If you noticed Poland was a little less exciting and interesting this past weekend, it was because I was abroad. Me and the wife went to Lwow in Ukraine (or Lviv, if you’re not Polish). We’re back now, so you can relax.
From the moment you start living in Krakow you hear titillating rumours from the locals about Lwow. They make it sound like a romantic disreputable uncle who disappeared somewhere in the Amazon. Happily it didn’t disappear, it’s just over the border in Ukraine. Lwow was part of Poland for 400 years and then the capital of Galicia, under Austrian rule, for another century and a half. Krakow was also in Galicia, but was essentially a provincial town. Lwow was the cultural and political centre of this part of Poland for hundreds of years until 1939. It’s disappearance from the Polish map was a real wrench.
Lwow essentially means ‘Lion City.’ There are lion and feline references everywhere. This particular lion will grant you a wish if you sit on its back, stroke its tail and whisper in its ear.
These are the three things Krakowians always tell you about Lwow:
1. It’s like a bigger, untouched version of Krakow without all the tourists.
Kind of true. It does look a lot like Krakow and it is extremely disheveled. What surprised me was that it feels much bigger and grander than Krakow. It has a capital-city feel that Krakow doesn’t. There are certainly fewer tourists, or at least fewer tourists speaking languages that don’t sound exactly like Ukrainian to me.
2. It used to be Polish
The idea of a Polish city ‘trapped’ in a foreign land through the accidents of history is intriguing. A lot of Poles get very wound up about the ‘Yalta betrayal’ and the resulting loss of Lwow to the Soviet Union, but I’m no longer convinced it’s that simple. Lwow was, undoubtedly, a Polish-majority city (though not to an overwhelming degree), but the surrounding territory never was. The Ukrainians tried to take Lwow in the Polish-Ukrainian War (1918–19) and clearly saw it as a centre of foreign rule. It wasn’t right that it ended up under Russian hegemony, but I think it is right that it’s in Ukrainian hands now.
The graves of three Lwow women. The grave of an Orthodox Catholic woman featuring Cyrillic and the Orthodox crucifix, the grave of a Polish woman inscribed in the Latin characters of modern Polish and featuring the Catholic crucifix, and the secular grave of a Lwowian with no religious symbols but bearing a prominent Soviet medal. All to be found in Lwow’s endlessly fascinating Lychakiv Cemetery, where two hundred years of conflicting tradition rest.
3. It’s cheap
Yes it is. Now that prices in Poland are lagging only a little behind what I would pay in the UK it’s a nice feeling to visit a country where you can have a no-expense spared weekend for a hundred quid. It’s like the good-old days in Poland.
How to get to Lwow
This is the quickest and cheapest way according to Krakow–Lwow old hands. It beats driving, overnight trains and private Lear jets.
1. Get on a train to Przemyśl.
2. Sit on train for what feels like 12 years but is, in fact, a mere three and a half hours (from Krakow).
3. Get off train and seek minibus / normal-sized bus / taxi / camel train heading for Medyka (the village on the border).*
4. Walk through border (see: ‘How to cross the border’ below)
5. Seek minibus / normal-sized bus / taxi / camel train heading for Lwow from Shehyni (the village on the other side of the border). Walk swiftly past the dubious looking dudes with tricked-out Mercs claiming to be taxi drivers to get to the friendly yellow Ukrainian minibuses to the city (an hour and a half away on roads that have only slightly fewer craters than the surface of the Moon.)
6. Arrive Lwow. Massage buttocks vigorously.
* Many sources advise catching the private (i.e. non PKS) minibus to Medyka. We tried this. The minibus leaves when the driver thinks he has enough passengers. After an hour the moment had, apparently, not arrived. While our esteemed driver was off somewhere having his brain cells counted or painting his toenails**, we staged a revolt and got three other people to share a taxi with us. Hopefully he’s still sitting there with his precious empty minibus.
**I’m implying he’s a transvestite just because I think it would really, really annoy him.
How to cross the border
I don’t think I’ve ever crossed a border on foot before, unless you count foot-passenger crossings on the ferry from Dover to Calais. It’s a fun thing to do, especially on the way from the good old European Union to a former Soviet Republic.
There are more horror stories about the Poland–Ukraine border crossing than there are about Turkish prisons. People will tell you about six-hour queues and folding 50-dollar notes into your passport. I don’t doubt these things happen sometimes, but our experience was nowhere near as dramatic. Here’s how it goes down:
1. Pass through the Polish ‘hut,’ where a nice Polish border guard looked intently at my passport and asked me if this was my first crossing. I wasn’t sure if there was a note of sympathy or not.
2. Walk through no-man’s land along a fenced-in alley that has alarming prison-yard overtones. At some point you pass the actual line-on-the-map border, which is, in reality, a narrow strip of land with a relatively innocent-looking fence on both sides. This is the bleeding edge of the European Union. I’d like to say there are no mines in that narrow strip of overturned earth, but it looked awfully like there could be.
3. Arrive at the Ukrainian hut. There are two doors. One says “Entrance to Ukraine” in Ukrainian Cyrillic*** and the other one doesn’t. It’s an intelligence test, that I failed completely. Assuming the Cyrillic sign said something like “season-ticket holders only” I went for the plain door and found it locked. Suddenly I was twenty places back in the queue.
4. Enter the Ukrainian hut. A stunningly attractive blonde woman in uniform immediately barks orders at you in what sounds exactly like Russian. For a lad who grew up during the Cold War it’s an alarming experience, and not entirely in a bad way.
5. Pass out of the Ukrainian hut, after having filled in various forms that may or may not be important later on, and stroll into the Ukrainian countryside, which looks not in the smallest degree different from the Polish countryside you left ten minutes earlier.
***Everything in Ukraine is in Cyrillic. This effectively means that you can’t even begin to guess what signs mean, unless you have a clever wife, like I do.
Eight interesting facts about Ukraine
1. When I was at school Ukraine was called THE Ukraine. I get the feeling it’s no longer politically correct to call Ukraine ‘the’ Ukraine but I have no idea why. It’s also very hard to adjust to—it seems grammatically wrong. I asked a couple of Ukrainians about this but they just looked at me as if I was mad. Maybe bus drivers are not the best people to question on these subjects.
The building that once housed the famed Scottish Cafe (Kawiarnia Szkocka)—a centre of Polish intellectual life under the influence of renowned Polish mathematician Stefan Banach. It’s a bank now… hooray
2. It is possible to fit 97 Ukrainians and one Englishman into a minibus designed for 30 Ukrainians and no Englishmen, but this does have a deleterious effect on the temper of the Englishman. There is no discernible effect on the mood of the Ukrainians.
3. All doors in Lwow have doorbells and/or domofons, but none of them work. Ukrainians get round this by leaving all doors unlocked. I spent a good hour of my holiday foolishly standing outside unlocked doors waiting for doorbells or domofons that didn’t work to be answered.
Lwow doorbells: none of these work, especially the ones without numbers.
4. Speaking Polish with an English accent doesn’t work in Lwow, although this is not immediately obvious. Often, Lwowians seem to understand, but then act in a way that reveals they haven’t. For example:
Me: Jeszcze jedno piwo proszę.
Result: Waitress brings bill
Me: Dziekujemy. Do Widzenia!
Result: Barman shows me his watch.
Me (testing a theory): Jaki jest Twoj numer telefonu?
Result: Da! Da! Da! (takes off shoes)
I can’t work out if this is because Ukrainians are too polite to tell you when they don’t understand or if Polish spoken with an English accent coincidentally sounds exactly like completely different Ukrainian words. Or they might all be mad. Polish spoken with a Polish accent works pretty well, for simple things.
5. Ukraine has the world’s most worthless coins. If you think Poland has a problem with change, you should visit Ukraine. The smallest denomination coin I saw was worth 5 kopiyok, which is approximately 0.016 pence. Apparently 1 and 2 kopiyok coins also exist. They are worth slightly less than cigarette butts and shops have none at all.
6. Ukrainian TV also uses lektors, just like Polish TV, but they are slightly more advanced. Instead of having a single guy reading the translated lines of all characters in foreign-language films, they have a male AND a female lektor. This is a step in the right direction but is still unintentionally hilarious.
7. Śmigus-dyngus also exists in Ukraine. Bring an umbrella if you’re going to be there on Easter Monday.
8. Ukrainians are extremely religious. They put Poles to shame. I’ve seen the occasional babcia cross herself on the tram as it passed a church in Krakow, but everybody is at it in Lwow. Walking through Lwow’s Old Town can be a slow process for locals, there are a lot of churches and many of them stop every time they pass one to kneel and perform the necessary gesticulations.
The mother of all aptekas. As incredible as it may seem there are actually more aptekas per square kilometre in Lwow than anywhere in Poland.