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Published: October 23rd 2019
"We have a secret to tell you". These are not my words, but those of an advertisement stencilled on a wall. I spotted it, as we wandered down a random street on our first afternoon in Lviv. It was for a beauty parlour and nail bar, but it neatly sums up our trip to the largest city in the western Ukraine. It might be a bit of a secret for now in UK travelling circles, but it will soon be out. The other advertising slogan for the beauty window stated merely "You are in the right place". If you read on through this and the next few blogs in my mini series, we can pass on some of the secrets of Lviv and you too can decide if it is indeed the right place for you.
The usual blank stares accompanied by brief explanation of the next intended destination. If it isn't on a departure board at East Midlands Airport, I am afraid the geography lesson doesn't cover it for them. I ran through the plan with the Other Half. She was thinking perhaps she could add it to the trips of wandering through some bleak former Soviet tower block
housing estate. I gave her a brief summary of the history of Lviv and threw in for good measure that it was reputed to have more coffee shops and cafes, than any other in Europe. She signed up straight away without waiting to find out whether she would actually have an opportunity to venture inside any of them. We added a "local" to the trip. The Man in the Middle was on board. His old man was Ukranian and whilst he originally resided in Przemysl 60 miles to the west across what is now the Polish border, Lviv would have been his nearest big city. It would be a long way to Nottingham after 1945. He never lived to see the fall of the Berlin Wall and so the opportunity to revisit his homeland. We made a visit to Przemysl to check out the city - see blog.
Lviv has many names. Lviv. Lwow. Lemburg. Leopolis. The names reflect the rich and troubled history of this part of Western Ukraine, which has been fought over for centuries. The southern corridor of Poland through to this part of the Ukraine was originally part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. They built grand
structures that still characterize the city centre today, as well as passing on their love of a good cream cake and the coffee bean. The old order changed after 1918 with defeat of the Austrians and their German allies in the First World War. A vacuum was created, which paved the way for a rise in Ukrainian self determination. Russia had come under the control of the Bolsheviks and they along with the Poles, had other ideas. The First World War for the residents of Lviv did not end with the Armistice in 1918. The Poles eventually dominated and they were in charge of the new Lwow until 1939. The rise of National Socialism then under Hitler then loomed large over Europe. He made the unusual step of agreeing a non-aggression treaty with Stalin, that spelled disaster for both Ukraine and Poland. It was the green light for the two powers to carve up the territory, before establishing an uneasy stand off across the San River in the centre of Przemysl. The years 1939 to 1941 were a bad period for anyone who had strong Ukranian identity, as the Russians set about ridding the area of anyone who represented a
threat - intellectually or militarily - to their dominance. Hitler, having secured his initial ambitions in the west, finally pointed his Panzers east in May 1941. First stop. Lviv. The city surrendered early on in the offensive, as the Russian forces retreated east. The Poles and local Jewish populations were in for a difficult 3 years. The hated Russians were back in 1944, as they pushed relentlessly towards Berlin and with it came their Communist ideology. It would be 1991 before an independent Ukraine would emerge.
The Wizzair flight was full, as we left a chilly Luton Airport. We got talking to a Pole, who updated us on the city as his preferred dental destination. He was on a 48 hour mission to solve the problems with his gnashers and save himself a small fortune. The rise in dental tourism in Poland has forced up prices. The deals on offer in Lviv were much to his liking. After the chill of Luton, an Indian summer awaited us in Lviv. The temperatures of the low 20s were forecast and pretty much wall to wall sunshine. It was a big change from my previous trip to Ukraine in February 2010, when
I think it reached giddy heights of minus 14 and the snow was deep enough to lose a car under. We negotiated passport control with minimum fuss. A red stamp in our passport confirmed our limited entry permission. We don't get many stamps theses days, so it was a novelty to examine. Who knows what Brexit will bring, if the Fat Blond and Moggy's crew ever get their misguided way. Lviv Airport is close in to the south west of the city and the journey to the city centre was the lowest recorded on a trip since Chisinau in Moldova. I changed £10 into Ukranian Hryvnia to get some bus fare. The rate for the cash gave us over 30 to the £. The Number 29 trolleybus sits right outside the terminal exit. Tickets are priced at a competitive 5 Hryvnia, although if you have a large bag or suitcase, be sure to also buy it a ticket too. At regular intervals down the bus, you will see some very inconsequential looking ticket clipping machines mounted by the windows. Validate your ticket immediately by punching holes through it. If the bus is crowded, handing them to a local will see
them passed back and forth in a human chain before they return stamped. The latter doesn't sit easily with us, but you get used to it as part of the Lviv bus experience. Money to buy tickets is similarly passed back and forth. It didn't take long to see the ticket inspectors in action. A uniformed inspector boarded within 3 stops of the airport and unknown to us, 2 plain clothes officers had already boarded at the airport. They hastily scurried off, after those who made a swift exit at the sight of the uniform heading down the bus. Our tickets had been deemed satisfactory, so we had survived our first check. At the equivalent of 15 pence, it doesn't make sense not to follow the rules. It took about 30 minutes in heavy traffic to the terminus in the city centre right outside the main University building at the bottom of the Ivan Franka Park. I found an excellent website at EWay, which had made it simple to see the exact bus route in advance of our trip. Alas it wasn't practical with the price of roaming data to check it whilst in Lviv. The hotel was a mere
5 minutes walk and a couple of blocks away. We kept a careful eye on the pavement for the trip hazards, which lie round every corner. It was only 1230, but the rooms were ready. I changed into shorts to take advantage of sunshine and we headed out to explore.
The first item on the agenda was ticketing. The Opera House was a 5 minute walk away and more popular than we anticipated. A large queue formed at the ticket office - turn right after coming in the main door. The opera performance on Thursday was effectively sold out. A full house, shrugged the ticket operative. Ballet was dismissed, which left the Saturday night opera premiere as the only accessible performance. The remaining tickets were approximately £12. As non connoisseurs, we shelved the plan. We are veterans of much lower prices in Sofia, Bucharest and all. We took a lunch break with our first local 1715 beer to give opportunity for further thought. One of the beauties of Lviv is how compact the main city is, so it makes sense to choose a central base which are all sensible prices anyway. The next item on the agenda was the
football tickets. It was Lviv "derby" weekend and whilst it was never likely to sell out, our 10 minute foray would save a scrum outside a confusing ticket window on the day of the game. FK Karpaty Lviv conveniently have a "fanshop and Museum" on Voronoho Street just behind the George Hotel. Business was not exactly booming as we entered, which made our transaction easier. The Stadium Ukraina is an old Communist mega bowl. The seats are completely exposed to the elements, except for the better class and VIP area under a small roof in the main stand. There were 2 ticket prices - 200 Hyrvina (£6.60) for the good seats and 70 Hyrvina (£2.20) for rest. In case you are thinking how cheap they were, this was a Category A big game and prices were up on normal. "The assistant did her best to sell the seats with a roof. "It might rain", she suggested. However we didn't get where we are today by throwing money away and the weather forecast suggested zero chance of rain. Three 70 Hryvnia tickets were selected on the half way line opposite the VIPs, although I didn't anticipate anyone would actually sit in
their specified seats. There were no formalities or request for ID. The stupid memberships of elsewhere had not reached the world of Ukranian football. The shop was displaying a full range of Karpaty shirts and souvenirs in their white and green colours. As usual, we were on the hunt for pin badges. A polite enquiry drew a shake of the head, until a thorough search of the draws behind the counter produced a small handful. We invested and the remainder were given pride of place in the cabinet should the hordes of English ground hoppers descend in the next couple of days. We strode out into afternoon sun and made our way towards the House of Scientists. The building sounds like a chemical laboratory, but is in fact the former club of the horse breeders of Lviv. It opened in 1898 - the design of Fellner & Helmer, who worked on other key buildings across the city. The horse breeders gave way to a posh casino after 1918 and the Germans turned it into a "recruitment" centre for forced labour in World War 2. The main focus is the grand staircase.
We were still in the "new" town at
this point and crossed the wide boulevard that flanks the western city centre and ends at the Opera House. We were now in the "old" town. A maze of streets and alleyways links through to the Rynok or Main Square. The Town Hall sits in the centre and still seems to be functioning as a local administrative offices. The tower rising from the centre of the complex was bathed in afternoon sun. After a quick circuit of the Rynok, we located the entrance to tower on the 4th floor of the building. There is a lift to the 4th floor, but after that it is a long climb. It would become a theme for the trip - we would find ourselves scaling the heights with regular frequency in the next few days. We paid our ticket price and set off climbing. It was a 364 step climb to the top, although the narrow nature of the wooden staircase meant frequent pauses to allow those coming back down to pass. There was more than one mind, who were struggling with the exertion. The terrace at the top is open, giving a panoramic view of the "old" and "new" towns. As ever,
I focussed my initial observations on the floodlights of our two intended football matches over the weekend. The Other Half meanwhile was scouting the rooftop bars and cafes. She spied the old Trabent perched on the roof terrace of the House of Legends and another slightly closer to our vantage point. The Ukranian flag was blowing briskly in the breeze from the High Castle. We headed down into the Rynok, which was full of bars, cafes and shops. The city was alive with both locals and tourists enjoying the un-seasonal warmth. We wandered through the busy streets of the "old" town, before locating the House of Legends and climbing yet more stairs. The House of Legends is just a bar with a rooftop terrace, that draws folk in with a Trabant perched up there. A cast figure sits on the adjacent chimney.Tourists and locals alike seem drawn to throwing coins into his hat and nearby funnel, although in reality most crash down on the umbrellas below under which people are enjoying a quiet drink. We enjoyed a beer and gazed out over the rooftops. The Other Half then decided to relocate us to another rooftop, which transpired to be a
chocolate emporium. The step counter was getting some serious hammer by this point. It had been a long day and we retreated into one of the many branches of the Celetano restaurant chain for a feed.
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