Must-see: Lviv, Ukraine

I read a few years ago in a very skinny version of Lonely Planet Ukraine that Lviv, Ukraine would soon become the new Krakow, the way Krakow was supposedly “the new Prague." When I first visited the city in 2008 I couldn't imagine why anyone would have written about it in this way.

Surely it was beautiful, but the absolute difficulty of functioning in the city, the crumbling cobblestones, and ancient, extremely confusing transportation in the city where we landed after midnight one night off a train from Poland, wasn't the equivalent in terms of… anything Prague and Krakow prided themselves on (great cafes, music, and general ease of travel, considering the exoticness of the destination). I had no plan to return.

It wasn't until I moved to Krakow, Poland, on a tourist visa in fall 2010 that I decided to head out of the EU into Ukraine, and get another stamp on my passport. The second time I crossed the border was Fall 2010, and that time I had an American friend to visit who had made Lviv her home two years before. It was during this visit, and the subsequent three lengthy visits I made the next Spring, that made me realize how very very wrong I'd been about Lviv those years before.

With locals to show you around, Lviv is a magical place, pure in it's crapiness and beauty. The city is a Mecca of cobblestone, art and history and has been kept safe from being overrun in previous years as foreigners needed a visa to enter the country before the early 2000s.

[caption id="attachment_5000" align="aligncenter" width="599" caption="My friend hailing a cab in 2009 in L'viv."][/caption]

Border runs

“If you can make it to Przemysl by 1am I'll meet you there and we can walk across the border together."

So read a text from my American friend who was living in Lviv, one night during my last week living in Krakow. I'd never done it before—taken the train from Krakow to Przemysl and then gone on foot across the border. It is surely the cheapest, and at the right time of day, fastest route to get from Krakow to Lviv. But it's also the most intimidating, confusing, adventuresome and authentic of the trifecta of entertaining, land border runs to the wild East.

The frequent trips to Ukraine began because of Ukraine's non-EU membership. I always got nervous the day I would be boarding the train or bus to the border. It didn't matter if I'd bought the tickets weeks earlier, or if I was running to the train station on a whim—a trip to Ukraine always caused a tightening in my stomach. As soon as we got across the border, however, my fears of being caught overstaying my EU membership, or randomly being thrown off at the border, lifted.

[caption id="attachment_5001" align="aligncenter" width="513" caption="One of the border control buildings."][/caption]

Night Bus

The night bus was my favorite and most frequent form of transport to Ukraine. There was something so cool about showing up at Krakow's Dworze Glowny bus station about ten minutes before boarding, standing next to the old Poles and Ukranians taking several frantic last drags of their cigarettes before finding a seat, wondering what the night would bring.

Depending on the season, the night bus could be a sweaty, crowded, 10-hour experience (5 hrs stopped at the border) with bus drivers yelling at each other and people getting thrown off at various checkpoints for not having the right papers; OR it could be a swift 2-hour border check on a half-filled bus where you could sleep in the back without being pestered by drunk Ukranians or scolded by border guards for giggling.

You never really know how long the border crossing will take though. Be sure to bring enough essential provisions for the situation: Water, chocolate, cigarettes (to meet people during breaks), and headphones (to block out your new friend once you get back on the dark, quiet bus). If you don't smoke, the night bus to Ukraine isn't a bad place to start.

[caption id="attachment_5002" align="aligncenter" width="599" caption="Riding the Polish rail home from L'viv."][/caption]

Train travel

In fall 2010 a new night bus that runs from Krakow to Lviv was introduced; it only takes 6 hours, offers 1st class sleeper cabins, and has only a swift stop on the border. The sheets smelled like hotel and the bed was softer than mine. But frankly, if I'm going to Ukraine, I want more freedom than a tiny bunk and closed windows. I want grit and grime and chatty Ukranians stopping me in the hallway.

The trip is a lot of the fun of the experience of traveling to Ukraine, so I'd recommend the day train, which is a lolly-gagging, lovely experience. It's more expensive if you buy the ticket all together for both countries, but then you don't have to switch trains in Przemysl. If you do take the direct train though be warned: the train stops for two hours to change wheels.

Finally, if you want the wildest, most “fate in your own hands" type of border run to Ukraine—walk across the border.

Walking across the border

Six hours after receiving the text from my friend I found myself in Przemysl where my friend was waiting. After an excited greeting we exited the station and hailed a cab to take us to the border. We arrived at the border around 1:30am and began the walk down the long narrow pathway from the cab stop to the Polish check-point.

Along the walkway Ukranians sat vaguely sleeping with bags filled with vodka and cigarettes from Ukraine. They are called “ants" according to my Polish Jesuit friend, who said they constantly cross back and forth from Ukraine to Poland with goods to sell in Poland where they can make a profit on dirt-cheap Ukranian intoxicants.

As usual the passport check for Poland made me nervous; I'd been living in Poland for several months by then without a visa. Often I wondered what I would do if I got caught and thought about bribery. Fortunately, the Polish side passed me through quickly and we walked toward the Ukranian passport-check.

The Ukranian passport control office is strikingly shabby. It was dimly lit and the tiles on the floor were completely torn off. When I slipped my passport under the glass window behind which sat a border guard, I noticed several large cracks repaired with tape. The border control grunted at me and threw back my passport with yet another Ukraine stamp, and out we walked into a street filled with kiosks and stragglers, sitting at outdoor bars.

We hurried through the kiosks and found our Ukranian friend who was sleeping in his car, and he drove us back to L'viv, where we slept the rest of the night in my friend's flat by the square. [Note: If you don't have a nice Ukranian to pick you up on the border, you can always take a Marshrutka, which is a shared-van, which will take you to L'viv. It runs all night.] The next days I went to my friend's going-away party, and to the markets and a student artist's ceramic studio, and so many other things that made the trips to Ukraine so beautifully pure in culture, in authentically living abroad.

[caption id="attachment_5003" align="aligncenter" width="599" caption="Train station in Odessa, another fantastic Ukranian city on the Black Sea."][/caption]


If you want to see the real Lviv, go to the food markets. They are fresh and lively, with funny old women (babas) selling vegetables, sorting berries into glass jars. I was awed the first time I went by the huge chunks of chocolate used for baking, cheese (types which were undistinguishable to the novice eye) and other dairy products. There are whole rabbits skinned and hung with other meat near the rest of the food in the shade and babas asking you to try their product, taking you back to another time, when the selling of food was a community affair.

[caption id="attachment_5115" align="aligncenter" width="480" caption="Photo by: Johan Koolwaaij"][/caption]

The Slavic Soul

Oh Lviv. It is an indescribable town in terms of artistic soul and spirit. Lviv's buildings and streets are beautiful and crumbling, the people are warm and confusing, the cafes are artistic and have the best coffee in Eastern Europe, the restaurants are cheap and themed, the street musicians have heart.

[caption id="attachment_5005" align="aligncenter" width="599" caption="Artist's studio in L'viv."][/caption]

I had three friends who lived directly on or a block from the city centre, where I stayed for weeks at a time. Out the window of Megan's apartment you could see the Armenian Catholic church, which is my favorite church ever.

[caption id="attachment_5111" align="aligncenter" width="640" caption="Photo by: Robin Schuil"][/caption]

Outside Nicole's window you could see the town hall in the centre of the Rynok, and Christi Anne's apartment has frescoes and is on the UNESCO world heritage list. I felt like I was in another world when I visited them. There's no way it would be affordable to live in such places so centrally located in Krakow, Prague, or any other Eastern European city in the area, which is another reason Lviv is so special.

[caption id="attachment_5112" align="aligncenter" width="640" caption="Photo by: Lestat (Jan Mehlich)"][/caption]

On going now

The Euro 2012 football games are shared between Poland and Ukraine. If you want to see one of the last great Eastern European cities in it's prime before the barrage of tourists get to it—go now. And don't forget the cigarettes.

With the various entertaining ways you can run the border from Poland to Ukraine, and what you will find when you arrive in the magical land of Cyrillic (the art, culture and soviet-era markets), Lviv is clearly a must-see.

This was a guest post from traveler, humanitarian, English teacher, Tripper and writer Sophie V. Her biggest thrills so far have been motorbike rides through the Southern Sudanese bush, dancing until sunrise to Klezmer music in Krakow, and monthly midnight border runs to Ukraine. Check out her Tripping profile to hear more or join up with her for her next adventure!