Ratusha, Lviv’s medieval City Hall
Beginning in Przemysl
The Przemysl Pearl is no ordinary railway station restaurant; if it weren’t for travellers in modern-day dress, you might think you were in one of the venerable coffee houses in Vienna in 1923, not 2023.
This is where I meet Mette and her 20-year-old daughter Lærke, veteran travellers from Denmark, at 8am on a chilly Thursday in October. We will be travelling together to Lviv in about an hour, and we are all excited about the coming days, so time passes quickly.
We will do our best to make this trip useful for Ukraine.
This journey is put together by Ukrainian Orest Zub, avid traveller-turned-activist – and partner in NomadMania, an organisation for global explorers.
Orest wants to show us that life goes on in Ukraine. Despite being in the middle of war, people are going about their business as usual, damned if the Russians will break their spirit. Besides, this ain’t their first rodeo. Lviv has about 770 years of turbulent history, beginning with a Mongol invasion in 1260, just 11 years after the city was founded. This is a population not easily deterred!
When I was first made aware of this project in Ukraine, I immediately knew I had to go. I have worked with Ukrainian refugees in Krakow and home in Oslo, and I have been wanting to talk with those who have stayed. Can’t wait to hear their stories.
We will also do ‘normal’ things during the days in Lviv. Things we would do in times of peace: visit art galleries, see the sights, learn about Ukrainian history, customs and traditions, eat Ukrainian food, in short: experience life – as Ukrainians continue to do, every day, as normally as possible.
The full scale
Full scale is a word we hear frequently in Lviv. Many of us in the West mistakenly think the Russian War on Ukraine began in February 2022, forgetting that it has been going on for nearly 10 years. The war began in February 2014, when Russia annexed Crimea, then Donbas two months later. The aggression of the last 22 months is the full scale.
‘Why would you go to Ukraine? It’s a war zone!’
Yes, Ukraine is a war zone, even Lviv. But even more, it is a place where people live their daily lives. As they always have. As they always will.
Orest offered us 3 ways to take part in this project, either visiting 1. Lviv, Kyiv and Kharkhiv, 2. Lviv and Kyiv or 3. Lviv. Safety is of the highest priority.
I won’t deny the first option was tempting. But in the end, I chose the last. Far from the Russian-occupied territories. Far from the front line. A compromise, I suppose. A decision that was easier to defend. To myself, and loved ones.
Is travelling in a war zone ethical? Opinions are divided. I can only answer for myself, and in the end, that’s what matters. My goal is to be useful, in however small a way. To talk to people, to try and understand what life is like here now. I want to hear the Ukrainian story. And then spread the word.
Przemysl – Lviv
Back in the Polish border town with the cryptic name – Przemysl is pronounced she-mysh, who would have thought – we queue for Polish passport control and meet up with another fellow traveller, Lucy from California.
The train leaves at 9.35, and the queue is long and not moving. I’m hoping our tickets are flexible, though they probably are not; we have assigned seats. But as it turns out, there is no need for concern. The train waits for everyone.
These days, with the kids all grown-up, and most of my friends not all that interested in the world’s curious corners, I travel on my own quite a lot. And I do enjoy that. But for the more challenging places – and I suppose this qualifies as challenging – I like company. As we travel through the Ukrainian countryside, I’m glad to be travelling with these three women, who, like me, are fascinated with just those curious corners.
Lviv’s Armenian Church
Lviv is the major city in Western Ukraine, just one hour from the border with Poland and NATO, and about 1,000 km from the front line. Nowadays, Lviv is the gateway to the rest of Europe, and the city has served as sanctuary for more than 150,000 internally displaced people. During the first few months of the full scale, 50,000 fled Ukraine, transiting through Lviv. I have met some of them, in Krakow and in Oslo.
Because of this strategic position, several high profile events, meetings, conferences, seminars, workshops, take place here in Lviv. The city has also become a logistical hub for volunteers, humanitarian aid and international diplomacy. At some point during the last 22 months, one world leader after another has met with their Ukrainian counterpart here in Lviv. It is a gathering place for media from around the world, and serves as temporary location for Ukrainian businesses from points further east.
Even though Lviv has seen comparatively few cases of aggression, the city authorities are certainly not taking that for granted. Underground shelters are at the ready, should the Russians attack. Public sculptures and works of art are wrapped for protection.
We arrive at Lviv’s Art Nouveau railway station around noon…
… and check in to The George, a lovely old world hotel from the days of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. The building is a combination of Italian renaissance, Art Nouveau and Art Deco, all architectural styles I love. Inside are spacious, airy rooms and an elegant lobby with a wide staircase. And there is of course a bunker basement.
Hereby added to my list of fave hotels
Through its 115-year history, The George has been home for many artists: Franz Liszt, Johannes Brahms, Maurice Ravel, Richard Strauss, Honoré de Balzac, Jean-Paul Sartre, not to forget Yuri Gagarin, the first human in space… I can practically see them all wandering the hallways.
We have a quick lunch, a hearty borscht…
… then meet the lovely Marta Trotsiuk, Orest’s wife. Marta is an ambassador for Ukrainian art and president of Ukrainian Gallerists’ Association, and will be taking us around Lviv’s art scene.
Lviv Art Walk
At Green Sofa Gallery, the poetically named exhibit Long shadows of the short summer speaks to me. Could just as well have been said about our Scandinavian summers.
Gallery Shum focuses on Volodymyr Patyk’s depictions of people, nature and human activities.
Music, books, candles & wine – life’s good stuff, all in one painting
Finally, we stop by the Solomiya Krushelnytska Lviv State Academic Theatre of Opera and Ballet.
Bit of a mouthful, eh? We’ll just call it Lviv Opera House. At the side of the building we see this guy. 5.5 metres tall, Mr. Arbitrium is the work of Italian Emanuele Gianelli, self-declared provocative artist. Italy has given the sculpture to Ukraine.
Is he pushing the building – or supporting it? Or both? Supporting Ukraine by pushing the enemy away? As always with art, it is up to us, the observers, to decide.
I think about those Ukrainian artists who died, suffered, or cannot work on their cultural 8, giving the beauty of thought to their state and the whole world. I express my hope for the speedy accession of Ukraine to the European Community and I want it to be heard not from an artist from Italy, but from Europe.
Coffee stop at the beautiful Kawiarnia Mikolasha, located in a former pharmacy.
The next day, we’re up bright and early, ready to learn about how Ukrainians cope with the horrors of war. We are joined by those that have come from Kharkiv near the front line, and from Kyiv.
During my stints of field work in Krakow, I’ve met many Ukrainian women and children, missing – and worrying about – their fathers, brothers, husbands, and friends. All young able-bodied males have remained in Ukraine, ready to fight. Today, we will meet some of those that stayed behind.
At UNBROKEN, we learn how Ukraine deals with soldiers and others injured by war – adults and children.
UNBROKEN National Rehabilitation Centre
Every week, wounded are evacuated from the front line and brought to Lviv. This is where they are treated, where they receive comprehensive medical care, including reconstructive surgery, and robotic prosthetics. The prostheses are manufactured right here at the hospital.
Lviv’s medical union has helped more than 5,000 affected.
War wounds aren’t merely physical. UNBROKEN also provides psychological and psychosocial rehabilitation. The goal is to provide all necessary support near their families, instead of at hospitals abroad.
Wounded and hospital personnel recount stories of enormous bravery, such as 15-year-old Nastya from Popasna in Luhansk. She had learned to drive from her late mother. Nastya treated wounded and evacuated them to hospital, under ongoing shelling. On the way, they came under enemy fire and she was shot in the leg. Despite that, she carried on, driving 30 km with her leg shot. They were picked up by Ukrainian military and given first aid at Popasna hospital. All of them survived and Nastya was sent to Lviv by an evacuation train.
Or 29-year old Illia: he joined the army to protect his country and his young daughter. During a combat mission, his tank hit a mine. His face was severely burnt and he lost a leg, and is now waiting for a prosthesis here at UNBROKEN. After that, he will help others in the same situation.
Lychakiv: an expanding cemetery
Not all have been fortunate enough to survive.
In normal times, one might look at Lychakiv as one would Père-Lachaise in Paris or La Recoleta in Buenos Aires, an old-fashioned necropolis, originally for the upper classes of Austria-Hungary. These days, the most evocative part is the Field of Mars, the military part.
Behind the bright colours of banners and Ukrainian flags, are graves of recently killed soldiers, some freshly dug. A thought-provoking reminder of the ongoing aggression. Several hundred are buried here – and there’s room for thousands more.
We visit Shevchenkivskyi’s Garden, an outdoor museum of folk architecture and rural life, exhibiting wooden buildings from the 18th – 20th century: houses, schools, and a traditional tsverka (church). Nothing like time travel to take the mind off war for a bit.
On our last day in Lviv, we have a guided walk through the historic centre.
Church of the Holy Eucharist
Bernardine church and monastery
Spot the Statue of Liberty up there on the roof – sitting, and relaxing comfortably with two half-naked men?
Lady Liberty of Lviv
Then we’re at the Opera House again. I feel I know the lay-out of the city centre pretty well by now.
The beautiful Opera House is from Austro-Hungarian times, and depicted on the 20 hryvnia bank note.
Bumped into Vagabjorn, eternal vagabond and fellow Norwegian.
More Lviv scenes
Lviv reminds me of several European cities: Vienna, Krakow, Budapest, even Paris – but smaller, more compact, more intimate. I’m not surprised when I am told it is often referred to as the Little Paris of Ukraine, both for the architecture and culture, and also for the lively, vibrant atmosphere. On Saturday evening, people are out in droves on Rynok Square, the city’s main outdoor gathering place, dancing, laughing, playing music, and being pleasantly loud. Bars and cafes are buzzing. Got to love the spirit! It does not in any way feel like a war zone.
All things considered, Lviv is as safe as it gets under the circumstances. And walking around the city, I do feel safe. Very safe. Nothing threatening here, day or night. Perhaps this is also because the general level of crime is very low. Let’s take guns, for example:
The gun death rate in Lviv is 0.24 per 100k residents every year. Taking into account Lviv’s population of 717,800 it means that on average, a gun death occurs once every 211 days, 20 hours, 58 minutes and 54 seconds.
Most importantly though, everyone I meet appreciate visitors. Appreciate not being forgotten or ignored. That’s good enough for me. More than good enough!
I’ll be back!
Mostyska, random town about half way between Lviv and the Polish border