I’m not sure how to describe the feeling of going from visiting Auschwitz one day, and then two days later finding myself in a country at war.
Our trip through the Baltics and Poland was in many ways like a journey back through European history lessons – mostly focused on World War II. Museum visits and walks through rebuilt cities were constant reminders of the atrocities that had once occurred, but each reminder concluded with a similarly happy ending: recovery.
By the time I left Auschwitz I felt thoroughly drained, but at least comforted by the fact that we’ve at least learned our lesson about war and now Europe is at peace.
Oh if only.
Do you think we’ll ever learn?
Ukraine’s Heavenly Hundred
A memorial to Boris Nemstov on the bridge in Moscow where he was shot
While Ukraine hadn’t originally been on our itinerary, after we realized that we wouldn’t have enough time to get visas to Belarus, Ukraine seemed like the perfect alternative.
I was incredibly bummed about missing Belarus (this time), but I’m so glad we went to Ukraine! We only had a week there, but it was just long enough for me to fall in love.
I had barely heard of Lviv before visiting, but after an afternoon wandering through the hilly city I declared it one of the most beautiful cities I’ve visited in Europe. Maybe even the most beautiful.
Okay, I know I’m prone to over enthusiasm when it comes to visiting new places, but Lviv really is so special – I can’t believe it had never been on my radar before. I love cobblestone streets, I love streetcars, I love hilly cities, I love old European architecture, I love street art, and I (perhaps weirdly) love towering Soviet style apartment blocks.
Lviv has all of these things.
But I mostly loved how authentic Lviv’s center feels. It’s full of gorgeous old buildings, but unlike the squeaky clean, souvenir shop-filled Old Towns of so many other European cities, Lviv looks a little more gritty and a little less picture book.
However, I did feel a little guilty, as some of the things I loved about Lviv – how it’s a little run-down and absurdly cheap – are signs of how much the country is hurting. I couldn’t believe how cheap everything in Lviv was, but then talking to our Couchsurfing hosts there I quickly learned that the city is anything but cheap for locals.
As if to remind me not to take too much pleasure out of Ukraine’s struggling economy, when I withdrew money from an ATM I was met with a message asking for donations to send blankets and food to soldiers.
Our hosts told us about how scared young people are to check their mail, in case they’ve been drafted into the army, and how sad it is to read about soldiers dying from stupid accidents that could have been avoided if they had had time to be trained properly.
As for the super low prices, fifty cent pints of beer no longer seem so cheap when your job at the national newspaper only pays $200 a month – about how much money I can get for writing three rubbish “top 10 places for…” articles for an American travel website.
Soon the conversation simply got too depressing, so our hosts cheered us up by telling us their modern day love story, in which they first met on Facebook through a shared interest in Herman Hesse. Is there anything sweeter?
Even during such a short visit to Ukraine I was eager to get out of the cities and get a better feel for the country, so I couldn’t have been happier when we found a Couchsurfing host in the small mountain village of Lumshory.
Sadly the whole excursion to Lumshory turned into a bit of a disaster. First, our host had recommended we hitchhike to Lumshory, but you guys, it is not as easy to hitchhike in Ukraine as it was in Poland! After hours of waiting we finally found a bus to take us nearby the village, but we still had to hike up the last 10 kilometers with our heavy backpacks.
And then when we arrived… our host wasn’t there. He had mixed up the dates, but with a little bit of Russian we managed to sort out the situation with his neighbor, who opened up his room for us.
Lumshory is high up in the mountains and incredibly scenic, but it’s also a bizarre tourist village, with several wooden cabins decked out in neon lights. We were there in off season, however, so it was a total ghost town. So much so, that when we woke up the next morning hungry and parched, we couldn’t find a shop anywhere. So we packed up our stuff and hiked back down the mountain.
After about an hour of walking, who did we run into but our Couchsurfing host! He tried to convince us to come back with him, but we made up excuses not to, mostly because the walk down had already been so exhausting. Just to be clear: yes, we totally lied to him, because how do you say you don’t want to walk back up the mountain to someone who is RUNNING up it from a city 50 km away.
What?? Apparently he’s training to run from Uzhhorod to Kiev – 1000 km, in 20 DAYS. To raise money for sick children. What a jerk.
Soon after our embarrassed goodbyes we found a town with a grocery store selling water, sausage, milk chocolate and paprika potato chips. Possibly the best meal of my life, only made better by the village drunk continuously trying to persuade us to join him for some vodka (we declined).
Despite Lumshory not working out quite as planned, in the end I couldn’t have been happier to stay an extra night in Uzhhorod, because it’s such a cool city!
I had sort of dismissed it as a boring border city on the way to Slovakia, but it’s full of pretty buildings along the river, and SO many outdoor cafés. It actually felt a lot like a smaller version of Yerevan, Armenia to me – my favorite café loving capital.
In fact, Uzhhorod is so full of cafés that when dinnertime rolled around it was almost impossible to find a restaurant serving food. The city is full of students, so maybe they all just survive on coffee?
And then we headed to Slovakia!
I can’t wait to return and see more of Ukraine. Have you been?