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In the run-up to my South Caucasus trip, I thought I might tell you a little bit about some of the trips I had taken around here in Ukraine before this blog was born.  It would be a shame to leave either of the two unmentioned; both were great experiences, and in their own ways have contributed to my understanding of this country and its people.  The first trip I’ll tell you about is actually #2 in order, and the destination was Lviv, a city a day’s bike ride away from Poland’s southern border.

This western Ukrainian city has tried on several different names during the past millenium, courtesy of the different hands through which the area has changed.  For most of its nearly-800 year history it was a Polish city (them of the “Lwow” persuasion), briefly Hapsburg (when they were, what; “Lembergians”?  “Lemburgers”?), and the remaining two names are currently a matter of nationalistic preference.  Ukrainians in general prefer Lviv, while much of post-Soviet memory of the place holds Lvov dear.

Lviv - "Of Lions"

Although historical accounts may diverge on the particular name, contemporary visitors to this lovely, old European town can all agree that Lviv stands tall among the very best that Ukraine has to offer its growing tourist population.  There are many different reasons for why the city can contend for such a title – architecture, history, geography, culture and tourist-orientation.

Much of the center city is architecturally late 19thcentury,

Central Square

during which period the city was reshaped to resemble many of Austria-Hungary’s other economic and cultural centers.  Typical of that style of architecture were long street-front buildings of three and four stories, ornately carved stone decorations along building joints, and sculpted balconies.  Even through decades of Soviet occupation, the old buildings managed to maintain an un-utilitarian, romantic-era appeal in contrast to other former Soviet cities.  Narrow, cobblestone streets only add further to the old-Europe feel of the city.  Equally important, I think, is that Lviv was spared the heavy bombing and destruction that occurred elsewhere throughout Europe during the Second World War.  Lviv was most disastrously occupied by the Nazis, as the accounts of their atrocities attest; they were intent on brutalizing the population but seemed to have left the physical structures mostly intact.

Western Ukraine is blessed with beautiful natural landscapes, green rolling hills and vistas which Sandy says remind her of England.  I haven’t been to England yet, but with the exception of the onion-domed orthodox churches which dot the landscape, I imagine she’s probably right.  What struck me was the difference, somehow, the pride that people out there exhibit in their property, as opposed to some of the areas through which I had traveled here in southern and eastern Ukraine.  (If you need a good counter-example to Lviv, take a stroll down any of Simferopol’s littered boulevards.)  Yards and homes just seem better cared-for, and the ubiquitous garbage which plagues much of this country’s streets, parks and private properties was conspicuously absent in Lviv and the surrounding area.

Sandy and me in Lviv

The aspect of Lviv that seems to me to most set it apart from other parts of Ukraine that I had visited to-date is the creativity and passion for the arts that Leopolitans seem to possess.  This state of mind has most often been described to me as what is called “café-culture”, the venues being small, dimly-lit places where many of Lviv’s inhabitants resolve weighty issues, fall into and out of love and scheme up new money-deals over cappuccinos and espressos.  Apparently, they only do this in pairs, though, as far as we could tell.  The three of us were forever having to borrow an additional chair from a neighboring two-top and then commence business deals among ourselves for table-space at our own table, as pressures would mount from arriving food orders in the restaurants or cafés we visited.

We very much enjoyed the tourist-friendly atmosphere of Lviv.  Westerners often take for granted the emphasis on the customer which typifies restaurant or shopping interactions.  In Ukraine, as a rule, we have found that this orientation toward tourists has not yet taken root.  I’ll briefly paint a picture of our usual experiences here in restaurants or stores.  Typically, we will walk into a restaurant or café.  We can expect menus within five minutes of having sat down (one is not usually seated, another element of interaction between employee and customer being thereby removed).  Further acknowledgement of our presence is then usually postponed for another ten to fifteen minutes.  Trying to establish eye-contact is futile.  Inevitably, the waiter or waitress will indeed have to take the order, because there isn’t much point to the whole dining-out evolution without eventually taking it to this next level.  Here, once again, though, things slip out of your, the customer’s, control.  The soup may arrive as you are finishing up your entrée.

I don’t know.  It has something to do with the relationship between employee and customer, where the customer is somehow an inconvenience.  I just bought tickets for a show on ice here in Kyiv at “Palats Sportu” (Sports Palace), where, after eye-rolling and pained expressions (ostensibly at my foreignness), the lady behind the register took my money and gave me three stubs in return.  In stores, assistants don’t usually come to you; you shlepp your things to the register and ask your questions there, or you have to coax them over.  It’s just different, here in Ukraine.

To come full circle, though, believe me when I tell you that Leopolitans have got it figured out.  I’m not sure whether a close proximity to Europe proper is the reason, or that western Ukraine has a long tradition of being anything but Ukrainian until recently, but interaction with tourists is not at all an alien concept in Lviv.  The pleasant, charming atmosphere of this city gave us the impression that European and world soccer enthusiasts will not be disappointed with the city, as they come in to root for their favorite teams this upcoming June.  Elsewhere in Ukraine, where Euro 2012 matches will be held in Kyiv, Donetsk and Kharkiv, time will tell, I suppose.  I have my suspicions that Lviv will come away an international favorite, though.

I’m glad to have been able to share a little bit about this city with you.  Lviv really is a unique place by Ukrainian standards, and its old Europe charm is very appealing.  Let me know if you’re interested in more about Lviv, and its significance for the country’s future relations between Russia and the West.  I left the political and nationalist-related stuff off from this post to spare the majority of you.

Next up –

Sevastopol and Yalta: Ukrainian tourism’s heavyweights on militarily and ethnically-contested ground.