And now for something completely different.
I went on a short 3 day trip half a month ago, which, along with my busy days at work and a week of slight cold, postponed some of the posts I planned to do. But after the trip I found myself wanting to write something about it and, maybe, give an excuse to post photos of it here in addition to all the other places that I post pictures to. I suppose, it’s a bit pointless to do a write up about travelling, given that there are countless amazing services today with good hints about where to go and what to do, but in case someone who reads me decides to go to western Ukraine, maybe they can find this at least somewhat helpful. Or maybe just turn on some travel tunes and go on this road with me anyway.
If you’ve ever been to any Eastern European cities, you probably know what to expect from Lviv. The years of it being a voivodeship of Kingdom of Poland for several centuries left a lasting influence on how the city looks and feels. That said, it did experience several decades of Soviet Union influence as well, and the farther you get from the historical center, the more pronounced it gets. Although, even in the more “concrete” parts of the city, there’s a light feel of it having more “European” influence, with streets full of small one or two floor houses and parks neighboring the usual post-soviet residential district multilevel apartment buildings. And for that very reason, for this particular mix of Soviet and collapsing versus European and antique, it’s worth exploring parts farther from the center as well. At least, if you never saw and experienced this before.
Stryiskyi park is a perfect example of this. Being a big beautiful green area with friendly squirrels and little swan lakes that seemingly could rival some of the nice parks I’ve seen in Warsaw. But at the same time, having a lot of the alleys in a state of minor disrepair and with terribly broken ugly fountains in one of the central alleys, surrounded by ugly little “palaces of culture” from Soviet era. Another amazing example of such strange mix can be found in the cemetery-museum Lychakiv Cemetary. Being an old (older than the Kyiv’s Baikove) cemetery from the Polish times of the land, it has countless beautiful mausoleums and graves of Polish people, with anomalous and completely different in look and feel Soviet graves in between them. You’d see a 19th century mausoleum right near a late 1990s grave of some mob-looking “businessman”. Though, granted, a lot of the cemetery is still dedicated to the upper class and “intelligentsia” and a lot of even more modern graves clearly try to look the place. It also has a separate section dedicated specifically to the Polish and Ukrainian people, who perished during the 1918-1920 wars (Polish-Ukrainian war and Polish-Soviet war) that looks like it has a separate entrance on the map, but it actually doesn’t. To my shame, I did enter through that chained, but very open gate only to learn much later that apparently it wasn’t legal and there was an entrance fee I skipped.
When you get to the center, though, things will be very familiar to you, if you’ve ever been to Poland (and, from what I’ve been told Hungary or Czech Republic as well). It’s all about smaller snake-like winding streets, little courtyards, places of food and entertainment and a lot of people happy to sell you stuff. Granted, the food is nice, even in more fast-food-ish places, although as you might expect from a tourist spot, better known restaurants do have higher prices (but also do try to make it worth it). If I drank coffee (and I don’t, having lighter form of hypertension), I’d try some of that famous Lviv coffee, but instead I personally just focused on other things. Even managed to find a nice place making marzipan, which is a (sadly) very uncommon treat in Ukraine, most often imported from Germany and found in some food stores. But while the nice, if a bit generic “Eastern European historical center” is definitely worth a check, what should not be missed is the Union of Lublin Mound on top of the High Castle mountain. While the namesake High Castle hasn’t existed for several centuries, the view from that mound, it being the highest point in Lviv, is absolutely breathtaking. I was lucky (take this as semi-sarcasm) enough to get there right as the frozen rain and very strong wind started, so that was one hell of a fun experience. Probably the most fun I had during the visit.
And that was pretty much it. It was a curious city to walk around, at least when not too far from the center (as very far from it, it’s a very bland post-soviet city, really), it was fun to ride with the recently launched there Uber drivers. Having the multi-language conversations is always a treat (I tend to speak Russian in my daily life, the driver was speaking Ukrainian, and thankfully not a horrible “surzhyk” mix of it). But note, if you wish to take a cab in Lviv, the center of the city seems to be constantly very busy, so the ride might take much longer than it really should. There’s a surprising lack of branded franchise fast food places, with more private owned cafes and such in the central parts of the city. Apart from a curious popularity of Celentano pizza places. Also, like in Warsaw, there’s a disturbing amount of “Alco-world”, “Alco-market 24h” alcohol shops. And I can’t really tell anything about where to stay as well, since I was lucky enough to find a nice person to hang out with during my 2 days there.
Which brings me to the second night, that I spent in the train on the road to Uzhhorod. I’ve been to Uzhhorod before. Probably just once. So I didn’t really know what to expect. And after dropping out of the ever-smelling platzkart (3rd class reserved seat ticket, cheap but slightly nasty) train I found myself in a very depressing looking place. If you know how small towns and tiny cities that were expanded in Soviet Union 1960s and then seemingly forgotten look like, you’d know what I mean. If you don’t, it really needs to be seen to understand, but it’s like arriving in the place of no future, that got stuck in some strange transition between becoming a full-fledged city and remaining a big village. And instead of moving on everyone seemingly decided to either leave or shut themselves in their flats with their TVs. But that wasn’t the only face of Uzhhorod, so after checking in with the bus station for planning my next destination, I took a walk across the city.
And it turned out, it’s the left bank of the city that was the depressing one. A Kyivan in me thought “of course it is”, but I suppose it’s not always the case. And as soon as I got to the beautiful in it’s simplicity Uzh river and had a dumb realization of the city name (no, really, despite knowing that it was the city – gorod/horod – on river Uzh, I never put the two together before), I started enjoying the sights. There was a long road to a place, that was marked as a park on the map, but after taking it and finding an uncivilized mess of bushes and trees (perhaps the park in question started a bit farther), I turned around and decided to get to the historical center. And there, things got properly Transcarpathian. There was a tourist-aimed center with cafes and trinkets, there was a castle with a museum inside, there was a nice botanical garden (sadly closed that day) and there were… hills. Surprisingly, Uzhhorod is actually pretty far away from any “proper mountains” Transcarpathia is beautiful for. But the castle on a hill felt like a nice destination anyway.
And it turned out to be a nice place indeed. Cheap, rather small, but very cute little museum of Transcarpathian history in a Hungarian-Ukrainian castle, earliest parts of which have been dated to 13th century. It’s not an astonishing place, some people might expect a place called “castle” to be, at least not in the publicly available places, but there was something pleasant and historically rich about it nonetheless. Even if some of the parts which required tiny additional entrance fee, were surprisingly crap, compared to the other places that were included in the general entrance fee. Like a little dungeon, “guarded” by an unfriendly old lady, which housed some examples of torture devices and completely unrelated historical trinkets of no interest – like “a vial” – in a tiny room. While big rooms full of furniture, clothing, musical instruments, tools, diaries or weaponry were completely open for examination. But it was a worthwhile check either way and it did have that Western Ukrainian feel that I know and like from childhood, of the Hungarian flavor.
After which I slowly went back to the dreadful post-soviet buildings near the railway to get on a bus. A crappy bus with a bully driver and an hour till my final destination of the trip – place of my annual childhood visits, Mukacheve. And this is where I probably should say, that the main reason I decided to do this trip was specifically that I wasn’t in Mukacheve for 18 years. And that every time me and my grandpa went there by train and stopped in Lviv, he urged me to go out and check the train station, since the train would stay there for about 15-20 minutes. But I was always afraid that the train would leave without us, so I never got to check out Lviv. After getting real tired of the fact that I was in France, Italy, Poland and, for a tiny, bit Germany but never ever got to be in Lviv, which is just 5 hours of comfortable ride in Intercity train from Kyiv, I decided to make this trip. And while Lviv was new to me and Uzhhorod was mostly new to me, I expected to find some familiarity in Mukacheve.
And I found some, I suppose. But it was a strange and weird experience as a whole. The town I remembered was a strange and very Western Ukrainian place of mostly one storey houses, ever-present mountains in a very close vicinity and Latorica river flowing from the mountains and farther into Hungary. It has the Palanok Castle, that I didn’t visit this time, since I’ve been there many times before. And it is pretty close to a lot of well known mineral springs (like Svaliava). What it also always had was the feel of a small little cute town of Transcarpathian people, which deserved some development, which suffered often from the river flooding due to constant rains, but had a very distinct feel to it. Of course, I was a kid, and was staying with different relatives there, so that also obviously colored my perception. Yet, the feel was there.
And I couldn’t find that feel now. The city certainly got developed, but seemingly into a more boring, more ubiquitous version of itself. It now has a park with an observation wheel right near the bank of the river, where people always swam in Latorica, back when the very same bank was much wilder. I almost drowned there as a kid, learning to swim, being suddenly thrown off my footing by a strong current of the river, that was much deeper at that point. It had peculiar and incredibly tasty bread – a very special pretzel-like treat with salt and caraway, – that I loved as a kid and couldn’t find now, instead everywhere finding the french-inspired franchise-driven brand shops selling same products everywhere, as if it was Soviet union again. I found it hilarious to notice that the same puddles of water I remember walking around when I was a kid were still there, constantly replenishing with water from rains and other things. Funny to find a lot of buildings unchanged. Yet all of them reminding me more of a boring “developing town” left bank of Uzhhorod was, rather than something very different, something rooted in a different culture, full of Hungarian influence. If not for the fact, that the sights, the Palanok castle, the mountains, the Latorica river were so goddamn pretty, I wouldn’t suggest anyone visit the place, in fact. But those mountains, that river – they still make it feel like a nice place. At least for a short visit, when you can ignore the rest of the city that lost its face and have yet to find a new one.
I slept most of my way back to Kyiv. 1st class trains, while still a bit simplistic, are genuinely comfortable and I was lucky enough to not have anyone buy the second seat. So i could enjoy the tunnels you drive through, when riding the train from Kyiv to Uzhhorod, like I did as a kid, in comfort, before going to sleep. There’s about 4 of those and one of them takes about 3 minutes to get from one end to the other. And I used to try and hold my breath while entering them. The longest one remained unbeatable to this day. As does the distinct feel of Transcarpathian (and Western Ukrainian in general) places you see dash past the train window.
I love Kyiv, despite spending most of my life here, but there were always little things lacking, that seem common to Eastern European places. Things that are absolutely normal there and are somehow ignored here. I remember going to Warsaw and noticing how good everything smelled. Every street, every hotel room or corridor, every apartment building, every bus or tram at least tried to smell nice. Naturally nice, with flowery green smell. And Lviv was the same, while Uzhhorod and Mukacheve had this, to a slightly lesser degree, but still similar. By comparison Kyiv stinks. It doesn’t actually stink in a disgusting way, and when it rains or when you live near parks or forested areas, it certainly can smell nice. But usually it just smells of nothing or exhaust fumes. Public transport smells of people, either more nicely, or travel sweat not nicely. And I’ve never really seen any attempts to make things smell nice. Which is probably what’s going to hit you, if you are from, say, Poland and visit Kyiv. You’d probably feel pretty comfortable in Lviv, and yet even in greener nicer historical places of Kyiv something will be off. I suppose, that’s something that Kyiv would need to figure out how to deal with to be a nicer place in the future. For now, I suppose, if you wish to go to Kyiv, I can suggest visiting during late spring rainy days, to smell rain and lilacs.
Visiting places can be pretty nice, though.