A Travellerspoint blog

September 2013

Episode 14: Lviv to Belgrade

all seasons in one day 20 °C

Episode 14: Lviv to Belgrade 29 September 2012

Scrappy cats, lost train, wonky streets

They have a funny rule in Ukraine about train tickets in that you cannot book an international train seat more than 48 hours ahead of the time of departure. They hold to this rule so rigidly that when I got to the train station in Kiev to buy my ticket, I had to wait nearly 1 1/2 hours so that I did not get my ticket earlier than the allocated 48 hours. It was fortuitous that I did get there early as a long queue formed quickly and, as I later discovered, there were a very limited number and choice of seats.

Train 015, Seat 43, Second class, 24 hours 23 minutes via Budapest on a train which had started in Moscow and was therefore very full and space challenged. The cabin consisted of three bunks stacked on one side of the cabin which itself measured no larger than a postage stamp. Roughly two feet of space between bunks so you couldn’t sit up. It was hot. The good news was that I did not get the top bunk, but rather the middle one. The bad news was that one of the two ladies was travelling with.......a cat. A white, long haired cat, sans cage, which ruled the cabin both in terms of its presence, its smell and the fur it left everywhere. I was surrounded by cat paraphernalia - container with kitty litter, water and food bowl with fishy smelling cat food - and heaps of baggage as it turns out one of the ladies was on her way to a teaching job in Serbia and therefore moving her entire household. To put insult to injury, the Cat decided my bunk was the best level on which to perch during the night. A judicious nudge of my foot resulted in the feline creature finding itself on the floor. Shame I couldn’t do the same through an open window.

It was a challenge finding space for my backpack and still leave some wiggle room. It was also very apparent that the two ladies were not too happy with my showing up, one being the owner of the cat and telling me that I will need to fit in as best as possible and she could not help me with my bunk because she had a bad back. Good start to a wonderful short term friendship.

Crowded baggage on train

Crowded baggage on train

Ukraine immigration occurred at three in the morning, Hungarian immigration at five in the morning. Ukraine customs asked me to open my backpack. Hungarian customs scrutinized the Cat's passport and unfortunately all was in order.

We had a one hour stop in Budapest so I decided to take the opportunity to de-fur my lungs and stretch my legs by walking around the outside of the train station. I return to the station and……there is no train. Not even a little whiff of smoke or skid marks from the train. Why my first thought was how I was going to track down my backpack in the lost baggage department in Belgrade I don’t know. Second thought was how did I manage to mess up the time so badly? It wasn’t like I was in Russia where everything runs on Moscow time so it is almost understandable why you can miss a train. To compound my confusion, there was no sign for the train to Belgrade on the notice board. I asked someone who appeared to work at the train station about the train to Belgrade and the best I got out of him was “no train”. Off I go to find an information office and in my dashing around, I hear my name being called out. I found the source and there are my two cabin mates (plus Cat) hanging out of the window of the train which had most inconveniently moved tracks. There was not only no entry on the notice board, but there wasn’t even a train number on the train at that point in time which was why I could not find it. Lesson learned: stay close to your train unless you are into adrenaline rushes.

I passed through the Hungary- Serbia border at more civil hour...about 5 in the afternoon. Hungary customs took the longer of the two countries as they electronically scanned each passport, checked your face and finally stamped the passport. Serbia manually checked your picture and passport expiry date and then stamped your passport. The Cat, unfortunately, again passed all inspections and didn't become a rat catcher at the train station.

I did not like Belgrade. I don't know why. Maybe it was the dull weather, its history, the dark, heavy buildings or not being able to orientate myself well as none of the streets even remotely ran in a straight line. I do admit there was something quite neat seeing window displays with products that looked like they dated back to the 1940s and 50s. Finding the shop (which turned out not to be so much a shop but more a booth squeezed in like a second thought) where I could buy my bus ticket proved to be very challenging as some areas of Belgrade are like a dense rabbit warren of tiny shops with no identifying number or name. I read somewhere that Belgrade was the new capital of cool. I certainly did not get that vibe. I made the round of the suggested tourist sights and non-suggested sights but found no real enjoyment in my wanderings.



I did take the bus to Zemen which is to the northeast of Belgrade and is now a municipality of Belgrade. I enjoyed Zemen. It is very much an ancient city having been inhabited since deep Neolithic times of about 5,000 years ago. When you read about the history of the town, the names of many long gone people and cultures get mentioned: Baden, Bosut, Celtic, Scordisci, Romans, Ottoman. As with many towns and cities in the Balkan states, it was subjected to the political struggles of the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries.




Medieval Fortress on Gardos Hill

Medieval Fortress on Gardos Hill

Zemen is a lovely cobblestoned old town with an open market that lies on the banks of the Danube River. It was red capiscan season and there were boxes upon boxes of red capsicans for sale. Never go to a stall with boxes and boxes of red capsicans for sale and ask for 1 kilo. The laughter will not stop. Gardos Hill is in the center of the town and gives a rather nice view of the city. My highlight was finding the ruins of the medieval tower and surrounding wall left from the 1521 Ottoman siege. My second highlight was lunch in a restaurant which was located in one of the old houses. I was the only person in the restaurant so I could not fault the intimate, but subtle, service given to me by the waiter in the nicely starched white apron. I sat on the terrace overlooking the Danube River and the old town. The restaurant had an extensive menu but the only dish on offer at that time was fish soup or goulash. Goulash it was, and it was yummy.

When my friend I was going to visit in Podgorica suggested I come down earlier than I had planned, I decided to do this.

Next stop, Podgorica, Montenegro.

Posted by IvaS 03:57 Archived in Serbia Comments (0)

Episode 13: Kiev to Lviv

sunny 23 °C

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 City Hall and tower

Rynok Square street

Rynok Square street

Rynok Square

Rynok Square

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.

My highlights:

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.

Posted by IvaS 03:36 Archived in Ukraine Comments (0)

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