by alex robertson textor
At a crossroads
WE ARRIVED IN L'viv, Ukraine, by train from Kiev on an early morning in late May. Woken up far earlier than necessary by the train car attendant, we watched the green countryside peek out from behind low-lying fog for the better part of an hour before the train slowed to a crawl at L'viv's grandiose train station.
From the outset, L'viv was sleepy. The train station platform emptied itself in minutes. Lubko, a friend of a friend, shepherded us into taxis. As our ramshackle cab found its way through streets bordered by dilapidated buildings, there were few people to be seen. Lubko's building had creaky wooden stairs, and the foyer smelled of cat urine, but inside, his apartment was swankily minimalist.
All of this barring, possibly, Lubko's apartment sharply contrasted with what we had left behind in Kiev. Ukraine's capital city had been in a state of frenzied hubbub, having just successfully hosted the Eurovision Song Contest. Political groupings clogged Maydan Nezaleznosti, Kiev's central square and the site of last year's "Orange Revolution" demonstrations. The media presence and the sheer mass of people alike lent the city a greater intensity. Enterprising salespeople were stationed on street corners and in subway nooks selling lilies of the valley. The sweet scent of the spring flower laced the air, providing a kind of olfactory accompaniment to the city's hyperactivity.
While Kiev sits, more or less, in the center of the country, L'viv is in the far western corner of Ukraine, just 40 miles from the Polish border. Traditionally, L'viv has been a lively center of Ukrainian nationalism, a place where the Russian language is eschewed in favor of Ukrainian. It was only after World War II that L'viv was first administered from Moscow. Consequently, the city feels far more Mitteleuropa than post-Soviet.
Once a part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, L'viv is the definition of a European cultural-crossroads city. A stroll through the magnificent Lychakiv Cemetery is a lesson in linguistic untidiness. Polish, German, Ukrainian, and Russian names abound, with grave markers in several languages and two alphabets.
L'viv is also a religious hub, which makes its crossroads status even more evident. The number of religious structures there is truly striking. In the center of the city, Ukrainian Catholic, Greek Orthodox, Roman Catholic, Dominican, and Armenian churches, as well as monasteries and nunneries, can be found. Oodles of religious tourists, many from neighboring Poland, make the trek there, bringing heavy foot traffic to the religious circuit in the center of the city. Most of the sites, scattered around L'viv's central city, are easily visited on foot.
The city prides itself on its cosmopolitan nature. Here you'll find real cafés with real coffee, not the instant coffee available in so many other restaurants and cafés throughout Ukraine. Two especially fine cafés are Vienna Café (at 12 Svoboda Ave.) and Svit Kavi, (at 6 Ulitsa Staroyevreyska). Vienna Café offers enormous breakfasts, while Svit Kavi's old-school coffee preparation techniques are charmingly detailed. Lviv's restaurants aren't quite so exciting, though a number of interesting cuisines (including Georgian and Uzbek) find a home there.
As a crossroads city, a place where the Austro-Hungarian empire can, in a sense, be revisited, fascinating L'viv deserves a place on the central European grand city tour. Beyond this, it's a good place to witness a nation in flux. While many Russians, and, for that matter, many Ukrainians, do not see Russia and Ukraine as meaningfully distinct, L'viv is a place where Ukrainian nationalism and culture are expressed as radically distinct. During last fall's "Orange Revolution," people from L'viv traveled en masse to Kiev to join the protests. However Ukraine and Russia are bound, the split between the two is palpable here.
Alex Robertson Textor lives in New York, where he writes freelance travel articles and works as managing editor of www.eurocheapo.com.
Visit L'viv as a side trip from Poland or Kiev. Weather remains fine through mid October, perking back up again at the end of April. Winters can be bitter. The budget-minded should stay at the utilitarian Hotel L'viv (Prospect Vyacheslava Chornovola 7. 72-86-51), where you should be able to find a room for $50 a night. On-the-ground expenses should be low in L'viv, where multicourse meals rarely run more than $10 a person.