Visiting Ukraine 2 months before the invasion – with updates

Visiting Ukraine 2 months before the invasion – with updates

This blog post is a little different from my usual “top 10 things to do”. Given the invasion of Ukraine by Russia, I thought I’d give people an idea of what Lviv was like just before this and how it’s changed. Below is a letter I wrote to a friend after getting back from Lviv in December 2021, and then there follows an update on the current situation. 

Hi Sue, 

Mum and I visited Lviv in western Ukraine a week ago. Originally I had planned to go to Kiev and Chernobyl back in April 2020 with my sister, but we all know what happened then (Covid)! So over a year and a half later I jumped at the chance to finally get to Ukraine with the introduction of direct flights from Manchester to Lviv.

Lviv Old Town
Lviv Old Town

We arrived to 3ºC with snow (which was apparently rare for Lviv, not sure I believe that given what we saw). The snow made the city very pretty but I often slipped on the cobbled streets as I have zero balance on ice/snow.

We had a few bright days with the sun shining through and went on a walking tour of the old town. Do you ever go on Free Walking Tours when you visit cities? I really enjoy them as the guides are usually locals. Our guide Anna was very passionate about the city and did this in her spare time after graduating with a degree in History and Archaeology. Lviv has a fascinating history – it feels like everyone has taken them over at some point, the Austrians, Polish, Soviet Union and even the Ottomans had a go. While on the tour we saw the Greek-catholic churches, Armenian Cathedral and Jesuits church. Many denominations highlighting the various takeovers.

Book market
Book market

Something I was unaware of before going was Lviv’s coffee culture. All around the city were adorable coffee shops tucked away off small courtyards. We went down the Coffee Mine for their famous fire coffee, which was a hot experience. The coffees went great with the many Lviv Syrnyk (a sweet fluffy cheesecake) I devoured.

Fire Coffee at the coffee mine
Fire Coffee at the coffee mine

As well as coffee shops, they really love their themed bars and restaurants. We ate steak at the Restaurant of Meat and Justice where a man dresses up as an executioner while axing hams and lowering people into the basement in a small cage. We had colourful vodka shots at the Gas Lamp, a themed bar – the gas lamp was invented in Lviv by two pharmacists, who originally wanted to turn petrol into booze but inadvertently ended up making the gas lamp. The bar has the second largest collection of gas lamps in the world to honour them.

Restaurant of Meat and Justice
Restaurant of Meat and Justice

One bar I definitely skipped was the Masoch Café where the drinks come with a whipping. Not a place to go with my mother! But I took a photo with the statue outside of Leopold von Sacher-Masoch. A famous writer from Lviv who was the first known to write about masochism. Tourists place their hand in his pocket and you can feel a bit of a knob!

Leopold von Sacher-Masoch statue
Leopold von Sacher-Masoch statue

While walking in the snowy Old Town it was hard to resist stopping for a glass of hot sweet cherry liquor at Piana Vyshnia. They’re all over Ukraine and now have a few places in Poland.

Piana Vyshnia
Piana Vyshnia

We also visited the Pravda Beer Theatre to try their local beers and see the live entertainment. I tried to engage the people working there about the different types of beers, as I’ve recently started brewing my own at home. But it soon became apparent that they weren’t interested in conversing in English so I was left to select from the English beer menu. The beers based on world politicians gave us a laugh.

Putin novelty beer at Pravda Beer Theatre
Putin novelty beer at Pravda Beer Theatre

The Beer Cultural Experience Centre answered my questions about the local beers and traditions. Mum enjoyed learning about the history of Lviv and brewing, and I rather enjoyed the tasting at the end.

Beer Cultural Experience Centre
Beer Cultural Experience Centre

While on the whole the food was delicious it was also (like most of Eastern Europe) very rich so we couldn’t manage it every night. Luckily it wasn’t a problem as I booked an apartment hotel which had its own kitchen.

So far this is all about alcohol and food but we did do some cultural things.

There’s a thriving art scene there. We saw paintings at the Lviv National Art Gallery, from mainly polish artists in the early 20th century, pre WW2. On the complete opposite end we went to Dzyga, a gallery/bar/shop/art space featuring up and coming Ukraine artists. 

Dzyga Gallery
Dzyga Gallery

For more of the town’s history we visited the Lviv Historical Museum which is housed in this incredible black building in the central market square. It featured lots of items related to Lviv’s role as a centre of trade, dating as far back as the 12th century. Nearby was the oldest Pharmacy still operating in Ukraine, opened in 1732. In 1966 they unlocked the back rooms for people to visit as a museum. We found lots of antique chemical bottles, doctor certificates and original prescriptions written back in the day.

For the darker side of the city’s history we ventured outside the city centre to Territory of Terror Memorial Museum, located where a ghetto stood during German occupation and then a transit prison during the Soviet Union. This was also where we met our walking tour guide again as she worked here. While fascinating to learn about, it really did bring home what a terrible time they had during that period. Polish, then German, then Soviet rule. Even now there’s the threat of Putin marching in from the East.

And finally, the trip wouldn’t have been complete without a visit to the cat cafe. These extremely friendly cats snuggled on our laps while we ate.

Cat cafe
Cat cafe

I can’t wait to return to Lviv, especially with my sister. It has all the charm and history of Eastern Europe without the mass amounts of tourists (like Prague!). Everything is so much cheaper than in the UK. Plus it’s easy to use the public transport and there’s Uber.  I can definitely see tourism increasing here. 

Love Fran x

Update since this letter – Friday 20th May 2022

So obviously this letter didn’t age well. 

Flights

On February 24th RyanAir suspended all flights to Ukraine.

Walking tour

The tour is running but very sporadically and only in Ukrainian, not English. Which is expected as tourists are advised against visiting Ukraine at the moment. However, many Ukrainians have flocked to Lviv from the east as it is “safer” which means the hotels are full. It is also a short bus ride for people fleeing Ukraine, less than an hour to Poland and 6 hours to Krakow.

Coffee Mine

Many of the coffee shops are still open, including Lviv Coffee Mine. Except now armed guards check your ID when you enter due to fears that Russian saboteurs might plant bombs.

Reports say that apart from the sound of sirens, many Ukrainians are trying to live a normal life, which coffee culture is a big part of.

Outside the Coffee Mine in the old town square is a statue of Neptune. Below is a photo I took, next to what it is like now, wrap in plastic and surrounded by metal to protect it from Russian missiles. 

Fountain with statue of Neptune in Lviv old town (left my photo, right photo by Andrew Rettman)
Fountain with statue of Neptune in Lviv old town (left my photo, right photo by Andrew Rettman)

Pravda Beer Theatre

Just days after Russia started invading Ukraine, local authorities began banning the sale of all alcohol. This was part of the martial law imposed. It was officially banned in Lviv on March 1st with the Mayor of Lviv declaring – “We will celebrate after the victory

On March 16th many areas of Ukraine dropped the ban on selling beer as did Lviv Oblast on the 19th. However, the Mayor once again resumed bans on selling alcohol in Lviv city. Leaving it as the only city to not sell alcohol in western Ukraine. This ban was a stark contrast to when I went and beer was free flowing with Lviv proud of its brewing processes.

At this time Pravda Beer Theatre became a media centre due to its large size and two floors. It was also offered as a place for people to hide in case of an air raid alarm. 

On March 31st they put out a plea to craft beer distributors worldwide to support Ukrainians by buying Ukrainian products. This included Pravda Brewery’s bottled and canned beer for the spring season. As they could not sell locally due to the war, selling to outside Ukraine was their only option. They wished to use the money from sales, which ended up including €10,000, to help people evacuate from Mariupol and other occupied cities.

On April 2nd beer was once again allowed to be sold in Lviv. Pravda Beer Theatre announced on April 21st – they’d received 76 direct donations, a total is close to €41,300 and made 12 payouts totalling €12,510, which is 30% of the donations so far.

The beers we giggled at are now being used to make Molotov cocktails.

Molotov cocktail
Photo from ig: wediglaxtonphoto

Restaurant of Meat and Justice

On March 11th the doors were reopened but they have to obey a strict 10pm-5am curfew. Everything must close by 10pm.

Like Pravda Beer Theatre and the Gas Lamp, the restaurant refuses to serve Russian citizens and will only allow citizens of Belarus if they have a residence permit dating back at least one year. That is why the presentation of relevant documents is mandatory (passport and residence permit). Those carrying any weapons are asked to leave them in a secure location at the restaurant and are returned upon exiting.

Coffee Mine, Gas Lamp and Pravda Beer Theatre are all part of !Fest Holding of Emotions, which are currently fundraising with the Humanitarian Aid Office together with Lviv City Council, to provide aid for displaced people and fund them to travel abroad temporarily and get social support there. This has also resulted in many volunteers arriving in Lviv to help at donation centres. 

Beer Cultural Experience Centre

Closed at the start of the invasion but reopened on April 2nd on weekends only (when alcohol sales were allowed). In the first month of reopening more than 1,000 people visited. From May 7th, they are open Thursday to Monday 11-19 and 30% of the ticket prices go to supporting humanitarian initiatives in Lviv. 

Lviv National Art Gallery

The National Art Galley closed at the start of the invasion with many of the paintings hidden in a secure location.

Save Ukraine Art 22 was set up – a network of private companies, public institutions and museums. They aim to establish a supply chain for delivering essential materials for saving art from bombs, fire and damp. They have provided protective fabrics, foam panels and data loggers for tracking changes in humidity and temperature to the Lviv National Art Gallery. 

On May 9th it announced it was reopening. Director Taras Voznyak said about reopening, “Putin now has the goal of turning Ukrainians into nobody, into nothing,” the move was “to show that we are alive.” They hope to bring the hidden paintings back to the gallery in June.

The Lviv National Art Gallery in Ukraine in March.
Lviv National Art Gallery in March

Dzyga

Remained open but cancelled all concerts and workshops. It has been showcasing art work from solely Ukrainian artists.

They supported a petition for sanctions that will limit the promotion of Russian art and propaganda in the cultural sphere. The petition was created by the Ukrainian Ministry of Culture and the Gallery Association.

Poster at Dzyga Gallery
Poster at Dzyga Gallery

Cat Cafe

On March 2nd Serhii Oliinyk the owner of the Cat Cafe Lviv declared he wasn’t going anywhere and was staying to look after the 20 cats there. The cat cafe remains open every day from 9:00am to 10:00pm, with the cats offering emotional support to visitors. In case of an air raid warning, their basement provides safe shelter for visitors and the cats.

Cat Cafe Lviv owner
Cat Cafe Lviv owner

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