“Isn’t Ukraine dangerous??” a friend of mine recently asked me.
In the case of Odessa, it’s most significant Black Sea port, nothing could be further from the truth. The war in the Donbass, the south-east region of Ukraine has blackened the image of this amazing country. But that should take nothing away from a place I’ve been privileged enough to visit on three occasions.
Odessa, is, on the surface, one of the most curious cities you’ll ever visit.
It’s a young city that feels much older, with its concoction of Baroque facades, shining shop windows, vintage Soviet mega-structures, and bright lights.
But beneath the façade, is a celebration of culture. Odessa is a wonderful mix of Ukrainian, Russian, Greek, Turkish, Balkan, Caucasian and Central Asian peoples in one charming enclave, as I was to find out later on in my journey.
IMPRESSIONS AND ILLUSIONS
The joie de vivre of Odessa can be felt as soon as you land in Odessa’s airport. This is definitely the best way of getting there, unless you are familiar with Ukrainian buses, or are touring the region in the relative comfort of a Ukrainian train. I highly recommend the latter if your intention is to see Ukraine for what it really is, a primarily rural, impoverished land but with charm and friendliness to spare.
A taxi ride to the city centre from the airport only takes 20-25 minutes, but to avoid being over-charged, it’s a good idea to arrange one well in advance.
The taxi ride will offer you an interesting impression of Odessa’s suburbs. The life emanating from the outer, and then inner suburbs give the impression of two different cities in existence. The darkened buildings have a character of their own, but there is no doubt that many of Odessa’s citizens are enveloped in a struggle for survival.
The closer you get to the city centre though, the more the multicultural verve becomes apparent. Deribasovskaya Street or Primorsky Boulevard are ideal bases for a visit here. Despite not being wholly representative of Odessa as it might be seen from local eyes, they offer great access to the city’s main attractions.
One of the best known of these is undoubtedly the Potemkin Steps, designed by Italian architect Franz Boffo. The stairs were designed in such a way, that if you stand at the top, the 192 steps look exactly the same width, even though the bottom steps are much wider.
The steps serve another purpose too. Odessa is Ukraine’s ‘mail-order’ brides capital, and newlyweds can be seen promenading across the top of the steps, or posing by the statue of the Duc de Richieleu for their wedding photographs.
The Duc is known as the city’s founder, and the butt of a well known local joke – which involved looking ‘at the Duke from the Manhole Cover’. Looking at the statue from this angle (i.e, to the left of the statue) the scroll which he clutches in his hand gives the illusion of being…well, something else.
BEYOND THE FAÇADE
Walking from Deribasovskaya Street towards the Potemkin Steps, you can’t miss the Italian façade of Odessa’s Opera and Ballet theatre. In addition to being a great photo opportunity, tickets are very reasonable, and the atmosphere and acoustics are equally impressive.
A sit-down in the City Garden and its bandstand is perfect in mid-afternoon. Plenty of cafés and restaurants adorn the area, as well as one of the few currency exchanges that’ll accept pound sterling.
The open-air military museum 9km from the city centre is well worth a visit. The presentation isn’t immaculate, but the array of exhibits is, despite the entrance not being immediately visible once you step off the bus…
UNDER THE SURFACE
Peeking into the character-filled (yet crumbling) 18th century buildings, and you find almost another world, which has everything from washing flapping on a line, to elderly people along with their thoughts, and possibly a cigarette.
A closer inspection will also uncover perhaps Odessa’s most famous feature – the catacombs. Until the late Soviet era, almost every yard in Odessa had its own entrance into the vast network of catacombs. However, the number of children wandering in and getting lost led to these entrances being closed, never to be re-opened. Today however, guided excursions are available to a small section of the catacombs on the outskirts of the city.
Being a port meant that a black market of goods soon thrived in Odessa, in the 18th century, the catacombs being the ideal way to move and store the contraband.
But during WWII, the network was utilised by the Ukrainian partisans in defence of the city, to strike at the occupying German & Romanian forces, who were responsible for decimating the Jewish community of Odessa, from whom the city derives much of its character.
A tour can range from anything from 3 hours to 12, depending on what you’re willing to pay, and your level of interest in this one of many ‘must-sees’ of Odessa.
WHERE TO STAY
Odessa happily caters for all types, and the Frapolli Hotel in Deribasovskaya Street, with its small and cosy downstairs bar and restaurant is the best example of this flexible approach, and I wouldn’t stay anywhere else. Friendly staff and spacious rooms ensure a more than pleasant stay. The tours offered are wide-ranging and can cater for everyone, and marks an opportunity well worth taking.
For something a bit more up-market, the legendary Londonskaya on Primorsky Boulevard is only 2 minutes from the Potemkin Steps and Opera & Ballet theatre, and offers a superb evening menu in particular. The classy façade is replicated within, and certainly deserves its reputation as the most luxurious hotel in the city.
If however, you’re more interested in mixing it up a bit more, there are a variety of agents who will let apartments at a variety of rates, depending on style and location. This is highly recommended if you wish to sample local culture at all levels, and is an excellent way of improving your spoken Russian (its being the most commonly spoken language in Odessa)
WINING & DINING
The city’s multi-cultural nature (with over 100 nationalities residing there) paves the way for a greatly diverse eating scene.
For traditional Ukrainian food, the ostentatious Kumanets is ideal. Despite the high prices and the need to book well in advance, the service is first rate, and being just opposite the City Garden, offers a tranquil, yet busy experience.
The French influence found at Maman, as well as the more general European feel of Pivnoi Sad, in the City Garden itself, offer a good deal of familiarity to the Western European clientele who like something a little bit closer to home. The ubiquitous German or Ukrainian pans in the latter are superbly priced, if a little heavy on the waistline!
Staying in the centre, only 100 yards or so from Odessa’s cathedral, is the almost anarchic establishment of Legend. This basement restaurant and wine cellar was built in the style of a medieval nobleman’s house, an idea conceived by the owner barely five years ago. Initially concerned by a possible lack of appeal, he’s seen the restaurant grow in stature and reputation, and its warm feel, from the crockery down to the port-cullised restrooms is an almost surreal joy. Two hundred yards down the street is the Merry Berry café, boasting a wide range of teas and hot chocolates, ideal for an after-dinner nightcap.
For those wanting a faster option, Mario’s Pizza on Sadova street offers a cheap and easy Italian menu to go, is open late at night, and easily within walking distance of most of the city centre hotels.
For me however, the cafes, as opposed to the evening restaurants, are what gives Odessa its charm. Klarabara, in the City Garden is, perfect in the sun, and with Lavazza coffee on the menu, one can’t go far wrong. Kompot, on Panteleimonivs’ka Street offers a traditional Ukrainian lunch menu with multiple varieties of sweet and savoury vareneiki and compote that’s made on site, that makes for a cosy (if calorific) experience.
Perhaps the most striking, and the most delicious though, is Lviv Handmade Chocolate at the western end of Deribasovskaya Street. Boasting a chocolaterie and coffee roasting house on the ground floor, and a café on the top floor, this is one rare occasion where your Russian will be answered with Ukrainian. The range of teas, hot chocolates, coffees and desserts is very impressive, and those waning a novelty chocolate or coffee gift for loved ones or friends should also pay a visit.
Odessa is a city that’s full of surprises. And I was the beneficiary of that very phenomenon, when I was asked by a friend to take a class on British culture, Brexit and Trump of all things, at the Pedagological University on my last day in the city.
Combining a mixture of first and fourth year English language students, I found a highly refreshing and dynamic atmosphere present everywhere in the University. The vast majority of the students were studying to satisfy their curiosity and thirst for knowledge, as opposed to merely securing a job which could enable them to buy a car.
Covering everything from the Anglo-American cultural relationship to the ideal itinerary for a UK holiday, I felt sad in a way that a lot of the students may well not be given the opportunity to fulfil their potential, given how Ukrainian higher education is perceived in the wider world.
Despite this, I had reason to smile. Their welcoming nature, humour, intelligence and spark convinced me that despite the instability that racks their country at the time of writing, the future of their country, as well as this energetic and enigmatic city, is in good hands.
Nathan Williams: Associate Director at Coutts, Coach, Tutor and Traveler out of hours