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New Europe

Day Seventy-seven: L'viv

Michael Palin - New EuropeFive-thirty. Move my vase of plastic yellow roses out of the way and push aside the scrap of lacy curtain. It's dawn, but there's precious little light coming in. Everything outside has changed. The flat Hungarian plain has been replaced by the steep, tree-fringed fields and hills of the northern Carpathians, the sunshine and clear skies of the last two weeks by streaming rain and low cloud. Our Ukrainian stewardess, back in her own country, and in sole and effortless control of the coach, is already up and about, bringing us glasses of tea in stainless-steel holders as we gather and gaze out at the gloom. She beams at us in motherly fashion and says how much nicer it is to squeeze past us than past the beer bellies of her fellow stewards.

Outside, the hills become small mountains, their summits hidden in the cloud. Villages and farms huddle more tightly into the valleys. They look bleak this morning, all grey walls and roofs. The stations are rough and ready. At one a pack of barking dogs patrols the platform and there are no passengers to be seen. The fields look strangely familiar, full of the same cone-shaped haystacks we saw in Romania; Carpathian landscape, sylvan and unspoilt, which, even on a moody morning like this, makes you want to be out there, in the middle of it.

Sip my tea and mug up on the country ahead in Anne Reid's book about the history of the Ukraine, Borderland. I learn from her that the first line of the Ukrainian national anthem translates as 'Ukraine is not dead yet'.

Whoever supplies the signs at L'viv station must have had a good few years as the city has changed its name four times since the end of the First World War. Known as Lemberg when it was a part of the Austro-Hungarian empire, it became Lwow, part of Poland, in 1919; Lvov, part of the USSR, in 1945; and L'viv, part of the Ukraine, from 1991.

This is what it has wanted to be for a long time, for the city has been at the forefront of Ukrainian nationalism for 150 years. When independence finally came L'viv couldn't wait to replace its Lenin with a grand memorial to Taras Shevchenko, the nineteenth-century poet often called 'the father of the Ukrainian language'.
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  • Series: New Europe
  • Chapter: Day Seventy-seven: L'viv
  • Country/sea: Ukraine
  • Place: L'viv
  • Book page no: 182

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