Tom and I first cracked open our Eastern Europe guidebooks in Turkey, only 10 days before we were to enter the region. When we did, we were intrigued to learn that the former Soviet republic of Ukraine had dropped its visa requirement for Americans and could be easily reached by train. Tomâ€™s sister Amy spent 18 months in the Ukrainian cities of Kiev and Odessa, so we were eager to check out her old stomping grounds and to put some of my rusty Russian skills to work.
Even though we were excited, I was a little nervous about the prospects for comfortable, fresh-smelling accommodation in the up and coming historic city of Lviv, our chosen Ukrainian destination. Iâ€™d seen pictures of the apartments where Amy lived, knew the countryâ€™s limitations on power and plumbing, and remembered all too well the odor of our little old Bulgarian ladyâ€™s Soviet era apartment in Veliko Turnovo. I jumped on the computer, did some quick research, and found a place that sounded like a perfect match for us, the Hotel Opera, situated just across the street from the city Opera House. The hotel had been recently refurbished, promised modern amenities, including heat and hot water, as well a foreigner friendly environment. (If youâ€™ve ever encountered the Russian/Soviet mindset before, youâ€™ll understand what an accomplishment this is.) Manager Andrew Leva responded immediately to my plea for assistance and offered to house us in two double rooms within our price range. Sold!
We arrived at the train station on the outskirts of town early one morning on the sleeper train from Budapest. The Ukrainian train cars, relics of the 1940â€™s or 50â€™s, were quaint (she said hesitantly) but reconfirmed my fears. The quirky burgundy velvet seats, aging windows adorned with silk flowers and lace curtains, and well worn Oriental carpets which covered the floors in a patchwork design were faded, dusty, and unfortunately a bit stinky. They were fine for a night of bogey changes, border crossings, and already interrupted sleep, but not what I wanted from my longer-term Lviv quarters.
The kids barraged me with the usual questions as we made our way on the tram to the center of town (no small feat which required every bit of my Russian-speaking ability to accomplish): â€œIs this going to be a nice hotel? Will the bathroom smell? Is it a hostel?â€ Any fears they or I had were quickly dispelled as we entered the lobby of the Opera. Gleaming tile floors, a stained glass ceiling, and a smiling front desk staff told us we were going to be happy here. The fact that a McDonaldâ€™s with $.20 ice cream cones and $2 value meals was three doors down made the younger members of our crew ecstatic as well. After our Hungarian sticker shock and relative starvation, they were primed for some good old American fast food.
The rooms at the Opera were reminiscent of Asherâ€™s favorite hotel in the US, the Black Bear Inn in my dadâ€™s hometown of Berne, Indiana. The furnishings were simple and the dÃ©cor restrained blending shades of pale green and burgundy. The beds were firm (aaahhhh), the ceilings and windows luxuriously high, and the bathrooms modern and odor free. The radiators and towel warmers ensured we were toasty in the chilly spring nights and served as handy dryers for our sink-washed laundry.
After two days of sheer joy at discovering this little jewel of a city, still relatively untouched by tourism, we finally met Andrew, a charming, intelligent young man with impeccable English. He explained the history of the building, which is one of Lvivâ€™s longest standing hotels, and the recent restoration and change in ownership. Whereas during Communist times, hotels patrons were limited to dignitaries and government officials, today they include foreign businesspeople and the occasional tourist. This new clientele demands a level of service and comfort previously lacking in Soviet establishments and one the Opera has been designed to provide.
We were absolutely delighted with our stay at the Opera and with our experience in Lviv. We thank Andrew for extending us such a warm welcome. We urge anyone considering a visit to Lviv to hurry and do so before the rest of the world discovers its charms.