Turn your back for a moment on the West, and travel East as a corrective. Jump the train from Berlin, and take it all the way to the Ukraine. You will never feel Berlin is on the edge again. You will lose any occidentally-centric notions of European geography that make Berlin feel as if it’s East. Yes, moving to Berlin, one is perhaps disconnected from familiar places. I remember when, living in Brussels, I would visit friends in Amsterdam or Paris for the day. From Berlin, this is nearly impossible. Going West takes time, one feels no longer in the thick of it. It’s about time you go in the other direction to compensate.
In the spirit of putting Berlin in context, and at the centre of Europe, here are some notes on our journey to Lviv, Ukraine…
(… and some practical information on getting from Berlin to Krakow to Lviv, at the end of this article).
Lviv was a Polish and Hapsburg city that ended up in the hands of Stalin. It’s a remarkable remainder of old Europe touched by Communism. It is a city in a geo-historical cul-de-sac, a place that resembles Prague or Vienna, but whose transport links to those places have dissolved. It took us almost 24 hours to travel there and back from Krakow in Poland, and Lviv is just 290km distant! The border was madness: a crushing mass of humanity at the Ukrainian-Polish fence trying to get into fortress EU… a punishing, humiliating experience. Old ladies, born in a time when there was no border, are trampled underfoot. Well, they say they tore down the wall in Berlin so they could build another one around the EU.
Going to the Ukraine, you leave Europe for its edges, and it seems too that one has also moved along a gradient of time, rushed into the past, and that the periphery is the heart of something that has been lost farther West.
There are the immediate differences: the clothes (all of Poland seems clothed by H+M, but here people just make do), the cars (ladas), the smell of coal in the air, the buildings stripped of paint, the young population, and then the old women in headscarves selling home-grown pickles and dill at the side of the road. But in the poverty there is also pride. There was the blind accordionist rocking on his wooden chair, eyes swallowed in his lids, in a outdoor café on the main square; he was then helped to a table to eat his Borscht, trying to spoon it in a way he thought elegant (never having seen ‘elegant’). Except that he was elegant: his hair, dark, cut carefully. He wore an ironed white shirt and pressed trousers, so someone is taking care of him, he is not all alone. Lviv too is determined, and not simply managing but proud.
The café crowd was demonstrative, not yet standardised in dress, perhaps not yet in ideas, intense young men with disheveled hair animated over beer or coffee; the short-haired ones were marked with studied unfriendliness, one arm over the next chair, claimants; perhaps there is a young woman wearing little else except straps and very high heels there. It felt like the two tables recalled, or reacted, to different historical moments: the coffee culture of 1905 Vienna, and the hard-nosed post-Soviet mafia state.
We were startled in Lviv by all the beautiful boulevarded streets of Art Nouveau buildings, Hapsburg ‘altbau’, and by how little has been developed (or spoiled) by mass commercialism. And it is counter intuitive to find the main square of such a beautiful city the meeting place of locals and not just tourists.
But I played the tourist: we went to a traditional banja (Ukrainian bath), which was rusty and dilapidated and unhygienic, and actually not all that fun, and observed as old men ate apples silently, as they sat naked, a chess board between them. Time seemed suspended here, but the apple cores turned brown faster than expected. I bought a Vyshyvanka, a traditional Ukrainian shirt embroidered at the collar and the cuffs (I always wanted one, having seen Shumka dancers wear them growing up in Edmonton, Canada). A Ukrainian couple helped me negotiate one from an old woman who travels down from her mountain village with a bag of hemp clothes, the names of the old ladies who sew the shirts written under each seam so she knows whom to reimburse.
We discovered Lviv’s thriving jazz scene at the cultural centre Dzyga (with very serious players: think Soviet music school but with a warm crowd), a remarkable series of Jugendstil frescos in the Armenian church by Jan Henryk de Rosen (sunken faces weary, it seemed, with the truth), a used book market of Soviet-era language manuals and sheet music of American modernist composers. We ended up in a strange military-themed restaurant (called Kryjivka) where you must praise the Ukrainian Insurgent Army with a password to be admitted to a cellar full of grenades and bits of decommissioned military hardware, to eat big steaming bowls of borscht (‘Partisan first communion’), pierogi and grilled beef, as the folk band circles the tables and the crowd sings patriotic hymns.
Lviv is still a traditional, lost place, that found itself disconnected from its greater European membership not just once in its history. We wonder how long it will remain an interesting exception, and reminder and warning of how a border can change everything. If you can handle the crossing (or are willing to fly to Kiev and take the ten-hour train journey), we’d recommend going before the rush of visitors (with the expected arrival of budget flights–– in one year, five years?) alters the place.
Returning to Berlin is like a return from its past. The old feeling I used to have in the Eastern neighbourhoods of Mitte and Prenzlauer Berg came back to me in Lviv and is gone forever here. I am tempted to feel some nostalgia, but then again you can now take the train from Berlin to Hamburg, 260 km across what was once a fortified and brutal border, in just 1 hour and 36 minutes…
PRACTICAL INFORMATION: GETTING TO LVIV FROM KRAKOW
BUS (€22, 11 hours: for one way):
Krakow is approx. 8-10 hours from Berlin by train (a little shorter via Warsaw, but then you need to change trains. Check out bahn.de). We then opted for the bus from Krakow to Lviv: a frustrating experience. We bought our tickets in the main bus station in Krakow (next to the main train station) at the Eurolines-Jordan office, which was simple enough. Tickets cost approximately €22 and the bus left at 2145h the next day. Our scheduled arrival was less than 8 hours later, but we arrived three hours late because of the wait on the border (a 5-6 hours wait).
WALKING ACROSS THE BORDER, USING BUS, MINIBUS AND TRAIN (€12.50, 10 hours):
In Lviv, we were advised that a cheaper and faster way to go back to Krakow would be to take a minibus from outside Lviv main train station to Shehini (Шегині), a town on the border with Poland. This bus leaves frequently. We left at 8:40am and it took 2 hours to the border and cost about 20 UAH (about 2 Euros). It made frequent stops in small villages. We were glad to be the first people on the bus, and get seats, because it was soon crammed full and standing room only.
From Shehini, it is a short walk across the border from Ukraine into Poland along a pedestrian walkway (there are money changers so you can convert your UAH back into Zloty). Crossing out of Ukraine was easy and fast, but our hearts fell when we saw the hordes of people in no-man’s land crushing their way against the gate leading into the Polish border facility. Only with determination and crafty insertion into the line can one get through in a timely way (which, in our case, meant just over two hours in a melée of mad pushing and shoving, perilous to the elderly, infirm or kind-hearted, that should be considered a human rights violation on Europe’s frontiers). It was also extremely hot, and the crowd was volatile. I think we would have rather waited the 6 hours on the bus.
Once you get through, if you have not been crushed to death, you will be in a little village called Medyka, where a bus can take you to Prezemysl, the nearest big town (2o minutes, 2PLN or 50 Euro cents). From here, we ran to catch the 11:51 train to Krakow (there’s one hour time difference between Ukraine and Poland. It cost €10), which came in an hour late to Krakow, scheduled for four and twenty minutes. This made our return trip from Krakow ten hours long, which was only a little shorter than our onward journey of 11 hours… all for a distance of only 290 kilometers.
TRAIN ( 11 hours, approx. €35).
When we arrived in Krakow, we realised that the train we had taken from Prezemysl had in fact originated in Lviv! It left there at 7:19 am and arrived (late) after 5pm (+1 hour time difference), so almost 11 hours. It was frustrating to think we could have spent the day on the train, being simply carried to our final destination, instead of battling with minibus/border crush/bus+train. The extra twenty euros would have been worth it to us. But it depends on your budget and your pushing skills.
Think of it this way, if Lviv weren’t so hard to get to, it might not be so remarkable! I’m not sure the locals feel the same…
There are non-stop flights from Vienna to Lvov, but they clock in at about €600 direct return. From Moscow direct, it’s about €300 direct return…