“You want to take a train to…where?” asked the German travel agent in Wiesbaden.
“Lviv, Ukraine.” Jay answered.
The travel agent looked perplexed as she searched her screen. “Oh, you mean, Lemberg.”
Thinking that the agent was confusing Lviv with the German town of Limburg, not far away, Jay repeated, “No, Lviv!”
“Lemberg.” the agent repeated, showing me her screen.
It was at this point that Jay realized there were several names for this beautiful city in western Ukraine. The Germans still call it Lemberg. Poles call it Lwow. And, sometimes, Russians call it Lvov. Whatever its name, the entire exercise with the travel agent was quickly proving fruitless as evidently it would take more than two days to get there by train and that going by rail would cost at least twice that of taking a flight on Ukraine Int’l Airlines from Frankfurt to Kiev and then connecting to Lviv/Lvov/Lwow/Lemberg or any of its other names, Lavov (Serbo-Croation), Liov (Romanian) or Leopolis (Latin).
As it turned out, our dynamic duo ended up taking the night train from Chernivtsi, aka Chernovitsy or Czerniowce to the multi-named destination of Lviv. Here’s the Chernivtsi station. The roughly six-hour ride in a sleeper compartment on Ukraine Railways was very pleasant and our traveling tramps arrived in Lviv, refreshed and ready to take on the next day.
Lviv is only about 90km from the Polish border and was once part of Poland from 1434 to 1772. Then it came under the Habsburgs until 1918, then for a short time it became the capital of the West Ukrainian People’s Republic, then part of Poland again, then the Soviet Union and finally part of independent Ukraine in 1991. So, it’s understandable how the city is referred to by so many linguistic variations in its name.
The wonderful thing about Lviv is that it largely escaped damage during World War II and it retains the Neo-Renaissance architecture that was so popular during the latter part of the 19th century. The gem of Lviv’s downtown is its opera house, modeled after the State Opera House in Vienna. Notice the female figure adorning the top of the opera house. Does she look a bit pregnant? Well, she is. It seems that that sculptor who created the work, “Glory” used as his model a woman who was about four months pregnant and the statue was made accordingly. Our two culture vultures snagged two tickets for a performance of Puccinni’s “Madame Butterfly”. At $12 a ticket, it was worth every penny, or hryvnia.
From a culinary standpoint, Lviv is noteworthy for its abundance of coffee shops and restaurants serving grilled meat. A vegetarian could make do in Lviv, but the emphasis is clearly along carnivorian lines. One of the most bizarre restaurants our dining duo has ever visited was “The First Lviv Grill Restaurant of Meat and Justice”. As you enter, you pass the grill so there’s no question of what you’re in for. Not yet, anyway. After you’re seated, this big guy in an quasi-torturer’s outfit comes by, sizes you up and decides whether you deserve punishment. After he’s selected some volunteer for retribution, the poor sucker is placed in a cage and then lowered into “the pit” where he stays until he either begs for mercy or the torturer has decided he’s had enough. The whole thing is mildly entertaining and, of course, kind of weird.
After our penitent pair had finished their meal, the waitress brought the bill and…a hatchet. OMG, what now? Before paying, she carefully put Jay’s little finger on a chopping block and then..whack!..she misses it by a few inches. Believe it, it was no fake hatchet. Wow! One can only wonder how this would go over in the US. No doubt there would be some sort of lawsuit filed for intentional mental distress after the first week.
After four days in Lviv, it was time for our two to, once again, ride the rails and head to Chernobyl, a place that turned out to be one of their eeriest adventures yet.
Next posting: Chernobyl