Uncovering the Secrets of Lviv
Lviv, one of the cultural centres of Ukraine, is a hidden gem. I suspect the city will explode as tourist destination within the next few years similarly to how Croatia blasted onto the travel scene in the last decade. Lviv's cobblestone streets are lined with Italian mansions, churches of every denomination and echoes of the old Hapsburg Empire.
The city of Lviv cannot be more different from the other major Ukrainian cities in the east of the country. Residents here are a lot more Ukrainian than their counterparts in Kiev and Kharkov. The tourists are also visibly different, most of them coming from nearby European countries. Everything has a very European look and feel, from the architecture, to restaurants, statues, street buskers, flowers and patios. Simply walking around the main square and the various arteries stemming from it makes for a wonderful exploratory day.
If you do want a guided tour however, there are plenty of various tour representatives in the main square attempting to gather business. I took two of these tours: one to the nearby castles of Lviv and the other a secret underground tour of the city. You can check out my blog about Olesko Castle here.
The Secret Underworld of Lviv
After meeting our guide in the main square we proceeded to our first stop, the Dominican Cathedral. This church is exquisite on the inside which is why so many couples choose to get married here. The day before, being Sunday, while lunching nearby, I witnessed a steady slew of newlyweds go through the main doors. There have been many churches on the site since the Dominicans arrived in the city in the 1300s but this particular building was constructed in the 18th century. During the atheist Soviet rule it was used as a warehouse and then later as a museum. What interested us on this tour however, was the period of the Spanish Inquisition during which anyone with alternative views to the Catholic Church was aggressively re-educated.
Our guide walked towards a small door on the outside of the cathedral, which I had not noticed before, and we descended to the hidden tunnels below.
Some of these tunnels and rooms were used for secret prayer, some for storage, and others were used by the Inquisition to torture and imprison their victims. We were told that one of those victims was a princess of Lviv who refused to convert to Catholicism. There was a wax statue of the princess in the cell where she was purportedly held. Some of the Inquisition torture rooms also had mannequins being tormented by various devices. I wonder how the Cathedral's monastery next-door explains this unsavoury attraction.
After exiting the cathedral's tunnels our next stop was the city's famous Apothecary located in the main square. Dating from 1735, it is the oldest operating a pharmacy in the city. Interestingly, it also has a duo function as a museum. Two ancient medallions of stone hang on either side of the door which is inscribed above "Apteka", meaning pharmacy in Russian.
As you walk in, the first thing you see is the intricately hand painted ceiling featuring the four mythical elements: Water, Fire, Earth and Soil. Milla Jovovich's absence is noted.
Following our guide, we walked behind the counter and into an adjacent room secluded from the main hubble of the pharmacy. Here were various liquids, prescriptions, herbs, and devices used by the pharmacy before the intrusion of modern Pharma.
After a brief look we hurried into the basement of the pharmacy where medicine was prepared from scratch. Ancient herbs were strung up from the ceiling and the machines were set up to demonstrate to the process of pill making.
We left through yet another door and ended up in a public staircase. It was at this point that I realized we were in a residential building. The top floors were clearly occupied by regular residents of Lviv. Following our guide through the interior amaze, we eventually turned into a room set as an Alchemists' den, as it would have been during the times that the practice was prohibited. Various stuffed animals lined the walls and I had the eerie feeling of being watched, until I realized I was - by a taxidermied owl in the corner. The owners of a place like this would've been the ones snatched by the Inquisition if they were so unlucky as to be discovered.
Our next stop was a much more livelier place. On the opposite corner of the main square, is the famous Lviv Kava house- also known as a coffee shop. This place is a total hit with residents and tourists alike. During lunchtime on weekdays, pedigree coffee can be bought in bulk at a discount price right outside the front doors. Inside is a coffee shop, a Café, a coffee bar, and a general tourist merchandise store. I immediately thought this was the lamest stop on our tour. Coffee is fine and I've been to Starbucks before, why were we here?
Before I could complain our guide took us into yet another hidden door and we descended to the basement of the coffee house. Everything about this operation was made to look like an actual mine except instead of mining precious minerals, this place mined coffee.
I was given a safety helmet to wear with a flashlight mounted on top. A mine cart on a little railroad went past me loaded with coffee beans. The walls looked as if they had been freshly chiselled out, and make shift lightbulbs hung from the ceiling. I squeezed my way through a narrow corridor until it opened up into an underground cafe. Tables and chairs crammed every available inch of space and they were all occupied by happy coffee drinkers. The site was actually quite comical. We oogled the patrons and briefly contemplated grabbing a coffee but quickly realized that the line to get it would hold us back at least half an hour. We made our way through the tunnels of the coffee mine and eventually emerged from a completely different door.
I later came back to this café to try the coffee and had a piece of cake - both were really quite magical.
According to our guide, there is a historical reason why Lviv is so obsessed with coffee. In 1683 the City of Vienna was under a two month siege by the invading Turks. The Holy Roman Emperor Leopold I, pleaded for help. Among the many forces which came to his aid were forces sent by John III Sobieski, King of Poland and Duke of Lithuania and the ruler of Vienna at the time. Evidently the Turks expected a long wait and had brought with them copious amounts of coffee. When they were defeated and repelled, this coffee was left behind to be hoarded up by the Polish/Lithuanian army and then brought back to Lviv.
At this point the official tour was over but we were given an insider's recommendation: Kryivka restaurant. The appeal of this place is its supposed "secrecy" but it does make for a fun interactive experience. The restaurant itself is not advertised so you have to know how to find it in the main market square. It's actually just a few doors down from the Kava coffee House. You enter into an alleyway and walk down a corridor until a certain closed door. You then knock on the door and wait. Depending on the mood of the person on the other side, you may wait quite a bit. Eventually the door is opened and you are asked where you are from. Pro tip: don't be from Russia.
If you pass the first stage you will need to also provide a password:“Slava Ukraini!” or “Glory to Ukraine!”. If satisfied that you are not Russian spies, the door guard will usher you inside and provide a free shot of vodka before allowing you to enter the basement in which the restaurant is located. If you've made it this far, you will quickly notice that this place resembles a World War II bunker. And if you are an astute tourist, you will also notice that there is a World War II soldier aiming a gun at you as you walk into the restaurant.
Don't grab the first chair you see out of fear, the restaurant actually extends into several more rooms if you're brave enough to walk past the gun wielding soldier. The menu features traditional Ukrainian and Russian fare. We ordered the sausage and salo - salted pork fat. Both portions were absurdly big. On my way to the bathroom, I discovered a shooting range, and the reconstruction of a real bunker used in World War II. I recommend coming here in the evening or during crappy weather, as it will start feeling a bit like a prison at some point.
I was pretty happy to get outside and into the sun again.