Lviv, Ukraine

Lviv has been a really nice city.  It is relatively accessible to English speakers, there are fun coffee shops almost every block, you can go to the best restaurants without having to worry too much about how much you are spending, and unlike many post-Soviet cities, it has a lot of charm.  In many ways it feels like a cross between Vienna and Moscow.  It is definitely a lot poorer than Vienna, but the architecture has old world feel.  On the other hand, many aspects of the people, language, and undertone have a post-Soviet flavor and remind us a bit of places we have been to in Russia.

If you venture out beyond the bland dishes of meat and potatoes, the food is quite tasty and flavorful.  Borscht (beets) and solyanka (meat) are fabulous soups, and the salads are also quite good.  Add in the stews, dumplings, and pancakes and there are a lot of very good options.  Lviv is also packed with coffee shops with tasty treats and weak coffee.

Before traveling, it is important to learn is the Cyrillic alphabet; it’s not particularly hard.  Ask John, he fought us tooth and nail, then told us a day later that it is quite easy.  The first time we went to Russia, I did not learn it and felt completely illiterate and helpless.  Since I have learned it, with the correct pronunciations, travel in this part of the world has been much easier.  You would be surprised with how many words, when sounded out, are very similar to English.  For example, ресторан –> restoran –> restaurant or супермаркет –> supermarket or интернет –> eenternet –> internet or шоколад –> shocolad –> chocolate.  Having the Google translate app on your phone is also super useful.  It still doesn’t help with things like remembering street names or subway stops, but knowing the alphabet does.

Saturday, June 30, 2018

Hopping on a night train from Vienna to Lviv was very reminiscent of the night trains we took through Russia many years ago.  First, we found our cabins.  Unfortunately there were only three beds in each, so we had to get two cabins and split up.


Next, there was the surly train lady who scowled at us and tried to communicate something about the bathrooms.  By her hand gestured in combination with pinching her nose, I know she didn’t want us to throw toilet paper into the trashcan like the sign in the bathroom clearly indicated.  The only question was, did she want us to put it into the toilet, which opened onto the train tracks, or did she want us to throw it in the somewhat scary trashcan that was precariously perched outside the train car?  She was walking back and forth and pointing at both with conflicting hand motions and lots of Ukrainian.  The logistics of both options were somewhat gross.  Speaking of gross, the toilet was a being unto itself with amazing suction power.  In fact, it was so powerful, that sometimes it would accidentally spray some of its contents five feet in the air, rather than expelling it onto the tracks.

After we got on our way, we split up.  During the daytime, the boys were happy in one cabin, and Jeremy and I enjoyed the peace and quite in the other.  We ate our food we bought at a bakery for dinner, read a bit, then made up the beds for the night, each of us taking a boy.  Around 1AM, I was startled awake by a Hungarian border control agent banging on the door, asking for passports.  At 2AM, we repeated this with the Ukrainian border control agent.  At 3AM, it was the train engineer wanting to get into the cabin to access the train wheels under the bed. Repeat withe the train engineer at 3:30.

One interesting factoid is that the Soviet Union intentionally built the train tracks a different width than the rest of the world.  This was to prevent invasion from other countries by train.  If a train wants to make the transition, they have to jack the train up, remove the existing wheels, and replace them with wheels of a different width.  Thus my 3:00 and 3:30 wake up.  Probably the first time to check something once the train was jacked up.  The second time to make sure that everything was okay when the train was lowered.  One of the access points was a trap door under my bed.  Odd.  Why didn’t Jeremy get that room?  He got a much better night sleep.

Sunday, July 1, 2018

Is it really July?  The boys and I left home 43 days ago!  On waking up, I felt tired, really tired.  Not only was I intentionally woken up 5 times (one extra time when one of the boys couldn’t remember which cabin he was supposed to be in and thought that Jeremy had locked him out), the wheels kept making jackhammer-like noises on every curve.  When morning finally came, I couldn’t decide whether I was relieved or sad.  My memory of night trains is very pleasant, but this one proved to be the exception.


We ate breakfast from our bakery sack that we bought in Vienna, and enjoyed some pleasant views of the Ukrainian countryside.  There was a dining car, but our memory from previous trips is that the food was hit and miss.


At the train station, we stopped by the ATM, but the first machine only allowed to take out a maximum of $40 for each transaction.  We took out $80, wondering how long it would last us.  When we stopped by the TI office, we were told that the bus tickets to the city were 20 cents each.  When we checked how much Uber was, we found that we could get a ride for $2.  I think that answered our question.  We opted for Uber, which took 2 minutes for a driver to show up, and 10 minutes to get to our apartment.  Nice!  And much easier than lugging bags on the bus would have been.  On arrival at our apartment, it was being cleaned, but our host let us go ahead and drop our bags and pick up the key.  Much easier than having to deal with train station lockers.


We ventured into the city center, only a 5 minute walk away, and wandered by many churches, restaurants, and museums.  Most of the churches had services in progress, so we mostly just got a feel for the area.


A little after noon, we stopped for lunch at a random restaurant that appeared to have quite a few people, but that still had tables available.  We were turned away from our first two choices with negative sounding words and shooing motions towards the door.  Yep.  Definitely in Eastern Europe.  At the third restaurant, I ordered borscht and a mystery dish in the Ukrainian section, “Banosh.”  My southern friends will be happy to know that I ended up really enjoying my super tasty corn grits, pork cracklings, and feta cheese, even if it wasn’t entirely what I was expecting.  Jeremy and James enjoyed their pelmeni (here is my goto pelmeni dough recipe that I use at home in combination with a pelmeni press – small and slightly annoying – or pierogi press – bigger and more satisfying use of time.)


After lunch, we went to the National Museum, which was small, but had some really good Ukrainian Icons.  I particularly like judgement day themed ones with a big dragon in the bottom corner.  All of the museums in Lviv seem to be fairly small, but they are super inexpensive – 50 cents to $2, so you can go to quite a few of them in one day without blowing your budget.

It was pouring rain when we left, so we popped into a coffee shop.  James got hot chocolate and an adorable muffin, but didn’t like the hot chocolate.  I tried it to see what was wrong, and tasted the most amazing hot chocolate I have ever had!  It was rich, creamy, and had a hint of orange.  Yum!  I’m not sure what was wrong with my son’s taste buds.  Jeremy agreed with me, although John took James side.  Silly kids.


Once it stopped raining, we walked to the Armory Museum, which was quite small, but a lot of fun.  The exhibits were very well done.  If you like swords, knight suits, and cannons, definitely make a stop.


We wandered the city a bit more, enjoying the pedestrian friendly streets.


Most of the buildings were architecturally interesting, and a few were quite elaborate.


While wandering by the very beautiful Latin Cathedral, we discovered there was an English church service at 3:00, so we decided to try it.  Our Catholic friends might like the fact that we have tried an Italian service in Varenna, a German one in Vienna, and now one in Lviv that we actually understood what was being said.  Unfortunately, since the priest seemed to have very limited English, there was no sermon, and since there were no English hymn books, there were no hymns.  Odd, but the positive was that there was a visiting group, possibly from Africa, with a nice lead vocalist that led the chanting.  The funny thing was that the group started clapping partway through one of the chants.  It was an unexpected combination of styles in a very unexpected setting.  After the service, we wandered a bit more and bought some delightful lollipops.


We then headed back to the apartment to check it out and rest.  Amazing!  It has wonderfully high ceilings, isn’t much smaller than our first house, is a bit run down on the outside, but sparkly new and modern inside, and right near the center.  It is definitely a place that we could live in if we wanted to move here.

After resting, we took an evening walk, returned to our neighborhood, and got savory crepes for dinner.  $2/per person for a soda and a very large and very good crepe.

With the Ukrainian currency depreciation that happened a few years ago, everything here is very inexpensive. As our minds wandered, we were thinking about how somebody could buy a city-center apartment here very cheaply, and pay next to nothing for food or living expenses.  Even though the per capita GDP is only $2,200 (and the average salary in this Lviv region is apparently $250/month), which is a tiny fraction of the United States, it feels at the surface nice – it’s a cultured European city with opera and ballet and cafes, where people appear to be living in reasonable stone buildings with very low rent (albeit with very low wages; an expat would want to telecommute). It feels very different from other countries we’ve visited in this GDP/person range.  Maybe the countryside shows more of the poverty, but this particular city doesn’t show it from a casual tourist point of view.

Monday, July 2, 2018

We slept in, then chose a breakfast cafe from several within a half block of our apartment.  Aroma Kava is the chain with the amazing hot chocolate, and they had some nice looking pastries and muffins, so we went with that one.  The jam-filled rollini were particularly good.  Maybe tomorrow I will try a cheese filled one.

We then headed out for the Prison on Lontskogo: National Museum & Memorial to the Victims of Occupation, which the guide book said was open 7 days per week, but in fact, it was closed on Saturdays and Mondays.  We decided to go see the somewhat nearby St. George’s Cathedral instead.  It was quite beautiful, but had a service going on inside.  The music was a joy to listen to, so we hung out in the back for a few minutes.  Even though it was Catholic, it had a fairly strong feeling of Eastern Orthodox with the use of many religious banners.


As we walked back towards the center, we went though a very peaceful park.


The boys stopped to play for a while at the playground at the center of the park.  It was mostly designed with much smaller children in mind, but after the kids spent a few minutes there, they started to really enjoy it.


We decided to go to one of the restaurants we were turned away from yesterday, Centaur Cafe, which claims to have been in service since 1768.  Typical of most of the restaurants we have been to here, the service was quite slow, but the food was decent.  We got our favorite solyanka soup, which was almost as tasty as some we have had in Russia.  The Russian variety seemed to have more lemon than the Lviv counterpart.  I wanted to order the rabbit, but they were out.  Jeremy wanted to order the fish, but they said it would take a really long time, although I’m not sure how it could possibly take longer than our food did take.  Instead we ordered the pancakes stuffed with veal that the waitress recommended.  I also tried the “cherry compote,” which was basically warm, weak cherry juice.


After lunch, we toured a few more churches.  The Armenian Cathedral was small, with a very old feel to it.


The Transfiguration church had very nice paintings on both the walls and ceilings.  The icons were very pretty, as was the gold work.


The Dormition Church only permitted visitors into the chapel, where you could peek through a side door into the main sanctuary.  It was nice, but there was a group of women that parked themselves in front of the door and had a long, noisy conversation with their backs to the main sanctuary.  For whatever reason, they wouldn’t get out of the way so that we could get a good look.  Sigh.  People should be more considerate when they travel.


We saw a bunch of other churches, then went to the National History Museum, branch 6.  Again, it was very small, but nice.  To view the apartments, you have to strap some huge slippers over your shoes in order to protect the very beautiful wooden floors.

We then decided to try the “Bubble Waffles” that we saw yesterday.  Delicious, fresh waffles with either chocolate or M&M’s in the bubbles, filled with ice cream, whipped cream, and other goodies.  I wasn’t particularly hungry, so I tried the snicker’s cappuccino.  The snickers and whipped cream was good, but the coffee even weaker than most of the other weak coffee we have had.


By this time, we were feeling tired, so we went back to our apartment to rest.  When dinner time came around, the bubble waffles were sitting heavily in everyone’s stomach, so we found a coffee shop to get something small.  Probably too much sugar for the boys, but fun!  I’m really enjoying the coffee shop scene here.


Tuesday, July 3, 2018

I’m tired and getting to the point where I need a vacation from vacation, but Jeremy talked me into leaving our apartment, where we got breakfast at Aroma Kava again.  My cheese-filled rollini was quite tasty.

We decided to go to the Prison on Lontskogo: National Museum & Memorial to the Victims of Occupation.  It was fairly interesting, but probably would have been a lot more so if we could read Ukrainian.  Beyond basic artifacts and newspaper article pictures, there were a few autobiographies from prison survivors in English, and there was a video showing some of the atrocities that happened in this prison, although we didn’t watch it since we didn’t want to traumatize the boys.

Next was the Museum of Religious History, which was small, but reasonably interesting if you are running out of other museums to visit.  In Soviet times it was a museum of atheism.

We decided to get lunch at McDonald’s.  There were a few local specialties, but I got a very mediocre salad, while the boys stuck to the basics.  It’s unfortunate that they didn’t have the machines to order on since the staff did not speak any English and we had to try to pronounce some of the words and point at the big screen on the other side of the counter.


My internal energizer batteries ran out and someone replaced them with name brand ones, so I decided that I just wanted some time to read and went back to the apartment.  The boys continued on to Castle Hill, which no longer has a castle and is simply a big hill.  On the way, they stopped by the John the Baptist Church.


The hill had some nice city views that would have been fun to see, but I think my book was still a good choice.  I was also hoping to go to the open air Museum of Folk Architecture and Life, but we skipped it since I was too tired.

The boys rested a bit in the apartment until they were ready to go out again and play for a bit while Jeremy and I sipped coffee on a bench.  There was a nice cafeteria style restaurant across the street from our apartment serving traditional Ukrainian food, so we stopped by there for dinner.  The soup and stuffed blini were quite good, although the boys had a hard time with the food they selected.  James made up for his low calorie dinner by talking Jeremy into taking him for a walk to get both a muffin and some ice cream.

This has been a great city to see a few sights and recharge a bit.  Tomorrow we take a train to Kiev!

Keep reading our travel blog for more posts from our Gap Year!

Here are some more posts from this trip to Europe:


  1. Love your posts. You had been on one incredible vacation! Love all of you.

    On Tue, Jul 3, 2018, 2:39 PM Adventures of the 4 JLs wrote:

    > jrl posted: “Lviv has been a really nice city. It is relatively > accessible to English speakers, there are fun coffee shops almost every > block, you can go to the best restaurants without having to worry too much > about how much you are spending, and unlike many post-So” >


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