Feb 2020 - Ukraine (Lviv)
Updated: Nov 22, 2022
After rocking back and forth, up and down, for around 6 hours (500km) my train from Kyiv arrived at Lviv station around 8pm.
The Russian style high carriage, wide gauge trains really move around a lot when at speed; they seem to bounce more than a train should.
But it's quite soothing when you have access to a lie flat bed, pillows, blankets, AC power, etc.
Arriving in Lviv train station was a memory highlight. It was hard to believe the train had not somehow taken me back in time to the late 19th century (even if the station was built in 1904).
Stepping out into the dimly lit art nouveau station with its two enormous arched steel roofs the first thing I noticed was the smoke haze and smell. This was coming from other platforms where sleeper trains were blowing smoke (not steam) from what I assume are heater chimneys. At the same time mechanics walked along the trains hitting the steel wheels with large spanners creating a really distinctive sound that echoes through the whole station.
The whole mix of smell (oil, coal, steel), sound (those spanners), and sights (enormous Russian style trains and people moving about with their suitcases in a strangely quiet shuffle)... it really was like being in a different era. Indeed, Lviv station even has a 1st class waiting hall in the style of a English gentleman's club; there's also 2nd and 3rd class (wooden benches) waiting halls. This place is seriously unique and later in the week I spent over 3hrs wandering the platforms taking photos, including some of my favourite shots of the entire trip.
Lviv is very different to Kyiv. It feels much more like a central European city. This is because it was strongly influenced by periods of rule by Austria-Hungary and Poland. It was also a key city in the old kingdom of Galicia. Yet again, the entire city centre is UNESCO listed, somehow it got through WWII unscathed. My Airbnb was inside a heritage listed building that was in terrible condition (no money to deal with the approvals) but right in the city centre. In fact the interior of the building was pretty grim and hard to believe at first....
Getting in first required a four digit code on the building's front door, that had to be pressed simultaneously, all four numbers at the same time. Then inside you ... well how about a short video, see below. The apartment itself was super modern! Smart TV and ultra fast 5G internet. A capitalist room inside a communist era shell.
Lviv is one of the main cultural centres of Ukraine. When I think of the place I conjure up words like colour, vibrant, young, old/ medieval, character, architecture (renaissance, baroque), art, theatre/ ballet, literature, music, cafes/bars/restaurants. Some of these contradict each other but they come together nicely in Lviv.
The city centre is full of charm, compact and easily walkable. No cars, only old style trams go through the centre, each one driven by a somewhat agitated looking woman. I noticed in Ukraine nearly all tram drivers are women, all bus drivers men, all of them agitated looking. Beyond the centre the city changes dramatically, dominated by Soviet-era apartments.
I've said little about Ukrainian cuisine so far and that's because I mostly cook my own meals to save money, hassle and the joy of eating out alone. But here it turned out to be a lot cheaper to eat out. One of my dining experiences was at a place called Kryivka, recommended by the Ukrainian banker on the train from Kyiv. After really struggling to find it, I asked a local who pointed me to a plain wooden door inside an alley and told me to knock on it. On doing so a Ukrainian in military uniform carrying a rifle opened and waved me into a tiny (seriously tiny, bathroom sized) room with bookcases, a small table and a chair. He sat down, poured a vodka from a flask and handed it to me. Once I drank it he 'opened' the bookcase, which revealed a spiral staircase....
Down the stairs he took me to the 'bar/restaurant', the walls covered in military gear and photos of WWII and modern Ukrainian soldiers. I ordered a beer (alcohol a must), Borsch (beetroot) soup and potato dumplings served with sour cream (everything in this country comes with sour cream!). At one stage the guy from upstairs came down, fired a blank in his gun and demanded to know where everyone originated from. I chose Australia, I lived. These themed bars are apparently a think in Lviv and attract mainly Ukrainians but obviously also tourists. Leaving the place was through a maze of passageways. Really quite a bizarre experience and the food was decent.
The latest rage in every even remotely visited town and city in Europe seems to be the Free Walking Tours. In fact there's so many, there's often bitter rivalry between the various groups organising them (you 'donate' at the end, so there is money in it). But they are definitely worthwhile, and they run them every day no matter the weather or how few people. They're a great way to get a quick orientation on the city and learn the history in a few hours.
Other than the main sites, the walking tour took me to the bizarre Museum of Abandoned Toys, a collection of random children's toys outside a Soviet-era apartment complex. It began with a resident finding two lost toys and placing them outside for the owners, they never came, and soon it became a 'thing' with progressively more found and added. Now it's this....
As mentioned in the beginning, the highlight in Lviv was hanging out at the train station choking on acrid smoke for over 3 hours. Street photographers eh, gotta get the shots! To soothe the throat I finished that night off with hot cherry-wine (it's a thing here, very very sweet). It really took my throat a few days to recover from the station smoke.
The trams in the old town also make for good street photography, amazing characters and faces you see in those windows. There's also a small, daily market that specialises in antique coins, notes and Soviet memorabilia that's worth visiting for the faces, outfits and general vibe.
Lastly, in Lviv I got the longest haircut (pun?) of my life coming in at a whopping 1hr 25min with the barber spending 1h 20min on the back and the final few minutes on the top. I am not joking.
Lviv is very close to the Polish border and a natural next destination would've been popular Krakow but I was very aware of how touristy that town has become (it's also a major Ryanair hub). So I reluctantly decided to take what I vowed would be the last intra-European flight, to Lithuania. It is possible to get there by train via Poland but it's a long, long journey with many transfers requiring at least 1 night somewhere. So it was that Wizz Air would fly me to Vilnius. Still amazed me that on the flight, people argued with the cabin crew about wishing to change seats... this for a 1hr flight that doesn't even get to altitude!