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It’s grey this time of year in this part of Europe. None of these three photos do justice to the grand architecture of this city, partially because you’re often looking straight up or far in the distance to see it as you walk around. It’s a beautiful city with considerable physical charm. Perhaps I’ll try to capture some of it.

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Price of a beer in a bar: US$1.33/500ml of draft

Song currently stuck in my head: Awake (Tycho)

So Lviv, Ukraine is just across Poland’s Eastern border by about two hours. It has a population of about three quarters of a million people, which is basically the same as Krakow (Poland), but the population density is almost twice as high. This is a town of narrow streets caged in by tall buildings; the streets can feel like gorges and it’s a little claustrophobic; personally, I think the air quality suffers a bit from having so little room for movement. The buildings that hedge you in are grand; hulking ornate stacks of stone in indifferent tones of imposing drab. The average monthly highs range from about 32F to 75F, the lows from 21F to about 56F. It’s Chicago, but a little less warm in the summer.

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English is pretty hard to come by. You’ll meet plenty of young people that speak it well, but the woman working the tourist info booth at the train station will have very little idea what you’re asking and finding a particular bus in a station full of buses may require some specificity.

While the front lines are far from Lviv, on the national level they’re having a bit of an issue with Russia backed separatists who were fed a steady diet of ‘ethnic Non-Russians are eating ethnic Russian babies‘ posts on social media and decided a civil war was the best way to keep their children safe from non-existent threats. I went out for a drink and the guy next to me ordered three shots of vodka and had the bartender pour two of them out. Then he cried for a while. He’d lost two friends under his command in the last week and found out about it that day.

Outside of the front lines, the domestic situation is, well, complicated.

So have I sold you on it yet? Because I love this town.

Institutional issues are nothing new among the countries I visit and the quality of life is usually determined more immediately by safety, lifestyle and people than by grand national sentiment.

By all indications, Lviv is a safe city. I’m having trouble tracking down hard numbers, but there was little to suggest danger as we canvased the streets. The few locals we spoke to all agreed that muggings and assaults were simply ‘not a thing’ in Lviv.

The cost of living has to be acknowledged; I’m paying Nicaraguan prices for a full scale metropolitan experience. A double espresso on the street can be had for US$0.95; cappuccino in a nice cafe runs well under US$2. I was able to splurge in a way that distorts my comparisons to other towns. I’m sure there are similar experiences on offer elsewhere, but in Lviv I can afford them. There’s a strong local coffee scene and a reputation for excellent chocolate, but I don’t think either are endemic to these parts. I think there presence owes more to traditional trades routes and probably 19th centrury Austrians. The Girlfriend and I arrived in time to catch the last week or two of the outdoor season, but on Nov 1st many of the cafe patios were disassembled¬† in anticipation of winter while others were reinforced with gas heaters and plastic enclosures. Either way, we experienced a small taste of what this town can be during the warmer months and my curiosity is piqued.

The Girlfriend and I never got around to using this free mp3 walking tour (with pdf map), so outdo us on that count and let me know if it’s any good.

Also check out Nomadicmatt’s impressions of Ukraine generally from when he first traveled here back in 2011.

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~US$15 worth of groceries, which actually feels high, and the ‘Mother with Sons’ from Cukor or Sugar (or something). Multiply by .038 for the US$ price.

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Those two huge pizzas (fork for scale) cost us ~US$8.50 together, including a small fee for the carry out boxes. They’re from Mama Mia, which I loved but seemed close for good when we tried to go yesterday. The sign was gone, so was some of the furniture. They had/have several locations in Ukraine, but I’m not sure if they still exist at all. We ate there 3 times this month. Two ~12 inch pizzas cost us ~US$3.91 the first time we went. Crazy.

The two trays of food are from a nice cafeteria/buffet around the corner called Puzata Hata. They came in at US$3.52 and US$4.82, respectively. We’ve also eaten here several times this month and the food has been good to great each time.

Price of a beer in a bar: US$1.33/500ml of cold, pleasing golden draft

Song currently stuck in my head: One Night In Bangkok (Murray Head)

Did anyone else not know that song was about chess? I mean, I know, I should have known. It’s from an album called ‘Chess’, it talks about chess a lot, but I was 8 when it came out and if we’re being honest it’s a pretty random concept; Bangkok as seen through the eyes of a reluctant, arrogant tourist in town to compete in the world chess championships; I guess it’s still a better plot than The Beach.

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Our Lviv base of operations is a well equipped one bedroom Airbnb rental with a comfortable amount of space. We’re paying US$467 for 29 nights for an average of US$16.10/night, all in. This is on the lower end of our rents in this trip, real or projected, which is consistent with the insanely low costs in Lviv overall. It’s 3 rectangular rooms of roughly equal size laid out one after another with the bathroom stuck onto the far end and includes a bathtub, dishwasher and washing machine. We’re on the 2nd floor (in the Euro sense, that’s 3rd floor to my (north?) American readers), looking inward on a large courtyard. Our neighbors have all been reasonably friendly and our nights are dark and silent even though we’re very much in the thick of the city. You need to be buzzed in or use an RFID fob to enter the building and our door has the typically over engineered deadbolt systems that are common in Europe; this one drives home 3 bolts up to two different depths. I think there’s also a bolt at the bottom and maybe the top, but I’m not sure if these are currently in use. There’s no obvious way to secure the door against someone with a copy of the key, though, and I hate this. I just want a normal old bolt to slide closed when I’m home, especially in a rental that may have countless copies of the key floating around. Thankfully we did figure out a way to prevent the door from being unlocked. There’s a thumbscrew-like aspect on the inside that you use to lock the door. When you use the key on outside, this part must be able to move; if you block it, anyone outside will be unable to turn the key. It was a monumental stroke of luck that our padlock fits in such a way that it prevents exactly this movement and is basically unbreakable, but to anyone viewing this casually it looks like I just don’t understand how locks work.

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The location is just a few blocks south of the Old Town, which is pretty similar to the rest of the city except a moderately more dense concentration of bars/cafes/restaurants/hotels/hostels and its laid out in an actual grid. The rest of this town has the roadway civil engineering of a plate of spaghetti so tangled it makes Boston look like Salt Lake City.

Even without venturing into the thick of tourists in Old Town, we have pretty much everything we need within a short walk of our place. There are several groceries, some simple, some rather upscale, several cafes, restaurants, bars and what have you.

There were two significant problems with the rental. 1) It was poorly cleaned. The owner apologized and offered to send someone to clean it again, but we decided to just tackle it ourselves. The reviews for this rental are overwhelmingly positive and I’ve talked to a million Airbnb hosts who lament how hard it is to find and keep a good cleaner, so I know this happens. It was pretty bad though. The other issue was the smell. There was an odor in the bathroom that was somewhere between ‘incontinent pet’ and ‘expired rodent in the walls’ and it is not fading over time. We air the place out occasionally, but the smell returns. We’ve washed all of the bedding and can never really isolate a specific area that the smell is coming from. It’s rough though. I have to specifically concentrate on ignoring it, which works about as well as it sounds like it would.

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Cafe Centaur is a slightly upscale and right in the heart of the tourist grid, but we found it quiet, comfortable and reasonably priced. Multiply prices by .038 to get the US$ equivalent.

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The locals I’ve met in Lviv have been uniformly warm, amiable and accommodating, but you wouldn’t know it from the buildingside plaques they use to commemorate seemingly very serious people… or that cat.