Just when I thought there was nothing much more to see and experience in Europe than I had already done, I discovered Ukraine.
A few months ago I all knew about Ukraine was that it had been known as “The Ukraine” when it was part of the former USSR; the great cities of Sevastopol and Crimea where located there; Florence Nightingale, the nurse, had worked there under horrendous conditions during the Crimean War which had led her to found a school of nursing; the Russians had re-invaded under Vladimir Putin; some people wanted to remain in the West while others looked East. Then, I went to an exhibition at the International Cultural Centre in Krakow to see an exhibition on Lvov/Lviv. Having seen the wonderful buildings displayed and photographed I knew it was a country I had to visit.
As readers of this blog will know, I am a ComTourist. This is, I like to visit former Communist Countries in Eastern Europe – I see this as compensation for having been rejected by the East German Embassy in London on 1986 when I wanted to go cycling around East Berlin and to practice speaking German. Ukraine is, of course, a wonderful ComTourist destination on a par with Belarus thanks to some existing communist-era reliefs and statues.
Getting in and out of Ukraine is a bit of an experience reminiscent of the Cold War Era. Even going on the train from Przemyśl is like going through a corridor to the past. Przemyśl, by the way, has a lovely station which harks back to the old Austro-Hungarian days of decorated plaster work. I spent a happy hour there getting some Ukrainian currency, munching on a hot dog and admiring the decor.
To get to the track for the train to Lviv it is necessary to go to Platform 1, down the stairs, along the corridor, up to Platform 3, walk to the end, go down some stairs, walk down the corridor, come up the next set of stair and then go through the gate. If the train is at the platform then the people in charge of each carriage will be waiting at the steps to check your paperwork. When everyone is cleared off the platform then the train departs. I was lucky to be on a new electric train as I still have nightmares of the awful train I once took from Moldova to Warsaw (overcrowded, uncomfortable, overheated, no snack bar and fourth world toilets).
At the Polish border there were the usual passport checks. Mine went through a portable machine and then the guard inspected one page using a special magnifying glass – a remnant of my stay in St Petersburg. Then we moved along to no-man-land where Ukrainian guards took over and re-inspected passports and went through each carriage with a sniffer dog. Eventually, we moved on and were only 30 minutes late.
Lviv railway station is a delight but the area around it no so much so. I am disappointed that I didn’t get to go into the restaurant as it looked rather comfortable. A wonderful lady at the Tourist Information Office gave me a map, a guide book and instructions on how to get into the centre. I bought some tram tickets from a kiosk and then boarded tram #1. This was not one of Lviv’s finest trams, I have to say. It looked like one of those things they used to produce in an Hungarian factory some time in the 1970s. The immediate response to the view was “Dear God!” as it looked as run down as the worst bits of Kazimierz or Podgórze in Krakow. However, as we came towards the university the roads widened and it was evident that the buildings had been nicely restored.
I had booked myself into a four star hotel just off the Rynok Square, so I was right in the heart of the old city.
I discovered I was only a few metres away from the remains of the city wall, the square, several eateries, the Arsenal and the Boim Family Chapel among other places. The street I stayed on was also a popular destination for other tourists as well as local down-and-outs who hung around the mini market.
The delights of Lviv were the streets, the museums, the parks, the cafes, the monuments, the shops, the buildings and the people. It was an easy city to walk around and the fact that there were street signs and destination signs in English really helped. I must say, though, that knowing the Cyrillic Alphabet enhanced my experience as a visitor as it allowed me to read the notifications on the buildings. The people were friendly and, where possible, tried to help me.
On day one I discovered the open air book market where I bought a copy of Leonid Brezhnev’s speech to the Russian Congress of 1976 on the topic of foreign policy and a locally published book in English of one man’s journey through life.
Just off Rynok Square there is a postcard museum with an amazing collection of postcards and printing equipment. The printer helps you to make your own letterpress card using the templates already prepared. I did this a couple of years ago in south Poland when I visited the printing museum so it was great to have a go again.
I took a tram out to one of the suburbs where I experienced the Lviv housing boom. In fact the district looked like any in Europe except for the addition of a nicely domed church.
Lviv used to be part of southern Poland so it is no surprise that the city architecture owes a great deal to that of the region. The rulers of the city were a well-travelled and ambitious lot so there is a bit of French and Italianate architecture around.
My conclusion at the end of the first four days what that I loved Lviv but I had to move on to Kiev, the capital of Ukraine.