“You’ll love Odessa,” my Ukrainian friend Krystyna said, when I described the plan. “You’ll wish you had more time there.” She wasn’t wrong – it’s now yet another on my list of places I have to go back to someday. She also told me that Odessa is famous for two things – the sea, and cats.
Having arrived via the first, it didn’t take us long to find the second – they were everywhere. After checking into cosy Hostel 51, we went to explore the city, walking down to the Potemkin Stairs to admire the view of the harbour before looping around through City Park and past Vorontsov Palace with its impressive colonnade.
By then it was getting towards dinnertime, so we stopped off at the Amsterdam Hotel and Restaurant (cue silly jokes about how we spent the afternoon in Odessa and ate dinner in Amsterdam). After a delicious dinner and a lovely couple of hours people-watching on the pavement patio, we headed back to the hostel, where I got chatting to a Canadian international relations student who had been studying in Russia. We ended up going out for drinks and sampling the Ukrainian vodka at the Bourbon Rock Bar just up the road.
In the morning I headed out for a quick walk round the nearby City Gardens and Cathedral Square before catching my train. Luckily I’d brought a scarf to cover my head, so I was able to go inside the imposing Spaso-Preobrazhensy Cathedral and look around the stunning gilded interior. Apart from a few locals praying silently in one of the side chapels, I had the place almost to myself. I spent a peaceful twenty minutes admiring the art and architecture in the cool of the church. Stepping back out into the already-hot sun, I headed back to the hostel to collect my bag. It was time to say goodbye to Odessa, and to Kaping, and make my way to the station.
Since I’d booked last-minute, I had ended up with a more expensive Lux-class sleeper ticket despite taking a daytime train. Handily, you can see which berths have been booked on the Ukrainian Railways website when reserving tickets, and I had chosen a cabin with both beds free. No-one had booked the other bed, so I had the two-berth cabin to myself for the day. Stretching out on fresh linen, sipping tea from a traditional glass and steel mug and flipping through the complimentary magazine, I decided perhaps getting Lux ticket hadn’t been such a bad thing. A girl can treat herself, right? I lay propped up on one elbow, staring out of the window at railway markers and level crossings flicking past, until we reached Zhmerinka, where the train stopped for a break.
On the platform, women walked up and down selling freshly baked pastries and plastic cups of berries from baskets and sports bags. Hopping down to buy something for later, I spotted a couple of familiar faces further down the platform – the German couple Kaping and I had walked to the bus station with when we got off the ferry. We stood for a while catching up in the hazy sun, sharing raspberries and plans as passengers ebbed and flowed around us, until the whistle blew and we wished each other safe travels, racing back to our carriages before the train departed.
I stared out of the window again, daydreaming as the train swished past quaint villages and isolated farms along the Moldovan border. Dirt roads crossed the track, and geese pecked among lush grass on the railway verge. Occasional guards in hi-vis jackets waved at us from trackside cabins at level crossings. Gradually, the sky darkened, and I switched on the cabin light and read as the sunset faded and it got too dark to see the outside world. We slid gently into Lviv Station at 10:30pm. Oksanka greeted me with a smile and a hug on the station platform.
Lviv is a beautiful city. The centre is all winding cobbled streets, dotted with pavement cafes and hanging baskets full of flowers. Over the next few days, we fell into a comfortable routine. During the day, while Oksanka worked, I went out to see the sights, including the fascinating House of Legends with its rooftop car, the Shevchenkivskyi Park Museum, where traditional Ukrainian dwellings have been gathered to create an outdoor folklore museum, and the Park High Castle, with its glorious views across the city.
Oksanka is a wonderful host, and knew all the best places to go in the city. In the evening, we’d go for dinner, or to a jazz performance at Libraria, or one of the local bars. One of the most interesting restaurants was the incredible Most Expensive Galician Restaurant, only accessible through a fake apartment. At the weekend, we went for an amazing buffet brunch at Baczewski – highly recommended! Kaping, who was planning to go hiking in the mountains south of Lviv, came to visit us on her way. We met up over cups of hot melted chocolate at the Lviv Chocolate Factory, chatting until the place closed and the wait staff politely kicked us out.
The next day, I took a day trip to a nearby town to visit Krystyna. We’d met at an off-grid farm in France I’d been helping out at, and she was now running the Cactus youth exchange project in Ivano-Frankivsk. It somehow ended up with me giving an impromptu talk on the Erasmus Plus programme to an audience of 40 unsuspecting Ukrainian teenagers with 10 minutes’ preparation, but that’s travelling for you.
All too soon, it was time to get my next and last train of the trip – the sleeper to Kyiv, where my journey would end.
Read the previous post in the series here.