October 31st, 2005

long beard

Lviv... again

This is the fourth entry in my Ukrainian Vacation Series.

Well, to be succinct, we were unlucky, and it will be Thursday morning, 8am when we reach Odesa. But this has been the greatest day of my vacation yet.

Sure, we were slightly horrified to discover that we wouldn’t be leaving Lviv until nearly eight o’clock in the evening. I had planned on sitting in the station and reading books all day (I packed several for just such an emergency), but fortunately Shelley showed an interest in going back into the city again, and I was easily talked into it. We left our bags at the left-luggage counter and caught a tram into the city centre (cost: 12¢ per person). We had lunch and split up for a while – I first revisited the graffiti walls with the benefit of daylight, and then I looked around for a bank machine, as I was out of cash for the first time in Ukraine (well, I had a 50 UAH (about $12) bill, but they wouldn’t accept such a high denomination where I had lunch, so Shelley had to pay for me, which worked because she owed me a little bit of money anyway).

The first machine I tried got me all the way to the Critical Moment, and then wimped out, claiming a technical error. (“Okay, now I’m in Lviv and I have no money. How can I get back to Ostroh (+300km) on 50 UAH?”) Visions of me calling Canada danced in my head. But I decided to try another bank’s machine, on the chance it might work instead. I found a Nadra machine off the main square, and upon inserting my card, a cute dolphin guided me through everything. This machine was friendly, easy to use, and dispensed a healthy mix of bills* (it dispensed lots of 10s, which are sometimes the highest bills you can count on being able to change at some of the smaller shops). I got a killer exchange rate (very close to the market exchange rate), and my bank only charged me $3 for the transaction. Man, this beats the knickers off the kantors! Ah, if I knew then what I know now…

* - A common complaint with the Ostroh machine (well, ostensibly there are three machines, but since one or two are always out of order at any given time, it’s better to think of them as a single entity) is that it often dispenses 50s and 100s that no store or bar in Ostroh will accept – a bit of a problem when you need going-out money after the sun goes down and the bank branches are no longer open to give you change.

Okay, enough about money. Nadra ATMs = Good.

So after that adventure, I decided to check out some of the parks on the south side of downtown. I was impressed beyond words, and each park was bigger and better than the previous. There were some really impressive and picturesque common spaces, academic buildings, an amphitheatre, a cinema, and even a small football stadium. But if you wanted to walk on spongy forest paths, you could do that too. All in all, Lviv has a terrific parks system, and I didn’t even see half of it.

Eventually Shelley got bored and I got tired (my backpack was killing me partly because I was hauling around the group’s Lonely Planet – Russia, Ukraine and Belarus guidebook which dedicated many inches and kilograms to every hamlet and hovel between Kaliningrad and Vladivostok), so we stopped for a snack (read: beer – someone get me away from these people! =).

Shelley then found a 5-storey vertical mall, and I scoped out dinner and the nearest tram stop. You’ll remember that I mentioned a “Toronto” restaurant way back when? Well, I hadn’t seen it since then, and I was beginning to suspect that it had been a mirage. But I eventually narrowed its location down, found it again, marked it on my map, and then took Shelley there so we could eat.

So what was it like? Well, it was Toronto in name only except for a maple-leaf redness motif and some abstract art featuring the City Hall, the CN Tower, and possibly other landmarks. They had pretty good pizza and salads, and good prices. It was also an extremely popular place for its size, and Shelley and I had a tough time getting a table.

We took the tram back to the station, invested in some snacks in the kiosks outside, then collected our bags from the friendly handlers, waited a bit, then found our platform and boarded the train. This time we were springing for second-class. No more smelly hard benches for us! We also had the fortune of sharing our compartment with two young married women who tried to teach us how to play a funky card came that you play without a full deck (the name of the game sounds like “raty vordunia”), and we enriched our mutual vocabularies. Shelley is getting on extraordinarily well in Ukrainian – she can even give Lee a run for his money now.

Anyway, second-class is the only way to travel. It doesn’t cost much (50 UAH / $12 for a 12-hour overnight journey – first-class is double that price, and third class costs only pennies per hour of travel), it’s clean and comfortable, and there’s a great big overhead opening (on top of your door and above the corridor) to stash your stuff – even my huge middle piece of luggage (my primary unit for this vacation) fits in there!

And, moreover, you have privacy, a reading lamp, and you can actually sleep when you want to. Speaking of which…