Episode 13: Kiev to Lviv 25 September 2012
Buying a train ticket, a caffine high, a stroll through the dead
Lviv should be shrouded in cotton wool and stored on a planet uninhabited by most of humanity so that it does not change. It has everything a once medieval city should have: charm, architecture, cobblestone streets, Romeo and Juliet balconies, churches, history, museums, a ripper of a cemetery and cafés galore. It helps that it has an annual coffee and chocolate festival and I happened to be there during that time. It’s also a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Given that I had never heard of Lviv before and decided to stop there based on a short blurb I had read and a whim, Lviv turned out to be a wonderful discovery which I greatly enjoyed.
Getting the train ticket was no mean feat, but based on past experience, I grided myself and trundled on down to the ticket offices in the Kiev train station. To buy train tickets, you have to navigate yourself to a rather large, vacuous room with very high ceiling, no sitting facilities, and a row of numbered glass fronted ticket booths along one side. And it was crowded to the hilt – a seething mass of Ukrainianites and Russians with the odd foreigner such as myself.
Ukrainians queue as well as the Russians and Mongolians, which meant the usual chaos of shoving, frowns, pushing and place holders (i.e. where you thought there were 10 people in front of you, there were actually 72 as each of the 10 had on average 7.2 relatives and relatives twice removed milling around in the background). The tactic is to place yourself in front of the correct booth as best as possible and hold your ground. Putting on your best “don’t mess with me look” helps a wee bit as long as you don’t say anything to give yourself away as a total foreigner.
As the unwritten law states that the understanding between a ticket seller and customer must be kept to a minimum, each booth has a microphone and speaker system which totally distorts what is being said and what you can hear and which is placed as close to the counter as physically possible meaning you have to squat or lean over sideways with your ear on the counter to talk and listen to the teller, thereby taking away even that iota of dignity and buying power you thought you had.
I have found that showing a calendar, and writing and knowing the names of the days or months in Russian is the easiest way to deal with a ticket seller that really does not want to try and understand what you, a foreigner, wants. I also recommend doing lunge exercises so that your knees don’t give up while you squat, explaining everything 20 times in exasperation.
Train 091 wagon 16 seat 031 got me from Kiev to Lviv in about three hours. We passed through very pleasant scenery of forest and small villages.
I stayed in the Soviet Home Hostel which boasts of being in an original old soviet building. Not the best advertisement, but it was located right smack in the center of the old town and the lounge was loaded with heaps of really interesting original soviet paraphernalia and posters. A bit of a shame about the stink when you first entered the building, no lights in the stairwell, rickety stairs, signs of a badly leaking roof and the warning sign not to go out on the balcony because it was unsafe. One only needed to look at the state of many of the balconies on other buildings to heed that warning by 100%. Aside from all of that, it was a clean and pleasant place to stay, and incredibly convenient.
The first place I visited was Rynok Square which is the main square dating back to the 14th century, and the first thing I did was go up the bell tower in the town hall (the ratusha which originates from the German Rathaus).....all 350 stairs worth…to get my bearings. As with many bell towers, you could see the bell tower clock mechanism, the bells and get a panoramic vista of the old town and surrounds. The very popular hill in Vysoky Zamok Park (all 413 m above sea level) also gives a rather nice view of Lviv.
Rynok Square City Hall and tower
Rynok Square street
You can buy a very handy guidebook in town (Tour Through Lviv) which gives you a description of the history and architecture of each of the 44 houses surrounding Rynok Square.
Lviv has an abundance of churches and is a city with a wide cross section of religious denominations ranging from Baptist, Catholic, Ukraine Orthodox and even Hari Krisna. I also enjoyed that the old part of Lviv has not yet moved into self-serve markets so you have to ask for what you want from the shopkeeper behind the counter and then it gets handed to you. You don't change your mind often. I was also impressed that many of the cottage crafts still existed in the markets. I find it sad that in many countries, the cottage crafts that had been passed on by so many generations are nearly lost, dying due to lack of interest in modern times.
Cafés: Lvovians are very obviously coffee aficionados. There is a café or three on every street and a cappuccino only costs about the equivalent of $US2.00 (the cost of a cappuccino became my standard of living barometer during my travels). Then there is the usual wide range of coffee types...americano, cappuccino, espresso, barista. I have no idea if you can further select decaf, soy or low fat as everything in written in Cyrillic. There are also shops that sell only coffee and their supermarkets have a very wide range of coffee. I also managed to be in town during the Coffee and Chocolate Festival. How good was that? Not much in the chocolate line - although this gap was satisfactorily made for up by an artery hardening range of tortes and pastries. But whatever style of coffee is made anywhere in the world, you could buy it at the various festival stalls.
Trypillian culture: In my meanderings around Lviv, I walked by Potozky's Palace and lo and behold, there was an exhibition on Trypillian culture pottery. Having visited the village of Trypillia, the so called 'center of European civilization', I had to go have a look. But I first got sidetracked by the history of the palace: commissioned in 1888 by Count Alfred II Potocki and finished in 1890. Now the best part. In 1919 an American plane crashed into the palace while performing aerial stunts over the city. How's that for an embarrassing moment? No comment was made if the pilot survived. The palace was renovated by 1924 and used by the German Military Administration from 1941 to 1944. By 2007, the building became the “Department of European Art of the 14th to 18th Centuries of Lviv Art Gallery in the Former Potockis Palace”. I wonder if there is a competition for the longest name given to a museum.
The Trypillian exhibition consisted of the pottery found in various excavations in Ukraine over the last 100 years or so. As this was my second crossing with this culture, I did what every red-blooded curiosity seeker user does these days....a quick Wikipedia search.
Trypillia is the Ukrainian name given to a people who lived in the present day regions of Ukraine, Moldova and Romania, in roughly 4800 - 3000 BC. The first Ukrainian site was discovered near the village of Trypillia (ta da!) in 1897 by the Czech archeologist Vicenty Khvoika. It was a matriarchal society with the women planting and harvesting, making pottery and taking care of kids. The men herded cattle, goats, pigs and sheep, and made tools from flint, stone and bone. Interestingly, there is evidence that the Trypillians had a tendency of periodically destroying their settlements and reconstructing new settlements on top. Why? The debate continues. Their pottery, meanwhile, was hand coiled and decorated with swirling patterns and shades of black and brown which to me looked quite similar to North American Indian designs.
Castle-ing: I decided to take a day trip out of Lviv and visit one of the few castles that exists in the area. To add a bit of challenge, I decided to take the local transport, which was good value once, after a lot of hand-waving, backtracking and walking around in circles, I finally figured out where to catch it. Transport consisted of the crammed ubiquitous van and the trip took about one hour with the usual occurrence of people getting picked up or dropped off in the middle of nowhere. This was the first time that I had seen passengers crossing themselves whenever we passed a church or a cemetery. There did seem to be, however, a line on the side of the road where, if the church or cemetery was located past this invisible line, no crossing was necessary.
The castle I visited was called Zolochiv Castle. Its main claim to fame is that it is one of the first and only castles to have a loo. Built in the 1600s, it was occasionally visited by Princess Ludwika Marie Gonzaga de Nevers, the bride of Polish King Wadislaw IV. I only mention the princess because she had such a nice long name....a bit like the museum. It has a bit of a violent past as it was taken over by Tsars and the Ottoman army, and was used to house political prisoners during Stalin's time, most of whom perished. As for the loo, I didn’t see it as it was a glorious day and I was quite taken by the garden, the cannons, the magic stones and the view from the bastions. By the time I finished fossicking around the outside of the castle, they had closed the inside.
Lychakiv Cemetery: This necropolis was an absolute wonder of a place to wander around in, full of stoned prominent people. There are some amazing stone sculptures of people, eagles, angels, saints and crosses scattered all through its leafy, green 40 acres of alleys, mausoleums, posh chapels, crypts and tombs. It’s one of the oldest cemeteries Europe – elite, wealthy Livovians ranging from poets, writers, composers, singers, scientists and politicians started getting buried there in the 16th century. The dead became more equal during the Soviet times, and everyone and anyone was allowed to be buried there. As a result, plain utilitarian tombstones sit side-by-side with extravagant stone sculptures and it now has about 400,000 silent inhabitants.
Tram ticket purchase, punch and inspections: One of the best ways to get around Lviv is to use their tram system. Unfortunately, Lviv must have the most inefficient tram ticket paying and issuing system on planet earth. First you cram on board with all the others into the narrow space just inside the doors behind the driver. The driver sits in their little space on the left with a plastic partition behind them. Of general note, it seemed to be that the majority of the tram drivers were somewhat pudgy middle-aged ladies who never smiled.
The tram takes off and you pass your money to the tram driver through the small opening next to the plastic partition. She deftly drives at the same time as giving change, issuing a paper ticket, and where necessary, reprimanding. You then have to make your way into the tram to where the punching device sits on the wall. You have to reach over two people, insert your ticket into the slot and pull down the lever which punches and validates your ticket. Those who are in the back of the bus and cannot make their way to the front, pass their money forward - hand by hand the money goes forward, the ticket gets issued and gets passed back, hand by hand, with someone punching it along the way. Somehow the punched ticket finds its rightful owner.
And then there are the ticket inspectors that come onto the trams quite regularly. Two of them. One with a clipboard and one with a gun. The tram tickets are quite elegant looking so the first time on the tram, I had tucked mine away into my bag for safekeeping to keep as a useless memento. I had to shovel it out right quick when I realized the inspector with the gun was peering down at me waiting for me to show my punched ticket. And thank goodness I had taken the effort to punch the ticket.
More pictures coming.
Next stop - Belgrade.