The train from Rzeszow, the largest city in southeastern Poland, to the border town of Przemysl is something of a first for me. I've never travelled between two destinations I can't pronounce before.

Rzeszow sounds like the noise a dog makes if you try to take away its bone and the ticket inspector tells me Przemysl ("sheh mih shul") is best attempted after an evening of strong Polish beer, when it becomes surprisingly easy.

Leaving the European Union overland is far easier than getting in. I complete Ukrainian immigration formalities in no time but there are long lines of people waiting to get into Poland.

Bags inspected and passport stamped, I allow a man with gold teeth to coax me onto his overcrowded minibus. We're soon on our way, but without a working knowledge of the Cyrillic alphabet, I'm not sure where to.

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At each bus stop, room is found for a few more passengers, including a woman with badly dyed hair who stands on my toes for much of the journey. At one point, she glances heavenwards and crosses herself - either because we're passing a church or because we're about to overtake a truck on a blind bend. Then a ruddy-faced grandmother gestures for me to sit on her lap, which produces hoots of laughter all round. I suspect I'm the only person aboard who hasn't been at the vodka.

After two hours of rustic scenery and more guffawing at my expense, we arrive in Lviv, according to a large sign in English, or "Eastern Europe's undiscovered jewel", according to TripAdvisor. Trams rattle around the old market square, which is surrounded by handsome three- and four-storey buildings. Kiev may be the national capital but Lviv is regarded as the centre of Ukrainian culture and art. You could spend days admiring its cathedrals and churches but that would leave no time for the museums, the art galleries and the magnificent opera and ballet theatre.

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There are sweeping ecclesiastical vistas from the town hall tower, reached by negotiating a steep, narrow staircase and squads of schoolchildren scurrying the other way. In fact, the city is so architecturally blessed that even convenience stores and currency exchanges are accommodated in elegant period buildings.

Lviv has had a roll call of rulers and names. The Poles called the place Lwów and in the days of the Austro-Hungarian empire it was referred to as Lemberg. Jewish inhabitants knew the city as Lemberik and it's Lvov to the Russians.

English has yet to gain a foothold and haggling for souvenirs involves taking turns to peck out prices on the shopkeeper's calculator. The Ukrainian currency is in the wars and daily expenses are low for overseas visitors, if not for locals. A mid-range hotel costs about the same as a couple of beers in Lan Kwai Fong and a filling lunch of borscht soup, dumplings in mushroom sauce and a drink comes to a puny 36 hryvnia (HK$11).

Lviv recently came fifth in travel publisher Lonely Planet's Best in Europe 2016 list, a touristic green light in normal circumstances. However, Ukraine has been on a war footing since 2014, when Russian-backed separatists seized towns in the east of the country and declared independence. I'm keen to find out how much civilians care about a conflict taking place 1,200km away. The tourist office, which is housed in a renovated tram with the slogan "Just Lviv It" painted on the side, turns out to be a good starting point.

"We're as patriotic as everyone else in Ukraine," the woman at the counter tells me, jaw jutting defiantly.

Olena explains that her husband serves in the army and is convalescing in hospital after being injured in battle. Perhaps as an act of kindness, possibly in an effort to recruit a Western sympathiser, she invites me on a complimentary walking tour of the city the following day. After arranging a time and a meeting place, I head back to the hotel bar, where a crowd has gathered around the TV.

The Eurovision Song Contest is almost as important as the Olympics in these parts and the world's press has picked up on Ukraine's song - a light-hearted ditty about the Soviet deportation of Crimean Tatars in 1944. Somehow I can't see the Russian judges awarding their neighbour too many points.

With so much patriotism and nationalistic hostility in the air, there's only one place to go for dinner. Knock on the large wooden door at Kryjivka and a guard emerges, aims his gun at you and barks " Slava Ukraini" ("glory to Ukraine"). Respond with the password " Heroyam slava" ("glory to its heroes") and you'll be granted entry to an underground bunker kitted out with military hardware, vintage posters and other memorabilia.

The secretive system of identification dates back to the second world war, when it was used as a greeting by partisans of the Ukrainian Insurgent Army, which waged guerrilla warfare against the Nazis. The restaurant is crammed with diners devouring mounds of hearty fare as if they, too, are about to march into battle.

Ukraine triumphs at the song contest and, the next morning, Lvivians head to Sunday service with a spring in their step. There's a celebratory atmosphere at the statue of nationalist writer Taras Shevchenko, where singers in traditional costume belt out a medley of Ukrainian greatest hits then ask me to email them copies of the photos I've been taking.

I meet up with Olena and spend an enjoyable afternoon strolling around her beloved city. I'm interested to know how Lviv copes when Russia turns off Ukraine's gas supply during diplomatic spats and what made her husband sign up to fight in such a vicious war. Instead, we play safe and stick to history, churches and surprise Eurovision victories.

Times are tough for ordinary Ukrainians but at least they've managed to retain a sense of humour. The conflict may have led to shortages of food, fuel and medicines, but there are plentiful supplies of toilet paper with Vladimir Putin's face printed on each sheet.