London to Western Ukraine by train
When I booked the eight trains spanning four days of travel from London to the formerly Polish ancestral village of my father (now lying within western Ukraine), I hadn’t realised that I’d be following the same route, more or less, that my father had driven us as a family in the late 1960s.
A wartime Polish exile, unable to visit his real homeland when it became part of the USSR, he would drive us to Poland as a second-best option. Back then it involved what my nervous mother referred to as ‘going behind the Iron Curtain’ that divided the West from the communist East. I remember hours standing next to the car at checkpoints as unsmiling DDR border guards pulled out the back seat and slid mirrors beneath the chassis. Long days were spent driving along the transit corridor through the forests of East Germany and Poland, where small crowds would gather whenever we stopped, and I had the job of handing out sweets and oranges to the wide-eyed children.
Some fifty years later I decided to travel east again, although this time it was possible to keep going into Ukraine, to the town closest to my dad’s village – the town of Ivano-Frankivsk, closed off by the Soviets until the early 1990s.
The lack of direct flights to western Ukraine gave a good excuse to do it by train. Ryanair’s forthcoming route to Lviv will win for speed and price, but a couple of hours strapped into a budget aircraft will hardly convey the same sense of travelling through central Europe to the east. And a train trip encourages some wonderfully atmospheric stopovers. Just don’t expect it to be restful.
Trains 1 – 3: London to Berlin
Leaving London St Pancras at 10:58am brought us to Berlin after a couple of changes at Brussels and Koln.
That first day was pretty smooth; comfortable and spacious seats, decent buffet cars and workable wifi. And Berlin is an ideal stopover, with visitors able to experience the legacy of past events, both during and post-WW2, which have left their mark. Checkpoint Charlie was a pantomime of posturing selfie-takers, but more sober reflection can be had at other fragments and towers of the Wall, or visiting the DDR museum with its metaphorical display drawers and cupboards that can be opened to view artefacts of everyday life for the East Germans.
A walk through the Topography of Terrors, an open-air documentation of the rise of fascism, was most chilling for me; particularly the 1933 image of a German man, flanked by the SS, forced to wear an “I am a traitor to the people” placard for voting No in a referendum on whether Germany should withdraw from the League of Nations.
Train 4: Berlin to Warsaw
Expecting decent facilities on this stage, we stepped instead onto an old Polish train, all worn brown velvet and angular metalwork, no wifi and few announcements. But it was a pleasant and sociable 6.5 hours through the forests, with young Poles happy to chat and help translate the text on the back of my old family photographs. German tourists shared their food and an elderly Polish man tried out his rusty German on me. There was no official border announcement – suddenly the station names became Polish and the houses looked different, although the forests continued.
Warsaw is another interesting stop-off point although I’m still not sure what to make of it – its economic boom is throwing up shiny new high-rises that make the distinctive 1950s Stalinist Palace of Culture skyscraper look almost attractive. It’s hard not to be impressed by the totally reconstructed Old Town, but sitting there among the perfect decorated facades, my mind kept going back to events of an earlier time.
Train 5: Warsaw to Kraków
A smoother 2-hour ride on a newer train took us to Kraków, a city now edging close to being a victim of its own loveliness, with an overwhelming number of visitors milling around the Old Town. Costas and Starbucks are popping up everywhere, and cyclists balancing Uber boxes cut you up on the cobbles. Pubs boom and there were signs advertising English breakfasts, including the ‘Little Britain’ café, with its mock Tube logo unashamedly facing out into the Polish heritage that is Krakow’s Rynok Square.
After walking up the frescoed stairway of our Old Town guest house, it was disconcerting to see two pairs of earplugs provided by the bed; a portent that we’d be woken by the shrieking “Pub Krawl” visiting the bar opposite. But there are still many traditional restaurants that will envelop you in a recreated atmosphere of Old Poland.
Many visitors include ‘doing Auschwitz’ among their tick-list, and I overheard an English visitor concluding that ‘It makes you think,’ which seemed a vast understatement. But you can also come to Kraków to ‘do’ the stunning architecture, and it’s a short walk down to Kazimierz, the old Jewish Quarter where the crowds are thin. Here you could spend an entire day engrossed in two fabulous collections: the costumes and reconstructed rooms of the Ethnographic Museum, and the haunting photographic display of the Jewish Galicia Museum.
Trains 6 – 7: Krakow to Lviv via Przemyśl
Things began to slip downhill, starting with the 135 minute delay of the train that would take us from Kraków to the town of Przemyśl. This meant we missed our Ukrainian connection at Przemyśl; however, reassured by the Polish ticket office that we could just get the next train, we slipped into the town to cool off with a quick drink.
Back at the station, the wide-gauge Ukrainian train impressed me as it rolled in, but only three of the doors were opened, each guarded by fierce staff checking the tickets and passports. I was certain that we’d be sent back to the ticket office and miss the train, but in the end the young man at our doorway was more interested in our passports than our ticket for a train that had departed. His finger followed the words printed on my passport cover, then he handed it back, saying “Ameriky Britannia?” I just nodded and slipped past him onto the train.
Ah, Lviv. I’m tired of hearing the mantra that it’s the new Prague, just another selfie backdrop with cheap beer.
Formerly known as Lemberg, the city was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire until the end of the First World War, then it became Polish Lwów during the interwar period. The city endured a tug-of-war status between Germans and Soviets in WW2, before the Soviets took control and it became part of the USSR. This all ended in 1991 when Ukraine became independent.
A fading Central European grandeur is slowly being rejuvenated as workers, hidden behind scaffolded screens, tap away at decades of pollution. These reminders of an imperial past combine with an up-and-coming hipster vibe, infused with a sense of proud yet fragile Ukrainian independence. This seamlessly comes together in places such as the Ukrainian Food Art restaurant: a grand building on the main Rynok Square with a huge fish-tank spanning two floors, where food and wine is served with fluent English by staff wearing vyshyvanka – traditional embroidered Ukrainian shirts.
Continuing the theme of dictatorship that we’d unintentionally been following, we visited Lviv’s former political prison, now a Museum of Occupation and Deportation that bears witness to Nazi and Soviet atrocities. Its chipped green interior has seen little change since those dark days, apart from a temporary exhibition of vyshyvanka hanging along the corridors. This initially felt an odd choice of exhibit alongside a newsreel of distraught citizens looking for relatives among the dissidents slaughtered by the departing Soviets in 1941. Less so when I realised that vyshyvanka, with their ancient designs that represent natural elements, are today worn by the entire population as a symbol of Ukrainian identity and patriotic unity.
Needing some lightness after that, we spent an afternoon walking around the wooden houses, stave churches and wells at the outdoor Museum of folk Architecture and Rural Life. A highlight was when one of the custodial staff picked up his guitar and sang us a couple of folk songs, unaware that his ginger kitten had sneaked off to nibble at his unfinished plate of meaty chunks and soft cheese.
Train 8: Lviv to Ivano-Frankivsk
Tickets for the eighth stage were obtained with some difficulty at Lviv’s central train booking office, where no English could be seen or heard. Fortunately everything I attempted in Ukrainian was met with a nod and a Tak, although only 1st class daytime sleeper tickets were available for the next day.
Not wanting to sit in a compartment with the blind shut “to protect the bedding”, I stood in the corridor, gazing at the rural houses along the side of the track, with their planted furrowed gardens and a chained cow or a goat, and always the great shimmering dome of an Orthodox church to be seen somewhere.
Stepping off the train and then over the railway tracks, we had finally arrived at Ivano-Frankivsk, a town with a young vibe, lively street cafes and a tourist office that appears to do a side line in ‘express marriages’. We didn’t come across any other western tourists, and our hotel interactions were carried out using Google translate apps. But hey, who wants fluent English if it’s accompanied by ear plugs and a Pub Krawl?
Tiring, demanding, more costly than a flight; yes, our 8-stage train trip to Western Ukraine was all of those things, and that was just getting there! But it’s firmly anchored in our memories, which is more than I can say about any flight I’ve ever taken.
My enduring regret is that I never got to ride the Lviv trams, which must surely mean a return visit.