This is a city that knows how to celebrate. Known as the centre of Ukrainian art and culture, it is also grounded in a deep sense of faith – think of it as the country’s Bible belt. Yet, despite their church-going reputation, when a party happens it will be the locals who keep stoking it into the wee small hours. As Lviv prepares for its’ latest celebration, the tempting sounding Festival of Chocolate, I get a little nostalgic for the last big party – New Year. It is a city I love, but it is often a rocky romance.
Is it all about Money?
On the one hand, Lviv has always been the most romantic city in Ukraine. But don’t forget about the commercial side of the holidays that can easily turn any affair slightly sour – it is something I experience first-hand. To understand the commercial reality of New Year in Lviv, I need to go back a month before my departure on 30 December. From previous experience, I know that sometimes renting an apartment in Lviv can become the proverbial pain in the bottom. However, booking a month in advance we easily find a woman who agrees to give us a flat in the centre for a good price (1,000hrv per day) if we prepay for our stay. It seems done and dusted right? Wrong. Two weeks later, my friend gives her a call only to find out that the apartment we paid for has been given to other people (I guess they paid more) and she decides to offer us an alternative (many times worse and far from the centre) instead. We decline, get our money back and book another flat; however, our accommodation trials and tribulations are far from finished...
More Double-bookings and Dealings
Packed and ready to go on our day of departure, we receive a call from the landlord who first tries to soften the blow by asking us to stay calm. Usually being told to stay calm has the opposite effect and our nerves prove justified. He tells us that he had to give the apartment to other people, but we shouldn’t worry as he has another one for us. With no time to search for alternative digs, and knowing the varying quality of apartments, we prepare for the worst and leave for the railway station where another challenge awaits us – one of the ill-starred Hyundai fast trains.
After so much press and based on our stop/start plans so far, you’d expect Murphy’s Law would come into play, so we’re convinced our train will break down halfway to Lviv. We’re pleasantly surprised; I can only give a glowing report of the new trains as we have a very comfortable five-hour trip to our destination with no problems or delays. What’s more, I’m not a big fan of trains, so rather than spend 13 hours on an express train or even more on your usual Ukrainian chugga-chugga, five hours in the Hyundai is perfect. It’s a reprieve from the apartment dilemma that still awaits us.
The train slowly approaches the beautiful Lviv station with its tall arched roof that has already become one of the city’s landmarks. Leaving the train, we brace ourselves for what comes next. Our landlord picks us up to drive to the mystery apartment he has selected for us, and has no qualms in asking a humble refund for the “taxi” services he provides. This 10-minute trip costs us 50hrv, a price that is expensive – even for Kyiv, but especially for Lviv. While we still do not know if some cockroach infested hovel or something more upmarket is waiting for us there is one thing in this place’s favour. Location, location, location as the saying goes and this place occupies a prime position really close to the centre and situated right near Franko Park and Lviv National University.
Our apartment is in one of the old buildings the city is famed for with a large, welcoming courtyard that reminds me of the old movies I used to watch when I was a child. I image the laughter of children as they play carefree here in summer. A wooden spiral staircase leads us up to the top floor and as everything looks so old-world, I convince myself the flat we are about to enter will be less than palatial. Again we are surprised, put simply; the apartment is awesome, having all the modern amenities you need for a comfortable stay. “I told you not to worry” – the landlord says, seeing our obvious relief. Finally, we can look forward to our holiday.
The Best Part
The next day, we leave our accommodation to find a city humming with tourists and residents alike, all in party-mode. Despite it still being morning, the celebrations are already in full-swing. The mood is jubilant and the partiers stretch along a fair set up on the main drag of Svobody Avenue to the front the beautiful Opera House built 113 years ago. We partake of the mulled wine and medovukha that is sold on every corner, as we take in the magnificent baroque elements of the Opera and the surrounding Gothic and Renaissance architecture.
As it’s the first time in Lviv for one of my friends, we decide to play tour guides, and refilling with mulled wine as we go we descend on the second fair that stands on Ploshcha Rynok overlooked by the imposing tower of the Lviv City Council. It’s a great observation point, but as there is no elevator inside it takes some effort to get to the top. Those efforts pay off – it’s a balmy +8oC in Lviv on 31 December and we are able to linger at our vantage point, taking in the beauty of the Bernardine and Dominican Churches, Latin and Armenian Cathedrals, and the charming streets and houses of the downtown. To the east, there is another vantage point that offers a great view too from Vysokiy Zamok Park. But, before we take a closer look at these landmarks, we decide to have some lunch at Liviy Bereh café.
Situated right below the Opera House, this place offers a unique experience. We are made to dress in real theatrical costumes before being allowed in. If I do say so myself, I cut quite a dash in my green Robin Hood style jacket, as do my friends wearing long medieval dress and cloaks.
A couple of hours later, we’ve switched dress codes again, into our best party gear in preparation to farewell 2012 and welcome 2013. We kick off festivities at restaurant Dim Legend after booking a table. It’s a place that is hard to forget, each of Dim Legend’s seven floors are dedicated to a different Lviv legend. Did you know that Lviv has its own time? Or that lions keep watchful guard over the city? There’s a room dedicated to Lviv’s famous cobblestones and another where you can see the city’s underground Poltava River. Since Dim Legend is also a social project, many of the cafe’s servers are “little people”.
The food runs the full gamut of Ukrainian specialities and it’s good, meanwhile the entertainment on offer tonight is as varied as the restaurant itself and includes a quartet of musicians singing funny ditties that have everyone in stitches...at least I think so...it could well be that the effects of our drinking and that of those around us is taking a bit of a toll. Still, there is one crucial part of this celebration that we cannot miss, and so just before midnight we stumble out on to the city streets in time to see Lviv explode with fireworks that seem to come from every corner of the city. Understandably, our entrance in to 2013 after this becomes a little hazy, which is something our heads testify to later the next day!
Almost the Capital
As we wind down from the partying, I have time to reflect on what has changed in Lviv since my last visits. This is a city that earlier in 2012 played host to just three matches of the Euro 2012 football championships, but it is a city that spotted an opportunity and grasped it with both hands. With new hotels, a completely new stadium and a totally renovated airport, this is a city that firmly believes the exposure will pay dividends in the future.
My travel companions and I have mixed feelings about this: I liked the fact that this incredible little city was relatively untouched by the hand of tourism, but realistically Lviv is too good not to share. Hand-in-hand with progress comes prices, which has changed dramatically since the last time I was here about two years ago. Where Lviv used to be a very cheap city to spend a weekend, now the prices in restaurants, for accommodation and souvenirs are far higher than they were before Euro 2012, which is something that brings Lviv closer in-line with Kyiv. I really hope it’s just because of the holiday season so I can return later to find that same inexpensive city I remember, but still with high-quality services and goods.
City of Festivals
Or, maybe I need to set a higher budget for any future return, which could be sooner than later. Preparations are already underway for the Sixth Festival of Chocolate, which, appropriately, will be held in Lviv from St Valentine’s Day through to 17 February. For a sweet tooth like me, the three-day festival is quite an attractive proposition. The city will again become a tourist Mecca with thousands of people attracted by the tens-of-thousands of candies and sweets on offer.
This year, organisers are planning to break last year’s record for the various types of chocolate and other confectionery products represented at the festival. In addition to this, festivalgoers will be able to sample the best products from various international manufacturers as well as handmade sweets, take part in master classes and see huge sculptures made of chocolate. The fact it coincides with the day of all lovers makes it the perfect Valentine’s getaway, and if romance is not in the cards, you can simply settle for chocolate – some say it gives you the same buzz as a little loving anyway.
Where to eat:
Dim Legend (Staroevreiska 48), 050-430-2924
Pid Klepsydroyu (Virmenska 35), 032-297-5612
Kryivka (Rynok 14), 050-430-6354
Places to Visit:
Bernardine Church (Soborna Pl 1-3)
Dominican Church (Muzeina 1)
Latin Cathedral (Cathedralna 1)
Armenian Cathedral (Virmenska 7-13)
Opera Theatre (Svobody Pr 28)
Lviv City Council (Rynok 1)
Festival of Chocolate
Lviv Palace of Art (Kopernika 17)
14 – 17 February