When I told friends and colleagues that I was planning a trip to Ukraine, they thought it sounded a bit crazy, as the media was full of reports of the conflict in the east. Actually the west of the country was calm and a long way from the unrest. I’d been lucky enough to see Crimea in August 2013, and had been planning the trip to the western part of the country, to make a comparison, long before the maidan demonstrations began. I booked the hotel in Lviv in February, just after Yanukovych had fallen and the situation had seemed to stabilise. I got a good bargain on a hotel in the historic centre of Lviv, just a few hundred metres from the old town square. As the weeks progressed between February and May, it became an even better bargain, as the Ukrainian currency fell some 50% against the euro.
The long journey from Bucharest
Getting to Lviv from Bucharest presented some challenges. The best and practically the only option was the train, which takes seventeen and a half hours, leaving Bucharest at 6 a.m. and reaching Lviv just after 23.30. It’s the Sofia-Moscow train, which in spite of crossing between Ukraine and Russia was running normally. It actually crosses the border to the north of Kiev, and doesn’t go anywhere near the conflict zones of eastern Ukraine, so short of all out war between Ukraine and Russia will continue to operate. It’s a sleeper train- even though it was daytime, the Russian attendants gave me sheets and a pillow.
I was the only passenger in Bucharest to board the part of the train which goes beyond Romania. But at Buzau, it filled up. A party of Lipoveni, Russian speakers from Romania’s Danube Delta, were heading to Moscow. They were Old Believers (a branch of Russian Orthodoxy which split from the official church in the seventeenth century). Their spiritual head is in Moscow, and they were making a pilgrimage, to visit monasteries near the Russian capital. They spoke to each other in an interesting mix of Russian and Romanian, alternating between the two languages.
They boarded in a frenzy, having come by bus from the Delta, and caught the train at the last minute. So it took a while before multiple items of luggage and food for their 36 hour journey was all arranged and they were settled in. Soon I was being offered food, which is something of a tradition on these trains in the former Soviet countries, where people share compartments with strangers for hours and sometimes days. Thankfully there was no pressure from this group to join in downing vodka shots.
The pilgrims were travelling with their Archbishop- the head of their church in Romania, and the women wore headscarves. They explained that their religion is stricter than Romanian Orthodoxy, and women are expected to cover their heads and wear long skirts all the time, and not just in church. Their services are held in Old Church Slavonic, not Russian or Romanian.
At Vadu Siret, on the Ukrainian side of the border, all the wheels are changed, because the railways in the former Soviet Union have a different gauge. The coaches are uncoupled and lifted about a metre into the air on jacks, mounted by the side of the track. The old set of wheels is shunted away from under the raised coaches, the new set moved into place and then the coaches are lowered again. The whole operation is done very efficiently and takes about an hour, with passports collected before, and then given back stamped when the train shunts back into Vadu Siret station.
Once the wheels were changed, the train moved forward through the rolling countryside of the Bukovina (which means beach trees). Soon after moving on from the border, I received a text message on my Romanian phone from the Romanian Foreign Ministry, which warned that I was entering an “area of risk” and warned me to avoid demonstrations. It felt strange, as the train went through the bucolic landscape, past farms with animals and rural houses, without a demonstrator in sight. Some governments’ travel advice on Ukraine really is over-cautious and harmful to tourism just at a time when it is needed. A distinction should be made between east and west.
After an hour or so, we reached Chernivtsy, the first major town in Ukraine. A major city within the Habsburg Monarchy (when it was known by its German name of Czernowicz), and then Romanian in the inter-war period (when it was Cernauti) it was also important in the Ukrainian national movement in the late nineteenth century. The current Ukrainian national anthem was composed here.
Another 4 hours and I arrived at Lviv’s impressive station, to be whisked to the hotel by taxi which I’d booked. I’d been a little concerned about arriving at that time with no Ukrainian money- it’s almost impossible to buy or sell grivny outside the country- but the transfer worked a treat, with the cost just being added on to the hotel bill.
The taxi drove through the dark streets, parked, and then the driver and I had to walk for the last 50 yards or so, down one of the cobbled streets of Lviv’s historic centre. On arrival at the Reikartz Medieval Hotel, the friendly young lady on reception gave me the good news that I’d been given a free upgrade to a suite, making the hotel an even better bargain. The accommodation was gorgeous, with comfortable bed, sofa, and a huge bathroom- all very welcoming after the long journey.
Lviv Old Town
After a good sleep and breakfast, I began to look around the historic centre of Lviv. It’s very much a Central European city, which felt quite different from Odessa and Crimea, which I’d visited the previous year. English, although not widespread, is spoken more here than in the east, where I’d felt like a complete baby, not knowing Russian or Ukrainian.
The sun was shining and the city was full of tourists enjoying Central European café society. It was an atmosphere of normality and the news reports from the east, which I caught on CNN at the hotel, appeared quite surreal.
Lviv’s old town square is lined with cafes and restaurants, with the town hall in the middle. Fountains with statues of Roman gods can be found at each corner. I visited the Lviv History Museum in number 6, which contains elegantly furnished rooms, assembled by one of the city’s wealthiest inhabitants during the eighteenth century and an attractive Italian Courtyard.
Lviv is also striking for the range of cultural influences, as reflected in the churches. There are Ukrainian Orthodox, Armenian Orthodox, Greco-Catholic and Roman Catholic churches. The city had a large Jewish community comprising 45% of the population before World War Two. This was almost wiped out by the Nazis, and the city’s main synagogue destroyed- there is still an overgrown, fenced off patch of land where it once stood.
In the afternoon, I went to the Lviv Art Museum, which has a large collection, including some world masterpieces like Georges de La Tour’s Payment of Dues and then walked up the hill to St George’s Catholic Cathedral. Pope John Paul II had just been canonised, and large pictures of him had been placed at the entrance.
I walked back to central Lviv to see the University building, and here I encountered people congregating and lining the pavement on either side, holding Ukrainian flags. Neither of the two flag bearers I tried to engage in conversation spoke English, but I learned from a young lady with a camera, possibly a journalist, that Yulia Tymoshenko was in town for a campaign rally. Elections were scheduled for 25 May.
From the University, I walked to the Shevchenko Monument, where young people congregate. Taras Shevchenko was a nineteenth century poet and painter, whose work embodied the spirit of independent Ukraine. His statue has replaced Lenin in western Ukrainian cities. (In the east it’s a very different story and I’d almost felt I’d gone back in time when I’d seen big Lenin statues in Alupka and Yalta in Crimea the previous year. Even in Odessa, the Lenin statue lasted until well into the 2000s).
I was determined to eat Ukrainian food, but that was easier said than done, with many popular restaurants full. But after a bit of trekking and looking at a few, I settled for Medivnia, just a short distance from Rynok Square. This place is famous for its own special honey and herb flavoured aperitif, which was certainly good. The old communist habit of pricing meat per 100g still prevails here- so you only find out the cost of the meal when the bill comes. It’s an annoying custom, but costs are very low- the entire meal including a beer came to around 8 euros.
Museum of Folk Art and the opera
The next morning, after a quick taxi trip to the southern bus station to collect my ticket for the following day, I headed straight for the Museum of Folk Art and Architecture, a couple of miles to the east of the city centre. This has traditional houses, a school and wooden churches. I’m quite familiar with wooden churches from Romania, but the Ukrainian style is slightly different, with the characteristic onion domes. Some of them are really quite large too.
People in traditional costume greet you in some of the houses, rather like at Stockholm’s Skansen. The museum is spread out over a wide area, with lots of little houses, so you really feel you are in a peasant village. Traditional crafts are displayed too- there is a working blacksmith’s shop.
From the Museum of Folk Art, an easy taxi journey for a mere 30 grivny (about 2 euros) took me to the High Castle, one of Lviv’s most iconic spots. From the road, it’s an easy climb of about 5 minutes to the top, which has views over the city and the surrounding countryside. Young people congregate up here and have their picture taken. A Ukrainian flag flies proudly from a flagpole in the middle of the viewing platform. I walked back down into the old city and took in the beautiful Armenian Cathedral, with its headstone-paved courtyard, before dropping back to the hotel for a rest and change before going to the opera.
Lviv has an impressive opera house, and I was pleased to have managed to get a ticket to see Aida. The most striking feature inside is the main staircase, where people like to have their pictures taken. Before the performance, a man in a suit, who looked like one of the opera directors, made a short speech, after which the audience stood in silence. After finding a young couple who spoke English in one of the intervals, I discovered that the speech had been about events in Odessa the previous day, 2 May, where many people had died in a fire in the trade union headquarters during clashes between pro-Russian and pro-Ukrainian demonstrators.
I’d seen Aida the previous August in the Verona amphitheatre- see http://www.percivaltravel.com/an-opera-in-the-verona-arena/ . Of course, the performance in Lviv was inevitably on a rather smaller scale, but the set was well done and one of the most memorable moments was when Radames realises he has betrayed his country’s secrets. He took his sword out of its scabbard, and laid it down on the stage, with both hands, while repeating the line sono disonorato. It’s a very human story about somebody brought down by love. Princess Amneris is an interesting character- she really loves Radames, and sees him being destroyed by his love for Aida. She has the very last lines of the opera.
On to Kolomiya
I had an early start on the Sunday morning, but not too early for breakfast. I took a taxi to Lviv’s main bus station, which is a few miles out of town. There was a slight hold up when I realised that the driver didn’t speak English and I’d forgotten to ask the hotel receptionist to write down the destination. I showed him my bus ticket and he set off, but I hoped he was taking me to the right bus station as time was a bit short. But all was well, and I reached the bus station with ten minutes to spare.
The bus was waiting- a little minibus actually, the mainstay of the Ukrainian inter-urban bus system. My ticket said bay 9 or 10- it was in bay 8, but I was quickly pointed in the right direction. I had seat number 1, having booked it online almost as soon as booking had opened, and this meant I had a good seat at the front.
Being Sunday morning, it wasn’t too crowded either. The previous year, travelling from Odessa to Chisinau in Moldova, I’d been in a minibus where they had put chairs in the gangway. I’d seen similar in Romania in the 1990s, where planks of wood could be placed in the aisle for people to sit on. So this trip was quite luxurious by the standards of this type of travel.
It wasn’t long after the bus set off that I had an insight into Ukraine’s dreadful roads, which many travellers have commented on. This was a main road, but in places the potholes were so bad that the normal rules of the road had to be abandoned, with traffic slowing to a crawl and everything trying to find a route around the potholes, whether that meant driving on the right, the left or the middle of the road, all made worse by the rain, which made the potholes into muddy puddles. When planning the trip, I’d been surprised by the slow journey times for buses- I could now see the explanation.
The owner of the guesthouse in Kolomiya where I stayed later explained that the state of the roads was Yanukovych’s fault, because his power base was in the east and he didn’t want to invest in the west. Indeed, the roads in Crimea, which I’d travelled down on my trip the previous August had been in a much better state.
A little over two hours from Lviv, we stopped in Ivano-Frankivsk, named after the celebrated Ukrainian poet. Near the bus station was a huge Orthodox church, and the Sunday service inside was being broadcast all around on loudspeakers. Another couple of hours, and the bus pulled into Kolomiya bus station in pouring rain.
The first thing I noticed apart from the rain was the cold. It was May, but it had been an exceptionally cold spring in Eastern Europe, and Kolomiya, being on the edge of the Carpathians was down to 7 degrees. But I soon settled in to the friendly On the Corner guesthouse. The host, Vitali, spoke good English and we discussed the Ukrainian situation. As well as running the guesthouse, he worked in logistics and told me that transporting out of Odessa had been difficult because Yanukovych’s companies controlled everything, and that they had tried Constanta for a while, but that had proved to be equally corrupt. So Gdynia in Poland had turned out to be the best option.
After a chat with Vitali, I braved the pouring rain, carrying an umbrella which the guesthouse had lent me. Kolomiya is a small place, but it has two excellent museums, the Hutzul FolkArt museum and the painted egg (Pysansky) museum. The Hutzul museum is full of woodcraft, pottery, costumes and other artefacts from the region and is mostly labelled in English. (Hutzul means “mountain people”). But the real gem is the painted eggs museum. This contains around 10000 intricately painted eggs, with colourful abstract designs as well as some with religious imagery- Christ on the cross, or churches. The insides of the eggs are removed by making a hole at either end, through which the contents are sucked out, leaving an empty shell. The detail is astounding and some are quite old, going back to the 1920s. The museum itself is in the shape of an egg, with colourful painting.
Before dinner, I took in one more of Kolomiya’s attractions- a fine wooden church, dating from the sixteenth century, and typical of the architecture of the region. Then it was on to what seemed to be the only restaurant in town. The menu was only in Ukrainian and the young waiter didn’t speak English. Eventually a lady appeared who spoke some, and I managed to get some chicken and a salad, with the help of my Russian phrase book, which I used discreetly as I sadly didn’t have a Ukrainian one. The languages are similar, but Ukrainian is not a dialect of Russian. It’s a distinct language as different from Russian as Dutch is to German.
The On the Corner guesthouse was a very friendly and comfortable place to spend the night. There are many books and a piano. Breakfast was some very tasty pancakes and delicious home made jam.
Then Vitali drove me to the station, having supplied me with enough food for the 14 hour journey back to Bucharest, and helped me find something to spend my last grivny on. Knowing that they can be almost impossible to change outside the country, and that the rate to change into Romania lei is quite poor, the best solution with around 7-8 euros worth was simply to spend it. A bottle of brandy from Odessa solved the problem.
Overall, a very interesting trip. I’d learned that western Ukraine is very different from the east. I’d taken in Lviv, one of Europe’s great cities. And the stopover in pretty little Kolomiya had been well worth it, especially for the painted eggs museum. I was looking forward to my next trip, and to discovering more of this fascinating country.