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New Europe

Day Seventy-eight: L'viv to Yalta

Statue of Lenin 
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Lenin still stands tall in the Crimea. Yalta's visitors take a break on the steps.
Michael Palin - New EuropeDriving out to the airport I realise how much we travellers judge cities by the bits that look best. Old L'viv is handsome, rightly judged to be a World Heritage Site, but the majority of its three-quarters of a million citizens live in run-down neighbourhoods and shabby, blackened concrete estates well beyond UNESCO's restorative reach.

They should, however, consider listing the airport, one of the most eccentric terminals I've ever checked into.

We lug our bags up the steps of a grand neo-classical facade and through doors that lead into a miniature classical temple. Not a check-in gate or a baggage trolley to be seen. Instead a circle of ornately stuccoed columns and murals depicting joyful agrarian toil. The departure board is exactly that, a wooden board with departures on it, screwed high onto one of the walls, with the names of flights and destinations painted in Cyrillic script some years earlier. The whole place seems to be run by three middle-aged women, the sort you might find in an old-fashioned dress shop, but less helpful.

The chamber echoes with the sound of heels clicking to and fro, of anxious enquiries and raised voices.

Eventually someone points out a travel-worn Antonov AN-24 belonging to Donbass Airlines which will be our transport to the Crimea.

As we walk out to the plane I take one last look back at the airport building, just to make sure I didn't dream it, and am glad I do, because otherwise I'd have missed the tour de force - a glorious colonnade of statues on the outer wall, welders with goggles and miners with lamps interspersed with diaphanous maidens holding baskets of fruit and sheaves of corn. A glorious fusion of Watteau and Soviet Realism.

The flight is basic. Our plane is a fifty-seater turboprop with very little sound insulation and a stewardess who distributes snacks as if passing out live grenades.

Our flight across the wide and watery Dnieper Basin is largely uneventful, until we are just coming in to land at Simferopol in the Crimea. The undercarriage is down and we must be less than a hundred feet from the tarmac when there is a piercing scream from behind us, and a steward looking hot and anxious runs up the aisle, stops for a moment to stare out of the port window, then races on into the cockpit, followed by the stewardess who shouts, reassuringly, 'Someone tell me what's going on!' before being calmed by the passengers.

It all happens too quickly to be anything other than confused, but after we land there's some muttering about the landing gear not being quite fully extended. But we're on time and anyway, no-one knows where to complain.
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  • Series: New Europe
  • Chapter: Day Seventy-eight: L'viv to Yalta
  • Country/sea: Ukraine
  • Place: L'viv
  • Book page no: 185

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