You Say Lvov, and I Say Lviv...
My trip began inauspiciously enough when I sauntered down to my nearby Budapest metro station at 6 AM to catch the train for the airport and found fire department and police cars everywhere, and the metro closed! Scheisse! Luckily, the emergency only extended five stations or so. I caught a bus that delivered me past the blocked stop and then resumed my metro ride and then bus ride to the airport.
The rest of the trip was easy. One hour to Warsaw and one hour to Lviv, a short taxi ride to my hotel and I was ready for adventure. This time I stayed in a small boutique hotel, about ½ mile from the center of town and right next to one of Lviv’s biggest tourist attractions: a cemetery. More on that later. For my initial foray I decided to walk into town, a jaunt of around 20-25 minutes or so, stopping to take photos along the way. This is an area of the Ukraine where the leaves turn all the bright colors of autumn: gold, red, yellow and blue. Actually, I think the blue ones were dipped in dye by local schoolkids to fool the tourists.
The map I got from the Tourinform Desk at the airport led me through Soborna Square and up Serbska Street to the center of Lviv, Rynok Square, the old market place and commercial gathering place for locals and tourists alike. It’s even a World Heritage Site. I grabbed a light snack of rice with prawns and beer and continued my explorations.
The day was cloudy, but the beauty and brightness of the local girls far outshown any less-than-perfect weather. Lviv’s Old Town is slowly, slowly being renovated. It still consists of unmaintained buildings, peeling paint and plaster, crumbled bricks, rotted wood and worn-out drains, but the city fathers have started taking steps to bring Lviv back to its former glory. I had another beer at the Korzo pub and explored a few more nooks and crannies before catching the tram back to my hotel. I cleaned up and had a pre-dinner drink at the hotel bar, discussing the evening’s entertainment possibilities with Andrei, my newest bartender friend. I considered a light bar snack, but all they had on their menu was something called “Lard with Garlic.” Having been confronted with such gastronomic excesses in Hungary, I decided to wait until I found a more appetizing snack in town.
I entrammed (is that a word?) for the central city, on one of Lviv’s wonderful period rattletrap trams, still serving after decades under Russian rule. I checked out a few more nightspots, had some vareniki (like pelmenyi) as a light supper, drank in the atmosphere for a while then decided to turn in early. Tomorrow would be another day. Obviously.
So, first full day in Lviv. Had a great breakfast at the hotel, then caught a local bus that took me on a route around the outer fringes of Old Town, where I got off near the Opera. Lest I forget to mention it, the cost of a tram or bus ride in Lviv, Ukraine, is 25 cents US; one of the best deals around. Anyway, the Lviv Opera House is located at the top of Svobody Prospekt, a two-lane thoroughfare divided by a strolling park complete with trees, grass, flowers, etc. Lovely boulevard. I took my time, walked the entire length of the Prospekt and then started exploring the side streets.
The weather was still cool and cloudy, so I did the unofficial walking tour of the city center and Old Town, checking out churches, museums (lots of both) and the narrow, medieval cobblestone streets radiating out from Rynok Square. On a whim I stopped in at The Magic Lantern coffee house for some hot chocolate; turned out it was some of the best I have ever tasted, made with amaretto and the thickest whipped cream ever. Yummy.
More walking and looking and just meandering. I found the Vernisazh open-air market and looked for some interesting souvenirs, but couldn’t find what I wanted – or anything worthwhile either. I really wanted a t-shirt that said, “I Lvove Lviv,” but I guess that was too creative for the locals. Once again, I was out of lvuck.
I continued my stroll through ancient city streets. As I rounded one corner I was surprisingly attacked by an eagle.
It seemed there was something interesting around every corner and down every street; in the inner courtyard of the famous Armenian Cathedral, for example, is a restaurant called Mons Pius, which looked wonderful and to which I vowed to return for dinner before I left.
All that walking and picture-taking had made me hungry again, so I eeny-meenied and finally mo-ed on the Sacher-Masoch Restaurant, a theme place named after the infamous Lvivian of “masochism” fame. His bronze statue outside beckoned me into the red-and-black interior, and I hesitantly made my way inside to see what would happen.
The menu is a large book-like affair, complete with chain and lock. The general atmosphere was heavy and heady and reminiscent of a French bordello (…..ah, not that I’ve been in too many of them, you understand; just those two trips to Paris when…well, a story for another time.) Anyway, I sat by myself at a table near the entryway and enjoyed the background sounds of whips cracking and primal moans (think I’m kidding, don’t you?) And you should have seen what was showing on the in-house TV! (Hint: it wasn’t Manchester United vs. Arsenal).
I perused the menu, checking out the Hot Foreplay and the Intercourse offerings, passing on the bull’s testicles appetizer (Hey! I’ve had Rocky Mountain Oysters!), and settled for some snails. As I drank my beer and waited for my escargot, a large crowd of younger emo diners came in looking for a large table to accommodate them. I courteously moved to another smaller table so they could push together three tables and keep their group together. My reward came when I got to watch one of the girls eat her dessert (keep reading!).
Anyway, the food was only fair. The escargots were small and dried out and there was no butter or garlic in which to dip the rather stale bread. The parmesan mashed potatoes weren’t very hot, but the beef medallions were pretty good. But it isn’t for the food that one comes to the Sacher-Masoch Café. The emos were really getting into the spirit of the place by this time. One of the young ladies had found an unused whip and was plying it none-too-gently to the back of one of her male dining companions. Another young tattooed man asked for special treatment for one of the girls in his party; a waitress blindfolded the girl, whispered a few words in her ear, slipped some ice-cubes down her back and between her breasts, poured alcohol in her mouth, shook her head then hit her with a small whip. Hmmm - maybe old Sacher-Masoch was on to something here.
At the other end of the table, one of the young (and obviously uninformed) women had ordered a dessert, not knowing what it was. I believe it was called a “Yummy Orgasm.” To fully enjoy her creamy dessert, the young diner first had her hands tied behind her back and then had a blindfold placed over her eyes. A waiter steered her toward her taste treat. The young woman’s male friend sat in a chair holding the dessert on a plate in his lap. The young woman was guided to her knees and her head was gently but forcefully lowered to the plate to engulf what awaited her. It gave new meaning to ‘dining al fresco.’
Friday dawned clear and sunny and warm! It was a perfect day to do the Wonder Train tour of the city. The tour took about an hour and we cruised by all of the major sights of the city, some of which I’d seen and some of which I hadn’t. The train never stopped, but just kept on trainin’ until we arrived back at Rynok Square. I wasn’t quite ready for lunch yet, so made a stop at the Vienna Coffee House for a snack. Turned out the main area of this Major “Must Visit” Tourist Attraction was fully booked for lunchtime gatherings and was unavailable to the common tourist. I was ignominiously sent around to the side wherein lay the Vienna Coffee House Hotel and Terrace, apparently a hangout for the less fortunate.
I sat at a terrace table and ordered a Sacher Torte; no relation to old Mr. Sacher-Masoch, but rather that famous mouth-watering delectable dessert designed at the Sacher Hotel in Vienna. The thought of the one I’d had there still makes me salivate, just like Pavlov’s dog. I ordered one here and, as usually seems to be the result these days, the anticipation once again exceeded the event. The Sacher Torte was dry and somewhat stale, but the accompanying thick, rich whipped cream almost made up for the lack.
Next on my list was the Lychakivsky Cemetery near my hotel, just to see what all the shouting was about. I paid my $2 entry fee and started my tour. The entire cemetery covers around 100 acres and has around 400,000 bodies interred therein. It’s built on hills filled with trees and pathways, and on this day the autumn sunlight streamed through the trees, highlighting the changing colors of the leaves as I walked.
The cemetery is filled with famous Ukrainians and Russians and, of course, I had never heard of a single one of them. My tour was not a long one. I cleaned up in the hotel and boarded my tram for an early dinner, this time at the Kumpel Beer Brewery on Mytna Square, right where the tram stopped near Old Town. It was around 6 PM by then, but the doorman/receptionist at Kumpel said there were no seats available. I looked around at the many empty tables and chairs and then turned back to him and asked him how long it would be until a place opened up; he told me five-to-ten minutes and I said, “No problem, I’ll wait.”
As I was waiting he offered me a free small beer to taste.
I finally got my table in the downstairs area, with a lovely view of the toilet access doors. Guess they spotted me as a tourist after all. I ordered my Taster of the three microbrewed beers for which the Kumpel is famous, and was rewarded with a tasty trio of beers, one light, one amber and one red. They were all good, but I opted for a full pint of the amber to go with my dinner of pepper sausages, bread, red cabbage, sauerkraut and potato latkes. One nice gimmick here and in other restaurants in Lviv: each table has a Call Button which you can press when you want to summon your waiter. What a great idea! Why can’t every restaurant have these touches?
My dinner was another taste treat, which was getting to be a habit in Lviv. I could revisit the city just to try the restaurants I hadn’t been able to get to, as the food I did have was that good. The sausages and beer went well together and I was once again at peace with the world. I lingered for another beer, bought my obligatory t-shirt and sat with Andrei at the hotel, watching Ukraine play Poland in football. Ukraine won, 1-0, and Andrei was so happy he poured me a complimentary shot of homemade spirits; it tasted something like moonshine, but finished me off nicely and I was in bed fast asleep within minutes of hitting my room.
Saturday was my last full day in Lviv. It was cloudy again and rather cool, good walking weather, so I decided to visit the places on foot that I’d only cruised by previously in the Wonder Train. I did the Opera Passage shopping mall (way too ritzy for my plebeian tastes), then walked all the way down to Soborna Square via Doroshenko and Shevshenko streets with their upscale stores and parks in the middle of the divided streets. On Virmenska I entered the Armenian Cathedral again, checking out the passageways and arches.
As I circumnavigated Rynok Square yet again, I caught a sign that drew me in for lunch. It had a photo of a hamburger and text reading “I don’t like it,” along with a photo of a bowl of Ukrainian soup with its text of “I like borsch!” I was hooked. I had enjoyed the borsch I’d had in Kiev a few years earlier, so thought it would make a nice light lunch. I walked down the stairs to the main dining area of the Golden Boar restaurant, got my table, read the menu and pushed my Call Button for the waiter.
“I’ll have the Ukrainian borsch,” I proclaimed with ringing tones of the true borsch-lover. The waiter looked at me and said, “We don’t have that.” I damn near left right then. I only stayed so I could write my scathing review on Trip Advisor warning tourists to stay away from this place. They didn’t have their national dish! I’m speechless. I wanted to punch out the waiter, even though it’s not his fault. I wanted to run into the kitchen and bop the chef over the head with a serving ladle. I wanted to grab a whip at the Sacher-Masoch café and beat the owner of this bourgeois establishment with it soundly and roundly.
But I refrained from doing any of those satisfying activities. My Trip Advisor review would seal the restaurant’s fate forever. So I had a small plate of vareniki with prawns (stuffed dumplings). The accompanying dipping sauce was not the traditional sour cream, but was rather some sort of mayonnaise-based sauce that tasted suspiciously like Thousand Island salad dressing. I could hardly wait to get to the Trip Advisor page on my computer.
I was so upset I actually walked back to my hotel. I walked and rested and paced and mentally composed my horrid review for Trip Advisor, one I was certain would result in the closing of The Golden Boar for all eternity – or at least until they started serving Ukrainian borsch again, since it was advertised on the menu. After I calmed down I finally succumbed to the arms of Morpheus to help assuage my anger at not being able to order the national dish of Ukraine in one of its big tourist restaurants. Remember – The Golden Boar on Rynok Square in Lviv, Ukraine – DON’T GO THERE!
I awoke rested and ready once again to tackle the dining scene in downtown Lviv. My guidebook recommended so many appealing restaurants, it was difficult to decide which one I wanted for my final night’s splurge. There was a Jewish restaurant which had a menu without prices where you were expected to bargain for your meal (although they did offer a shot of homemade vodka). Then there was Mons Pius, that Olde English place in the courtyard of the Armenian Cathedral. Tough choice.
I wandered by the Jewish place and it was pretty well crowded even at 6PM. I strolled on to Mons Pius, which wasn’t nearly as crowded yet. I decided to have one of their homemade beers (very nice!) and, after perusing their menu, decided what the heck, I’d stay there and have a steak. And that was a great choice.
Mons Pius’s motto is “In Pivo Veritas,” instantly translatable by all beer and wine fans, to “In Beer We Trust.” My sentiments exactly. I was taken to a table in the main inside dining room, as it was a touch cool outside. This main room looks like an Olde English manor hall, complete with dark wood walls, tables and chairs, beamed ceiling, mullioned windows and discrete lighting – and all in the middle of the courtyard of an Armenian church. Who’d a’thunk it?
I made my menu choices quickly and easily: an order of garlic toast, a nice 300-gram rib eye steak and some fried veggies (just to be on the healthy side). I figured the garlic toast, which I envisioned as regular flat pieces of toasted bread with some nice garlic butter on the side, would whet my appetite for the meat dish to come.
Another surprise awaited me: when the “garlic toast” arrived, it was four thick six-inch-long sticks of fried black bread, accompanied by a creamy garlic dip. It was almost – I say, almost – like my all-time favorite pub appetizer from St. Petersburg – grenkiy! YES! I could feel my eyes widen at the sight as I actually became sexually excited at finding this marvelous taste treat so unexpectedly in a far-off corner of Ukraine.
I had to force myself to savor my “garlic toast,” as I dipped the sticks into the sauce and conveyed the result to my mouth with a shaking hand. It was so wonderful tears formed in my eyes. I must have been making my standard moaning and groaning yummy sounds, as I noticed other diners staring at me. I didn’t care. I was back in garlic heaven and intended to stay there as long as possible. I nearly cancelled my steak and substituted another five orders of garlic toast, but No, too much of a good thing, and all that. Suffice it to say I knew from the auspicious beginning that this would be a meal to remember.
And it was. My steak was perfectly cooked, and I lingered over it and my veggies and another beer, taking my time and enjoying every bite and sip. Night descended outside the windows as I cut and chomped and thoroughly demolished everything on my plates, all the while smiling inanely and probably moaning slightly. What else can I say? It was a perfect meal. And all for the reasonable cost of around $30 US. Such a deal.
I couldn’t improve on dinner, so I once again strolled back to my hotel, taking in the night air during my final moments in Lviv. I had a taxi pick me up the following day (Sunday) at noon, made it to the airport, checked in quickly and easily and endured my two flights back to Budapest. Clearing passport control and security at the Warsaw airport was so bad and so unnecessarily obstructive it nearly spoiled the end of a really nice long weekend, but I persevered and made it through. I was home in my cozy flat by 8 PM Sunday night. Another successful adventure tucked under my belt and faithfully recorded in my camera. Pix are on Facebook. Watch this space for upcoming travels, as winter is almost upon us and I’ll be needing some sunshine around the middle of December. Until then, dear Reader.