Any Sunday you can catch a bus to the former Soviet Union. Martin Skirrow climbed aboard at Victoria
As an introduction to Lviv, the ancient city of western Ukraine, the "Central" Bus Terminal is not a success. Set in the outer suburbs among a cheerless landscape of post-war high-rise buildings, it is a model of inconvenience to travellers. So much so that were it not for the enthusiasm of a crowd of locals waving me on to a train for the city centre, I might have done an immediate U-turn and clambered on board the bus back to London.

The choice of hotels in Lviv is limited. There is the Grand Hotel, frequented by Western businessmen and the only place in town where your plastic may get a whirl. And the Hotel George, a stately and comfortable residence in the old town where Hapsburg Emperor Franz Josef used to stay. Outside, you can see the balcony from where Liszt conducted the Lviv Philharmonic in the Emperor's honour.

If any city needs treatment for an identity complex, it is Lviv. Founded in the 13th century, it prospered at the crossroads of the trade routes between East and West Europe, changing name periodically at the behest of whichever nation happened to control the region: Leopolis one century, Lemberg and Leonsburg the next, and more recently Lvov. Overrun by the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany in quick succession during the war, it was liberated by the Red Army and became part of Soviet Ukraine in 1944. There it has remained, the only change being that as of 24 August 1991, Ukraine has been a fully independent nation.

Walk round the city and you'll see evidence of this shifting identity. At one end of the tree-lined modern square is the neoclassical Ivan Franko Opera and Ballet Theatre named after the 19th-century Ukrainian revolutionary and writer (a statue of Lenin in front was pulled down after Ukrainian independence). At the other, is a monument to the great Polish patriot of the same period, the Romantic poet Adam Mickiewicz.

Heading past the 14th-century cathedral, you come to the heart of the old town - the market place, or Rynok. It is a curious mix of Renaissance- style facades, a Viennese-looking town hall; and cobbled paving that seems positively medieval. I ventured into what my street plan told me was the history museum, but it turned out to be the Museum of Furniture and Porcelain. Here I fell into conversation with Dr Borys, president of the Independent Journal of Ukrainian Political Scientists, The Ukrainian Times. We met for a drink that evening and he presented me with a copy (in Ukrainian) of his article, "The Revolution after the Revolution in Ukraine". As we downed a bottle of Crimean brandy, he launched into a one-sided discourse on the "psychological inertia" affecting the Ukrainian nation since independence.

In a bid for light relief, I suggested going out to eat so we strolled through the semi-deserted streets to find somewhere suitable. En route Dr Borys gave me a guided tour: the remnants from the fire of 1623 which destroyed the town; the carving of St George and the Dragon on the 17th- century Boimi's Chapel; and the Nazis' murder of 140,000 Jews from the Lviv Ghetto.

But so far as restaurants were concerned, Dr Borys was a disappointment: either he didn't know of any or there were none, so we parted. At 10pm in Lviv, it seemed there was only one place open - the restaurant at The Grand Hotel. Here I had a four-course dinner (herring, hand of pork, mushroom-filled pancakes, ice cream) for little more than the equivalent of pounds 5. And it was with a surprising sense of reluctance that I climbed aboard the bus onward to Poland the next day.

How to get there

Acton Holidays (0181-896 1642) runs a weekly bus service from London to Lviv: return fare, pounds 139. Ukraine International (01293 553767) has four flights a week from Gatwick to Kiev, from pounds 335.

How to get in

All foreigners require a visa: Ukrainian Embassy (0171-727 6312, recorded information 0891 515919), but the procedure is cumbersome: you are supposed to supply a letter of invitation or hotel voucher. The independent traveller without these can apply through Ukrainian Travel (0161-652 5050).If you arrive without a visa, you will have to pay an exorbitant fee to enter.