A weekend in Ukraine – LVIV 🇺🇦

I never intended to visit Ukraine, or at least last summer anyways, although it has always been on my list. I had originally planned to travel to Belarus, via Lithuania, but there was an issue with my visa payment and then my passport got lost in the post. So 4 days before my flight to Lithuania with my passport back but no visa, I quickly planned a trip through Poland and into Ukraine overland and then back to Poland where I already had a flight home booked from Warsaw.

Arrivals. I chose to visit Lviv as it was close to the Polish border and on the train line from both Krakow and Warsaw, so it made sense to do a round trip and visit all three. There seemed like there was enough to do for a weekend with it being a UNESCO City and I could get the overnight sleeper from Krakow (and then on to Warsaw) it meant I had two nights of accommodation which I wouldn’t need to budget for. Although you can fly direct from many UK airports to the capital Kiev, currently there are no direct flights to Lviv from the UK, so you could fly via Kiev and get an internal flight to Lviv (takes just over an hour) or you can fly to a different European city first and then get another flight on to Lviv. Popular budget airline Wizzair fly to many European destinations from the UK and also fly into Lviv from Berlin and Wroclaw.

Of course you can enter the Ukraine overland like I did & again there are a few options if you are coming from the direction of Poland. Bordered by  Belarus from the North, you will have to arrange a visa in order to travel through that country, which is where I failed (although check the embassy website, controls are being slackened for short trips), to the East is Russia, another country with strict visa controls and an unstable border around the South East. The Western border stretches along a few countries, so with a bit of planning I’m sure you could drive, bus or train in from Moldova, Hungary or Slovakia, but the closest country and closest foreign cities from Lviv are Poland and either towns Lublin (132 miles) or Krakow (200 miles).

I travelled in from Krakow, as there was a direct overnight sleeper train and as I had never visited Krakow before, I could do the sights there first.

 At Krakow train station about to board to Ukraine.

Although no visa is needed for EU nationals to visit Ukraine, it isn’t a Schengen area, and so as you cross the border you are rudely awakened by a serious looking female border guard (or at least I was). Half asleep after having a torch shone in my face and passport taken off me, our train continued off in the same direction, I felt that this was a good sign, and 20 minutes later my passport was returned to me with a shiny new stamp and I settled back to sleep.

Border check at 01.01am
New passport stamp!

 

I booked my train tickets online before I left the UK using Polrail and then picked up the tickets from their office close to the station in Krakow on arrival. The overnight from Krakow to Lviv took just under 8 hours and I booked a bed in a shared sleeping compartment for around £47. Polrail were super helpful and sent simple easy instructions via email, but be aware of local spellings when choosing your intended destinations, Lviv is also spelt Lvov and Warsaw is also spelt Warszawa.

I arrived in Lviv early Sunday morning at around 6am, so the city was still waking up, and so was I to be honest. It was about a 40 minute walk to my accommodation the Old City Hostel which cost me around £14 a night, but first I needed money. It is pretty hard to get your hands on any Ukrainian money in the UK, your local Thomas Cook will definately not have any behind their currency exchange counter, but I told my bank of my plans before I left and the first ATM I popped my card into on the main street (Horeodotska St) worked, SUCCESS!

Early morning view of train station
First views of Ukraine

As my hostel wasn’t technically open until later that morning they still kindly let me dump my bag, charge my phone and freshen up, then I headed back outside to find breakfast. Not too much was open early on the Sunday morning, but I was glad of the walk to get my bearings and I stumbled upon a lovely little friendly cafe selling juice, coffee and crossants, I managed to point and smile and successfully order my breakfast at the aptly named Lviv Croissants.

History Bit. People have inhabited Lviv since the 6th century and this region of Ukraine has been part of many different countries/states over the centuries including Poland and Hungary. It wasn’t until the end of the nineteenth century that Lviv became the centre of a new Ukrainian national movement and so retained its importance when the country became indepedant during WW1, WW2 and then again after Soviet rule in 1991 and is currently the 7th largest city in this compelling country.

Sights. The unofficial centre of this city is in and around Rynok Sq. Here is where you can find the tourist information centre, so I stocked up on a tourist map and got the opening times of the local sights. You can spend the best part of a day around this Historic Square, and it is the reason for its UNESCO status, so be sure to visit the town hall, which if you have the stamina, climb to the top of the tower inside to admire the views. Also around the square are many other fascinating buildings, including the Black House, which is one of the oldest houses in Lviv, built in sandstone that has blackened over the years hence the name and now is home to the historical museum.

  

As well as museums and historical architecture, there are 4 fountains – Diana, Neptune, Adonis and Amphitrite, shops, restaurants, bars, as well as a large LVIV sign that always had a small cluster of people waiting for a photo beside it. It was especially busy and bustling the weekend I was there, due to a Jewish food and drink festival taking part in the square and there was a great mix of stalls selling food, drink, souvenirs and even Putin toilet paper.

More than once over the weekend, I sat outside one of the bars dotted around the periphery of the square to soak up the atmosphere, listening to the music and watching the locals engage in traditional Jewish dancing, the stress of my visa and passport woes from the previous week eliminated.

 Putin toilet paper for sale  Beer in the Square

It wasn’t just in the main square where there was dancing, stalls and festivals, a short walk opposite my hostel was the City Garden a long expanse of lawn, benches, fountains, statues and walk ways, which was always full of locals morning, noon and night. For the two days I was there, it played host to a strong man competition, a singing competition, traditional dancing and loads more, it was always full of life and perfect for people watching.

    Lviv was certainly full of life!
One of the standouts of Lviv for me, other than just the wonderment of watching the locals take having fun, very seriously whether it was a weekend or work day, was the cathedrals and churches. There are many to visit and all easily walkable, the most impressive I felt was the Armenian Cathedral, only small, but the interior was outstanding and should be a must on any visit to this city. There is also a Latin Cathedral, the Church of Holy Communion, the Bernadine Church and a Carmelite Church just to name a few, but it is by no means a full list of all the places of worship which are all walking distance from the main square.

 

If you fancy a good walk and getting out in the fresh air, then head east from Rynok square to the well signposted High Castle Hill, an artificial hill built on the summit of the now ruins of  Lviv Castle. Though you could take a taxi half the way up, its only about a 2km walk from the city centre, with lots of vantage points and walking trails to follow, and I really enjoyed just taking my time along with many other locals and their dogs in what is obviously a popular local afternoon out and you are rewarded with great views once you reach the top.

 Hiking to the top

On my way back down, I didn’t head straight back to the centre, but took a road west, initially back towards the train station and then turned right up Vicheva Street, as there was a stretch of interesting buildings along this route. First up is a Benadictine Monastery and church, there are a number of little cute shops, a small square, a museum and two more churches, which made for a great detor on my way back to the old town.

I spent another good afternoon just seeing where the wind took me, stumbling upon the national opera house, with a rather refreshing fountain, more gardens, more churches, a market and there were lots of dairy free friendly coffee shops as well as people dressed in traditional costume and traditional dancers, the streets were always alive.

Food and Drink. Speak of coffee, as well as the croissant place I found on the first morning, I had some brilliant other finds for coffee, cake and local dishes, all inexpensive and friendly, not all with English translated menus, but that’s all part of the fun isn’t it! Lviv is known as the coffee capital of Ukraine, and you are never too far from somewhere selling you a hot or cold caffeine drink. Some real jems I visited included The coffee shop company with a great selection of cakes, the adorable Mocco Coffee and cheesecake is a must at Brown Tea and Coffee Shop & they all seemed to offer soy milk. As for dumplings and local beer, even eating & drinking on the Square isn’t expensive, as in other European cities that maybe are further west, so take your pick.  I spent time sipping the beer & sampling dumplings at Atlas opposite the LVIV sign and another one that didn’t seem to have an English translation, which was just off the square to the west, but I do remember the borscht was delicious, I even found a vegan restaurant on Brativ Rohatyntsiv St called Green.

 This restaurant just off the square had helpful photos of the food on the menu.

It was an adventure, and has just whetted my appetite to see some more of this captivating country, sample more of the food and learn more of its history, I hope to return!

LVIV tip – if arriving or departing by train at the main station, there is one ‘foreign language’ kiosk who can advise on trains, correct platforms etc in English, a lifesaver if you don’t understand the Cyrillic notice board like me. Also, for a small fee there is a fancy waiting room with comfy seats and wifi, perfect if you have a long wait for your train.

Always be polite 🙂 The translation for thank you is pronounced something like Dyakuyu 🙂 

Kotor Bay – UNESCO town on the Adriatic 🇲🇪

Sometimes I like to load up all my budget airline phone app’s, pick a date and see what’s on offer, which is sort of why we ended up (Mum & I) in Montenegro. I mean sort of, the country of the black mountains was on my radar, especially as over the last year I have been to a few countries in the Balkans, but also EasyJet started their first ever flights from Manchester to Tivat on the Montenegro Adriatic coast in March 17, so we booked on the inaugural flight and then started our research to see just exactly where we were off too.

Bordered by Croatia, Bosnia Herzegovina, Albania, Serbia & Kosovo, it was actually joined with Serbia until 2006, when it then  became an independent country on its own, of course prior to 1992, it was part of Yugoslavia.

Arrivals. There are many ways to get into Montenegro, we flew direct from Manchester (just under 3 hrs), you can also fly direct into Tivat from Gatwick, or if you wanted to fly to the capital Podgorica, then at the moment, I think the only direct flights are also from Gatwick. There are no trains along the Adriatic Coastline, but you can travel via train from Belgrade, Serbia as far as Bar on the southern coast of Montenegro, and buses go direct from Dubrovnik in Croatia to Kotor and take between 2-4 hours.

History Bit. There is a reason why EasyJet have started flights to Tivat and not the capital Podgorica for us intrepid tourists. The capital has undergone many changes over the past few years, it has been bombed to the ground a number of times, most recently during WWII, and some say its still struggling since the destruction of Yugoslavia and the imposed sanctions. It was rebuilt by the communists after WWII and as people have moved to the capital, it has expanded at a such a great rate that unfortunately the infrastructure needed to support the population has yet to catch up. Although there are churches and parks and museums in the capital, there are far more beautiful and historic sites less damaged by past wars elsewhere in the country, and Tivat and its neighbour the UNESCO Kotor are often recommended as a better place to use as a base, in which to explore this recently independent country.

Kotor Bay itself is a short but breathtaking taxi drive (10 mins) from the Tivat airport via a tunnel through Mount Vrmac and out into the bay. Kotor old town is enclosed by a wall and entirely pedestrianised and it’s here where we stayed, so our taxi driver dropped us off just by the town walls and then walked us the last couple of minutes to our hotel.

Sights.This walled medieval city is steeped in history, with beautiful old terracotta tiled roofs, a fort up in the foothills of the surrounding mountains as well as a cathedral, churches, museums and tiny narrow streets leading into small square after small square, each one bringing a new discovery. Its not hard to see why its been awarded UNESCO status and why Norwegian, Caribbean and other cruise ships have a stop off here as they tour the Adriatic.

As well as Kotor Bay itself, there are loads of places easily reachable for day trips, so you could easily pack a full itinerary to fill 5-7 days, but I’ll leave the day trips for another blog post, and stick to Kotor for this one. There are 3 main entrances to Kotor old town, so if you’re exploring from outside I’d just pick any and see where the alleys take you, for ourselves, we were staying already inside the walls, but used Sea Gate, the North Gate and South Gate as good landmarks so we always knew roughly where we were and which way our hotel was, the other main landmark we used was the Cathedral of St Tryphon.

Beautiful alleyways & the Cathedral

The cathedral was built in 1166, damaged and then rebuilt during a massive earthquake, its worth visiting especially for the spectacular interior, with the detailed pieces of frescoes and a gold altarpiece inside. There are several other churches in the old town, St Luke, St Mary, St Clare and St Michael’s, you will more than likely stumble upon them as you navigate round the alley ways and squares and they are all worth a peak inside.
The many squares dotted around are all connected by the alleyways which all have unusual names, such as, the Square of Milk and Square of Flour each one houses say a church or museum, some restaurants, and some shops, so it’s worth taking your time to wander and explore, its not chaotic as say the passageways of Marrakesh, so you wont get lost, promise!

The main square, Square of Weapons, is located at the entrance of the Sea Gate, not surprisingly there are lots of cafes and restaurants with outdoor seating here, as its the entrance that most tourists enter through. This gate is by the main road, a bus stop and it is where the cruise ships are moored, with that in mind, we felt that the restaurants were a bit more expensive here, so ate elsewhere.


We found a lovely group of restaurants around Pjaca Sv, Tripuna Square, they all had comfortable outdoor seating areas, friendly waiters and menus filled with a great selection of local dishes, each one with vegetarian options. We ate at Pescaria Dekaderon and Pizzeria City next door to each other, both places offering local and other Mediterranean dishes with inexpensive beer and wine.

For coffee and deserts though, we stumbled upon a great little cafe chain called Mamma Mia, there was a small one inside the town walls, and a larger one just outside the North Gate, over two small bridges and turn left towards the shopping mall. Open till late, we came here one night just for the delicious cakes, and returned in the morning for coffee and a selection of the fresh, local, inexpensive burek pastries for breakfast, it was a great find!

sharing cake at Mamma Mia

 

Probably the highlight of our adventures in Kotor for me, was the hike up to the remains of the medieval St John’s Fort which was built on the side of the mountain to protect the city. There is a path that can be easily walked up, remember to take a hat, good shoes, sun cream and some water though,  but we did see some locals selling a few refreshments along the way if you forget. It takes about 30-40 mins to walk but take your time to enjoy the views and visit the Chapel of Our Lady of Health along the way,  its a church with a dome bell tower which used to house stationed troops. It’s easy to find the start of the walk, its signposted by one of the little alleyways close to the North gate and St Mary’s church. Top Tip – set off early morning before it starts to get hot and before the cruise ship inhabitants get there.  I remember speaking to some tourists from the cruise ship who were just setting off up the path as we were almost back down, they were hot and thirsty and wearing sandals, they didn’t think they had the energy to make it all the way to the fort, which was a shame as the views were stupendous.

Climbing up to the fort
Looking down

Views from the top.

One feature of Kotor you will not be able to ignore is the amount of cats the old town has. Speaking to the locals, it appears the cats originally arrived here from the many ships all over the world that have moored in the bay. With the old town being free from cars, it has allowed the cats to stay out of harms way, and wandering around you see cats hiding from the sun under the bushes and doorways of the churches, and dotted outside many of the little shops are bowls of cat food, they are most certainly well looked after. They have become a bit of a tourist attraction in themselves, with some shops offering cat themed merchandise and there is even a cat museum, with the entrance fee being used to support the feline community with food and vet bills. We really wanted to visit the museum, but it’s not open all year round and we missed the April opening date by a couple of weeks.

 Just a few of the cats of Kotor.
It’s also nice to wander outside the old city walls, and for someone who’s never been on a cruise ship, it was a bit of a novelty seeing them up close and watching them manoeuvre themselves in and out of the bay, head just outside the Sea Gate for the best place to see them. Just outside this gate is also a tourist information centre, a cafe/restaurant with lots of perfectly situated seating areas to watch across the bay, as well as a market that stretches along the outside of the walls, with fruit, vegetables, clothes and crafts. It’s also a nice place for a walk in the evening and to watch the sunset across the bay.
 One of many cruise ships in the bay
       Views across the bay

There is still a lot more to do just in and around Kotor, and it’s only a short walk to the main bus station where you can get buses to neighbouring countries such as Albania, Serbia and Croatia, as well as many other places within Montenegro, including some really interesting places close enough for day trips, which I’ll write up soon.

Other sights. Pima Palace, walk the city walls, and go to the maritime museum, try the Niksicko beer and the local goats cheese and burek pastries for breakfast!

Always be polite. 🙂  Please “Molim”, Thank You “Hvala”, Good Morning “Dobro Jutro”, Hello “Zdravo”

My First Ever Trip Abroad 🇵🇹

I believe my first ever trip abroad was to Portugal, in the Algarve region when I was around 5 years old? I have pictures to prove it, honest, but that’s about it. It’s only since I decided that I wanted to write up all my travels as blog, primarily as a nice keepsake for me, but also to keep me focussed on making the switch to travelling more extensively in the future, that I realised, although I have visited Portugal, I don’t really have any memory of it.

I definitely want to reach my goal of visiting 100 countries, but I want memories of each country. I want to stay overnight, to meet the locals, learn at least a couple of polite phrases ‘Ola’, ‘Por Favor’, and ‘Obrigado’ are good places to start and most definitely sample the local food, beer and learn some of the history.

There are many different guides online as to what counts as visiting a country, the Travellers Century Club has a very extensive list of countries and other territories that they include, and they allow you to tick off a country even if you have just had a plane fuel stop or port of call. They include Turkey twice for example, (the European side and the Asian side), The Isle of Man is down as a separate territory, the Balearic Islands is listed on its own, (although I would just include that under Spain) and Alaska is separate from the US too. So if I went with this list, I would be closer to 50 countries than the 43 that I am currently at.

But its not just about ticking off a list of countries for me, its all about the experiences and the journeys along the way. So with that in mind, although I have definitely ticked off Portugal, starting this blog has made me realise that I could do with visiting it again, and so its just popped back on my hit list, maybe Porto or Lisbon to begin with? . . . . I best get practising my Portuguese.