A Memorable Journey By Car Through Europe

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During the summer of 1999, Jaya and I flew to Kyiv and met up with our close friends the Sarwates (Captain Vijay Sarwate is my batchmate from the Navy and was posted in Kyiv as the Indian Naval Attache). Thereafter, Vijay, his wife Sujata, their daughter Aditi, Jaya and I travelled by car (Vijay's Suzuki Swift) from Kyiv to Edinburgh and back.

During this four-week journey we covered about 10,000 km and visited various places in Ukraine, Poland, Germany, Netherlands, Belgium, U.K., France and the Czech Republic. Travelling by car not only gave our trip a great deal of flexibility, it was also economical and enabled us to experience the countryside very well.

Our two daughters stayed back at home in Noida, India and managed pretty well by themselves. We kept in touch with them thro' telephone and e-mail. Reproduced below is a compilation of the e-mail messages sent to them by me which would serve as a travelogue I would love to share with you.

29 April 99

Reached Kyiv in one piece on time. Sarwate uncle and Sujata aunty were there at the airport. They have a beautiful flat in a multistoried apartment here at Kyiv.

Turkmenistan Airlines, though nothing much to write home about, was not too bad. Food was OK. I had red wine. During our flight from Delhi to Ashgabad I saw a nice system on board the aircraft -- on the TV screens they continuously displayed a picture (like in a physical map) of the terrain we were flying above with a trace of the path the aircraft was covering. So, at any time, we could see where exactly we were. We flew over places like Lahore and Kabul. Lahore was brightly lit (I had a window seat). The monitor also displayed our altitude, speed and 'time remaining to reach destination'. We maintained an altitude of 10.7 km. Our highest speed was about 950 kmph though most of the cruising was done at about 800 kmph.

It took us 3 hrs to reach Ashgabad. We spent about 2 hrs at the Ashgabad airport which was spotlessly clean, huge halls with beautiful marble flooring but pretty boring with too few people around. The flight from there to Kyiv took 3 and a half hours.

We are all set for starting our trip-by-car on 01 May.

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A chapel in Kyiv (capital of Ukraine). Debashis, Aditi, Vijay, Sujata and Jaya at Warsaw. Vijay's red Suzuki Swift (1300 cc) is visible in the background.

06 May 99

Writing this from Berlin. We are staying at the Indian Cultural Centre here. This is meant for promoting Indian culture in Germany. Right now they are practicing Rabindra Sangeet for Tagore's b'day on 09 May. Today is our second day in Berlin -- a huge and beautiful city with many magnificent historic monuments. Presently, it is the 'biggest construction site in Europe' -- the huge tracts of land freed up due to removal of the Wall are being built up. We are going to leave for Potsdam shortly (it is now 9 AM, am typing this on a PC here in the cultural centre.)

Warsaw was our first 'port of call'. It is a beautiful city. During the German occupation during World War 2, most of its inhabitants were either killed or driven out. Just before the city was liberated, the Germans systematically destroyed all its palaces, cathedrals and other historic monuments. It is to the credit of the Polish people in general and the inhabitants of Warsaw in particular that the city was rebuilt virtually from scratch and most of the historic monuments restored almost to their former glory.

We spent 3 nights in a 'Pension' at the outskirts of Warsaw. Small hotels / Bed & B'fast joints here are known as 'zimmer' or 'pension' (pronounced pen-see-on). These are usually run by the family which owns the house and are generally neat and clean, comfortable and economical.

Tomorrow we leave for Hamburg. Thereafter we'll go to Cologne and then Rotterdam.

09 May 99

Writing this from Rotterdam. Reached here a day ahead of schedule. Yesterday we left Hamburg in the morning and visited Cologne. Saw the magnificent cathedral (one of the biggest in the world) and other sights in Cologne. The cathedral is of truly gigantic proportions. Its carvings and massive stained-glass windows are superb.

After seeing Cologne we started looking for accommodation for the night but all hotels, etc., were full due to a festival going on in Cologne. So we headed for Bonn. Could not get acco there either. But had a good 'chakkar' of Bonn in the bargain. Then we decided to head in the general direction of Holland and keep looking for acco. but all hotels (including expensive ones, which we generally give a wide berth) were full (some fair going on in Dusseldorf made things worse). In the bargain, we lost a lot of time and it got dark (incidentally, it gets dark here only around 9.30 pm!). So both Sarwate uncle and I had the experience of driving on the autobahns in the night!

Subsequently, we decided to go to Amsterdam but even there we could not get a single room. By then it was 4am -- Ma, Sujata aunty and Aditi were trying to catch some sleep on the rear seat and VMS and I were trying to keep each other awake! Finally, we headed for Rotterdam. At about 6am we found Shantanu-Eleena's house (with the help of some taxi drivers) and woke them up.

Now it is 2pm. We rested and had lunch -- Indian khana after many days of Big Macs, etc.

Driving on the roads and autobahns here is a great experience. Doing 140-150 kmph is a breeze. The roads are so good and traffic is so disciplined that one does not feel under stress even while doing high speeds. Similarly, driving at night is no extra strain. The road signs and markings on the road itself are excellent and once you get a hang of them there is no problem. Driving on the German autobahns was always a dream for me. Well, it has now been fulfilled!

Must tell you about Potsdam and Hamburg. We travelled to Potsdam from Berlin by local train (as you know, the rail system in Germany has always been one of the best in the world). Though we saw quite a few things at Potsdam, the best thing was the Palace of Sans Souci -- the summer residence of Frederick II of Prussia, also known as Frederick the Great. It consists of several palaces and a lush, landscaped park. The elaborate ornamentation in the 'Chinese Pavilion' there was really worth seeing. Took a lot of video. Ate some excellent sausages!!

Hamburg is one of Germany's largest cities and among the busiest ports in Europe. Out there, we restricted our sightseeing mainly around the River Elbe. The river is huge and in some places very wide inside the city. We took a ferry ride and saw the famous '5 towers of Hamburg' (you are taken a few km up the river, i.e., away from the city centre and you see 5 tall domes/towers of the city in a panoramic view).

It is quite cool out here in Europe even now, we keep wearing sweaters all the time -- what a change from Delhi!

11 May 99

Writing this from Brussels. Spent 2 days at Rotterdam. On the 9th, accompanied by the Banerji family we had a 'dekho' of Rotterdam -- the harbour, very old (but well maintained) windmills, maritime museum, etc. Then had a massive 'adda' session at home. Shantanu prepared an exotic (and excellent) chicken dish.

Yesterday, we first travelled to Den Haag (also known as The Hague). Saw the International Court of Justice (also known as the Peace Palace). Interestingly, we found a battery of journalists, TV vans, etc. there. On enquiry, discovered that a delegation from Kosovo was expected -- they have taken up the matter with the ICJ. Thereafter, saw Madurodam -- a superb 'mini-Holland' -- almost all the famous landmarks of Holland are displayed there in miniature (let's say a building like the Taj Mahal would be about 4 ft high). Apart from famous buildings/ structures/castles/palaces/cathedrals/zoos/shopping centres, they also have fully operating mini railway, autobahns , airports, ships, drilling rigs, etc. Another amazing thing in Madurodam is that all the plants are bonsai and therefore match the scale of the other structures/objects. There must be several thousands excellent bonsai plants out there. Also, there is a 'sand sculpture' museum there. The history of the Dutch people is portrayed there with life like sculptures made out of SAND!!

Then we proceeded to Amsterdam. On the way we passed the Schiphol airport and saw aircraft landing and taking off almost every 30 seconds. We passed under some bridges over which huge aircraft were taxiing. Moved around Amsterdam and took in the sights. Ma and I also visited a 'Sex Museum' !

After returning home, we went out to do a bit of shopping with the Banerjis. Beer is really cheap out here -- topped up our 'car cellar' ! Then Shantanu said that we must see the famous Schevaningen beach. So we went to Den Haag once again with Shantanu, Eleena and Mishti and saw this super beach. It was extremely windy at the beach and therefore there weren't too many people out there. The Beach Palace, now converted into a hotel, is quite imposing.

All over Europe, we find high wind speeds. Even when the temperature (during the day) is 15 or 16, due to wind chill factor one feels cold. During the last 3 days it has been drizzling/ raining off and on in this part of the world. But we have been quite fortunate in that the weather has not really interfered with our sightseeing.

This morning, we left Rotterdam and drove into Brussels (interestingly, there are no border checkposts between the Schengen countries nowadays). Here, we are enjoying the hospitality of one Captain Lee Merrick of the Royal Navy (U.K.) who is posted at the NATO HQ here. Presently, his wife and daughter are in the U.K. He and Sarwate uncle became good friends when he was posted at Kyiv as the British Military Attache earlier.

In all the big cities, we usually park the car in a proper parking complex and thereafter move around by public transport. We buy 'whole-day' tickets which can be used in any public transport (metro/bus/tram). Today also we did the same to go around Brussels. Saw some beautiful pieces of architecture (such as the Town Hall, King's Palace, etc.). Also saw the 'Mannequin Piss' -- the famous statue of a small boy piddling away to glory!! Then we proceeded to see the NATO HQ which is very much in the news due to the Yugoslavia/ Kosovo operation. The whole place has been cordoned off with barbed wire barricades. Saw TV journalists recording interviews.

Everything here in Europe is quite expensive - be it food, bus tickets, parking charges, medicines, souvenirs, entry tickets for museums, or whatever. So we are not doing much shopping except a few knick-knacks here and there. Many people (including Sarwate uncle who gets paid in US$) tell me NOT TO CONVERT the local currencies to Indian rupees mentally while seeing a price tag. But how can I not but convert -- the foreign currency that I have was BOUGHT with rupees!! Anyway, I have got more or less used to the high prices -- I no longer bat an eyelid while shelling out equivalent of Rs 500 for a couple of Big Macs + milk shake for Ma and I!

The time is 9.30 PM now. We have had dinner and I'm writing this on Capt Merrick's PC. I have a huge glass window next to me overlooking a park and there is adequate daylight even now!

12 May 99

5.30pm, Brussels. Just returned after sightseeing . Saw the Atomium -- a huge structure made up of giant spheres connected together by giant cylinders (pipes) which depict the structure of an atom. Height of the top sphere is about 100 metres. First, they take you to the top sphere by a superfast elevator with a transparent top. Once in the top sphere, one can get a magnificent view of the entire city through glass windows all around. Also, one gets to see (free!) 'Mini-Europe' -- various famous landmarks of Europe in miniature, right next to the Atomium. But this Mini-Europe is not half as good as the Madurodam that we saw in Den Haag.

After seeing the Atomium we had lunch at a fast food joint called Quick -- exactly like McDonalds or Burger King. We had our USUAL meal -- a burger (like the Big Mac), french fries and milk shake. Thereafter, we proceeded to a departmental store (called supermarkets here) and bought some food for tomorrow's breakfast. Then we saw the Royal Palace -- a magnificent building, we could not go inside though.

For a change, we returned early (5.20 PM) today -- primarily because Captain Lee Merrick is taking us out for dinner tonight and the ladies want to dress up and we all want to look fresh. Ma has advised that I should get out of my denims and wear some 'decent' clothes for a change!

Tomorrow, we shall take a car ferry to U.K. (Dover) from a port called Ostende in Belgium itself (earlier, we had planned to take the ferry from Calais in France). But since our ferry is going to depart at 4PM, we shall visit some other places in Belgium -- like Brugge and Ypres.

Captain Merrick's house here is a beautiful one. Beautifully decorated too. I observed two gallantry medals in a frame in his drawing room -- the inscription read "Charles Merrick, H.M.S. Good Hope, 1st. November 1914". That was captain Merrick's grandfather -- he too was in the Royal navy and sank with HMS Good Hope just a month after commencement of the First World War (1914-1918). Captain Merrick's father was born a month after that!

When Capt Merrick was telling me that his grandfather Charles Merrick's brother was also in the Navy and fought in W.W.I, I enquired whether he too was on HMS Good Hope. Capt Merrick reminded me that they never put real brothers on the same ship or the same aircraft or Army Unit during war. This reminded me of 'Saving Private Ryan' and I recommended the film to Capt Merrick.

You must note that entire Europe has a huge history of war. Generation after generation of men have fought in numerous wars. Almost every place we have been to so far -- from Ukraine to Poland to Germany are filled with huge graveyards of soldiers, war memorials and war museums. Somehow, war fascinates me and I never miss an opportunity to see these memorials and museums (I'll see some more in Ypres tomorrow and thereafter in U.K., France, etc.). These guys out here really know what war is. But since the Second World War the world has become more peaceful (fortunately) and the younger generations have to read books and visit museums to get a hang of the art/science/culture/traditions/effects of this avoidable aberration called war.

Today is the 12th day of our car trip which started from Kyiv on 01 May 99. Europe is now increasingly looking the same -- I must explain this. Every city has beautiful and very well maintained buildings - whether residential or commercial. Even the factories/power plants, etc., look gleaming!! All the major cities have magnificent old palaces, cathedrals and other pieces of architecture. All cities have similar metros, buses and trams. The roads are superb everywhere. The highways/autobahns are great everywhere. So when we go to a new city, the thrill and awe at seeing a magnificent cathedral or palace is actually reducing!!

As far as the rural areas are concerned, everywhere one sees huge green fields/farms, healthy looking cattle (though I can't figure whether they have the Mad Cow disease!) and very clean and well maintained villages and towns. Even a small town/village has beautiful shops, restaurants, etc. Uninterrupted electricity, running hot and cold water, telephones and central heating are taken for granted by everyone. Interestingly, the gizmo called 'geyser' in India cannot be found in many cities -- hot water is supplied to all buildings centrally.

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The 'Chinese Pavilion' at the Palace of Sans Souci at Potsdam. The Famous Five at Ypres -- at a garden next to the Menin Gate.

17 May 99

Just returned to Brussels after out tour of UK. We shall spend the night here in Capt Merrick's house and proceed to Paris tomorrow.

Before I tell you about UK, I must tell you about our memorable visit to Ypres (also called IEPER). This city in Belgium, once famous for its cloth market (a local guy claimed that the word 'diaper' has been derived from Ieper!) was totally demolished during World War I (and later rebuilt). Also, some 250,000 British and allied soldiers lost their lives there. Out of these, some 55,000 have no known graves! Please note that many of those soldiers / officers were Indians as India was under British rule then. The Menin Gate at Ypres is a famous war memorial which has the names of these soldiers whose bodies were never found/identified (including thousands of Indian armymen) engraved on its walls. It is something like the India Gate at Delhi in this respect.

From Ypres we went to Brugge (also called Bruges) enroute to Ostende. It happened to be Ascension Day and the whole city was preparing for the 'Procession'. The city had a festive atmosphere and hundreds of amusement and food kiosks and stalls had been set up along the procession route. Also, there were many temporary shops selling all manner of knick-knacks, toys, souvenirs, etc. We sampled some local food. I tried snails but didn't like it. We missed the procession itself because we had to leave for Ostende to catch the ferry to Dover.

Ostende is about 120 km from Brussels. The ferry ride was great while going (while returning today, the sea was quite rough and Ma and Sujata aunty got seasick -- a whole lot of other people also got badly seasick but the staff looked after the passengers really well -- taking away the vomit bags, supplying wet napkins and helping people to the toilets, etc.)

UK was great -- and different. The countryside, especially in Scotland, was too picturesque for words. Just miles and miles of lush, manicured/landscaped greenery with fat sheep grazing in the meadows -- cute little houses/cottages -- the greenery periodically broken with huge patches of bright yellow -- I thought it was mustard but was told it is rapeseed which is used in a big way in these parts for making vegetable oil.

In UK we stayed at a place called Dunstable (near Luton) in England with Sarwate uncle's Mama and Mami. From Dunstable, we did London by public transport (train/metro/bus) because parking in London is very difficult. At London we saw the Tower Bridge, Tower of London (adjacent to the Tower Bridge) -- a very historic place where the crown jewels (we saw the Kohinoor, etc., etc.) are also kept , Houses of Parliament (with the Big Ben), the Royal Stables, Westminster Abbey, Downing Street (no, we weren't allowed to approach No. 10), Piccadilly Circus, Royal Albert Hall, Albert Memorial, Trafalgar Square, the Harrods store, Madame Tussaud's wax museum (it was simply out of this world!), etc. The city of London is very large -- whereas the main shopping and commercial areas are great, some other parts are actually dirty!

On 15th we drove to Scotland. Our destination was Edinburgh, some 650km from London. First, we drove to Stratford-Upon-Avon and visited the bard's birthplace. It is beautifully preserved. Then we hit the road again. While driving on the highway A1 we saw Britain's largest sculpture -- known as the Angel of the North at Gateshead. It is quite recent (it was erected in late 1997). The sculpture is 20 metres (65 feet) high, and has a wingspan of 54 metres (177 feet).

We spent the night at a 'Bed & Breakfast' house at Dunbar. It was a lovely house and the couple running the place were very friendly and helpful. The house is right next to the sea. The next morning Ma and I had typically Scottish breakfast (haggis, kippers, etc.) -- it was an experience to remember. The couple running the place are quite well off but being retired, they let out the spare rooms in their huge house for 'something gainful to do'. Their well appointed house has so many expensive antiques, decorative knick-knacks -- and all of it in our rooms were totally left to us on TRUST!

On 16th morning we proceeded to Edinburgh, another great place. We saw the famous Edinburgh Castle, where apart from a big chunk of Scottish history, the Scottish crown jewels are also kept. Later we roamed around the city and saw the famous bagpipers, etc.

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At the Edinburgh Castle. We are all using CD-ROM 'guides'. At the chateau at Chambord, France.

24 May 99

Writing this from a place called Lodenice in the Czech republic. Haven't checked your mail as yet (am writing this in the hotel where we are staying -- a PC is there, but no internet. Shall put this in my floppy and try to send it from Prague which we'll visit today).

After seeing Paris, Chartres, Strasbourg and many other places in France (including a huge chateau at Chambord) we entered Germany once again and stayed at a place called Echterdingen off Stuttgart. Yesterday, we entered Czech Rep. and are staying at a nice Zimmer here at Lodenice. All set for the visit to Prague after a filling breakfast. We plan to buy 'Bohemian Crystal' -- this country is famous for it.

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The famous (architecturally) cathedral at Prague -- a view from the city square. A lovely Bohemian crystal vase we bought in the Czech Republic.

Paris was great. Saw quite a bit of the city. Could not enter the Louvre as the staff was on strike!! But it was great from the outside itself!

30 May 99

On 29 May (the day we returned to Kyiv from our car-trip) we had excellent Indian/Bong food (fish curry, biryani, etc.) in one Gp. Capt. Raha's house. He is the Indian Air Attache here and they live quite close to Sarwate uncle's house.

Yesterday, it also happened to be Kyiv Day -- there were huge celebrations in the main City square in the evening. We went out after dinner to see the crowds. Lakhs of people were celebrating (eating, drinking, shouting, singing, dancing, throwing litter -- generally freaking out) on the brightly illuminated and decorated streets. For the first time during our euro-trip we saw so many people (generally, we have been finding too few pedestrians in most of the cities/towns/villages -- except in places of high tourist interest). The underground trains (metros) and stations were overflowing with people. We went to the city centre by metro because cars were not permitted at the city centre -- all main thoroughfares were reserved for the exclusive use of pedestrians/ merrymakers/food and drink vendors. We also enjoyed an excellent fireworks display.

Ever since we entered France , I could not send you e-mail because, apart from the usual problems of finding time and locating cyber cafes, the French PC keyboard is quite different from the English/US keyboard we are used to. I checked out your mail in France though once.

Paris was Paris! We stayed in a hotel at a place called Senlis at the outskirts of Paris. We used public transport to commute to the city and inside the city. Saw the usual things like the Arc De Troimphe, Eiffel Tower, Champs Elysee, Notre Dame cathedral, etc. Could not enter the Louvre because the staff was on strike!! But the Louvre was very beautiful from the outside and really worth seeing -- however, I found the glass pyramids quite incongruous -- not quite compatible with the majestic Louvre building. But I guess the artistic French know better than an Indian engineer!! Also visited the majestic Versailles Palace -- it was great. Then we visited La Vilette and I saw a movie at the hemispherical cinema -- for me it was an experience of a lifetime. Since the picture is all around you, you actually feel that you are a part of it and I found myself clutching the chair at times --- it's something like virtual reality -- they give you the experience of flying, flying through space, a roller coaster, flying through narrow valleys, between skyscrapers, crashing,etc., etc. And the 20,000 or so watts of surround sound adds to the effect!

From Paris we travelled to Chartres where we saw the famous old cathedral -- one of the greatest in the world. It was raining and it was quite dark inside the cathedral. But we were lucky to see a part of the service. Later, we visited the famous Chateau at Chambord located in the middle of a forest. We passed through several small cities/towns and enjoyed the French countryside. Did a little shopping at Troye and checked your e-mail. Had wonderful roast chicken at Toul. Spent a few hours at Strasbourg and saw another cathedral. Drove towards Stuttgart and stayed in a hotel at the outskirts of the city.

At Stuttgart, the high point of our sightseeing was the Mercedes Benz Museum. It is a huge museum, very well maintained, and has all the famous models in immaculate condition. They actually demonstrated the starting of the engine of a century old car -- one of the first cars ever produced commercially. We also visited the Porsche Museum -- it was also great but nothing compared to the Merc Museum.

After passing through Germany, we entered the Czech Republic and checked into a 'Zimmer' off Prague at a place called Lodenice. Visited a famous Bohemian crystal factory called Nijbor near Prague and bought some pieces of great Bohemian crystal (our only 'big' shopping during the trip). Crystal is manufactured in various parts of the world, but Bohemian (Czech) crystal is supposed to be one of the finer varieties.

The city centre at Prague was beautiful. Spent half a day there. The next day we passed through Olomouc, another beautiful city in the Czech Republic. Stayed in a hotel near Olomouc. Thereafter, we proceeded towards historic Poland once again.

Our visit to KL Auschwitz was 'bone-chilling'. Some 25 lakh people (mostly Jews) brought here by rail from all over Europe were exterminated here by the nazis during WW2. Went around the infamous concentration camp and saw the numerous barracks where humans were kept like cattle and medical experiments were conducted on them, the electric double fences, gas chambers, 'death-wall', electric crematoria, prison cells, etc. One really feels amazed at the cruelty humans are capable of.

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Barracks at Auschwitz -- some 2.5 million Jews were exterminated here. Daily mass killings in gas chambers followed by open pit / electric cremation was the usual method. The 'Death Wall' at Auschwitz. When a 'prisoner' had to be quickly disposed of without waiting for the next day's 'gassing', he was shot dead against this wall.

Spent two nights at a hotel in Cracow. It's a great city -- walked around the city, visited the Wawel Palace (rang you up from a post office adjacent to the castle) and the Czartoryski Museum where we saw a painting each by Leonardo da Vinci and Rembrandt apart from many rare objects. Bought some amber jewellery there. Tasted Syrian food and the famous 'Doner Kebab'.

After checking out of the hotel at Cracow, we proceeded to see the famous Salt Mines at Wieliczka -- a dozen km from Cracow. The Salt Mines were something really worth seeing. This World Heritage Site is superbly maintained -- it has a large number of sculptures carved out of rock salt. It also shows how salt mining was carried out hundreds of years ago.

We passed through several small cities in Poland and spent a night in a lovely hotel in a place called Przemsyil near the Ukrainian border. The next day (29 May) we drove to Kyiv. The Ukrainian countryside looked quite unappealing after seeing better parts of Europe. So did the small towns of Ukraine!

Kyiv is better. We shall see more of this city in the next two days.

It is much warmer now (as compared to a month ago, when we started our trip). But we have to use blankets at night.

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The 'picture-post-cardesque' Wawel Palace at Cracow. Jaya and Debashis at a Mexican restaurant in Kyiv.

01 June 99

Kyiv is quite a nice city. A gigantic metallic statue called 'Matrodina' (Mother of the Nation) is the biggest modern-day landmark of this city. We visited a huge war museum located under this statue. We also took a 'river cruise' on the river Dniper -- a one hour ride up and down the river on a ferry. Sarwate uncle took us out for an excellent Mexican dinner.

A visit to the famous old cathedral of St. Sophia was also worthwhile. This small cathedral has been demolished during war more than once and has been restored, but taking care to preserve some parts of the original ruins.

Kyiv, of course, is quite different from other European cities -- mainly because Ukraine and its people are not so affluent. The buses and trams appear run-down as compared to their west European counterparts. But the metro is nice. One very striking thing about the metro here is it is very deep -- maybe twice as deep as any metro we saw anywhere in Europe. The journey down to a metro station (or up from one) on the escalator appears endless though the escalators are pretty fast.

Well, we'll be back home soon -- just 2 more days to go!

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The gigantic metal statue known as 'Mat Rodina' (mother of the nation) at Kyiv.