: Took the overnight train from Kiev to Luts'k, in the northwest corner of the country. Upon arrival, we found the small station already stirring with early bird locals awaiting their trains. We departed by taxi as the cold morning air began to sting our ears and noses and stopped first at Michael's friend James' apartment. James is also employed by the Peace corp as a teacher, and spends much of his time at the local university teaching English to young, educated Ukrainians. A native of Ohio, he lives a much more humble life in Luts'k, coping with horrendous plumbing in a cramped, crumbling cell on the second floor of a decaying Soviet-style monolith. It's no different than the hundreds of haggard others we have seen slowly rotting in the suburbs of Kiev and Moscow. But it's home. We'll be sleeping on his pull out couch for the next few days.
Michael has to work, so James has graciously agreed to step in as translator (no one here speaks a lick of English and I'm armed with only a dozen or so phases of Russian) and guide for the day. He first takes us to Luts'k's old town, which
Into the Old Town
Sarah, James, and Michelle wander into Lutsk's Old Town.
has pretty, orderly houses and cobblestone streets but is, in fact, less than sixty years old. The town was almost completely destroyed during the second World War. Surviving, however, is the magnificent castle which appears to be the only real tourist destination in the city. It is virtually empty, which is wonderful because we can enjoy the grounds at a leisurely pace and take snapshots from the ramparts without being bumped and prodded along. After completing our walk through the keep, we set out in the direction of the city's cathedral, where James believes we may be able to take a subterranean tour of the catacombs. The cathedral itself is an interesting sight: large trees reach to the buttresses and grasses and leaves have been spread throughout the pulpits and alter. The pagan influence seems strangely out of place in such a devoutly Orthodox part of Europe. Stepping outside and around the grounds, James locates the discreet entrance to the catacombs. At the bottom of the stairs, a lone man broods over his post. An old couch, covered with ragged blankets and stuffed animals, sprawls in the back of the small room. We pay the eccentric crypt keeper a few
A glimpse of the first course of our feast prepared by Vlad and Lena.
grivna and he - almost reluctantly - plugs in the Christmas lights to begin our tour. Yes, Christmas lights. Adding to the bizarre experience, a large Christmas tree stands at the center of the next chamber...of the crypt. He escorts us through the labyrinthine space, pointing out stacks of skulls and bones and rambling on in a mixture of Ukrainian and Russian. James does his best to keep up. Seeping rainwater has collected in some of the passages, rendering them impassable and partially submerging the skeletal remains of Luts'k's former citizenry. Still, we push on from room to room. The last chamber contains a dingy well and as we draw close, the keeper explains in a flat voice that malevolent mermaids dwell in its depths. Those who give offerings, he claims, are sometimes rewarded with luck and fulfilled wishes. We toss in a couple of coins and stare into the dark waters, wondering if anything is staring back. In the dim light, Sarah swears she sees something move.
We leave the catacombs and allow our eyes to readjust momentarily before heading out to lunch: varenyky (delicious dumplings) and borshch (soup). Our bellies filled, we reunite with Michael at a
Let the drinking commence
Vlad opens the handle of Vodka.
beautiful park near the university for a brew in the beergarten before wandering the town in the afternoon, grabbing a bite for dinner in a smokey old tavern, and calling it a night.
The next day, we tend to a few errands and collect gifts in preparation for the day's "main event." Michael's host family has invited us to dinner at home. We arrive at around 5 p.m. with our contribution of wine and flowers and remove our shoes at the door. The family is very welcoming: Vlad (I can't recall, nor would I know how to spell, his exact name so I will use this shorter nickname) and Lena (again, a shortened name) are in their mid forties, with two teenage sons. They usher us to the small table and begin carrying out copious amounts of food. Each plate looks carefully arranged and beautifully presented. The mushrooms were hand picked in the forest. The vegetables were grown in their garden. The animals were their own. It is a lovely meal that has taken at least a full day to prepare. Vlad opens a bottle of vodka and begins the feast with a traditional toast and a quick gulp
The fifth...or sixth...or seventh toast.
of hard alcohol. We dine for hours. As Michael translates, we learn that Vlad is nostalgic for the Soviet era, when he was a soldier in the Red Army stationed in East Berlin. Now he is employed as a truck driver delivering paper. He hopes we will stay longer so that we may see his village, where he has kept his military uniform and effects. Between the fifth and sixth toast (each of which is accompanied by a shot of vodka) we begin talking about how he and his wife met, which prompts a two hour viewing of their wedding video. They were the last couple to be wed in Western Ukraine before the fall of the USSR. After, we return to the table for more rounds of food and even more vodka (along with a few roughly translated jokes involving Vlad standing on stools and waving his arms excitedly). The drinking and dining marathon ends just after one in the morning, when we are all thoroughly exhausted and intoxicated. Pleasant dreams.
We depart the next day in the afternoon and wind our way through the countryside to L'viv. Rural Ukraine is enchantingly beautiful and picturesque: small hamlets dot
the rolling farmlands and old tractors roll alongside the roads. Tiny babushkas and stern faced farmers board and alight from our bus throughout the journey. During the journey, a small onboard television screens a low budget (and ultra violent) American action flick dubbed in Ukrainian and an episode of Law and Order
, albeit with Russian look-alike actors, poor editing, and corny, choppy cinematography. Arrive in L'viv late and head to the hostel for sleep. June 4
: The old city of L'viv is gorgeous. Cobblestone streets, pastel pretty buildings, and grand churches crowd the city center. The city has a distinctly different feel from our other destinations, due mainly to its proximity with Poland. L'viv has actually changed hands dozens of times over the years (owned by Poland, Austrohungary, Nazi Germany, Soviet Russia) creating an eclectic assortment of different architectural styles. After sipping tea in one of the L'viv's many cool cafes, we walk through the airy squares and quite back streets before climbing the endless spiral of stairs of the town hall bell tower for breath-taking views over the city. After the wonderful panorama, we decide a beer is in order, so we head to the Lvivska brewery for
a tour of the "oldest brewery in Europe". After a rough start with the guard who didn't speak English, we are met by a young brewery representative who ushers us to the brewery "museum" where we watch a strange documentary (with an amusingly accented English dub and weird cartoons) about the history of the place. Great beer tasting included. Return to the open air just as a light rain set in and decide to eat before retiring for the evening.
Sarah and I wake early the next day and take the tram to the burbs of L'viv for a look at the country's traditional side at the Folk Museum before hopping across to the huge cemetery nearby. The overgrown grounds contain the graves of Poles, Ukrainians, and Germans, with some epithets written in Cyrillic and others in Latin. We notice that many of the Polish graves have been desecrated. Stone angels are decapitated; portraits scratched out; effigies vandalized. How interesting. We return to our hostel and meet up with Michelle before eating a light lunch and perusing the markets for something to take home. In the unrelenting rain, we decide to take in a bit of hot tea and
ponder the rest of our journey before our evening departure for Krakow, Poland.
I am retiring for the evening. Poland entry and pictures soon! Stay tuned, comrad.
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