While backpacking around Eastern Europe, there was one country I hadn’t thought of visiting: Ukraine. Around that time (fall 2014) the civil war there was at its most intense point. But not considering going to Ukraine was actually stupid, as the battlefield was about 700 kilometers away from beautiful Ukrainian cities like Lviv. Luckily, a friend I met on the way convinced me to go there with her, and I don’t regret it one bit.
Lviv is a major city in the west of Ukraine with a rich, mostly European history. It has lots of German influences and, like most of Western-Ukraine, strongly leans towards Europe. Lviv can be reached in various ways. I decided to take a train from Košice in Slovakia to Chop, just across the border of Ukraine. From there I took a 7-8 hour train to Lviv.
“We got swarmed by five guys talking to us in Ukrainian which, you guess it, we didn’t speak a word of,,
Quite frankly, the trip there had me slightly worried. The train to Chop was an old diesel train from the 1950s. Right across the border a Ukrainian border officer (who looked more like a wild bear than a human to me) took our passports and left with them not saying a word. After 20 minutes of slight worries he came back, and apparently all was fine. The station in Chop was huge, but empty as well. Across the main hall we could see one light burning behind a tiny window. Inside a small office was an old woman looking at us grumpily. It was impossible to use our card for a ticket to Lviv (eventhough the logo on the window stated it was possible), and as we didn’t have any cash yet, we had to wander into Chop to find an ATM.
“We had only been in Ukraine for an hour or so, but could already feel the war that had the whole country by the throat,,
This was the point where for a split-second it got weirder, and then alot better. We got swarmed by five guys speaking Ukrainian to us, you guessed it, we didn’t speak a word of. After thinking they wanted to sell us something at first, it turned out they just wanted to help the lost strangers finding an ATM and helping them get to the right platform. I’m gonna spoil it for you now, these guys were the first of many super-friendly Ukrainians.
The long train to Lviv was warm and slightly cramped, but a great adventure that I enjoyed thoroughly. On the way to Lviv you can see lots of the Ukrainian countryside and get a glimpse of daily life there. We tried to communicate with a Ukrainian man in our car who turned out to be an army officer from Donetsk (in the East of the country) that fled to the West, as he did not support the pro-Russian rebel movement. We had only been in Ukraine for an hour or so, but could already feel the war that had the whole country by the throat.
In Lviv the tension is definitely present as well, but more importantly, life goes on here. It’s hard to describe Lviv. It is raw, authentic and old at the same time. It sort of feels like a traditional, touristy European city that just hasn’t become touristy yet (although quite some Polish tourists visit Lviv). Old cobbled streets, lots of churches and mostly 18th century architecture, but not quite like any other European city I have been to. Whereas old city centers in most European countries are mostly monuments that have been preserved well for esthetics and history purposes, alot of the old structures in Lviv weren’t preserved that well at all. In a strange way this made the city feel raw and real: the old buildings weren’t there as a beautiful esthetic luxury, but actually crucial as a place to live and work in.
”I have seen signs at grocery stores that read “no Russian pigs allowed” at the entrance,,
I truely experienced Lviv as one of the highlights of my trip. From the main avenue with the Lviv Opera Theatre, to the cosy market square to the local food, it is hard to compare Lviv to other places in the region. Although most people do not speak a word of English, in most cases they are warm and helping, trying to figure out what you want with the patience of an angel. A small note is that those who do not want to help are on another extreme: grumpy, rude and annoyed.
Although I do not want to end this post on a sad note, it has to be addressed that you could feel the concern about the war everywhere in the city, eventhough you’re about 700 kilometers away from the epicenter. Ukrainian and European flags lined most streets and I have seen signs at grocery stores that read “no Russian pigs allowed”. As a Westerner people are happy to see you, but I cannot imagine what it is like for a Russian friend of mine to be there. Whatever side you are on, you do feel for the situation being this rough in a country that used to be united and only 2 years before hosted the European Championships of football.
I spent a total of four days in Lviv, but feel like you can spend alot more time there. The city is extremely cheap from a Western perspective: an excellent meal for about € 5 / $ 6 and a hostel bed for about € 1 – 2. The city is safe and there is enough to see to be able to wander around for hours without feeling bored or seeing something twice. Although English isn’t widely spoken, nor is it used on any sign anywhere, you will be able to find your way quite easily. A tip is to go on the free walking tour which leaves a few times a week and actually is in English. Lviv is underrated as a destination, and although I understand why, it deserves more attention from travelers.