The city of Lviv offers medieval sights and very quirky pubs
By David Jenison
Knock, knock, knock. The unmarked wooden door sits down a dark alley in the Ukrainian city of Lviv. After a moment, a peephole slides open and an old man grumbles, “Slava Ukraini!” (“Glory to Ukraine!”). This cues the password, “Geroyam slava” (“Glory to its heroes”), opening the door to an ominous sight. There stands a Ukrainian Insurgent Army soldier with his pistol pointed at our heads. Boom! We all get shot—that is, he hits each of us with a shot of homemade honey-vodka poured straight from the gun. And that’s just the start of the party.
Lviv boasts one of Europe’s most beautiful medieval squares, but quirky pubs like Kryivka are what tourists remember best. The speakeasy-style bar recalls the underground bunkers where rebels resisted the Nazis, Soviets and Poles, and the revolutionary spirit lives on with flags, photos, weapons, propaganda, a Joseph Stalin shooting gallery and a menu styled after an insurgent newspaper. Unless you’re a Russkie, this drinking hall should top the list, right? Not in Lviv, especially for fans of the funky lit.
England’s got Dickens, Russia has Tolstoy and Spain gave us Cervantes, but who mastered the pen for Ukraine? That would be Lviv wordsmith Leopold Ritter von Sacher-Masoch. Doesn’t ring a bell? Velvet fans (Underground and Goldmine) will recognize the title of his Venus in Furs classic, while fans of The Gimp certainly “Like” him on Facebook. That’s because Mr. Masoch inspired the term “masochism,” and Lviv honors its freaky fur-boy with the Masoch Café.
The Merrill Lynch mascot must shudder at Masoch specialties like bull penis soup
and sliced bull testicles in black caper butter, but this kinky café is best known for its bevy of leather-clad, handcuff-equipped waitresses. The ladies will gladly inflict nipple pain with their clothespin collection, but they especially love cracking the whip Indiana Jones-style on a customer’s backside. The voyeuristic, keyhole-shaped entrance beckons all comers, and the leather leashes and ball-and-chains make it difficult to leave. Ironically, though, this writer nearly skipped the fetish fest after an Italian backpacker pinned Masoch to the wrong S&M, mistakenly calling him the “mizer” in sodomizer.
Lviv is a drinker’s delight, but grilled goldfish, pickled watermelon, fried pig snout and cold animal fat won’t win the Ukraine any foodie awards. Fortunately, Lviv has a bright shining light: Gazova Lampa, which features multiple dining levels lit with vintage gas lamps. Only the rooftop deck lacks the amber ambiance, but the city views make up for it. 1000+1 Night is another fine culinary choice thanks to private Bedouin-style tents with belly dancers.
For those who want to medicate instead of enjoy the local spirits, keep in mind that marijuana is a Schedule 2 drug in the Ukraine, and technically you could get three years for possession. However, tourists who are caught with a few grams will usually only face a $50 fine—and encouraged to drink like the natives.
The deviant debaucheries are the buzz, but Lviv is equally enthralling as a mix of cultures. Poles, Austrians, Lithuanians and others ruled the city before the Soviets attached it to Ukraine after WWI. In other words, Lviv spent more time in European hands than Russian or Ukrainian, giving the city a closer resemblance to Krakow than Kiev. When UNESCO put its stamp on Lviv, the committee described it as “an outstanding example of the fusion of the architectural and artistic traditions of eastern Europe with those of Italy and Germany.”
Rynok Square is the town crown with a 200-foot tower, dozens of architectural homes, a gorgeous city hall and classical fountains featuring mythological figures. Tourists can climb the tower for a bird’s eye look at the square, while nearby Castle Hill offers panoramic views of the entire city. Lviv is bender central for museum junkies, though even the art allergic can appreciate the Arsenal weapons collection and samples from the Museum of Beer Brewing. Likewise, you don’t need to know Madame Butterfly from Madame X to appreciate the Opera House’s tantalizing tale. The century-old hall was built over the Poltva River, and legend says its architect hung like Hutchence when the foundation started to sink.
Lviv is also surprisingly affordable. Couples can enjoy the luxurious Grand Hotel for about $140 a night, while the backpacker set will love the Old Ukrainian Home Hostels. All are centrally located, which is great if your nights out leave you whipped.
Photos courtesy of Mariya Petrikevich/U.S.-Ukraine Foundation and Bureau of City Promotion, Lviv City Council