Image by didkovskaya on Flickr

Tuesday, 11 June 2013

Swimming in butter in L'viv

After days of driving from town to town, and moving from hotel room to hotel room, it has been a real joy to stay put for a few days, unpack our bags, walk instead of drive, and enjoy big city life. Visiting L'viv has been a wonderful ending for our trip to Ukraine.

After all the fancy welcome signs across Ukraine, L'viv, this is the best you can do?

The city of the Lion has been known variously as Lwow (Poland), Lemberg (Germany), and L'viv (Ukraine), over the years, depending upon the regime or government that controlled it.

The Lion of L'viv after too much pyvo (beer)

Formerly the capital of Galicia, L'viv is now one of the largest and most important cities in Ukraine. Despite Soviet and Nazi occupation during World War II, the "Stare Misto" (or Old City) has retained its beautiful historic buildings and extensive cobblestone streets.

Be forewarned, flat shoes a must to handle the cobblestone
sidewalks and streets....
...although some local women flaunt practicality.
While Poles and Jews made up the majority of the city's population until World War Two, the Holocaust rid the city of most of its Jews, and following the war most Poles were transferred out of L'viv by the Soviets. L'viv is now very much a Ukrainian city.

Terrific weekend second-hand book market but Ukrainian or Russian language skills required

Although firmly in Ukraine, L'viv looks and feels more like Prague or other similar central European cities. Even better than Prague, however, is the very reasonable cost of visiting the city. Prices in L'viv for hotels, restaurants, and museums are significantly lower than most other cities we have visited, making it an amazing holiday destination. You do need to speak Ukrainian or Russian, however, or be with someone who does, because speaking only English will just not cut it except in the main hotels.  However many restaurants do have English menus.

Speaking of restaurants, Lev took us to an interesting restaurant located under the Opera and named “Livy Bereh.”  The name means “Left Bank” because the restaurant is located on the left bank of the Poltava River which flows underneath the Opera. It’s an easy going place where patrons, if they wish, can don various coat, masks, or dresses from various operas. Also all the walls and doors are all a bit wonky.  Another enjoyable cafe is the Kabinet Cafe just across the street from a stretch of the medieval wall that used to surround L’viv.

Beware: You are entering Livy Berah
Perhaps it's because it's the end of a very busy trip, but we have not followed our usual mode of traveling since we arrived in L'viv.  Rather than run around looking at sites, visiting museums, and starting the day early, instead we readily accepted the café lifestyle of L'viv. Our days have been spent enjoying the really great food in the city's many cafés and restaurants. Serving staff take their time, the kitchen prepares most food from scratch, and meals are leisurely and delicious.  It has been easy to give in to the temptations.

It was wonderful to see a Caprese salad on the menu after so few vegetables in the 'provinces', but who expected mayonnaise, and so much of it?

Or, for that matter, so much butter on the potato varenikes? But oh, were they fabulous.
Despite too much time sitting around eating and drinking, we have still managed to do a bit of sightseeing. A favourite were the many beautiful squares scattered throughout the old city.  Our home base, the Grand Hotel, is located on Prospekt Svobody, which also contains the L'viv Theatre of Opera and Ballet, and a huge monument to Taras Shevchenko (Ukraine's National Poet).

The grand Opera and Theatre of L'viv, beneath which lies the cafe Livy Berah
Politics anyone? You can find it daily at Prospekt Svobody.
Prospekt Svobody is also a place where musicians meet to play together, political parties put up information booths, and people gather to play chess, talk, and check each other out.

Some locals playing chess, or is it checkers, on a bench on the main drag
The city centre around the City Hall (Ploshcha Rynok) is a pedestrian zone that is always full of people shopping, sightseeing, and eating. But it is also not surprising to find a group of people gathered together singing or soldiers touring.This group had just visited a bank machine, making for long lines for everyone else.

We're not sure about the soldiers but they look like they're having fun.
Some of the oldest and most interesting historical buildings in L'viv can be found at Ploshcha Rynok. It is the heart of the L'viv UNESCO World Heritage Site that was established in 2008.

Like the rest of Ukraine, you can't escape pork even in Ploshcha Rynok.
Ploshcha Rynok, an old market square, is filled with three and four story buildings, some of which date back to the late 1600s. In the Ploshcha one can find, among other things, a collection of small museums that make up the L'viv History Museum.  The collections are well done and interesting but descriptions are almost entirely in Ukrainian, so be sure to brush up on your history before you go! It also took us quite a while to figure out which historical period was covered by which museum building, as published information was quite confusing.

This beautiful building houses a branch of the L'viv City History Museum 

This too is a branch of the history museum, which Lev (check out the dude in the orange t-shirt) is about to visit

L'viv is rich with beautiful statues, churches, plaques, museums, and other historical buildings. Here are a few of the ones we visited:

The medieval wall of L'viv is still standing; unlike us after some particularly filling dinners

It's easy to get around to the sites in L'viv as the downtown core is awash with streetcars and buses of all sizes and descriptions
More street and cafe culture in L'viv: Apparently a great place to meet girls

If your home is on fire in L'viv, the fire truck might come from this gorgeous fire station
We couldn't do the historical and cultural sites justice in the few days we had here and, our commitment to the city's cafe culture sapped our time and energy. No matter, we enjoyed our visit to L'viv.

Lev's move to the university for a five-week Ukrainian language programme late Sunday afternoon, and our own return to Toronto tomorrow morning, has also changed the ambiance of the trip. Lev is enjoying the programme so far, which is terrific, but his absence means that this blog post won't benefit from his stellar work on the photographs and captions. We apologize in advance for our failings.

We hope that you have enjoyed our blog and experienced a bit of the excitement we have felt in our trip to Ukraine. There will be at least one more blog post after we return to Canada, that will provide some travel advice should you wish to make the trip yourselves.

Your blogging travelers (guess who is who):

Sunday, 9 June 2013

The long, winding, and very bumpy road from Odessa to L'viv

Yuri here with some impressions of the late spring roads of Ukraine. Some input  as well from Marla and Lev. Captions by all.

Yesterday, Lev remarked about the amount of time it took to traverse a short distance in western Ukraine due to the terrible roads. This is because it was easier to drive on the shoulder rather than the “cratered” road surface, which locals describe as having “holes in holes”. 

Any bigger and these potholes would be sinkholes
And yet, between these “axle-breaking” sections, there are smooth paved sections, just long enough to let you know what you’re missing. I think it was Hohol (Gogol as is known in Russian) who said, “There are two things wrong with the Russian Empire, the idiots and the roads.” This still applies to Russia’s former colony of Ukraine. 

Pictured: one idiot, one road
Along the way we saw innumerable road crews  patching the potholes, although there seemed to be more men standing around than working. 
Two out of five ain't bad
It seems that all the roads will be patched just in time for winter so the frost can play havoc with them again. A never ending cycle.  (Of course if they completely rebuilt the roads these problems could be avoided but then there wouldn’t be the guaranteed seasonal work.) The roads are so bad that foreign truck drivers who experience these roads for the first time, refuse to ever drive in Ukraine again.

Luckily, the lakes that form in the potholes have become a local tourist attraction
What is amazing is how well Ukrainian drivers handle these roads.  At the really bad sections, many of which seem to be in the middle of the towns, you have a conga line of vehicles weaving back and forth between their own lanes and oncoming lanes, bobbing up and down as if bowing to each other; from tiny cars to massive transport trucks. 

Also the odd tractor
 While at slow speed this is almost elegant in its movement, it is not so pleasant when traveling at 80 km/hr and you’re swerving into oncoming traffic or braking hard to avoid a crater that has just appeared before you. It is no surprise that the most visible business signs across the country are tire mounting and repair service signs.
Hot stock tip: Buy shares in Ukrainian auto repair shops
We experienced just this problem when we tried to get from Odesa to Kamaniets-Podolskij (KP) . We were completely at the mercy of people our driver stopped along the way to ask for directions. He did this by flashing the car lights and slowing down; an oncoming vehicle would stop beside us to help with directions. Although everyone was always willing to try to help, not everyone knows the right answer.  

In this situation, the correct answer was: anywhere but here
This was the case at the end of our trip to KP where there was a detour sign due to an apparent problem with the bridge.  It was only after we had traveled one hour out of our way that the fourth person our driver spoke to said there was no problem getting to KP, the problem was probably with the bridge beyond KP.  Our driver Bohdan, turning around and at this point tired after driving 9 hours, with very few pit stops along the way, cursed under his breath, “It’s the Soviet Union!” 

One could say that after spending more than 24 hours on the road from Odessa through KP, and then Chernivtsi to L’viv, we’ve seen a lot of the country. Whether it’s speeding along at 130 km/hr on the autobahn out of Odessa, to slowly making our way through a surly herd of cows, or passing storks nesting on the tops of telephone poles, it hasn’t been boring.   

I call this work "Get out of the way, cows!"
 One excellent part of driving the roads of western Ukraine were some of the local eateries.

My baba's varenikes are better than your baba's varenikes
We even saw a flood when driving into L'viv during a thunderstorm! It seems the storm drains couldn't handle the amount of water on the newer asphalt roads on the outskirts. Interestingly, in the old city centre, there were hardly puddles at all, thanks to the cobblestone streets.

From the flat or gently rolling steppe (prairie) around Southern Ukraine to the beautiful rolling hills near L’viv, (which reminded me of the hills of Tuscany), there have always been cows, calves, horses, and goats tethered by the roadside munching on the grass and, in villages, flocks of chickens pecking in the roadside grass under the oversight of their rooster. 
Why the long face?

Another regular site was local farmers sitting along the roadside with small amounts of strawberries, cherries, or mushrooms for sale.

Do you want wild strawberries? I know just the place.
Another ubiquitous feature of our drive throughout western Ukraine, were the Soviet war memorials to those lost in the Second World War.
It would be extremely insensitive to remark that this statue looks like it commemorates the start of a footrace. So I won't.
All being said, despite our interesting adventure, in the future the overnight train will be my preferred mode of intercity travel. (Marla notes: From what I've heard, however, we might find that train trips will bring their own unique challenges!)

(PS: Lev here. I'll be partying studying in L'viv starting today so no more blog writing/caption creation for me. I'm sure M&Y will have it all in hand for the last couple of blog entries. -Tchüss, Lev)

Saturday, 8 June 2013

Westward Bound: Kamianets-Podilskyi, Khotyn, and Chernivtsi

This is a post by Lev with a bit of help by Marla:

After bad rain, thunderstorms, and rocky and muddy paths masquerading as highways, we're finally here in L'viv. But we don't want to get ahead of ourselves, as the story of how we got here and what we saw along the way is certainly an interesting one.

Our driver, Bohdan, picked us up from our hotel in Odesa on Wednesday morning. For the next eleven hours we were on the road to Kamianets-Podilskyi (hereinafter referred to as KP otherwise this blog will be charged for breach of laws about length!). After a couple of wrong turns, and seriously potholed roads, which required that he drive at about 20 km an hour for much of the trip, we finally ended up at our very nice hotel in the old part of KP. After a late dinner (10 pm), we fell asleep quickly and awoke early to a beautiful Thursday morning.

We got up and out of the hotel extra early to catch the sights and beat the heat. The first thing we saw was the city hall and bell tower from our hotel window.

Upon leaving the hotel we happened upon a modern sculpture, which reflected the day ahead of us.

This is not a statue but instead a real tourist dipped in bronze from 1989
Immediately afterwards we visited a church (now a convent) that had a minaret erected when the Ottomans had taken the city in 1672. KP was given back to the Poles with the promise that they would not tear down the minaret. The Poles agreed and left the minaret standing. But the agreement didn't stop them from erecting a golden statue of the Virgin Mary on top of the minaret. It still stands today.

Even in the 17th century, everyone hated lawyers and their legal loopholes
After that, we saw the former Dominican monastery, the Armenian tower, and the ancient castle that stands on a hill across from the old town. The name of KP comes from the rock it sits upon (the name literally means the rock of Podil). The only way to enter the castle is by bridge, and, once inside, there are various museums and activities (for a price).

Sorry Starship, they built this city more on rock than roll
The whole place looked like it was right out of Poland, and some of the signs were indeed, written in Polish for the many Polish tourists.We were happy that we had left the hotel early because by noon the whole town was teeming with tour groups and tour buses. We checked out of our hotel, and got on the road for Khotyn and had a quick lunch on the road. We arrived at Khotyn later in the afternoon.
This natural spring indicates, helpfully, that it is located in Ukraine.

Khotyn was the site of the tremendous victory by Poles and Ukrainian Cossacks over the Ottoman Empire. It was said that 40,000 Cossacks, led by Hetman Petro Konashevych-Sahaidachny, as well as Polish regular forces, defeated 200,000 Ottoman troops. There was also another victory over the Turks in 1673, but since no Ukrainians were involved, it doesn't get mentioned much in Ukrainian popular history. The fort finally fell to the Ottomans in 1713, but since they took it from Moldavans, and not Ukrainians, one could say... no harm, no foul. ;)

This ancient-looking sign could be from the time of that first Turkish invasion... or maybe just 2002
While the fort has fallen into disrepair since the 18th century, most of the current structure is rebuilt from historical blueprints. Only a cobblestone road leads from the outer gate to the keep.

It's just as steep and ankle-breaking as it appears
It is quite impressive in itself, but more impressive is the landscape surrounding it. Between its outer and inner walls, large rolling green hills descend to the castle walls in the valley below.

Eat your heart out, Ireland
Since the fort sits right on the shore of the nearby Dnieper river, the foundations are quite damp and cool.

If Ukraine had better wines,  this could make a good wine cellar
In any case, we departed after only about an hour at Khotyn so that we could make it in time to get to Chernivtsi in daylight. And it was a good thing we did. The roads were horrible.

*dramatic music* dun, Dun, DUN!

After about a 2 hour, we arrived in Chernivtsi. Known as Czernowitz to Ukrainian Jews, this once-shining city had been the capital of the Bukovina province of Austria-Hungary. Now, it is a relatively isolated university town just a stone's throw from the Romanian border.

The sign on the archway reads 'University' (or 'Party-Central' if you are a student)

Needless to say, Chernivtsi is best known for its university.

... and not particularly for the quality of its education
The campus is a UNESCO heritage site and is a sight to behold. The colourful shingles, bizarre shapes and earthy red colour make it seem like something out a children's story.

This was originally the house for the Metropolitan of the Greek Catholic Church but he got dizzy from the roof patterns and had to move out

Hidden behind the university, there is a wonderful park with large old growth trees, comfortable benches, and a plethora of songbirds.

Think less London's Hyde Park, more Bavaria's Schwarzwald
Unfortunately, storm clouds were on the horizon and thunder was echoing among the buildings. In the face of a soon-to-be downpour, we rushed off to the Chernivtsi Palace of Culture, the former Jewish National House. Located in Theatre Square, this impressive structure was constructed in 1908.

Palace of Culture indeed

Unfortunately, the many Jews that called 'Czernowitz' home no longer live there. The building now houses the museum of history of Bukovinan Jews and acts as a community centre for what appears to be a still rather active, if small, community.

This noble lion now guards the calendar of events, which is good because Timmy keeps trying to deface it

After this quick stop, we rushed off to the building that interested me the most, the Ukrainian National House. But not for the reasons you would think. The building served as the home of the First Yiddish Language Conference in1908.

The only image I could find of the Ukrainian National House came from this postcard

The address of the building is not advertised anywhere, and it no longer serves the same purpose as it once did. However, after some research and a couple of hours using Google Street view, I discovered its location. It was exciting to find the building, and despite an increasingly active rain storm, I ran out to take photographs of the building that was central to my Master's Thesis.

I turned down taking an umbrella outside because I'm smart like that.
While it definitely was the right building, it's not 100% clear in which room the meetings were held. My best bet is that the room is still the conference room, but I will have to return to do more research before I can confirm this.


After that excitement, we rushed back to the hotel before the storm could get any worse. We ate a strange dinner-related meal and had a fitful night in a renovated Radyanske-era hotel.

It included such highlights like fua gwa (foie gras), chicken souffle, and, as pictured here, "a nut is a cedar."
Strangely, the top floor of the hotel (6th floor) was off-limits and attempting to hit the 6th floor button in the cramped and musty elevator sent one instead to the basement.

The plants add a certain level of creepiness to the whole situation, no?

We left Chernivtsi in the morning with the threat of more rain and a long drive to L'viv ahead of us. More on that tomorrow. We'll also try to report on our visit to L'viv before I leave for school tomorrow (taking the computer with me),  but if not, you can expect a final update after Marla and Yuri return to Toronto.