LVIV IS AMAZING.
Lviv is secretly (not so secretly) a very European city. People exclaimed over the quaint charm of having to stamp their trolley bus tickets. I was so used to just paying and moving on, that I was a bit perplexed to even GET a ticket from the driver, let alone stamp it. Carried a whiff of nostalgia from my Regensburg days (although there I just had to bring my student ID to avoid the fine of being caught). Of course, we did get checked at the train station upon our return, and poor Will had tucked his ticket somewhere obscure, but the lady got tired of our reassurances and general confusion and finally waved us off. The 40 UAH fine would've been one of the cheapest parts of our trip...
Where there's a Will, there's a Way
So the plan to go to Lviv was put in motion by a visiting volunteer who went to Macedonia after we were evacuated. After hemming and hawing about having the time/energy/money to go, Will, Hugo and myself decided to travel up and meet with 3 other volunteers that are currently in a city a few hours east of Lviv. We had a horrendous time finding lodging. Ukrainians, I'm afraid to say, have a very tenuous grasp on the details of Airbnb and VRBO machinations. Will and I got rejected by no fewer than 5 potential hosts, despite meeting criteria and their apparently empty calendars. Also complicating the situation was the happy realization that Monday was the Day of Independence (thus allowing us to have a free vacation day to travel), but also making Lviv rather popular for the population at large.
However, after several frantic hours of searching for submitting travel paperwork, Will discovered a Hostel not featured on the main sites, that luckily had rooms open all weekend. So we pounced and I booked us. It later came out, via email from the parent company in Kyiv, that that hostel DOESN'T EXIST ANYMORE. They expressed surprised that we'd been able to book at all. While Hugo and I were leaving Friday evening, Will was taking an overnight train and arriving early Saturday morning. Having told Hugo the danger had passed and that it was unnecessary to pack his duster or my sleeping pad, we found ourselves in a rather precarious situation of being unhoused for the night.
Will sprang into action and managed to book us two free beds in another hostel (he just asked them to hold them really) and so we felt fairly confident we'd be set. Once we actually arrived in Lviv, and after a 45 minute trek through to the center and the hostel, I think we both felt fairly comfortable with the thought of being out all night. People were out at all hours, with cafes and restaurants open late with music and street life performances. But we made it, and after some initial door confusion we were shown to the room. It was a 10 bed mixed dorm, and only had 3 other people. After settling ourselves in, Hugo and I went in search of dinner.
Let's Talk About the Food...
Hugo and I were not disappointed by the Uzbek restaurant we found. In fact, I think it's safe to say that we were not disappointed by the Nationalist Restaurant, the Fairy Tale Restaurant, the Jewish Restaurant (although that involved bartering for our food, and a struggle to show we weren't ridiculously rich Americans, no matter what the ignorant man at the next table over decided to share with our waitress), Georgian, Masonic, Burger, Coffee shops and Bakeries that we ate at.
Because, dear lord, the FOOD.
I had a dish with chickpeas - and later found some at a grocery store! - and we had wine from Crimea. I love the homemade wine here, but it is a mixed bag and inevitably not quite what you bargained for. The prices of course were higher than what I'd normal consider to be in my budget, but I treated this as vacation and drew from my American savings. It still was a bargain to anything you'd find in America.
The next morning we met up with Will and we went to a cafe. Will had finally had an Airbnb success, and our next few nights were locked down. While the guys had coffee, I went for the hot chocolate, and was not disappointed. It's literally hot melty chocolate...similar to a warm chocolate pudding but thinner and richer. Though Lviv is known for its Coffee, it is also known for its chocolate and in this case the chocolate trumped coffee. It did make the guys a little less growly though.
We met up with the Airbnb contact and then started our meander through the city. Will used his phone and the guidebook to navigate mostly, so I left it up to him. He pretty much wanted to see EVERYTHING, so there wasn't much choosing to be done. We did go to a monastery under Studite Rule (Benedictine Nuns), and talked to a lovely nun who spent some time in Siberia. I didn't catch most of it, but it sounded unpleasant. They have a Canadian nun in residence, but she was busy. We got to go into the giftshop and look at their pysanky (decorated eggs) collection from other sister groups around the world, and I even bought one they made there with traditional designs.
We met up with the first other volunteer group in the early afternoon. One of the volunteers was a true response volunteer, and seemed to be still working out the details of what that all entails. To be fair, they did just arrive 2 weeks prior, with no real language training given. The other volunteer was a returned volunteer as well from the group previous to mine. She was working with an NGO that dealt with human trafficking and related social issues. She's quite fantastic.
We went to eat at the fairy tale house - after being regaled by a gentleman outside the establishment with some sort of legends involving the "flying car" we later saw on the roof the 5 story building. We really only went to get the discount coupon for another restaurant (which turned out to be the Lviv discount card that we could've gotten at the hostel), but it turned out to be very interesting. The house beer wasn't much, but the fact that it was staffed by little people and crammed full of interesting artifacts (such as a counter for the exact number of cobblestones currently in the city), made it very enjoyable.
And then Let's Eat Some More
This became the rather unapologetic theme of our trip. In all fairness, any time NOT spent eating was spent tromping around to look at either one church or some other historical building. The last two to join our group was the visiting volunteer and another response volunteer. He was returning as a response volunteer again, having done his initial service in Kazakhstan. He'd done some teaching previously in country, so his language was more than adequate. As they needed to eat, we ended up in a Jewish restaurant across from the Fairy Tale one. I had a dessert that was literally put in a flower pot, and was slightly more sophisticated than pudding and gummy worms. Featuring shaved chocolate, ice cream, orange gelatin and vanilla cake, I wasn't complaining.
The bill process was strange, as you must barter for your food. I thought this may be borderline racist, and didn't especially enjoy the process. I think we ended up way over-paying, although the server seemed to enjoy our rendition of "This Little Light of Mine".
Storming the Castle
We decided that the next step should be exploring the castle. After several mis-turns, we found ourselves on the right path. So we went up. And up. There was a strange combination of footpaths and metal stairs set into the hill that guided our approach. We passed the ruins of the outer-wall of the castle, and continued the ascent. I started to have a nagging doubt as we started the final approach...it seemed that the top was rather narrow. My hunch was confirmed as we reached the top, with nothing but a larger paved circle with a large flag post in the middle. No castle in site...yes, that was NOT the outer-wall, it was the pitiful remains of the castle itself. But the view was nice.
Themes and Schemes
The effort also allowed us the excuse to seek out sustenance. We decided to go the "Masonic" (Ie, the most expensive in the city) restaurant. I won't spoil the secret of gaining entrance, because that's definitely part of the fun. I will say that we saw one other group of tourists leaving because they were not savvy enough to have gotten the discount card. Because without it, you don't end up with a 90% discount, and your meal really is the most expensive you'd probably find in most of the country.
After dessert (before dinner, as one really never does know when one may die), we went downstairs to the Nationalist restaurant. I'm not sure how themed establishments became so popular here, but they're definitely successful. After ascertaining we knew the password and that we harbored no Russians, we were let into the bunker. The set-up was sprawling and rustic, with live traditional music. There were lots of WWII artifacts, and costumes. There was also a pellet gun shooting alley, where one could take out some anger on Putin or Yanukovych's face. It is also the hot venue to buy a half-meter long sausage, should that be your desire.
It was quite late after we finished, and we were ready to go back and crash. We made plans to go to the Lviv Coffee shop (THE Coffeeshop, the birthplace of coffee in Ukraine) in the morning.
Well, clearly I had no fun at all, as I've only really partially captured the fun and excitement of the first part of the trip. Words are failing me so I think I'll leave the second half for a near-future post.
Hope all is well,