We’d heard about the beauty in western Ukraine, but had never seen it for ourselves. A place more reminiscent of European cities like Krakow and Prague than of Kiev and Kharkov. It wasn’t only foreigners, but Ukrainians, too, who crooned its praises, proud to call it a part of their country. So over Christmas, my girlfriend and I sprung for kupe (second class) tickets on the fast train (8 hours) west to Lviv to have a look around for ourselves.
What we found was a charming place, with architecture representing all European styles lining narrow, cobbled roads, mansions of former royals, castle ruins atop a hill with a panoramic view of the city – even an ice rink. Church bells rang out as we roamed the city center early Christmas morning in search of our rented apartment. That night, we stumbled upon an illuminated Christmas tree, which stood at the foot of the Opera House. Around us festive kiosks sold mulled wine, sweets and handicrafts, while carolers sang songs.
Lviv, or Lvov, or Lwow – maybe you’ve heard it called Lemberg – sits just north of the Carpathian Mountain range in western Ukraine, a few hours east of the Polish border. Over its 755 years, it’s been a part of Austria, Poland the Soviet Union and Ukraine, it’s been invaded and occupied by the Tatars, the Germans, the Soviets and others. It’s had a tumultuous history, but one that’s yielded quite a bit of character.
After checking into our apartment, my girlfriend and I went out in search of a market where we could gather what we needed for a modest Christmas meal. Selection was slightly limited, but we ended up with a whole chicken, a few kilos of potatoes, onions and garlic, and some broccoli to add some green to the mix. We also managed to find cinnamon so that we could prepare some mulled wine of our own. Back at the apartment that evening, wearing our Santa hats, we cooked it all up and enjoyed a relaxing evening away from the stresses of work and home.
We hit the streets early the next morning to see what the city had to offer. We strolled back through the market on our way to Castle Hill, observing an array of skinned animals ready to be cooked, fresh eggs and milk, as well as an assortment of pickled vegetables. After a 30 minute hike up the hill, we were rewarded with a view overlooking the entire city. Overhead the Ukrainian flag flapped in the wind. In the distance a train’s horn whistled. For a moment I felt completely at ease. I also felt extremely small, as one usually does looking out from such a vantage point.
The Market Square was bustling with life. Streetcars rang their bells at slow crossers, people haggled with vendors over the price of books, children howled as they glided across the ice rink. More holiday kiosks lined the streets, selling nutty treats, caramel apples and an array of hot drinks. We stumbled into the Lviv Historical Museum at Rynok #6, which houses both the Royal Mansion Museum and the Italian Courtyard, two stunning design achievements. Afterward we climbed the many hundreds of steps up the city hall bell tower to take in a view of Old Town. Before the sun set, we stumbled into a few churches. Photographs of their interiors couldn’t do them justice. We watched as people lit candles, crossed themselves and said prayers.
The next day was more of the same. While exploring Old Town, we stumbled upon Masoch Cafe, as in Leopold von Sacher-Masoch, whose named spawned the term we all know today as masochism. The author of Venus In Furs was born in Lviv – then Lemberg – in 1836. We stopped in for a drink and a quick bite and observed a waitress dressed in a maidens outfit of old whipping three young men with a leather whip as they left.
In the evenings we cooked and drank, watched films and read. In all, it was a very relaxing holiday. Until the last day.
We had to be out of the apartment by noon, even though our train back to Kiev didn’t leave until 9 that night. So I awoke early to clean and pack. But halfway through my cup of coffee, something began feeling wrong. Not something, actually, but my stomach. I tried eating some oats, drinking some water. That only made it worse. I lied back down in bed for a while longer. Still, no improvement. It got worse as we walked from our apartment to the train station, where we’d planned on stowing our bags while we spent the afternoon and evening in the city before our train that night. But when we arrived at the station, I found myself in a light sweat, chilled to the bone and curled in the fetal position on a waiting hall bench. Clearly, I was ill.
From what, I’m still not sure. But the next nine hours in that train station were among the worst of my life. I’ll spare you the gory details, but let me just say that running to a paid squat toilet every 10 to 15 minutes for nine hours is extremely uncomfortable. Worse yet, this same behavior continued for the duration of our overnight train ride back to Kiev. Suffice it to say I didn’t get any sleep.
Sickness aside, the trip was a fantastic holiday away, and one that reminded me how beautiful and interesting this country can be. If Odessa is the Pearl of the Black Sea, then Lviv must be the diamond in the rough that is Ukraine, or something like that.