It was a rough ride on the overnight train from Krakow. At least the two person sleeper compartment meant we had the space all to ourselves. A small sink in the corner was a nice touch. Bottled water and snacks were provided. It was warm in the top bunk so the provided blankets were more beneficial as cushioning than for warmth. We knew there would be a delay at the border to change the gauge of the train’s wheels and expected immigration would be visiting on both sides of the border. We have never had good luck with overnight trains in any country we have visited. We were sure that we would not have a completely restful night but nevertheless we were hoping for the best as we made our way to the border and our new home in Lviv, Ukraine.
The gentle rocking of the train and the warmth of the compartment took effect, and it wasn’t long before we drifted into a restless sleep. The movement of the train and the muffled voices of the few passengers who stayed awake caused dreams of sailing ships and barely understood conversations. The first knock at the door came
just after 2 AM. “Anything to declare” asked the customs agent in English from outside the door. “Nothing” we called back. The knocking moved to other doors down the passageway. That was easy.
Drifting back to sleep for what seemed like just a few minutes, we soon heard another knock on the door. “Passports, please” came the call, again in English. Opening the door a crack, we passed the documents through to the agent. He slid the passport through a portable machine and stamped them and passed them back through the door. Again, as easy as could be. Farewell, Poland.
The sounds of cars uncoupling and the swaying that might have come from the lifting of the cars from the carriage made sleep fitful. When the cars were uncoupled power was disconnected and any ventilation that we did have was lost. The heat rose in the dark car and blankets were kicked off. Lights from crews working outside occasionally lit the curtains that were drawn in the compartment. Pillows were better used now as sound and light barriers than for comfort. Despite the noise and confusion, an uneasy sleep with heavy dreams overtook us.
Near Rynok Square
I never heard the third knock on the door. I awoke to aggressive tapping on my legs. “Wake up! She needs to see your face!” Opening my eyes, I was taken by surprise by the flashlight being shined in my face by the female customs agent dressed in a camouflage uniform. It only took a second but as my dreams faded and the reality set in that I was lying on the bunk in nothing but my tighty whitey underwear with two agents staring intently at my face. A vast sense of uncomfortableness overtook me. Before I fully awoke they were gone and the moment was over.
“Did I just go through immigration in my underwear”?
“That’s kind of weird isn’t it”?
We arrived at the Lviv Station a few hours later. It was immense and designed in a grand style that made us think of any of the major European cities we had visited. Towering arched ceilings with plenty of lavishly painted area full of 19th
century flourishes. A little rough around the edges, if you looked close, but still pretty ornate.
We took longer than others to exit the train and get our bags onto the platform. We didn’t really have to hurry as it was not even 7 AM and we couldn’t check into our new apartment until 10. Most everyone had left the area by the time we were organized enough to head for the exit. It was then that we realized we had a bad problem. Somewhere in the night we had managed to lose our ability to read!
The signs had letters but we only recognized about half of them. There were backwards N’s and R’s. The number 3 was used as a letter and some words appeared to have the sign for Pi included. A capital letter B was located in the middle of words and one letter looked like a P with an extra loop. We had no idea which way we should go to get out of the station. We saw a pair of restrooms with a WC (thankfully) over the doors, but we had no way to discern which one was for which gender. We had to stand outside and wait for someone to enter or exit so we could
From Town Hall Tower
make the correct selection.
We followed the crowd toward the station. Advertisements with smiling faces lined the walls of the halls but we could not discern what products they were enticing us to purchase. Were they selling beach vacations or air freshener? We were frustrated by our attempts to get cash from an ATM until we realized it was a ticket vending machine. After 5 years of travel we are used to having a hard time communicating verbally, but we had never lost our ability to at least be able to read and somewhat pronounce words.
The Cyrillic alphabet was going to be a challenge. The alphabet was different when we travelled in Thailand and Israel, but most of the important signs had Latin letter translations. Ukraine has traditionally been focused toward the old Soviet Union and not much effort was put into “westernizing” their signage. We were told that not many people spoke any foreign language beside Russian, but we have been very surprised how many people, especially the young, speak some basic languages besides Ukrainian and Russian.
We actually are quite proud of ourselves for having done pretty good
with deciphering the code. Perhaps the biggest problem we had was shopping for groceries. We were amazed at how similar many products looked without being able to read the names. We ended up not buying several normal staples if the packages didn’t have a picture on the label. We must have seemed the choosiest shoppers in the world as we shook each package, looking at it from every angle and having long discussions about the potential contents as we passed the item back and forth, furling our brows deeper with each pass.
Despite our issues with the language, we have found Lviv to be a delight to visit. Almost one million people live in the town, but you would never know that from the downtown area that is known as Market Square or Rynok Square.
The square itself is lined with nicely restored 16th
century manors which surround a more recently built Town Hall. The opulent houses are mostly muted pastel in color with the exception of the famous Black Stone House. The streets surrounding the square are cobbled and blocked to automobile traffic. Well-worn trams ride wobbly rails nearby and periodically
fill the air with a warning bell to clear the streets ahead. Cafes and restaurants all display colorful awnings over their extended seating areas to take advantage of the warm spring days. Patrons fill the square and surrounding streets at all hours. This is a walking town and the entire historic center stays busy constantly. Street entertainment is around every corner and down every alley. Costumed vendors in period dress sell candy, ice cream and chocolate to the crowds. The smell of coffee from the cafes is rich and laughter from children is frequent as they play in and around any of the four fountains in the square.
Throughout our travels in Europe, we have always had to watch our budget pretty closely. At times, so much so that we haven’t always been able to enjoy some of the tastes and adventures that we might have if we had fewer restrictions on spending. Not so in Lviv. The cost of things here are unbelievably inexpensive. We have enjoyed Lviv’s famous coffee, hot chocolate, cakes and pastries often. Rich, thick, hot chocolate (more like melted chocolate than hot cocoa) with a decadent pavlova (meringue with whipped cream and
strawberries) for under two dollars. Delicious cappuccino and apple strudel with cream sauce for under two dollars. A delicious three scoop handmade ice cream in a waffle cone for 75 cents. 3 course Ukrainian style meal in a traditional cafeteria restaurant for under 3 dollars. Haircuts in fancy salons for less than 2 dollars. Entry to very nice historical museums located near the square are usually less than 50 cents. Tram rides cost 7 cents! Opera, ballet and theatrical performance are on offer in multiple locations. The list goes on and is so enjoyable that we have found it difficult to do much more than spend our days wandering the streets of the city and relaxing in one of the wonderful parks, restaurants or museums on display.
Lviv has been a very nice surprise for us. To be honest, we came here because our Schengen visa had expired and we needed to visit non-Schengen countries for 3 months before we could return. This is a city that feels like it is on the cusp of a bright future. We have read that the Ukrainian government is not as stable as it could be and there are rebellion
Summer Wedding Season
problems in Eastern Ukraine that cause Ukrainians serious concerns. However here in the sunny spring weather of western Ukraine, we feel we have found a true undiscovered gem of architecture, culture, food and people that has a bright future and deserves a visit from anyone who has the opportunity.
We have another long train ride on Friday to our next destination and hope to see some of the beautiful countryside of Ukraine on the way.
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