The ratty old train, which had clearly seen better days, rolled to a slow and noisy stop at the Poland-Ukraine border. Military and border officials climbed into the train cars and walked down the center aisle flashing icy glares perfected during the Soviet era. An officer checked and stamped my passport without incident, but the tense vibe epitomized the risks involved in trekking through Ukraine. The plan was to spend six weeks traveling the country, during which time I would indeed land in jail and get pummeled by a street gang, but my first stop, Lviv, welcomed me with the cold steel of handcuffs and the sharp sting of a cat o’ nine tails. The latter experience, however, I actually requested.
Lviv is a gorgeous underexplored city with a wealth of cultural and artistic history that includes at least one literary great. Lviv-born Leopold von Sacher-Masoch wrote a classic novella whose title Velvet Underground fans will certainly recognize: Venus in Furs. In 1869, the author—the great-great uncle of Marianne Faithfull—signed a six-month contract with his mistress, Baroness Fanny Pistor, in which he would become her slave under the condition that she regularly adorn herself in furs, especially when being cruel. The experience, which inspired Venus in Furs, motivated an Austrian psychiatrist in 1886 to coin the term masochism after the Masoch name, and Lviv honors its freaky son with the dominatrix-themed Masoch Café.
Ironically, when I arrived in Lviv in 2009, language issues resulted in a very different description of the masochistic bar. Grabbing a beer from the hostel kitchen on my first night, a German-speaking Italian from Italy’s northern border told me about the place, but his literary references were way off base.
“You have to go to the Masoch Café,” he said with heavily accented excitement. “It is named after the man who put the ‘mizer’ in ‘sodomizer.’”
“That sounds interesting, but I’m not sure that’s my scene,” I replied in a dumbfounded tone.
“No, you’ll love it. They will even handcuff you to the table when they do their thing. We should go.”
“Let me get back to you on that,” I nervously countered.
I imagined anything was possible in Ukraine, but during my first full day in Lviv, the city surprised me even more. When crossing the border from Poland, Lviv is the first touristic city in Western Ukraine, but it makes most travelers think the train doubled back to Kraków. In terms of European influence, Lviv is to the Ukrainian capital Kiev what west-leaning St. Petersburg is to Moscow. Some will argue that Lviv is even more European since its inclusion in modern Ukraine only dates back to World War II. Founded during the Middle Ages, the city—whose various names have included Lemberg, Lev, Lvov and Lwow—served as the capital of the Kingdom of Ruthenia and oriented itself toward Western Europe as the Mongol Empire established the Golden Horde destroying cities like Moscow and Kiev. Lviv was later part of Lithuania, the Habsburg Empire and most recently Poland.
Walking down its cobblestone streets, Lviv exudes the old school charm of Central European spots like Prague, Kraków and western Budapest before the backpacker invasions. UNESCO inscribed the city center on its World Heritage List in 1998 stating that its urban fabric “is an outstanding example of the fusion of the architectural and artistic traditions of eastern Europe with those of Italy and Germany” and added that a number of culturally diverse ethnic groups “established separate yet interdependent communities within the city.” I explored these highlights during my first full day in the city, but that night, I was once again invited to its infamous bar.
“Hey, do you want to join us for a beer at the Masoch Café?” asked a young Bostonian accompanied by a group of Brits and Americans.
“This place is really popular,” I puzzled.
“Well, it is named after this guy who put the ‘M’ in S&M,” he explained.
“As in sadomasochism?” I asked. “In that case, count me in!”
As we approached the café, it was clear that no detail had been left untwisted. A life-sized Baron von Masoch statue stood outside, and the entrance was a giant voyeuristic keyhole that led into a Stanley Kubrick-style setting with whorehouse-red lighting and attractive corset-clad servers. When our group arrived, a server approached me, and instead of carrying a menu, she had a clothespin that she motioned toward my nipple. I waved her off. Nipple torture was not my ideal introduction to the Masoch canon.
“Funny, she went right to you first,” said one of my hostel friends as the server escorted us to a pornography-covered table. “Maybe you look the type.”
Apparently so. No sooner did we sit down than a whip cracked hard against my back. I turned my head, and the waitress smiled before lashing out at several other unsuspecting customers. It would sound so much cooler if I said my first thought was erotic, but the truth is, I just imagined how many U.S. waitresses would love the chance to whip a few customers now and then.
Several patrons—largely tourists—were in various states of bondage throughout the café. Some had clothespins latched to their bodies, others were handcuffed to the tables or burnt with candle wax, and most had been whipped at least once. Some of the menu choices were also sadistic. Lviv has exceptional food, including eastern Tatar cuisine, but the city also claims less delectable dishes like grilled goldfish, fried pig snout, cold animal fat and pickled watermelon. The Masoch Café dove into the bizarre with options like bull penis soup. In more recent years, these dishes adopted more provocative names like Size Matters for bull balls, Love Ritual for fruit fondue and Mister or Mistress for snail-filled varenyky (think pierogi). I stuck with two shots of vodka and a bottle of Lvivske, a three-century-old beer brand originally crafted in a monastery.
Despite the premise, Masoch Café is not the all-out masochistic party one might imagine. The servers dole out occasional whip cracks at random, but the heavier stuff usually comes by request. And my request was a full-on lashing. The waitress spoke little or no English, but when I waved with a sheepish grin, she knew what I had in mind. Like a Gulag-trained enforcer, she handcuffed my wrists and forced me to stand bent over the table.
“Fuck!” I yelled as the cat o’ nine tails landed squarely between my shoulder blades.
“No fuck!” the waitress yelled back. I briefly pondered if her words had deeper meaning when the whip crashed down on my back again. My hostel friends cheered and laughed, and the rest of the café patrons turned to watch.
Crack! Crack! Crack!
The waitress continued the assault. I was uncertain how many shades my back now had, but I knew none of them were grey.
Crack! Crack! Crack!
After about 10 lashings, I kneeled in submission, an instinctual self-defense move that apparently was exactly what my Venus wanted. She then proceeded to spin and crack the backs of several other guests before freeing me from the table.
My slavery lasted less than a minute, and the whip marks less than an hour, but at least I could say I experienced the city’s literary culture firsthand. And the lashing was certainly preferable to eating sliced bull testicles.
Half a dozen years later, the Masoch Café reportedly became more touristic. TV screens air provocative videos, sensually designed furniture pieces were added and a gift shop of sorts now sells naughty items. The menu is even available as a souvenir, and the pockets of the statue outside apparently hold the Masoch version of fortune cookies (which, in 2009, were condoms). Still, while not all the changes are welcome, the most important thing stayed the same: Whips and handcuffs are still complimentary.
Photo: David McNew/Getty Images
David Jenison is a Los Angeles native and the Content Editor of PROHBTD. He has covered entertainment, restaurants and travel for more than 20 years.