Ukraine’s hidden secret

Ukraine may be famous for nuclear explosions and Eurovision winners but on a recent trip Derek Larney managed to discover a gem of a city called Lviv in the west of the country

Ukraine may be famous for nuclear explosions and Eurovision winners but on a recent trip Derek Larney managed to discover a gem of a city called Lviv in the west of the country

When it was suggested to me that a trip to the Ukraine would be a good spot for a weekend break, I must admit the idea didn’t exactly inspire confidence. Thoughts of the radioactive city of Chernobyl and post-Soviet towns with filthy chimney stacks as their highlights came to mind, and this, coupled with cold evenings and an even colder welcome nearly put me off going. Nearly.

But for those who can see beyond the atypical stereotypes there lies a true gem in the Ukraine- that of the city of Lviv which is know in Russian as Lvov and pronounced Le-vov. Here one can find a remarkably beautiful European city that has so far escaped the clutches of mass tourism, in fact we barely saw more than half a dozen tourists in the city’s old town the whole weekend. This is most likely due to the effort that is required to get to Lviv- although it is only 70 kilometers from the Polish border it is still relatively difficult to get to- this is a trip for those who see a journey as worthwhile as the destination itself.

To get to Lviv one must first fly to either Krakow or Rzeznow from Dublin after which a nine hour train journey is needed to get over the Ukrainian border and to the city proper. The border itself is wide open to EU tourists, no visas are required since 2004 but nonetheless it is far from a formality. Firstly one must deal with endless passport inspections, bag searches and questions as to the purpose of travel. Then a one hour wait is in order whilst the train is lifted by crane off its tracks and the axels changed to the narrower Ukrainian gauge.

But within a short time of arriving in Lviv one will realise that the journey is well worth undertaking. Lviv is a city which is packed with stunning architecture that rivals its sister cities of St.Petersburg and Krakow.

Indeed, some are now touting Lviv as the new Prague. I have no doubt that the budget airlines are already eyeing it up for direct flights from western Europe to help fulfill this prophecy. Walking around Lviv’s open boulevards and large market squares, one will recognise parts of Florence, Paris, Krakow and St.Petersburg. The collage of different architectural styles on show in this city now has art students coming to study every nook and cranny during the warmer summer months and a short walk around the compact old town soon reveals why.

Lviv is translated from a Slavic word which means lion, and the city is teeming with lions which can be spotted as door handles on huge oak entrances, as frescoes perched high on the city’s opera houses, theatres and town hall or even just lazing lion statues that proudly guard the entrances to government departments.

The city of Lviv itself was founded during the 16th century by one of the most notorious psychopaths of the Hapsburg Empire, Leopold von Sacher-Masoch, from whom the english language derived the term ‘masochism’. This is thought to be due to Leopold’s tendency to beat up his wife when she refused to whip him. In the event of this happening he used to get some of his servant boys to give him a good whipping to satisfy his inner desires for pain. Since those times the city has undergone a building boom with heavy influences from the Italian renaissance period as well as a healthy dose of gothic and baroque shapes too. Architects from Vienna and Prague later introduced art nouveau, and buildings from this period can be spotted quite easily too.

A highlight of Lviv is perhaps the Armenian Cathedral. It is only open for services these days but if one knocks on the large door the caretaker will show you inside for a quick look. The ceilings inside are ornately decorated with all manner of golden religious statues; the alter itself is so large that it could only dwarf an orthodox bishop during the Sunday service. Outside the courtyard is paved with headstones and for those who have always wanted to go dancing on someone’s grave this is the place to do it. Armenian culture views it as good luck to have as many people walk on your grave as possible and therefore the headstones along the walk to the front door of the cathedral are considered to be in a privileged position.

For entertainment in the evenings a trip to the Opera House is a must. Tickets start at a lowly €2 for the cheap seats and rise up to €55. Without a grasp of Ukrainian you won’t understand exactly what the opera is about but it is not too hard to distinguish that it involves with a love triangle of some description with the heroine bound to succeed in her endeavours to get her man. The inside of the Opera House is spectacular and it is hard to fathom that a seat can be had for a performance in such a marvelous building for such a cheap price.

The public squares of Lviv are also well worth a sit down on one of the many terraces that are dotted around them. Rynok Square is by far the largest; from any point on it one can spot numerous sculptures of lions whilst being surrounded by grandiose buildings. Behind Rynok Square and the National Museum there is an art market of sorts where it is possible to stock up on everything from paintings to communist army uniforms. If you don’t mind a good steep walk then take a hike up to the High Castle, a 17th century castle nested on a hill offering fine views of the old town.

So is it worth the journey of getting to Lviv for a weekend? It is certainly not an easy place to get to, but for anyone willing to undertake the ardous train journey before the advent of direct flights kicks in then there is a reward of a beautiful city that is so far untouched by neon, billboards and the annoyances that mass tourism will inevitably bring. UNESCO have shown their recommendation by designating the entire city of Lviv as a World Heritage Site and a weekend there spent walking the old cobblestone streets and admiring the scenery certainly justifies why.