Lviv, Ukraine's Masoch Café: A cocktail bar dedicated to masochism

"It's all done in the best possible taste!"

This line from The Kenny Everett Video Show is running through my mind as I approach the Masoch Café in the western Ukrainian city of Lviv.

In the outlandish 1970s TV program, it signalled that the topic under discussion was anything but tasteful. I suspect this might also apply to the Masoch Café, a bar dedicated to the memory of Leopold von Sacher-Masoch.

Leopold von Sacher-who? Stay with me. He may not be a household name, but you'll know the concept he gave his name to: masochism. Born in Lviv in 1836, as an adult he developed a taste for being sexually dominated by women, and wrote about it.

His most famous novel, Venus in Furs, was published after he'd travelled by train to Italy as the lowly 'slave' of his mistress, travelling third-class while she enjoyed a comfy first-class compartment.

Sacher-Masoch also argued against anti-Semitism and promoted women's rights. But it's for masochism he's remembered, and the Masoch Café aims to honour this legacy.

The bar is too crowded to get into in the early evening, so I first take a walk through the city's beautiful Old Town. It's a UNESCO World Heritage site, and it's easy to see why – the entire city centre is a stunning collection of attractive facades and graceful civic buildings.

In Sacher-Masoch's day, Lviv was the city of Lemberg within the Austro-Hungarian Empire. It retains much of the glamour of those times with its Viennese-style coffee houses, though its later decades in the USSR have left the city with noticeable scuffs and cracks.

After dining at the People's Restaurant, an inexpensive café specialising in tasty dumplings and cheese pies, I return to the Masoch Café. Pausing to admire the statue of the author outside its door, I step inside and make my way to a dimly-lit rear room.

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It's an extraordinary place. Around the walls are large reproductions of charcoal sketches, the most prominent depicting two elegantly dressed women in furs walking men in leashes.

Waiters – male and female – dressed in black circulate, taking orders from couples and groups seated at wooden tables. And this is where things start to get interesting. For each waiter is equipped with a short whip. On request, they will apply this to patrons.

As I sip my alarmingly blue 'Lady in Fur' cocktail (tequila, vodka, gin, rum, Curacao, lemon) I note there's a fairly even gender balance among my fellow drinkers; and the women seem to be getting as many laughs out of the set-up as the men.

Every so often a whipping flares up. A volunteer leans over a table or is tied to a chair, and his companions laugh as he's given a spot of light punishment by a waiter. It's usually men doing the volunteering, but on one occasion a young woman accepts a dare from her table and steps up.

Aside from the hijinks involving whips, the bar's playlist is a source of pain: My Boy Lollipop is succeeded by Crocodile Rock, along with other lightweight numbers. At one point the song Mein Herr from the Cabaret soundtrack comes on, striking an apt louche note.

More painful are the scenes playing on a TV screen mounted high above one corner. From what I can make out, they're a loop of parliamentary speeches ending in fist fights. Watching political speeches in a bar on a Saturday night? Now that's masochism.

Such eccentricity extends to the menu, a blood-red sheet with a biography of Sacher-Masoch and a long list of drinks including house cocktails such as 'Submission' and 'Menage a Trois'.

About 11pm the mood seems to shift, as a young blond guy is tied to a chair, has hot wax dripped on him from a candle, and receives an ice cube down his trousers while being showily whipped.

At this point there's a majority of women in the audience, with a large group of female friends at a central table finding the goings-on very entertaining.

It occurs to me that this performance is more like burlesque than anything sexual, a dose of naughty play-acting for people wanting a laugh with their drink.

Such a frivolous interpretation might have caused Sacher-Masoch pain. But I suppose he'd have enjoyed that.

TRIP NOTES

More information

lviv.travel

Getting there

Emirates and LOT connect to Lviv via Dubai and Warsaw. Visit: www.emirates.com

Alternatively, nightly sleeper trains travel from Poland to Lviv. Visit: www.polrail.com

Staying there

Ibis Styles Lviv Center, www.ibis.com Stylish modern midrange hotel in the city centre. From 1250 hryvnia ($65) per night.

Leopolis Hotel, www.leopolishotel.com Luxury accommodation within an 18th century building. From €110 ($160) per night.

Eating & drinking there

Masoch Café, Serbska 7, Lviv. See fest.lviv.ua

People's Restaurant, Katedralna Square 3, Lviv.

Tim Richards was hosted in Lviv by Accor Hotels.

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