Lviv, Ukraine: Country in chaos boasts a town with charm
By JOHN VANDIVER | STARS AND STRIPES Published: November 6, 2014
When Katya Andrushenko fled the bloody fighting in her hometown of Donetsk, Ukraine, months ago, she sought refuge 1,000 miles away in the picturesque western Ukrainian city of Lviv, which is regarded by many as the loveliest of all in this troubled land.
Against a backdrop of stylish cafes, beautiful architecture and a buzzing street scene, it’s easy to forget during a stroll through Lviv that this is a country at war. Andrushenko, a 21-year-old student who works at a downtown kiosk that raises supplies for troops in the east, is one of the reminders.
“Our soldiers don’t have enough to eat. They don’t have warm clothes,” said Andrushenko. “Winter is coming and many don’t even have socks for their feet.”
When asked why she chose Lviv as her refuge from the fighting, she said: “Why not? It is a beautiful place.”
And so it is, with a history to go with it that is as long as it is complex.
Established more than 750 years ago, Lviv was once a major trade route in medieval Europe and at different times fell under Hungarian, Polish, Austrian, Russian and German rule. The influences can be seen in the architecture around Lviv’s old town, home to a mix of well-preserved buildings that combine Italian Renaissance styles with later baroque period structures designed by German and Dutch architects.
Walking along old cobblestone streets you’ll encounter one impressive church after another. Any day of the week, worshipers can be seen inside solemnly crossing themselves. Religion is alive here.
The top attraction is Market Square, which 700 years ago served as a major hub for merchants from across Europe and even Asia, who traded in everything from silver and leather to silk and wine.
Today, Market Square is still the heart of the old town, where instead of traders you’re more likely to encounter university students, tourists and coffee enthusiasts.
Coffee shops are everywhere in Lviv, which hosts an annual coffee festival celebrating the city’s love affair with the drink. Some argue that Lviv’s unbridled passion for java makes Vienna — a coffee mecca — feel like a tea town.
That may or may not be true, but one thing is certain: You will pay far less for coffee (and just about everything else) in Lviv than you will in other parts of Europe. Your dollars go a long way here — coffee under a dollar and a big beer less than $2.
Another must-see is the Lviv Opera House, which was built more than 100 years ago and sits on a public square that is a popular meeting place for residents.
Other landmarks include the Bernardine Monastery, which dates to the early 1600s, and Chapel of the Boim family, a Renaissance-style monument with elaborate stone carvings on the face of the church that depict biblical scenes.
Still, for me, the nicest thing to do in Lviv is to simply find a pleasant side street cafe where you can sip on a coffee or wine and watch people going about their business.
If you do that long enough, you are likely to see something strange.
During my stay, I noticed a Lviv phenomenon that bordered on the bizarre: the overwhelming presence of young women striking earnest, model-like poses around town. After seeing one passer-by after another attempt Vogue-like moves in front of random sites — I must have witnessed at least 100 separate incidents over the course of several days — I concluded that every woman here thinks she’s a model.
My traveling companion concurred that it was all rather odd. But the steady stream of model wannabes accompanied by friends happily snapping picture after picture also made clear that, for all its trouble, life, at least in this part of Ukraine, goes on.
Still, the reminders of the war in the east pop up here and there. Inside one church, money was being collected to buy helmets for soldiers. In another church, there was a memorial to fallen troops with pictures of the dead.
Hundreds of troops have been killed in fighting in the east since March, when Russia formally annexed the country’s Crimea peninsula.
While life in Lviv still happily beats along, the war is on everyone’s mind, said Andrushenko, the transplant from Donetsk who collects supplies for troops.
“We have many people come here to give something (for the soldiers),” said Andrushenko, who was wearing a donated German-made army jacket.
How German army gear ended up in Lviv isn’t clear, but the soldiers in the east say they are well-made and warm.
“They like these very much,” she said. “They are very good.”
Lviv has an international airport with carriers such as Turkish Air and Lufthansa flying into the city.
Where to stay
There are plenty of offerings around the historic old town area, with hotels ranging from three to five stars and meeting every price range.
What to drink
In Lviv, be sure to try the coffee, which the city is best known for. Also taste one of the fantastic infused vodkas. There are too many cafes to mention in the old town, so just pick one to your liking.
What to eat
Food can be hit or miss. While there is much to love about Lviv, I found the cuisine lacking. Some people say good things about the Gaslamp, one of the more popular eateries in town. Just stay away from the fish. I wish I had.
For events, tours, a city map and hotels, see the city’s imaginative website: www.justlviv.it/en.