It’s 8 in the evening at a large metropolitan railway station. The departures board shows multiple tracks of sleeping-car trains bound for various locations throughout the country – and beyond.
Is this North America in the 1950s? No, it’s Kiev’s main railway station a few weeks ago. It’s crowded with passengers heading for their cozy compartments for overnight trains to faraway places both in the Ukraine and beyond. With my friend Yana from Kiev, I boarded Train #13 bound for Lviv (also spelled Lvov) in western Ukraine.
I counted at least 15 sleeping cars of various configurations, all appearing to be full.
The boarding process is simple. Locate your track, and head down the stairs. The train is platformed 45 minutes before departure (Amtrak, are you listening?) Once on board, the stoic car attendant, no doubt a holdout from Soviet days, takes your tickets and offers tea or coffee, which he brings to your room. The next day’s wake-up call is provided by the attendant without asking, 30 minutes out. Beds are typical Soviet style: narrow and with a small space in between the two in our first-class compartment. Facilities are down the hall.
Our arrival into Lviv was on time at, gulp, 5 a.m. It’s just enough time for a good night’s sleep on smooth, broad-gauge track.
Unlike most Ukrainian cities, Lviv was untouched by the war and has wonderful architecture dating from the 13th century. Not to be missed are the Coffee Museum (Lvivska Kopalna Kavy, Rynok Pl. 10), located in an old salt mine, Opera House, and, if you like chocolate, the most wonderful store full of every type imaginable (Lviv Chocolate Factory, 3 Serbska Street).
Our last meal was at the secret Kryivka (secret place) restaurant, which is devoted to the WWII insurgent Ukrainian army called UPA – you can’t get in without a password. (Sorry, I can’t divulge the address on line!) Our return to Kiev on Train #144 over a slightly different routing was much the same, with a 20-minute early arrival.
I highly recommend traveling by train in the Ukraine or in any former Soviet country. It’s an efficient and relatively inexpensive alternative to internal flights on sometimes questionable airlines.
A trip to the Ukraine would be a great add-on to a Golden Eagle Trans-Siberian Express journey or Black Sea cruise. For more information, call The Society of International Railway Travelers® at (800) 478-4881 within the U.S. or Canada; (502) 897-1725 elsewhere.