Thursday, June 7, 2012
This really does feel like the furthest corner of the EU. As we near Ukraine, Poland does appear to be getting ‘rougher’ and ‘earthier’ until, after a couple of hours on the road, we reach the Ukrainian border.
Ukrainian officials in very big hats seem to spend most of their time pacing up and down before congregating in huddles to discuss various matters, almost all of them seemingly cash-related.
I guess you could say that an hour to get through the EU/Ukrainian border is pretty good going and we are on course to arrive in Lviv before it gets dark.
As soon as we cross the border all of the signs, of course, are immediately in Cyrillic and there is a far more rural feel to proceedings. It is not long before we pass horse and carts and most of the one-storey dachas are straight out of a Leo Tolstoy novel. The last time I was in Ukraine – a decade ago – the Lada count was very high, maybe as much as 70 percent outside of Kyiv. Ten years on, I was half expecting the Lada to be relatively inconspicuous but, in this rural corner of western Ukraine at least, almost every other car you see is the iconic Lada.
The bus drops us off at Lviv’s southern Avtobus Vokzal, a few kilometers south of the city. Two German lads – Philip Lahm and Zen Meister – are the only other foreign football punters to have made this same journey and the four of us join up forces and jump in a Lada taxi adjacent to the bus station. I have spent the last couple of weeks brushing up on my pathetically poor Russian skills, well aware that there will be many times in Ukraine when the English language simply won’t suffice. On this occasion it feels like it has been well worth the effort as the world’s friendliest taxi driver takes us into Lviv and gives us the lowdown on the city.
The Ukrainian authorities did actually spend some money on the road we drove in on from Poland but as soon as we begin driving into Lviv city centre, potholed cobble-stoned roads, which the driver does his best to swerve, are the norm.
It costs the four of us 60 Hrynia (roughly five quid) for the ten kilometer journey, before we are dropped off bang in the centre of the old town, close to the main square. I have got goosebumps as we wave the driver off and are hit by the incredible beauty of this city. Personally speaking, Lviv is in my top ten most beautiful cities in the world and a decade on from my last visit it has lost none of its charm and wow factor. None of us have accommodation booked as we have struggled to find anything for normal price in advance of this trip. We find Old City Hostel where a dorm bed is 30 euro per night. The German boys take two beds while Neil and I go off in search of a cheaper option. The prices are all over the place. Some hostels are asking 40 euro per bed here tonight while one of the best hotels in town – the Grand – has rooms, including breakfast, for 90 quid. After an hour of searching we find a twin room in the Soviet Home Hostel for just 280 hryvnia, roughly 12 quid each for the night.
Back in the main square the vibe is friendly and festive like. There are plenty of Militsia doing the rounds and the city is full with students and foreign football fans. We find a restaurant down a side street where you need to knock on the wooden door, utter the words ‘Slavo Ukrainia’ before a man dressed in an army uniform and touting a machine gun opens up the hatch, gives you a honey vodka and ushers you down into the basement to be entertained with Ukrainian folk music. The food is good and there are a fair number of German fans here enjoying their first night in Ukraine.
Nearby we enjoy the many delights of Fashion Club where most of the female clientele look like supermodels and we enjoy a fantastic night out with the local Ukrainians. It is one of the best nights out I have personally had at any of the UEFA or FIFA tournaments I have attended and probably ends at around six.