Eastern Europe – Part I: Lost and Found in Lviv, Western Ukraine – Lviv, Ukraine, Europe
After touristy Krakow, my next destination was Romania. However, since there is no land border between Romania and Poland, I had to go to at least one other country. I could take an overnight train from Krakow to Transylvania, pass through Slovakia and Hungary (both of which I had been to and was not impressed with). However, this would set me back 103 euros (no sleeper or couchette) for nearly 20 hours. I had read that theft is so rampant on this route, extreme caution has to be taken all the time. I did not feel comfortable.
I could travel through western Ukraine to reach northeastern Romania (the Moldavia Region), said to be the most authentic part of Romania. Because I just found out I did not need a visa to Ukraine, this seemed a more interesting choice. The New York Times had an article about Lviv being the largest city in Western Ukraine). Why not visit it?
I would stay in Lviv two days, take the train to Suceava, Romania, where there are several medieval monasteries in the region. Checking from several European train schedule sites, I knew I might need to change train at Chernivtsi, for a train going from Moscow to Sofia (traverses eastern part of Romania, including Suceava). I did not realize, though, how hard it is to get train information in Ukraine, let alone buying the ticket I wanted!
I assumed that Ukrainians, like Poles, at least in the hospitality industry, would speak passable English. I was wrong.
Many things in Ukraine remain in the old Soviet style – confusing and inefficient. First, the advance ticket in Ukraine is not sold in the train station, but in an office far away from the station. After I reached the office, I found it to be hot and crowded. Signs are in Ukrainian only, the Cyrillic alphabet. I know most of the alphabet (though I don't speak either Ukrainian or Russian), but it took long to figure out which train goes where (the Cyrillic form of Krakow literally transfers into "Krakiv"?).
Also, I could not determine which window I needed. There was no multi-lingual ticket vending machine, as in Germany. After waiting at Window Eight for 20 minutes, I was told to go to Window One for international tickets – done with the help of a young woman translating because the sales clerk could not even say the number in English, much less anything else. At Window One, more communication difficulties. With the aid of a Ukrainian-speaking Canadian woman, I learned that tickets from Lviv to Chernivtsi were sold out for the next two days.
Due to the limitation of their computer system, even after I made it to Chernivtsi, I didn't know if there would be an available seat between Chernivtsi and Suceava. I had to buy that leg of the trip at the Chernivtsi station. Sounds complicated, doesn't it? I must say the sales girl did seem concerned for me, knowing I spoke neither Ukrainian nor Russian. And Lviv is supposed to be westernized, the people quite educated.
I realized I had overestimated my ability to travel alone and independently. Perhaps I should have joined a tour group as I did in Russia.
What to do. Take a bus to Chernivtsi and see what happens? I didn’t have any information about Chernivtsi in my Let’s Go Eastern Europe Guide. I'm not that adventurous. I felt stuck.
Eventually – reluctantly – I left for Krakow. I knew the sale clerks in the Krakow train station spoke some English. I decided to go to Sighisoara rather than Suceava.
I had 30 hours to see Lviv before I returned to Poland. No pressure. I had time to savor this relatively unknown Ukrainian city.
A week prior, I had read an article titled Heritage Survives a Complicated Past in Lviv, Ukraine. This made up my mind about going to that part of the world.
I walked into Hotel George, a hotel recommended by Let's Go Travel Guide and The New York Times – 400 Ukrainian hryvnia (HV) for a room with a private bathroom ($1.00 = 5 HV). I opted for a room with shared bath facility, the price was 145 HV, less than $30.00. The hotel is centrally located, with most sights within walking distance.
Lviv used to be ruled by Austria and Poland before it became a part of the Soviet Republic of Ukraine. Its atmosphere resembles Vienna, Krakow and Moscow – in that order. There are more Catholic churches than Orthodox ones – many in the Baroque and Rococco styles. Walking around the town, I felt the fading glory of this lovely city. Unfortunately, many buildings need to be renovated.
I went into the Ploshcha Rynok (Old Market Square), supposedly the miniature version of Krakow's Grand Square, with city hall in the center. City hall was completely under scaffolding, so I couldn't see it. The whole square was being re-paved, thus, the outdoor cafe mentioned in the New York Times article did not seem to exist anymore. I walked north to the Armenian Church, the oldest in Lviv – nice from outside. It too was closed to visitors that afternoon. According to the guidebook, it should have been opened.
The next day, after checking out and storing my luggage, I went to the open air Museum of Folk Architecture and Rural Life. It is a little remote, a long walk from the center, but an interesting museum park with many delicate wooden structures from villages throughout Ukraine. I was surprised there were hardly any visitors – no food stands inside, maybe that's why.
I saw the National Museum on Prospekt Svobody next. I was charged 14 HV (Book had the entrance fee at 4 HV. Was I overcharged as a foreigner?). The museum has a relatively small collection – some religious icons, impressionist paintings, paintings from the Austrian period, even paintings by modern artists. Again, I found few visitors.
In the late afternoon, I strolled up to the Old Castle Hill, northeast of the center. Almost everyone hanging out there were locals. I did not see any group of tourists. I was the only Asian wherever I went, nobody gave me even a second look. A Ukrainian flag flew on top of the hill, the highest point in Lviv. I had a panoramic view of the whole city there.
Before I headed to the station for my bus back to Krakow, I had some light snacks and a cocktail at Dzyha Art Center, a gallery/cafe that was featured in the New York Times article. My waitress spoke English fluently. If only she worked at the train ticket sales office.
Lviv is a rough and undiscovered gem. Compared to Krakow (now flooded with tourists in every budget and persuasion category), or even newly popular Riga and Tallinn, Lviv is virgin territory, with friendly and helpful locals. Tourism infrastructure still needs improvement, but Lvivians hope their city becomes "the next Krakow" bringing in money and jobs. With Ukraine now relaxing its visa policy, more people will come. Ukraine will have its time in the sun.
It took two hours to exit Ukraine. Some people had to fill long forms, others were taking art out of the country, while still others were trying to take more money out than was allowed.
Getting into Poland took even longer. Each vehicle was checked in great detail. We were lucky to be on a bus. We could catch some sleep while waiting. I realize the border people must guard against letting unsavory individuals slipping into their country, but they could be more efficient in their management of processing.
In Krakow, I went to Window Nine, paid for the ticket to Sighisoara. I boarded train D381, which turned out to be the most – well, read the next part to see what happened.
Saricie Kuo is a college professor and public health researcher from Taiwan. He is also a part time novelist and film critic. He took most of 2006 off from his career, traveled in Europe and South America. He made a wish when he was 18 – to visit more than 100 countries before he turned 40. Currently in his mid-30s, Mr. Kuo is glad he has only 10 countries left to reach his goal.