The 10 day break I just took from writing my travel stories was not caused by any hardship or political upheaval, but rather by a long transit back to Canada, my involvement in a small business project in Canada, my requirement to prepare and file my income tax declaration and pressure to buy my summer plane tickets now before prices skyrocket. But just a few days after I wrote about Odessa, I found my post about the beautiful city as dated and inaccurate as it could be. My description of the city as rather uninterested in politics and focused on business stands in stark contrast to the body count from a week ago today.
Second only to the violence in Kiev in February, these events played out very differently. Not the result of months of occupation or protest, according to some locals the violence seemed to come out of nowhere. Always hard to know during such events if the people involved even are locals, on both sides.
And just 12 hours after the tragedy, everything was over and cleaned-up, with only a few burnt cars remaining on the streets. My guide in Odessa, with whom I stayed in touch, sent me some pictures she took. She also told me how the tone in Odessa has taken a turn towards extremism, with people commenting that if the victims of the riot were pro-Russian, it didn’t matter, they only got what they deserved! She is thinking of leaving Odessa for a while, to work on her company’s business in Crimea.
Sadly, tourism in the region was booming last year and unsurprisingly, everything has crashed. Odessa Walks organizes group tours, where you pay a fee and join a group at some predetermined location. It is usually much cheaper than private tours and I often meet tourists from all over the world on such tours. In this case, the company didn’t send a guide to meet the group; it was only me and the owner, showing me around the city.
It is especially bad because the biggest increase in tourism was coming from the cruise ship industry, looking for newer destinations, more exotic to an American and European clientele than typical Mediterranean cruises. While individual tourists can always wait and see, deciding to go or not to go at the last minute, cruise ships with thousands of passengers do not have this luxury. As of today, all cruise ship stops to Odessa have been cancelled up to August. Ironically, the riot occurred on the day the first American cruise ship of the season was in port.
The situation was very strange while I was in Lviv. Here, next to a makeshift memorial to the Kiev victims back in February, people watch news of violence in the East, while everything is calm and normal in town.
In fact, things were more than calm, they were festive, as this was Easter week.
Trams were packed with locals going about, but the tourist train was empty.
And my very nice hotel room, right on the very central Rynok Square, was costing me a mere $25 a night.
The one tour group saw spoke a Slavic language, but I don’t know where they were from. Amusingly, a poorly translated tourist brochure said there was a statue of Madonna in town. Why not, after all there is a giant statue of Michael Jackson in Prague. But I couldn’t find it, until I realized they meant “The Madonna”!
It was high season for pigeons.
And lots of locals around, as many were on vacation.
When it poured, it was impressive to see the streets get deserted in a few seconds. You can see the people hiding under the arches, and the empty tourist bus. This was the view from my room.
I did meet a couple of tourists, one American, Fadi, and one German, Jonathan, both biology students in Istanbul, on a short trip away from their studies. I met them on the train from Odessa. We shared the car with a bunch of rowdy guys. I had first seen them on the platform, loudly singing anti-Putin songs. I hoped they wouldn’t be in my car. They were in my cabin! In the end they weren’t that bad, but they were total caricatures. I expected Borat to board the train at any time!
This character, a border guard, along with his friends, proceeded to change into more comfortable clothes immediately after boarding, stripping to their underwear in the aisle! So dress shoes, beach shorts, a t-shirt and a sailor’s hat would be the dress for the trip. They then decided to have dinner. Perfectly normal on a train, you bring a sandwich, right? They brought a large package of cooked shrimp, in their shells! Total circus.
Keeping pace with the silly mood, I headed for a restaurant I had seen featured on the TV show “World’s Weirdest Restaurants”. “Salo” is the local word for pork fat, which people love here.
I started by “feeding” a coin worth about 50 cents to a large pig at the entrance.
This activated machines in the basement restaurant. Above the frame, a pork fat spread, which was actually quite good.
After a few moments of noises and mechanical movements, the machine produced a shot of vodka, which I was supposed to have with the salo. A little early for vodka shots, but when in Rome…
An enormous moving heart, all made of pork fat (and probably what yours would look like, if you ate there everyday).
Smaller pork fat sculptures, which people order and eat with their meal. You can have one shaped like a soldier’s head or Marilyn Monroe’s breasts, among other options.
The menu is the size of a business card, but it comes with a large magnifying glass. I expected the place to be more museum and less restaurant, so I went even though I wasn’t particularly hungry. Most of the salo-focused dishes were big, full meal, so I opted for “sushi” as an appetizer.
It was sushi shaped, but a deep fried version of chicken cordon bleu, with pork fat. Not exactly a light appetizer, but it was pretty good.
One of the city’s most famous sons, Leopold Ritter von Sacher-Masoch. Back when Lviv was in a province of the Austrian Empire, his writings about sexual pleasure derived from pain or humiliation led to his name being used to coin a new term, “masochism”.
The statue’s heart is transparent. Inside, some pornographic image from the past.
As this was Easter, a lot of people were going to Church, and there are a lot of churches in Lviv. I observed a strange phenomenon in the begging business, which always booms around religious festivals.
Two men, begging at the same door. One old and rather beat up, holding a hat. The other, young and seemingly able-bodied, on his knees holding a picture of the Virgin Mary. He got ALL the money. I concluded begging is no different than any other business, you have to catch the trends and understand what drives your clientele.