The current political controversy had put the Ukraine has been in the U.S. news recently (fall 2019). But we planned a visit to the Ukraine long before all of this.
The Ukraine’s current struggle has its roots in Mikel Gorbachev’s 1991 decision to grant Ukraine its independence. Today it is mired between Vladimir Putin’s para-military-based insistence that Ukraine remains Russia’s birthright, and Ukraine’s attempt to gain entry into the European Economic Community (if not NATO).
As if this crisis weren’t enough, it now faces others including its perpetual corruption and its relegation to being a pawn in a U.S. impeachment controversy. Time will tell if it survives these challenges. For now, however, we took the opportunity to visit the country from which Tom’s great grandparents brought their children to the United States.
Our trip consisted of three stops:
- First came the culture shock of coming from a few days of wild Octoberfest partying to the ultra-Orthodox Lviv, a one day-visit capped by an all-night train trip; to
- Kiev, Ukraine’s capital and largest city; and a very long, day trip to
- Chernobyl, the site of what was, until Fukishima, the world’s worst nuclear reactor disaster.
This is the first of 3 blogs on this country.
For more than a millennium, Lviv (pronounced Le-Viv) been the capital of Galicia. It is also Tom’s grandparents’ homeland.
Lviv and Galicia have had a long, tortuous history. Settled in the 6th century, it emerged as the capital of the independent Kingdom of Galicia. Since the 12th century, it has been a political football with Poland, Sweden, Turkey, Russia, Germany, Austro-Hungary, the Cossacks, the Crimean Tatars and others claiming control over it in various times and in some cases, destroying the city in the process.
Throughout this, Lviv’s role as a major medieval-age trading center between the Black Sea and Eastern Europe created a very wealthy, highly cosmopolitan city. It was the third-largest city when part of Poland. When part of the Austo-Hungarian Empire, it was its fourth-largest city and was subject to autonomous self-government. In 1921 the League of Nations declared Lviv to be the capital of an independent Galicia. Now as part of the Ukraine, Lviv is a major industrial, commercial and educational center.
Although centuries of war and conflagration (especially two huge 16th-century fires, which destroyed its ancient wooden buildings) have taken their toll, the city escaped the devastation of World War II. As a result, the 750,000-person city retains 2,000 beautifully restored historic, landmark stone buildings, many of which are more than 500 years old. The entire Old Town center has been declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Although we couldn’t speak the language, we found the people to be very helpful to visitors. When we didn’t have the right change for a tram, several women dug into their bags to change the larger bills we got from the ATM machine into the smaller bills we needed to give the driver the exact change. Others mimed how we had to validate our tickets on the tram after we bought them.
Old Town Lviv
We mostly explored the beautiful, elegant, nicely maintained Old Town area with its cobbled, virtually traffic-free streets. The entire area is a delightful area in which to walk. Some of the highlights for us included:
- Market Square with its City Hall. It was initially constructed in the 14th century. Several additions culminated in an 1830 Renaissance tower. The square has fountains at each of its four corners and is surrounded by elegant, nicely detailed Baroque and Renaissance residence buildings with restaurants and shops on the ground level.
- Cathedral Square, with its lovely cathedral and, around the corner, the incredibly, ornately carved (albeit blackened from years of soot), sandstone Boim Family Chapel;
- Freedom Square, a lovely park, surrounded by some of the city’s grandest buildings, including the Lviv Opera and Ballet Theater, built at the turn of the 20th century.
- Armenian Street, which was settled by Armenians fleeing Mongols in the 13th century (when it was outside the old city walls). It has many historic buildings whose ground levels are lined with interesting shops and public art pieces. The Byzantine Armenian Cathedral, in a pretty courtyard just off the street. It is the oldest church in the city (1360) and has an interior painted with boldly decorative Art Nouveau.
- Nearby are the Dominican Church (completed in 1761) with its beautiful dome, altarpiece and chapels and mysterious catacombs.
- The Pharmacy Museum is a 15-room laboratory, library, and pharmacy. It originally opened in 1735 and now provides tours.
- Lviv Arsenal now houses a museum of weapon from the last 1,000 years.
Outside of Lviv Old Town Area
Beyond the Old town are many additional sites. One could spend days wandering and exploring.
- The ornate, Rococo style, 18th-century St. George’s Cathedral.
- High Castle protected the city from its 1,300-foot perch from 1250 to the early 1800s. It has, however, been dismantled and is now little more than rubble. The hill supposedly still offers a wonderful, 360-degree view of the city.
- Lychakiv Cemetery. Since the 16th century, this cemetery has been the premier internment spot for, with monuments to the city’s rich and famous.
- Pidzamche District has several murals gracing the sides of neighborhood buildings;
- The Modern District is an integrated city designed and built in the 1970s and 80s;
- The Jewish and Austrian Districts are areas in which those with each nationality settled and built their own communities.
- Hundreds of churches and cathedrals in all sections of the city;
- Dozens of museums focused on everything from art, to natural history, to terror and brewing.
- Baczewski Restaurant is one of the top Ukrainian restaurants in the city where we tried to recreate the meals Tom’s grandparents served and his mother made. Our meals consisted of Borst with meat dumplings, Galician meat pierogi (served with sour cream and mushroom gravy), smoked pork sausage (kielbasa) with fried onions and cabbage rolls. While the pierogi were almost as good as those Tom’s Mom made, the borscht was tasty, but lacked the consistency or the vegetables Tom recalled. The cabbage rolls lacked the richness of his Mom’s food. Oh well, we know that recipes change as they get passed down through generations. We also experimented with a Ukranian, Black Sea-area wine, 2017 Prince Trubetskoy Pinot Noir Reserve which and nice body but was somewhat acidic.
- Mons Pius is a wine bar/restaurant that specializes in dry-aged steaks. Since we had had a large and late lunch, Tom was unable to eat the roughly 750 gram (about 1¾-pound) ribeye that he originally wanted and settled for half of Joyce’s 640-gram tasty dry-aged double burger (with a nicely-spiced mustard-cheese sauce with jalapenos). We also split a bottle of Georgian wine which was a pleasant 2015 Duruji Speravi from Queri.
Lviv Hotel – Riding the Train
OK, so we didn’t stay in a Lviv hotel. After reading all of the bad reviews, delays and horror stories of flying on a Ukranian Airline, Joyce refused to fly to our next Ukranian stop. Instead, we opted to take the overnight train (#92) from Lviv to Kiev, which received much better reviews. We booked a 2-bed compartment. We boarded the train in advance of our departure time which gave us time to store our suitcases in the rack above our beds. The “bunks” were fairly comfortable and we had sheets, blankets, and pillows. We did have one plug above the doorway, which made it difficult/impossible to use. But all we were doing is sleeping so that was OK. Also above the doorway were light switches and door locks. We slept as reasonably well as one can on a train and got in around 7 AM ready to explore our next stop in the Ukraine: Kiev.