"SLAVA Ukraini,” the middle-aged woman sitting next to me on the coach from Krakow to Lviv said to the Ukrainian border guard in military fatigues as she collected our passports. It means “glory to Ukraine”, as people in every corner of the world now know.

The guard smiled and murmured the words “heroiam slava” – “glory to the heroes” – the customary (bordering on compulsory) response in Ukraine since Russia’s large-scale invasion of the country in February. This exchange was repeated countless times as the guard collected passports: aside from myself and an American photographer, it seemed nearly every seat was occupied by a Ukrainian returning to their homeland.

“Is it still easy enough to get in there?” a slightly incredulous and slightly concerned friend had asked when I told him of my plan to spend a week in Lviv in late April and early May. I had confidently answered that it was easy, and found it even easier than I had imagined in practice. City-link from Inverness to Glasgow with a brief snow-gate delay at the Drumochter Pass, in terms of logistical agony.

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All it took to get to Lviv, the beautiful city in western Ukraine that has become a prime refuge for Ukrainians fleeing war-torn areas of the country, was a cheap flight to Krakow and a €20 Flixbus – mainland Europe’s Megabus equivalent. Probable journey time was given as eight hours, but a mere hour at the border meant it actually took less than five. As we rolled through the border gate and into Ukraine, most of the people around me filmed and took photos on their smartphones, marking what in many cases will have been their first glimpse of their homeland in more than two months.

Lviv is less than an hour’s drive from Poland, a country of which it was once a part, and where it is still known by its Polish name Lwów. Between the border and Lviv you pass rolling countryside, small forests and many small towns and villages, unremarkable to the casual observer aside from their gleaming white and gold Orthodox churches, and, these days, the military roadblocks at each town’s turn-off from the highway.

The beauty and history of Lviv is unmistakable from the moment you arrive. Lviv railway station, which became famous early in the war for harrowing news reports showing thousands of refugees desperately trying to escape to Poland, is an enormous art nouveau gem opened in 1904. A short walk away, past the large, semi-permanent encampment of NGO tents now resident outside the railway station, is the stunning Church of Sts Olha and Elizabeth, which dates from around the same time. Trams and cars trundled down the long cobbled thoroughfare of Horodotska Street towards the Unesco World Heritage-listed old town, where I was staying, and I joined them on foot.

Despite the fact that Lviv has so far largely avoided the horrors inflicted on other parts of Ukraine, the authorities are on constant alert for Russian saboteurs. A 10pm-5am curfew is in effect and is tightly enforced: a story doing the rounds had a terrified man being accosted for breaking it and desperately shouting: “It’s OK, it’s OK! I’m just a drug dealer!” by way of explanation.

Police checks in the street are also commonplace – so commonplace, in fact, that my first one came during that half-hour walk from the train station to my rental apartment. I had perhaps too keenly photographed the spectacular Lviv National Opera House and the street musicians playing patriotic toe-tappers on Svobody Avenue, which stretches out before it. Two officers approached and asked for my papers, and I nervously fumbled for my passport, while trying far too hard to give off not-a-Russian-saboteur vibes. They took a look, giggled at my surname while pointing to the golden arches down the street, and sent me on my way.

This type of contrast – getting lost in the quaint atmosphere of what often felt like a simple hidden-gem eastern European city break and then having the reality of Ukraine’s current situation suddenly intrude – occurred constantly. One evening I decided to walk off the mildly shameful amount of Georgian food I had eaten by taking a walk up to the Lviv TV tower, a prominent feature of the city’s skyline that sits atop Castle Hill, just northeast of the old town. Halfway up, though, my sunset stroll was halted by a well-armed soldier standing guard on the winding ascent, turning back all traffic and pedestrians. Either high vantage points in general or the TV tower itself were off-limits now – maybe both.

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Street music is big in Lviv and throughout the day and into the evening the cobbled streets in and around the old town resembled a boutique music festival. Each night after dinner I joined throngs of others drifting around, enjoying the warm air and music in the last hour or two before curfew. One evening a group were still playing as 10pm ticked around. Three soldiers approached and the musicians made apologetic faces, but the soldiers just wanted to request an encore of the song “Slava Ukraini” before everyone headed home.

Other traders in the old town haven’t been slow to adapt to the war either. Souvenir-shop windows now prominently feature “Russian Warship, go f**k yourself” T-shirts and Volodymyr Zelenskyy cushions, mugs and fridge magnets. Internet-savvy humour has long been a prominent feature of Ukrainian society, and one lunchtime I met Christian Borys, a Canadian-Ukrainian whose Instagram meme page and website Saint Javelin has made more than $2 million from sales of hilariously sharp pro-Ukraine memorabilia, donating nearly $1m to charities, organisations and independent people.

“It’s insane how my life has changed in a few weeks,” he told me over ramen in the old town. “One day I’m at home in Toronto preparing for my first child to be born, the next I’m meeting the Ukrainian defence minister in his insanely heavily fortified compound in Kyiv. Later that day he put up a TikTok of him presenting Zelenskyy with one of my T-shirts.” Borys gazed into space and laughed heartily at the absurdity of it all.

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Locals had recommended I pay the very old and very grand Lychakiv Cemetery a visit, so I walked there one particularly warm afternoon, more as a tourist than anything else. There I unsurprisingly found another sudden reminder of the war. In an area just outside the walls of the massive, ancient burial mound were rows and rows of the fresh graves of Ukrainian soldiers. The men ranged in age from their late teens to their early 50s, and each grave had a military ID photograph appended to a wooden cross, with a simple black sign bearing their name and dates of birth and death. The graves were covered and surrounded by fresh flowers, burning candles and Ukrainian flags. Family members were all around, tending to the graves of relatives who in some cases had died less than a week previously.

Late in my time in Lviv, I met up with Felicity from Tasmania and Kristina from Lithuania, two workers from the NGO Nonviolent Peaceforce, who had just arrived in the city after spending time in Kyiv, Dnipro, Odessa and Vinnytsia. Lviv, they explained, was the relatively safe haven they had come to recharge, consider their next move and try to secure more funding for their NGO. “Zaporizhzhia was the most hectic. There we had to shelter from missiles landing close by,” Felicity told me as we drank wine in the top-floor bar of their hotel, the high-vantage-point view over Lviv I’d been craving finally mine on my final evening in the city. “Life is very different here, but in the east they’ve been prepared for this for years. All the volunteer community organisations were ready to respond when the invasion happened.”

On the Flixbus back to Krakow, as the traffic edged through a roadblock on the highway heading west, the strange “island” feel of Lviv really hit home to me. Nearly three months of war but no significant Russian attacks anywhere in the city proper have left Lviv in a bizarre limbo. Spring is in full swing, the streets are bustling and the cafes, shops, bars and restaurants are busy. People are going to work, riding e-scooters to coffee shops, taking selfies by the opera house. But men of military age are still forbidden to leave the country, Saturday-afternoon strolls are serenaded by the air raid siren, and you can be arrested for being on the street after 10pm.

And everyone knows that if the brutal dictator in Moscow decides it’s Lviv’s turn to feel some more pain then the peace could be shattered, even if it is perfectly clear now that the Kremlin will never militarily occupy Lviv.

As our coach rolled to a stop on the Ukrainian side of the border crossing, the air raid sirens began to wail again. No missiles had hit anywhere close to Lviv in the time I had spent there, but just as I was leaving several struck three electricity substations on the outskirts.

“The power’s gone and we’re down in the shelter at the hotel,” Felicity texted a few minutes later.

A Ukrainian border guard in military fatigues stepped on to the coach to collect our passports, and the woman in the seat next to me beamed at her. “Slava Ukraini,” the passenger said over the wail of the siren as she passed her document over. The border guard smiled back. “Heroiam slava.”