Sunday, April 3, 2011

Warsaw and Lviv: Finding Our Way

For those who may be interested in considering travels to Poland or the Ukraine, I thought it might be helpful to speak to some of our travel experiences and discoveries. I am a price conscious traveler who likes affordable quality. When I plan our trips, I do extensive research, read other travelers' reviews and monitor rates across many sources. My one absolute is Internet in order to write my blog and research my surroundings. Because we had such a positive experience in the Mamaison Isabella while in Budapest last year, I decided to try the same chain in Warsaw. Here I found two Mamaison hotels, one an apartment hotel like we used in Budapest and one which provided a lovely hotel room.

Upon our arrival we went to the Mamaison Regina which is the only hotel located in the old part of the city. Now keep in mind that the old part of the city is actually new having been reconstructed after its wartime destruction. At first I was prepared to not take it seriously, but have come to appreciate that the city went to unusual lengths to preserve its past and the reconstruction is truly masterful. Frescos decorate buildings and design work reminded me of the central plaza in Prague. When we looked out of our dormer window at the Regina we overlooked one of the artfully painted buildings. Around the corner were inexpensive, but appealing restaurants and the Vistula River flowed just a few blocks away. Had we more time in Warsaw it would have been an easy walk across the river to Praga, the area of the city that suffered far less destruction than Warsaw and still contains some of the older buildings. The hotel was tasteful and contemporary and with a favorable rate offered an extraordinary value.

On our return we will be staying at Mamaison’s sister hotel, the Diana, which is an apartment hotel. I expect equally high quality from them. In addition to Budapest and Warsaw, Mamaison also has hotels in Prague, Bratslava and Moscow. The hotels offered favorable rates when booking directly and paying in advance.

We had a lovely dinner our first evening and scoped out a restaurant that served breakfast for the following morning. To our dismay very little was open at 9AM on a Saturday including the restaurant of our choice. We found a small coffee shop where we got the hot chocolate that seems to be typical of at least two experiences in Lublin and Warsaw. Very thick and rich, one eats it with a spoon. The chocolate is similar to what one would find in Spain and is almost dessert – like.

We caught a taxi to the airport in the morning.  A short flight got us to Lviv where I began by puzzling out the Cyrillic on the airport building only to discover that it spelled Lviv. We were very surprised by the airport entry as it felt more like an ancient train station and looked very Soviet.  We later found that a new one is being built. A slow line moved forward into another room. There we found our luggage and had to run it through a screening machine on the way out. The security person asked if we spoke Ukrainian, German or Polish to which we replied “English”. He had been chatting at length with the woman who preceded us, but our conversational prowess just wasn’t up to the task.

When we exited to the central entrance area, we discovered a bank machine which didn’t know what to do with our card. Hmm, how to get money to get a cab was going to prove to be a problem. A Ukrainian came up to us and through gestures asked if we needed a taxi. I was hesitant to take a private cab, but soon saw that there was no taxi line to access. To my question of “How much” the guide replied only, “Dollars, Euros”. I knew the rate was supposed to be between 80 and 100 grivinas which equates to $10-12 and decided to wing it. He pointed out an ATM across the street from the airport and we got enough grivinas for immediate use.

He soon found our hotel and only then asked for 200 Grivnas. I replied 100 and we settled on 150. In Lviv we are staying at the Hotel Chopin which is a lovely hotel in a convenient location. The staff speaks English and it has a reasonably priced restaurant with a fabulous breakfast, omelets made to order, cappuccino and cinnamon filled croissants. Anything we wanted to order off the menu was included with the room fee. One of the appeals of this hotel is that it is around the corner from the Lviv Art Gallery, a collection of largely Polish and Ukrainian art.

We immediately headed over to the more contemporary section of the Lviv Art Gallery covering the 19th and 20th century and largely Polish and Ukrainian artists. The earlier period of the 15th to 18th century is housed in a nearby palace which we will visit on our return. We entered a room with some rather stodgy looking portraits, but half way through it began to get interesting with artwork that seemed more symbolist in origin. Some of the artists’ work reminded us of other artists with whom we were familiar, but most of the names were unfamiliar to us. I was also surprised to see a series of paintings of Jewish imagery, some by Maurycy Gottlieb.

We then wandered over to the Rynek Square to explore the town and enjoyed the variety of architectural styles which were represented. A striking building with winged figures atop beckoned at the end of a central avenue and we learned that it was the Opera House.

It was a Saturday night and many people were out, but the restaurant that had been recommended near our hotel had closed by 9 PM. Back to the Rynek we went to find an open restaurant. At the one we selected the waitress didn’t speak any English and our command of Ukrainian was nil.  Helplessly she looked around the restaurant for help. Taking our order soon became a community effort. A woman at the next table understood our question and relayed it back to the waitress in Ukrainian. Yet another woman helped her on the next question. With the aid of the entire restaurant we soon succeeded in placing an order. 

Thus ended our initial foray into Lviv. We look forward to more explorations on our return and may draw on our guide, Alex, for suggestions as Lviv is his home.


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