Party time in western Ukraine

My wife, Emily, and I received the e-mail in early August ’06. It read, “Join Scope Travel in Ukraine for Lviv Carnival Celebrating Lviv’s 750 Anniversary Sept. 28-Oct. 6, 2006 — $1,499 + tax.” It promised gala concerts, jazz festivals, parades, choral shows, children’s concerts, youth ensembles, folklore dance competitions, bazaars, kiosks, fireworks and more.

About a month previously, Scope Travel had canceled the fall tour to western Ukraine and Kraków for which we had signed up. This new e-mail promised seven days in Lviv plus a celebration, to boot. In our travels over the last 23 years, we have not had the good fortune to be at any major European celebration. Well, the 750th anniversary of the founding of Lviv doesn’t happen every day, so we decided to go.

With the help of Marijka of Scope Travel (101 S. Centre St., So. Orange, NJ 07079; 877/357-0436 or 973/378-8998,, we arranged for the week in Lviv (the $1,499 included airfare, seven nights’ lodging and three days’ group guide and admissions) plus, for an additional four nights and five days, a car and driver with private guide and hotel accommodations for two for a total of $5,425. We originally thought this was a good price, but at the end we concluded it was an EXCELLENT value. We returned to the U.S. on Oct. 10.


Our flight to Frankfurt on Sept. 29 was an hour late, but the flight from there to Lviv was delayed over three hours because of fog in Lviv and Kiev. Nevertheless, our guide, Irina Potatuyeva, was waiting for us outside of Customs at Lviv’s tiny, 1950s Soviet-style airport with a van to take us to the centrally located Swiss Hotel on Kniazia Romana Boulevard.

The hotel, in a pair of centuries-old buildings, had obviously just opened for business. While we were there, they were still finishing the entranceway and hanging a canopy over the entrance.

The weekend of Sept. 30-Oct. 1 was a continuous party around Lviv. Irina worked mightily to incorporate a viable city sightseeing program around days of attending folk craft fairs, an incredible ironworking exhibit and a jazz festival both in the city hall courtyard and outside around the magnificent Market Square of centuries-old mansions.

There were folk singing, folk dancing, medieval tournaments at the outdoor architecture museum at the Shevchenko Haj (a hilly park) and much more than could possibly be seen by two foot-weary tourists. The crowds swelled everywhere in Lviv during the day.

Lviv has been touted as the next Prague. While that’s a good tag line, Lviv is a marvelous Middle European city with a multiethnic, multinational history. It shouldn’t be compared to any place, even one as wondrous as Prague. Call it Lviv or Lvov or Lwow or Lemberg or Leopolis: it is unique.

Saturday evening the crowd had become an ocean of people in the streets of the Old Town. A rock concert by 2004 Eurovision Song Contest winner Ruslana was the musical capstone of Saturday night, but the only place we could get remotely close enough to see it was in our hotel room in front of the television (a wise choice). We ventured out afterward into the sea of humanity attempting to see the light show rather than watch it on television (not a wise move).

Sunday was more of the same, with the festivities ending late at night. By some miracle, on Monday morning the streets were cleaned and the trash had disappeared. Restoration scaffolding, removed from city hall for the festivities, was back in place and the city was once again up and running. We were able to enjoy the many churches, mansions and museums of Lviv for the next two days.

On Wednesday, Oct. 4, Emily and I, Irina and Evgenie, our driver, left the congested streets of Lviv in a Mazda for the great outdoors of western Ukraine. Our first stop on the way south to the Carpathian Mountains was the town of Rohatyn, where, legend has it, a young girl was abducted at a wedding who was to become Roxelana, the beloved of Suleiman the Magnificent. We visited the wooden church and admired her statue.

We proceeded to Ivano-Frankivsk, which has a downtown full of attractive pastel-colored buildings, many dating from its days as part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and the requisite historic buildings and churches.

Thence we went to the resort town of Yaremche in the Carpa­thian Mountains to observe firsthand the mountain Hutsul culture that Ruslana has brought up to date in her music. We saw many wooden churches and then visited the Easter egg (Pysanky) museum and the Hutsul folk art museum in the attractive small city of Kolomiya.

The southern city of Chernivtsi is well known for its bizarre brick university and a church whose cupolas are so oddly twisted that it is known as “The Drunken Church.” Like no place else in western Ukraine, the town reflects not only its Austrian heritage (when part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, it was known as Chernowitz) but also Romanian influences. The area is known as Bukovina, which is also the name of a part of Romania.

Next we saw the fortresses of Khotyn (in the fog) and Kamyanets-Podilsky (in the sun). Both are huge and somber but very romantic reminders of western Ukraine’s troubled past.

Kamyanets-Podilsky, the town, is a genuine geographic wonder. The Old Town is an island with a river that loops almost completely around. Cliffs rise on both sides of the river. Thus the town itself is a natural fortress. It is full of old decaying structures and only now is getting the attention it deserves.

Across the so-called Turkish Bridge, which spans the river ravine, is the actual fortress. This fortress and Khotyn were used by the Soviets in many films, including their versions of “Ivanhoe” and “Robin Hood.”

We were there on Oct. 7 during the town’s annual Cossack weekend. The town and the fort were taken over by medieval re-creators (mainly Polish but some from Sweden, Ukraine and other European countries) camping, firing small cannons, shooting arrows and otherwise re-creating life as it was in the 16th and 17th centuries. Musicians played on the old city hall square, and stalls sold souvenirs and refreshments and did historic good business. A good time was obviously had by all.

As the sun set, a mock battle was fought from the Turkish Bridge to the fortress. We joined the many spectators who watched from the town’s battlements. This festival was an unexpected serendipitous event for us and will be one of our treasured European moments.

Our last day on the road, Oct. 8, was a Sunday. We visited the beautiful and pious Pochaiv Monastery. This bastion of the Orthodox religion at the edge of mostly Catholic (Greek or Roman) western Ukraine is considered the second-most-important Orthodox site in Ukraine after the Caves Monastery in Kyiv.

Olesky Castle, where Polish King (and hero of the Battle of Vienna against the Turks) Jan Sobieski III was born, was our last stop before returning to Lviv.

Ukraine is a country that has been ruled at various times in whole or part by other lands — Poland, Austria, Russia, Romania and the Soviet Union — before being reclaimed by the Ukrainians. The land was host to Armenians, Jews, Greeks and Romans and coveted by Tatars and Turks. All have contributed to the culture that is now Ukraine.

The experience, often confusing but always exhilarating, made this trip for us two non-Ukrainians memorable.

Philadelphia, PA