Through Carpathian Forests
The train took us to Zahony, the last city in Hungary before crossing the river Tisza into Ukraine. From there we took a train that dropped of us in Chop, the first city across the border in Ukraine. Our destination was the city of L’viv. We went through border check, where a very beautiful soldier in full military uniform with perfectly manicured hands looked at my passport. “Welcome to Ukraine, Sebastian”, she said looking up. “First time here?” I nodded and proceeded to tell her my travel plans, as if trying to convince her to leave her post and join me and my good friend Ruben. After a few seconds, she wished me luck and told me to go through customs. The lady at customs, a stocky older woman, spoke to me in Russian for whatever reason. Luckily, I’m still relatively fluent in that language and was able to repeat what I had just told the passports officer. She half-assedly looked through my bag and waved me through.
I walked out through a small door to a nightmarish sea of faces popping out of the darkness, which had started to engulf the hall of the train station. Some of the people where waiting for their relatives, and others were taxi drivers hawking their services. I kinda felt like a Metal Moses parting the waters as the crowd made way for me to walk through. A lone artificial Christmas tree, which was zealously guarded by Father Frost and a snowman, did its best to illuminate the train station. We walked out to exchange money and quickly returned to the station to catch our train to L’viv, which was already waiting for us on the track. We smoked one last cigarette as the sun set and went inside.
The train rolled over the Carpathians at a steady pace, interrupted occasionally by sudden jolts and jumps—which were probably felt more in the cars closer to the engine. Ruben and I, however, were traveling first-class, and the occasional bumps didn’t do much to disrupt our conversation. The train ride was otherwise very pleasant: Our compartment for two had individual beds with fresh sheets, and there was complementary black tea to go with our bottles of L’vivskie and cans of Arany beer, which we bought at the Ukrainian and Hungarian borders, respectively.
We were traveling from Chop, a city on the Ukrainian-Hungarian border, to L’viv, in the historic region of Galicia. The ride was about 5 and a half hours and took us through an absolute winter wonderland. We couldn’t feel the cold of the Carpathians except for whenever we left the compartment to smoke in the space between cars, right by the “no smoking” sign, with the permission of the attendant.
Arriving in L’viv
We arrived in L’viv at around 10:30 p.m. The train station was bustling with people: Older couples dragged their luggage behind them in a hurry, while others looked at the board listing the arrivals waiting for their friends or family members. Soldiers hustled through the hallways of the station in full military fatigues.
Many consider L’viv to be Ukraine for beginners, and I guess to an extent that is somehow true: Due to the beauty of its UNESCO-inscribed city center, relatively low prices for tourists from the EU, and its geographical proximity to Poland, the city receives many visitors all year round. However, there’s much more to L’viv than meets the eye.
I wanted to visit the city due to its historical experience as a multicultural space but also because Western Ukraine, and particularly L’viv, is a bastion of Ukrainian identity, culture, and language. My friend Dima, vocalist in a local band from L’viv called 1914, told me on our way to a bar: “Let me put it this way: In Germany you have Bavaria. Well, we Galicians are the Bavarians of Ukraine. We have our culture, our food, we speak Ukrainian, and don’t have that much in common with the rest of the country.”
L’viv is a city in Western Ukraine, in the eastern part of the historical region of Galicia. The city is also often known as Lwów and Lemberg—its Polish and German names, respectively. L’viv belonged to many different states throughout its history, most famously Poland and Austria-Hungary, and several others if you go further back. Thus, L’viv was for centuries a multicultural city: Poles, German-speaking Austrians, Ukrainians, and Jews all have called L’viv home. During Soviet times, people from the different Socialist Republics also arrived in L’viv, and in the wake of Russia’s annexation of Crimea, L’viv has become home to a very large community of exiled Crimean Tatars.
Nowadays, the city is almost entirely Ukrainian: Most Austrians left in the wake of World War I, when the city passed onto the hands of the Second Polish Republic. Most of the Poles from L’viv were expelled from the city during the population transfer campaign between Poland and the Soviet Union after World War Two, yet a small minority remains. The Jewish population of Galicia suffered the worst possible fate and was almost entirely exterminated during the Holocaust, with most survivors emigrating. The city had for centuries a large Armenian community, and though it dissolved through assimilation centuries ago, the buildings they left behind on Armenian Street stand as testament of their bygone presence and influence.
All these communities have left their imprint on the city, its culture, and architecture. L’viv has a Viennese café culture, and Polish Catholic churches still dot the city center. A walk through the Lychakiv cemetery will further illustrate this point: a very large number of the people buried there who died before World War Two have German and Polish last names. Likewise, there are many crypts guarding the remains of members of mixed families, with polonized German names, and dual Ukrainian and Polish last names. This all attests to the city’s multicultural past.
L’viv is a European city through and through, and though the Soviet legacy is visible, it is not as overpowering as it can be in other places. We did go see the Soviet Victory Monument at the Park of Cultures, just off of the Street of the Heroes of Majdan, but beyond that, the Ladas that speed through the city’s streets, and the odd concrete building, L’viv is not the best city to hunt for Soviet architecture—at least not in the more central parts of town.
L’viv has a convoluted history as “the Bavaria of Ukraine”, since most (failed) attempts at establishing an independent Ukraine before its current post-Soviet incarnation had their epicenter in the city. L’viv was the capital of the West Ukrainian People’s Republic, and was also one of the main bases of operation of the Ukrainian Insurgent Army (Ukrainian acronym: UPA). The UPA, led by Stepan Bandera, was a paramilitary army that fought against the Nazis and the Soviets during World War Two, and occasionally sided with the Germans to combat their main enemy, which was the Red Army.
However, the UPA also engaged in massacres of Poles and Jews, which has been recognized by the Ukrainian government. After World War Two, the UPA continued to wage its war against Soviet occupation well into the 1950s. Why is this all relevant? Because you can’t escape the memory of Stepan Bandera and the UPA when you’re in L’viv. The UPA remains highly controversial to this day; however, Stepan Bandera and the UPA are very popular in L’viv—to the extent that the city is at times referred to as Banderstadt (Бандерштадт).
Obviously, not everybody in L’viv is a supporter of Bandera, but there’s even a monument to him not far from the train station—which a local from L’viv I talked to described as “a mistake.”*
Enter the tourism industry.
History Gone Mainstream
The UPA is visibly an important part of the city’s identity to many of its inhabitants, and souvenirs bearing their emblem are sold everywhere. In fact, the city’s top tourist attraction is an UPA-themed restaurant right in the city center called Kryjivka (The Bunker). It is actually one of the most visited restaurants in Europe, and every night there was a line to get in.
Even though many locals see Kryjivka as a tourist trap, I felt like I needed to go and witness this commercialization of the UPA. To get in you have to knock on a door, and wait for the guy inside to ask you for the password, which is “Slava Ukrainij (Glory to Ukraine).” The guy, who’s wearing a military uniform with the insignia of UPA then opens the door and lets you in. Inside, the restaurant is fully covered in wood so that it looks like an actual forest bunker from the 1950s. The servers all wear t-shirts with the insignia of the UPA, all in red and black like its flag—for the blood spilled on Ukraine’s black soil. There are also weapons and equipment just lying about, and they even have an interrogation room and a mini-shooting range.
The gift shop is full of little knick-knacks bearing the emblems of the UPA and the SS Division “Galicia”, a unit made up mostly of Ukrainians that fought with the Germans against the Red Army during World War Two. The SS Division “Galicia” is often seen here in a similar light as the Estonian and Latvian Legions, meaning as anti-Soviet fighters. And even though the unit as a collective was not tried for war crimes and was not subjected to ideological indoctrination, finding their insignia for sale at a souvenir store does raise some eyebrows; the problem with selling that stuff as souvenirs is that it can be easily taken out of context, and relativizes the complexities and brutality of war, military occupation, and collaboration. And while I liked Kryjivka because of the amount of detail that went into it, I find it difficult to condone turning a brutal episode of World War Two into a tourist attraction—even a friend of mine from Ukraine described the place as “creepy.”
From L’viv to Donetsk
The memory of Stepan Bandera and the UPA is alive and well in L’viv, and you are bound to encounter it—whether at the city’s main tourist attraction Kryjivka, or the Stepan Bandera monument, which is just off of the Heroes of the UPA Street. Many also see the paramilitary units fighting in Donetsk as a continuation of the partisan tradition of the UPA. Therefore, there are many places in L’viv where you will see red and black flags. Following the protests in Majdan, the flag of the UPA made a comeback, and is now used also by many units fighting against the Russian-backed separatists of the Donetsk People’s Republic in the east of the country.
Ruben and I walked by Patriot, a veterans restaurant just off of Doroshenka street, and decided to have lunch there. The restaurant has a military theme, and even the entrance is designed to look like a bunker, complete with a rocket flanking the door and boxes of ammunition cases. The emblems of the many paramilitary squadrons fighting in Donetsk, such as the Azov and Donbas Battalions, adorn the entrance. Flying up above are two flags: the yellow and blue Ukrainian flag, and the more menacing red and black flag of the UPA. I had a very tasty meal at Patriot and would recommend it over Kryjivka any day of the week. By the way, Patriot is also decorated with equipment such as AK47s and RPGs.
Out and about in L’viv
L’viv’s city center was bustling with life. Christmas lights adorned the streets, and throngs of tourists and locals all wandered into the many establishments. Christmas in Ukraine, however, is celebrated on January 6-7, and even though the government declared December 25 a holiday, it was all business as usual for the locals.
In L’viv, very few tourists wander beyond the city center. And really, I can’t blame them; only the weirder tourists (such as Ruben and myself) want to go to shooting ranges or to see Soviet monuments. The city center of L’viv, however, is a UNESCO-inscribed site with perfectly preserved streets, which survived the destruction that befell many other European cities during two world wars. Tanya, a local whom I met on Tinder, explained to me that L’viv gained its city rights relatively early, and the rulers of the area determined that the houses in the city around the town hall, which belonged mainly to patricians, were all to have three front windows. I looked around me and saw that all facades indeed had three windows. The architecture is typical to central Europe, and you can find many similar buildings in other cities that once belonged to the Austro-Hungarian empire, such as Kraków.
L’viv’s city center is home to many famous themed restaurants, the best-known of them being the aforementioned Kryjivka, or UPA Disneyland. There are several others designed to shock a little, such as the BDSM Masoch café, themed after the kinks of Leopold von Sacher-Masoch, a L’viv native and author of Venus in Fur—though mostly known for his sexual practices from which the term “Masochism” stems. There was a super long line to go in that one so we skipped it.
We did go to “The Most Expensive Galician Restaurant”, a Freemason-themed place. The restaurant is really fancy, but when the door first opens you just see the kitchen pictured above. Here, the menu quotes two prices: one for “members”, and another one for everybody else. The price on the right is the same as on the left but with an added zero; if you have a card, the restaurant will give you a discount of 90 percent, meaning you pay the price on the left, and if you don’t you need to pay the full, ridiculous price, often adding up to a couple hundred Euros (luckily, our friend had a card).
There is also a controversial “Jewish” restaurant called “Under the Golden Rose”, where I had dinner, that’s known for serving good Jewish cuisine, offering live Klezmer music, and haggling. The items on the menu have no prices since, as the server told us, the restaurant “has a Jewish theme and part of that is haggling.” I ordered a bowl of Cholent and Ruben a Kofte, and both dishes were very tasty.
When the server brings the bill, he tries to screw you out of money by telling you a much higher price, and then you’re supposed to bring him down to a reasonable amount. Part of the haggling process includes trading souvenirs from your home country, though in the end you’ll probably pay a little bit extra. Our bill was about 7 EUR per person, but we ate a very good Jewish meal, had a beer and a shot, and listened to some great live Klezmer. Still, it should have been a Euro or two cheaper. The restaurant is controversial because it plays on negative stereotypes. Would I go back? Probably not, but it was part of the experience.
All these restaurants have something in common: They all belong to a group called !FEST, which also has a very popular brewery known for its cheeky marketing, with beers such as Putin Huilo or Donald Trump’s Mexican IPA. However, a few people I talked to while preparing the trip expressed their dislike of the group, since they have allegedly destroyed or damaged many historical buildings in order to build their restaurants. This is one of the negative side effects of mass tourism: The city center of L’viv is now designed mostly for Euro-paying tourists, becoming more expensive for locals in the process.
The city center can also be enjoyed at night, as it is both very safe and has a nice Bohemian charm.
We did manage to find a decent bar filled with locals called Red Wood, and that’s where I’d recommend you go have a beer if you’re even in L’viv: good music, decent prices, and no tourists.
The Lychakiv Cemetery
December 24. The day before Christmas. Ruben and I hopped on the tram and went out to Lychakiv cemetery, funnily enough one of the city’s main tourist attractions. I myself am a huge fan of tombstone tourism and am a huge proponent of visiting cemeteries whenever you travel.
The morning was overcast and cold, and it rained intermittently. Upon entering the cemetery, we walked to our left, since we wanted to avoid the groups of tourists and also to simply wander and see what we found. The first tomb that caught my eye was that of Seweryn Goszczyński, one of the most important representatives of Polish Romanticism (yes, I am a nerd). Our wandering through the cemetery took us uphill, past what seemed to be endless rows of graves. Like I already mentioned, the names and symbols on the graves hinted at the city’s multicultural past.
It started to rain. Elderly people and families walked silently by us along the icy dirt road, lowering their heads. We headed to the cemetery’s main avenue, where we caught up with a group of tourists getting a guided tour in Russian. The main avenue is were the cemetery’s most prominent residents are buried. Perhaps the grave that draws the most attention is that of Ivan Franko, one of Ukraine’s most important literary figures up there with Taras Shevchenko.
We continued to walk up to the military cemetery. We first visited the Ukrainian section. Being that Ukraine didn’t mobilize an army during World War Two since its soldiers were part of the Red Army, this part of the cemetery is reserved for the soldiers of both the UPA and the “Galicia” Division. In the middle there is also a column with their insignia. This is also were many of those who died during the Majdan protest as well as soldiers who have fallen in the War in Donetsk are buried. The fact that these three very distinct groups are buried in the same space tells a lot about how they are perceived in Ukraine, or at least by the Ukrainian government: They all have a place of honor in the pantheon of Ukrainian nation-building.
Next up was the historic Polish military cemetery, also known as the Cemetery of the Defenders of Lwów. This space, which was restored after decades of neglect during Communism, is reserved to those Poles who died during both the Polish-Soviet War (1919-1921) and the Polish-Ukrainian War (1918-1919).
Why is a Polish cemetery in L’viv? Up until World War I, the entire region of Galicia belonged to the Austro-Hungarian Empire. The territory that belonged to Poland had been annexed by the German, Austro-Hungarian, and Russian Empires in 1795, so that when World War I started there was no Polish state on the map of Europe. That changed when these three empires died after the Great War, and a new Polish state, the Second Polish Republic, was established in 1918.
The Second Polish Republic claimed L’viv as Polish territory, which neither the shortly-lived West Ukrainian People’s Republic nor the Soviet Union wanted to concede. Two wars were fought, with Poland defeating its enemies and taking effective control over L’viv. The Polish dead of those two wars rest in the roughly 3,000 graves of the Cemetery of the Defenders of Lwów—among them are also many who were never identified, whose grave is marked with a sign reading Nieznany Żołnierz (Unknown Soldier).
L’vivin’ la vida loca
I didn’t go to L’viv to spend all my time in the city center. I wanted to go out and explore a bit more of the city, if possible with the help of locals. Sometime last year, a Ukrainian friend of mine recommended me a band called 1914. I checked them out and liked both the music and the concept. The lyrics of the band all revolve around World War I and have an anti-war character. The band also just so happens to be from L’viv, and upon deciding on the city to spend (or escape) Christmas, I contacted them to see if they’ be in town. Dima, the singer, replied and said he’d be down to meet up for a beer sometime.
Ruben and I met Dima in the center, and then headed to a football pub called Cantona. According to Dima, this pub has the best moonshine in town. When we arrived, I figured we would just order a beer and a shot, but Dima ordered a bottle. We duly polished it off, and accompanied it with a platter of salted herring, pickles, bread, and lard. Ruben didn’t want to drink, and I was good after the first bottle, but then Dima sprung from his seat and returned with a second bottle. Even though I hadn’t really drank (other than the occasional beer or glass of wine) since my birthday, I didn’t get that drunk. I even made some Christmas calls afterward! Likewise, neither one of us was hungover the next day; was it a Christmas miracle? Maybe. The lord does work in mysterious ways.
The conversation with Dima was very interesting, and I learned a lot about the history of L’viv, Ukrainian identity in Galicia, the Majdan demonstrations, and the War in Donetsk. Dima then told us about his hobby: war archaeology. 1914 is all about World War One, and Dima walks the talk; he digs in areas where battles of the Great War took place to look for artifacts. This has been his hobby for over a decade now, and during this time he’s also found over 150 dead soldiers. One thing that goes against his codex is taking objects that belong to soldiers, since that would be disrespectful toward them. I of course took the opportunity to buy two 1914 CDs, since they are not easy to get outside of Ukraine.
Ukraine in the membrane
Ukraine is a country that I really respect. I’m familiar with the country’s history as it was very well-represented at my faculty back in Heidelberg. I also wrote a couple of papers about Ukrainian history while doing my master’s in Eastern European History, and have read a lot of academic literature about the country.
I followed with interest the Majdan protests, and was amazed to see people go out and face the forces of the government armed with only makeshift body armor and sticks. Ever since that time I’ve felt a lot of respect and solidarity with Ukraine, especially since they’ve always been between bigger powers who have screwed them over time and again. The history of Ukraine has a Promethean character to it, as they are always ready to fight despite the odds being against them.
One day while walking around the city center I saw these kids selling ribbons in the Ukrainian colors. I told them I wanted to buy one and asked them what the money was for. The guys said they were “just students looking for donations.” I have to say I didn’t believe them, as those ribbons are also worn by soldiers in Donetsk, and they are even featured in a comic book about the war I bought at Patriot. Whether the money was for their studies or something else will remain a mystery, but I was happy to buy that little token of solidarity.
The time had come to leave L’viv. We arranged a shared ride to Kraków, in Poland, met our driver and sped through Eastern Galicia back to the gates of the European Union. Ruben and I left wishing we had stayed longer, and will most definitely return to see more of the country.
And in case you’re wondering, it IS safe to travel to Western Ukraine!
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These are the establishments I can recommend.
Where we stayed:
Kopernyka Street, 16
(That horrible first hostel we stayed in with neither hot water nor central heating is called Leostel. Be warned!)
Where we had coffee:
Rynok Sq. 29
Where we ate:
Blvd. Doroshenka 7
Where we drank:
Lesi Ukrainky St, 35
Dudayeva St. 16
*All those interested may read this excellent article by Dr. Andreas Umland: https://www.academia.edu/35522312/The_Polish-Ukrainian_Memory_Quarrel_and_Its_Repercussions
Also of interest is this lecture by Timothy Snyder: https://youtu.be/yoUkoGn7cRU?t=5594