment blocks. Even when we were dropped off the “marshrutka” bus in the “centre” I still wasn’t a hundred percent sure that we were actually in the right city – we could see no road signs and nothing was familiar. Luckily, after a five minute dazed walk, we turned a corner and came face to face with the impressive opera house, and knew that we hadn’t come all this way to end up in some God-forsaken town in the middle of a country that all our friends and relatives had strongly advised us against going to. We were in Lviv, and it was beautiful.
Lviv Opera House
The first thing we did after dropping off our bags and showering in the small but jolly “Arthouse” hostel was look for breakfast. We found it at Strudel Haus, a 1930’s Vienna-themed cafe that offers a full breakfast including a drink for 30 hryvnia (about £1.30). Still reeling from the small amount of sleep we had on the night bus, we went straight from there to one of Lviv’s most impressive themed cafes (Lviv doesn’t really do cafes that don’t have some sort of theme or activity… this makes coffee drinking a much more interactive experience than you might be used to): Lviv Coffee Mining Manufacture. To get there you go down a dark staircase, at the bottom of which you are handed a hard hat with a headtorch and directed off into the “coffee mine”. Here an incredibly silly and elaborate route leads you along minecart tracks past displays of “miners” harvesting coffee from the rocks below Lviv, before eventually dropping you off into an underground cafe. The speciality is caramel coffee, served hardcore crème-brulee style with a huge blowtorch and the warning not to lean forwards into the enormous jet of fire being spouted by the waiter. You exit through a gift shop which probably sells all the silly coffee-themed inventions under the sun as well as offering you the chance to bring home your own freshly-bagged Lviv coffee.
The next stop on our tour of extremely inventive cafes was the “House of Legends”. Each room in this five-floor building is devoted to a different aspect of Lviv, with sections dedicated to the city’s lions (the town’s symbol); the history of publishing in Ukraine, which started in Lviv; the river that was forced underground in order to find space for the huge opera house and a rooftop terrace featuring a flying car and a chimney you can climb up. This is where ate lunch, overlooking the sea of rooftops below us and the old castle hill before us.
We spent that afternoon perusing the streets of Lviv, enjoying the faded grandeur that seeps from buildings that were once witness to a much more prosperous time for the country, when it was one of Poland’s crowing jewels. Now the once faultless façades crumble elegantly above the rickety tram lines and noisy cobbled streets. It even made me quite poetic.
Our walk took us along a small path leading behind the Bernadine church, just inside the city walls. Here a laid-back violinist was filling the air with perfectly performed folk tunes in a nook in the old crumbling wall while people were strolling past. We came out through the city gates onto the noisy Pidvalna street towards the towering statue of Ivan Fedorov, the first printer in Ukraine, Russia and Belarus. The area around the statue is now a bustling book market, full of people perusing and enjoying books in Ukrainian, Russian and Polish.
We had dinner in yet another themed restaurant: this time it was torture. Meat and Justice offers a reduced menu of chunks of meat, served in a setting of guillotine chairs, cages and scythes. The heavy metal atmosphere died down a bit towards the end though, as the soundtrack blaring through the speakers moved from Guns and Roses to Celine Dion.
A tortuous meal at Meat and Justice
After dinner we were lucky to catch a live jazz session at Dzyga bar. The bottom floor of this wonderful place houses art exhibitions, which are open as long as the bar is, while the upstairs part offers Ukrainian food, beer and cocktails. Sipping a cosmopolitan to the sound of a live jazz band, I certainly felt far from the war zone I’m sure my mother imagined I was in.
The next day had a disappointing start as we tried to have breakfast in the scenic Jewish restaurant “At the Golden Rose”. Seeing that the menu didn’t have any prices on it, we agreed a fair price to pay with the waiter and had a nice meal. When the bill arrived at a considerably higher price than what we had been quoted we raised the issue with the waiter, who wouldn’t back down but said that this sort of ambiguity was “part of his culture”. We left with a very bitter taste in our mouths, sad that this was the way Jewish culture was being portrayed to tourists, as well as feeling rather out of pocket. At least the food was good!
We spent the next couple of hours following one of the extremely high-quality and informative booklets we were given for free at the tourist information office. It followed the course of the underground Poltava river, which had been embedded under the city in the 19th century to make way for the Opera House. Our walk started by drinking some Lviv coffee (traditionally sweet with cinnamon) at the “Left Bank” restaurant located underneath the Opera House, where you can see part of the river running alongside the entry passage.
Outside the Opera House
That afternoon we climbed up “Vysoky Zamok” hill to get the best view of the city around. The arduous climb was followed by an idyllic picnic stop at a bar with little cabins you can sit in and a ludicrously well decorated interior. Wandering round the park below the “castle” (now just a mound with fantastic views over the city and the hills beyond) was probably one of the most relaxing experiences of the trip so far: the trees had started to turn into their autumnal colours, which complemented the green green grass below. Small gaps in the foliage gave glimpses of the onion domes below, which we eventually returned to after our stroll.
We had dinner in “Kryjivka”, the most Ukrainian of all the themed bars in Lviv. The entrance is hidden: in order to get in, you have to knock on a window and, when requested by the armed guard who opens the door, say the password “Slava Ukraini” (glory to Ukraine). The response to this is “Heroyam slava” (glory to the heroes) and this lets you through to the entrance hall, where you are given a shot of traditional Ukrainian honey vodka before heading through to the restaurant. The point of all this is to commemorate the Ukrainian partisans, or the UPA, who fought against the Nazis, Poles and the Soviets from 1943-9. It’s a strongly patriotic place, but as long as you know the password and its answer, and respect the Ukrainian traditions, you are made to feel fairly welcome as a tourist (as much as possible when the serving staff carry guns, anyway!). We sampled Lviv’s “Lvivske” beer, a delicious plate of “varenki” dumplings stuffed with cabbage with a mushroom sauce, and the traditional fat spread, “salo”. This was the first weird traditional food that Wimbledon didn’t like, so I felt like I scored a little victory there.
Sticking to traditional Ukrainian things to do, the next morning we went out of the centre of town to visit the Museum of Folk Architecture and Rural Life “Shevchenkivsky Hay”. This huge park has over 120 traditional wooden buildings grouped into farmsteads, and is a great way to spend a peaceful morning exploring. It’s incredibly scenic, and displays building styles that are traditional from across Ukraine. A highlight is the Cossak’s homestead, where a Cossak brandishing a sword serves you home-made kvas, a refreshing drink made of fermented rye bread, and kulish, a sort of delicious broth made of millet, salo and potatoes.
At this point we realised that it was much later than we thought it was, so rushed home to pack our bags and head off to the station to print our tickets to the border town of Chop, which we were leaving to later that evening (you can buy a receipt online but still need to queue for hours to get the official paper ticket in the station) and get on a bus to see my friend Iryna in the small town of Horodok. It was great to see her and her family, with her little boy now a year older at 17 months. We didn’t have much time there unfortunately but managed to fit in an enormous dinner of borscht, schnitzel, potatoes, cheese and biscuits, as well as husband Bo’s home-made red wine, before being packed off back to Lviv with our bags bulging with chocolates and cakes.
We made it back to Lviv station with just enough time to spare to have one last quick half litre of Lvivske before jumping onto our sleeper train. From here we headed south towards the Slovakian border and started one of the most bizarre journeys we’d had on our trip so far.