With central European hotspots such as Krakow and Prague becoming overloaded with tourists, I recently visited Lviv, in Western Ukraine, for a short city break in December.
Formerly known as Lemberg, the city of Lviv was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire until the end of the First World War, when 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, and since then Lviv has become accessible and welcoming to visitors – with more speaking English than ever before. This is only going to increase, now that Ryanair fly direct from London.
Where to stay
I stayed in the Aparthotel Horowitz,whichisveryclosetothemainsquare. This location was great as it’s within walking distance to most sites and tons of dining options.
“You from here, then? Only you seem to know what’s what.”
I laughed and shook my head at the English couple, fresh off the Stansted flight, and explained, pointing to the large ‘5.00 UAH’ written below the airport bus timetable. “The fare’s written here, look,” I said.
I was curious to know why they’d chosen to come to Lviv in December. It turns out they’d planned to go to France, but had been tempted by the ridiculously cheap flights to a place called Lviv that sounded interesting.
“I came here once before. I’ve come back to ride the trams.”
I don’t know why the golden half-dome of this summit has taunted me ever since I spotted it on the horizon of Pyrenean peaks in the Ariège. Its distinctive profile seemed to pop up everywhere I went. Rising up smoothly on one side, the dome breaks off abruptly where its eastern side has been chiselled away, no doubt by long-ago ice action.
Walking through the woods in winter, I’d spotted it rearing up in white like a petrified breaking wave, the only hint that there was a mountain chain there at all. At 2676m it was higher than anything else I’d reached apart from Mont Valier, but it isn’t a technical climb, just a rollercoaster of a long, long ridge that rises and falls as it switches through changing terrain.
Pic Rouge de Bassies summit, far left
Dent de Mede through the cloud
Etangs de Bassies
I’ve wanted to stand on that summit for years, although I’d turned back twice; once because the jagged teeth of the approach ridge looked too scary, and the second time when a large bank of cloud suddenly engulfed the summit dome, just as I was at its foot.
This October, seeing a window of clear, cool days, I was going to do it.
Parking at Coumebière (1400m), the round walk is about 15-16 miles with a height gain of 1276m, so it’s a very long day, with some tiring scrambling across a boulder field of pink-tinged rocks that give the peak its name.
The pink boulders below Pic Rouge
Watching vultures at the foot of the summit dome
From Coumebière follow signs to the étang de Labant, then climb up through the beech woods behind it to gain a small col on the ridge. Take a moment to enjoy the stupendous view over the Garbet Valley and the glacial cirques to the south, before turning left onto the uppermost path. Follow this path above the Garbet and eventually it turns left to rise steeply up to the main ridge that overlooks the Bassiès lakes. The destination summit is now visible in the far distance.
Follow the ridge path as it takes you over Pic des Planes and Cot de Morech, and then as the ridge becomes spiky with towering rocks, the path turns to the left of that crest, keeping below it. After an hour of scrambling over boulders – keep an eye open for the cairns and yellow markers – you’re at the foot of the summit dome. The path zig zags up steeply until suddenly, there’s the tall summit cairn ahead, and you’re looking across the other side to the Montcalm massif. If you’ve ever walked to the etang du Garbet, you’ll recognise the craggy ridge of the surrounding cirque (with the distinctive notch of the couillade de Puntussan) down to the west, along with Puntussan itself and a glimpse of étang Bleu.
It was 5 hours up and 4 down for me, but I’m slow. If you have the energy, some make it a round walk by diverting south beneath the ridge of Cabanatous with a stop at étang d’Alate.
And for further inspiration, I highly recommend this Youtube video of the route, set to Xavier Rudd’s fabulous Spirit Bird. It certainly inspired me to persevere (although I passed on doing a summit handstand…)
It was all triggered by black and white photographs sent to my father long ago…
Growing up, I’d heard a lot about Poland, where my late father had been born at the end of WW1. Ending up in England during WW2, he’d been unable to go back ‘home’ when the war ended, as eastern Poland became part of the USSR. I’d had a child’s simplistic understanding of it, that the Russians took it from Poland. Polish rule/influence over Western Ukraine (then known as Galicia) certainly goes back centuries, although those borderlands became part of the Austrian Empire from the late 18th century until the end of WW1.
In fact my father had been born when it was Austria. When the Austrian Empire collapsed, the borderlands became part of Poland, in spite of the many Ukrainians living there, who felt it should form an independent Ukraine. All this helped to generate a strong Ukrainian nationalist movement that continued until independence in 1992.
At home all we ever heard about was Poland and ‘the Russians.’ Nothing about Ukrainian people.
I began to spend hours poring over the photographs. My father’s sister had lived and died in his village, and she was recognisable in the photographs as both a young girl and an elderly woman. We knew she had a daughter, my father’s niece, who was presumably the Justyna whose name was written on a piece of paper, along with the address of his village. That was all we really knew about in terms of family.
Yet the photographs showed many different people. There was a family of five, staring apprehensively at the camera against a backdrop of traditional embroideries. Another showed a large family gathering: parents in the centre surrounded by 18 other people. Who were they? Could they be Polish relatives? Or just long-ago acquaintances?
As time went on I became fixated on filling in the gaps. I contacted a Ukrainian tourist guide whose portfolio included family research. By a remarkable coincidence he knew my father’s village and agreed to go and talk to people. I was expecting maybe a few names and dates gleaned from the cemetery.
I hadn’t expected a set of videos of people talking about my father, and retelling passed-down stories from the war. They remembered the only time he dared to visit, back in the 1970s when he was accompanied by the KGB at all times. One man even referred to my father as ‘uncle’, remembering the parcels of hard-to-get items such as razors that Dad had sent them.
Yet these people weren’t Polish; they were Ukrainian. Nor were they blood relatives. They were in-laws: the family of my father’s first wife. He’d never talked about her, a shadowy figure who’d died very young. Suddenly she had a name – Varvara – and her sister-in-law and nephew were very much alive in the video. It was time to pay a visit.
Having travelled by train to the closest city of Ivano-Frankivsk, Terry and I set out to visit the village with Andriy, the local guide/interpreter/driver. Once again, I didn’t dare to expect much. Would people be happy to rake up the past? Would any of these people even be at home that day?
Andriy pulled the car up at a huge pile of ripe pumpkins, behind which stood the old single storey house where my father had lived with his wife and her family back in the 1930s. The nephew-in-law and his family use it for storage nowadays and live next door. Although Varvara’s brother had died some years ago, that brother’s elderly wife was brought to meet us and answer my questions. Photo after photo was handed over, eliciting mostly vague comments about them being ‘other people’. Then the large family group was recognised, with the father noted as a ‘man with 16 children’. And finally a pivotal moment when the elderly lady pointed to herself – she was the mother in the photo of the family of five.
Although her husband had passed on, the three children in the photo were alive; in fact I was standing in the son’s garden (my father’s nephew-in-law). He was working away but his wife invited us inside for ‘breakfast’. By amazing luck it was a feast day: Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary, when family sit and eat together. The homemade vodka came out and almost half of the bottle disappeared, which was a feat considering three of the five people weren’t drinking.
I was still no closer to finding out if any actual blood relatives were living nearby but I kept on prompting them. And in a very roundabout way it eventually came out that the ‘man with 16 children’ had been the husband of my father’s niece, Justyna. The writing on the back of the photo explained how the extended family had gathered back in 1973 to see off one of the sons, Stepan, who was joining the army. Surely some of these cousins might still be alive?
Daryna held my hand as she led me through the peaceful cemetery that stretched over the hillside. I had a small amount of my father’s ashes to deposit; he’d always wanted to come back. Then Daryna excitedly pointed out the graves of Justyna and her husband. I could see that the large photographs superimposed onto the headstones were clearly the same people as the parents in the family gathering. And nearby was the grave of one of the 16 children. I would never get to meet Stepan after all, as he had died in his forties. But I’d only missed Justyna, his mother, by six years.
And now we had another invitation, from the mother and daughter pictured in that family of five. As our car drew up, Yulia the daughter raced out of the house and hugged us; like her mother she was touched that a photograph of her and her family had been brought all the way from England. ‘And your father sent us photos of you!’ she said. This time the moonshine was strawberry-infused vodka.
How things get turned on their head. I still don’t know whether there are living Polish relatives, although Yulia thought so and promised to find out. Instead I have a Ukrainian not-quite-family; the in-laws with whom my father kept in contact for decades, sending them parcels and photos, and visiting them that one time. They must have meant something to him.
I’d enjoyed using the dozen or so words of Ukrainian I’d learned, and when Yulia wagged her finger at me, I recognised the word for “one”, but nothing else. Andriy stepped in to explain fully: “She wants to know if you’ll come back within one year?”
I knew the word for “yes”.
“And she says she’ll have you speaking Ukrainian in one week.” Now there’s a challenge.
As the car lurched over the stony track out of the village, laden down with gifts of moonshine, preserved mushrooms and a bucket of honey, I looked back. Scattered houses with enormous metal gates, a child drawing water from a well, and the dome of the church visible through the trees. I wanted to spend a day in that cemetery. I wanted to learn Ukrainian and how to make moonshine. Above all I wanted to walk through the fields that rise gently to the edge of the forest. One year.
With thanks to Andriy of Green Ukraine for the research, driving and interpreting.
And I’m very grateful to Natalia for translating the videos.
Some of the people’s names have been changed to maintain privacy.
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.
Possibly overlooked by its more famous neighbour Avignon, the town of Orange in Provence offers considerable charm for a short stopover.
After the six hour journey on Eurostar from St Pancras, arriving into Avignon during the festival didn’t do much to alleviate the 39°C of baking heat. Another 20 minutes on a local train was worth it to simply step out onto empty pavements of Orange.
I’ve previously asked myself if it’s really necessary to traipse around all of the ‘must-sees’ when visiting a place, but the fact that everyone else was swarming in Avignon meant that the monuments of Orange were mercifully clear. And the town is sufficiently compact to visit most of them on a short stopover.
The Roman city of Arausio was a staging post on the Roman road between Lyon and Arles, and the legacy is clear in the modern town of Orange. The remarkable Arc de Triomphe stands at the ancient entrance to the city, commemorating the Roman Army’s victories over the barbarian tribes at the edges of the Empire. The detail in the friezes is impressive – look at the Celtic-style artwork depicted on the confiscated tribal armour.
Arc de Triomphe at the ancient entrance to Orange, Roman Arausio
Close up of the frieze depicting confiscated ‘barbarian’ armour
The Théâtre Antique is the best preserved Roman theatre in existence, and it’s still used for performances, as shown by the crew’s Airstream parked on the stage. Keep climbing up the tiers of seats for a view over the theatre with the tiled roofs of Orange as backdrop.
Roman theatre, Orange
The ancient Roman theatre viewed from the Colline st-Eutrope
But don’t stop there, as a walk up the Colline St-Eutrope extends the view even further, with a sweeping view across to Mont Ventoux on the horizon. A network of paths over the hill passes by ruins of the former castle of the Princes of Orange to a small play park with a couple of zip wires. All of this was almost deserted on a Saturday in July, which was unexpected but allowed some unobserved fun on the zip wires. The large open-air café was similarly deserted, with chairs and menus ready but no staff to be seen.
You could spend all day mooching around the sites of Orange, but for me it was enough to people watch in the tiny Place aux Herbes, with its laid back bar and a usefully muddled shop where the stock ranged from art supplies, Marseille soap, toothpaste and tins of WD40 – the kind of shop that simply could not survive back in England.
We stayed in the small and charming L’Herbier d’Orange in the Place aux Herbes. Orange has plenty of restaurants, but why sit in a place that looks like everywhere else when you can eat in a Roman cave with a fine wine cellar integrated at the far end? As the proprietors of La Cantina (Montée Julia Barthet) state, it’s not every day you can dine in a hole dug into the rock.
Escape the crowds and discover a secluded mountain lake
The triple waterfalls of Cascade d’Ars are deservedly well known, but it’s possible to make a longer round walk that takes in the étang de Guzet. Or, if you’ve already walked to the falls, a hike up to this beautiful hidden lake itself is well worth it, and it avoids the crowds that tend to stick to the falls.
I started from the car park in Aulus les Bains and walked a short way up the D8F towards the Col de Latrape. Ignore the left turn to the Cascade and soon afterwards you take a path up to the left, heading steeply up through the forest and crossing the forest track at one point.
Eventually you come out into the open Plateau de Souliou with a view of the cirque of Pic de Mont Rouge ahead (image 1 below). Look over to your right and you’ll see the lifts of the Guzet ski resort, as well as Pics de Cerda and Freychet (image 2).
Then continue to follow signs for the étang de Guzet, climbing up through the woods until you see a marked path down on the right to the lake shore. It’s a tranquil spot. Look out for the twin ‘claw’ summit of Pic de Crabe (image 3) reflected in the water.
For years I’ve gazed at this summit (image 1), wondering how to get there as there’s no direct path marked on the maps. It’s a relatively easy summit on a long ridge that lies between the valley of the Garbet (the section running from Ercé to Aulus) and the Courtignou valley (the D18) from Massat up to the étang de Lers.
At 1745m it’s not especially high but you get a 360 degree panorama of both the summit chain and the surrounding valleys. The final bit is steep and the tiny summit feels somewhat exposed, especially when peering down the scarp of the eastern flank. The route I’ve given starts at the étang de Lers (between Le Port and Aulus).
The Col de Pause is a starting point for some wonderful walks, as well as an up-close view of Mont Valier.
This describes a walk up to the pastures known by various spellings: Areau, Arreau, Arréou and Areou, and its emerald green lake.
Some brave souls drive up to the parking area at the Col, but the road gets rougher and narrower beyond Laserre, so I park at Laserre and then walk along the GR10. That takes me around 40 mins to get to the Col de Pause. I never fail to be amazed by the view of Mont Valier up close:
At 2088m, Mont Ceint (also known as Pic de Girantès) gives a superb 360° panorama over the surrounding ridges and valleys. It’s also a fairly accessible and straightforward hike, although steep on the upper section.
The most straightforward route is from the parking at Coumebière. The first stage follows the GR10 zig zags (les lacets) that bring you up to the Port de Saleix in around an hour and a half.