Discovering Ukraine by train

I don’t like flying. It is not, unfortunately, a rational thing. I have done it before but the last time I took a plane I was physically shaking, so I do fly, but only when it is absolutely necessary. Otherwise I love trains. My dislike of flying means I have reduced travel options (I can’t go to Stockholm or Athens on a whim) and I am painfully aware of travel arrangements. However, over time I have learned a lot about trains, often not the cheapest way to travel, especially in the era of FlixBus, but certainly more comfortable than a bus and more often than people expect available, if you book within a reasonable period of time, at bargain prices. I was very happy when I discovered that there is now an Intercity train taking you from the Polish town of Przemysl, on the Polish-Ukrainian border, to Kiev, in roughly 9 hours.

I had been to Ukraine many times before, but if you don’t like flying like me, travelling to Ukraine could be a wearying process, in particular the border checking procedure. Last time we crossed the European Union – Ukrainian border by car with a friend, it took us no less than 6 hours to go through (although they say it is considerably faster in the night) and when I went back, by bus, it was not much better. I may enjoy slow travelling versus flying, but I am certainly not a fan of purposeless waiting. I am a busy person, after all. So when I found out there was a train taking you from Poland into Ukraine, I was thrilled.

Sure, there where trains between Ukraine and Poland before, but the thing with trains between European and former Soviet Union countries is that the rails have different gauges, so every time a train crosses a border, the wheels must be replaced. It is a long process that can easily take a couple of hours. This does not apply to the new train, a Hundai HRCS2 of Korean manufacturing: the train goes only a few kilometres into Polish territory and there is no needs to change wheels once it enters Ukraine.

The great thing about travelling by train is that the exhausting border check procedure is great reduced as it happens directly in the train, with border control guards doing the work while the train is actually moving. There are two trains every day departing from the Polish small town of Przemysl, one at 13:10, which lands you in Kiev at 23:08 local time; the other one leaves at 15:45 and you’ll be in Kiev at 23:53. The other great thing about this train is that it is cheap: travelling first class all the way will cost you around 21 euro, second class 14.90 euro (prices last checked July 2019).

Przemysl is about two hundred and fifty km aways from Crakow, in the Carpathian region. It clearly does not have the same tourist appeal of the historical Polish capital, but its small old town centre kind of takes you back in time, especially if you come from a big busy hectic city like me. Spending a couple of hours there, while you wait for your train to Kiev, like I did, would make for a pleasant morning.

Until recently Ukraine did not exactly attract a lot of tourists. It had the reputation of being a not very attractive old Soviet ruin, one of the poorest countries in Europe, and the war that ensued the Maidan revolution of 2014 did not do much to improve that. However, it had the upside of bringing Ukraine into the consciousness of European tourists. And with Ukraine having signed an association agreement with the EU, low-cost flights, a mirage only a few years back, connect now Kiev, Lviv and other Ukrainian cities to Europe. In 2018, the Champions League Final that saw Real Madrid play Liverpool was held in the Ukrainian capital.

I am not a particularly religious person but if there was one thing I wanted to see in Kiev that was the Kiev Pechersk Lavra, also known as the Kiev Monastery of the Caves. It is beautifully situated on hills, and there are several monasteries in the complex, with golden onion domes shining between the green of the roofs and the trees. The monastery was founded in 1051. There are many other churches in Kiev, the most famous one is probably the Holy Sofia church, a few hundred meters uphill from Independence Square or Maidan Nezalezhnosti.

The city centre is dominated by the Kreshchatyk, a 1.2 km long boulevard, sided by large neo-classical buildings, lead Kiev main square or Maidan, whose pictures have become iconic over the last couple of years. The Kreshchatyk is closed to traffic during weekends and become a large pedestrian areas, where people slowly stroll, eating ice-creams, drinking coffee and listening to street musicians.

My next stop was going to be Odessa. I had been to Odessa before, some 10 years ago, and it took me more than 10 hours to travel the less than 500 km distance. Travelling by train in Ukraine used to be not only a journey in space, but it felt like a travel in time too. Now with the Intercity trains, which came to Ukraine with the European Football Cup of 2012 that the country hosted together with Poland, it takes about 7 hours to travel from Kiev to Odessa. Prices start at around 15 euro for second class.

Odessa is Ukraine’s largest port and it used to be the third largest city, after Moscow and Saint Petersburg, in XIX century tsarist Russia. The city was founded in 1794 by the Russian Empress Catherine the Great, under whom the Russian Empire prospered. I have never been to Naples, but for some reason on my visit to Odessa I couldn’t help thinking that I was in some Ukrainian version of the Italian Southern capital. Make sure you see the Opera House and the immortal Potemkin Stairs.

My trip ended in Lviv, where I arrived, by train, from Odessa. There was, unfortunately, no Intercity train between the two cities, so it took about 10 hours. On the other hand, of course, it was cheap. It was not the first time I had been to Lviv but the place is beautiful and seeing it a second (or even a third) time does not hurt. I remember the first I had been there I was coming from a long trip from Russia. I had actually traveled all the way from Vladivostok to Moscow by train, but that’s for another story. Russia was, well, … large. Seeing Lviv, on my way back, made me feel at home.

Lviv actually does not look much like your typical Ukrainian town. In fact, until the Second World War, Lviv had been a part of Poland, the third Polish town by population in the restored Polish state after the first world war. But while Poles (and Jews) were concentrated in the city, the countryside was populated by Ukrainians. For this reason Galicia, the region of Lviv, had become already in the XIX century, when it was part of the Hapsburg empire, the homeland of the Ukrainian independence movement, a sort of Ukrainian Piedmont. This is why you won’t see much “Communist architecture” in Lviv. It resembles more Vienna or Cracow than places like Kiev or Moscow. If you, like me, prefer to stay clear of places infested by large tourist crowds, Ukraine may be well worth a visit. But hurry up, it may not stay that way for long.

Stepan Antonov

Stepan Antonov has been writing for East & West since 2016. He is the author of “Battle for Ukraine: Ukraine between Russia and the West”. Click here to buy the book on Amazon

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