Three days in Lviv
The outward journey was frankly a disaster. Lviv is about six hours west of Kiev by train, not far from the Polish border and the Carpathian mountains. We had been encouraged by The [omniscient] Man in Seat Sixty One to picture a modern, high-speed train, and we envisaged travelling in comfort with our first class tickets, and the provision of an on-board restaurant car and individual wi-fi connections. When the train arrived, it was all 1950s, wagons-lit, rolling stock, with four passengers seated in a six-seat compartment; no wi-fi connection, no reading light, no leg space, and uncomfortable seats. Our two companions were bulky Ukrainian women who hung their coats on the hook that infringed on Susie’s seating space. The refreshment car turned out to be a friendly railway man who dispensed hot water in cardboard cups from the end of the carriage, and sold a selection of Bounty and Twix bars. It was a very long six hours !
After which Lviv was wonderful …
We were staying in the George Hotel, again on the recommendation of The Man in Seat Sixty One. It is a splendid, spacious, turn-of-the century building that, thankfully, has not been crudely and insensitively renovated. .In fact it hasn’t been renovated at all. Our spacious room had solid wooden furniture, desk and wardrobe; the light fittings and door handles were brass. The mirrored double staircase is magnificent. So too is the dining room, all bent-wood chairs and sensitive lighting, and a gallery clearly intended for a small orchestra. Breakfast is laid out on a series of tables across one end of the room: hot items in lidded warming dishes, breads, ham. cheese, yoghurts, jam and honey.
Sadly the details are not quite right. The [very small] lift smelled as if it were inhabited by a large, wet dog. The water pressure in the shower is a bit low. The television set that offered us BBC World News had more dandruff that blustering Boris. The breakfast omelette and the breakfast sausages were both lukewarm and tasteless. And I couldn’t face the fried liver. But I will certainly make an effort to return to the George if and when we return to Lviv.
From the entrance to the hotel you come out at the bottom end of the Prospekt Svobody . This is a hub of local life, with tourists posing for photos by the prominent statues of Adam Mickiewicz, Poland’s national poet, and of Taras Shevchenko, Ukraine’s best-known nationalist writer, this latter a gift from the Ukrainian diaspora in Argentina. At the far end of Svobody is the ornate Theatre of Opera and Ballet. Along the central strip of park there were dozens of Christmas stalls selling a variety of [mainly] food and drink; kebabs, hot dogs, different kids of sausage, nuts, inevitably chips [very good]; coffee, hot chocolate, mulled wine, and some excellent rum-based warm punch. After six hours in the train we felt much better for a rum punch and a hot chocolate.
Our guide the next morning was Lada, whom we had met at church in Kyiv. And who is delightful. Lada teaches in Lviv: she is part-English, part-Russian, – but also happens to speak German, Lithuanian, Ukrainian, and some Polish ! She may also be the only person I know who became a Christian as the result of reading St Augustine’s Confessions. We climbed a small hill to admire the view from the citadel, now converted into what looks a comfortable hotel. Then descended for coffee and a tour of the old town. Lviv is all cobbled streets and old churches; and cafes and the smell of coffee roasting, and a host of chocolate shops. It has a totally different feel from Kiev, and feels more like a small city in Austria or Slovenia. Historically Lviv was the capital of Galicia, very much part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. It only came under Soviet control in 1945 and is relatively unaffected by fifty years of Soviet rule. It draws thousands of tourists, with good reason, many of them gathering in Pl Rynok, around the 19th century Ratusha, or Town Hall. From which noon is marked each day by a bugle call from one of the upper windows.
Lviv is well-supplied with a host of coffee bars, cafes, and restaurants. In tourist mode we visited Lvivska Maysternya Pryanykiv, an award-winning gingerbread shop. Small children were attending a gingerbread decoration workshop in the cafe. Not the best place for a Type 2 diabetic. From there we moved on to Lvivska Maysternya Shokoladu, a chocoholic’s dream; an extraordinary variety of chocolate spread over three or four floors. Crowds of people, narrow stairs, and n chance of social distancing. We made modest purchases and beat a hasty retreat.
There are lots of restaurants in Lviv. We had lunch one day at Green, a well-regarded vegan restaurant. My beetroot and pear and avocado salad with sun-dried tomatoes was excellent, accompanied by fresh pressed grapefruit juice and a very eco-friendly drinking straw. Beetroot featured again the next day when we ate an early dinner at the Trapezna Idey. a quirky basement restaurant below a small art gallery in what was formerly a Bernadine monastery. Susie and I shared a beetroot and horse-radish starter. The food was excellent. I had borsch, all beetroot and garlic and herbs and cream, white Susie had goulash, which was equally good. Followed by poached pear and home-made ice-cream. As well as the food and drink, the neighbouring table gave added value. It was a three generation family group: an alpha male dressed in what looked like a baking foil shirt and an ear-ring; his wife in minute, back and white, dog-tooth hot-pants; two solid, respectable grand-mothers; and the daughter, dressed either as a Christmas angel or for her first Communion.
Now it is time to go back to Kiev for our final Sunday. And to prepare, paperwork, Passenger Locator Forms [the stuff of nightmares – the gov.uk website is not fit for purpose] , and pre-departure PCR tests permitting, to return to Edinburgh.