This Legendary Town is as Rich as its Past Suggests. Just Brush up on Your Russian
The harbour city of Odessa is probably one of the Ukraine’s most enigmatic. A visit is an unforgettable experience, particularly in spring or summer, when the beautifully arranged gardens and broad alleys stretch out before you. However, a word of caution: such a trip is only for those who know some Russian, or have a healthy sense of adventure.
Tourists from abroad are rare in the country’s second-largest city and so are Odessites that speak English, much less German. But this is also part of what makes it so charming, to open one’s eyes and discover the inherent European character of its architecture, the rich cultural heritage and the blossoming gardens, to the background music and mystery of the language of strangeness.
Odessa is one of the largest of the Black Sea ports and with 1.1 million inhabitants is a busy industrial city. At its heart lies the famous Opera & Ballet Theatre whose refurbishment is now almost complete – designed in the 1880s by the Austrian architects Felner & Gelmer. To any Viennese, the similarity to the Burgtheater is immediately visible in its round center with its grand entry way and the Renaissance features of its picturesque facade. Though here in Odessa, the theatre is not situated on the main boulevard but slightly uphill close to the Town Hall, which gives it a majestic position in the heart of the city center.
Performances of operas or ballet are infrequent, however, due to shortage of funds. But the renowned ballet company is worth seeing as it surpasses even its own international reputation. And though for most Europeans the prices are moderate, to say the least, for the majority of the Odessites the opera is still a luxury, and so one finds most of them enjoying a Sunday afternoon in the City Garden (Gorsad), just taking a stroll away from the enigmatic Opera House.
That particular Sunday afternoon, old and young had gathered here to listen to the Music Academy Wind Orchestra for an open-air performance of arrangements of popular music and dances. When the jazzy solo clarinet put on a mellow tune with a faster pulse, the elderly raised for a lively dance in the square joined by children wiggling and jumping and swinging each other about. One only wished to know more Russian to join in the conversation and the festivities.
The occasional horn of a ship or ferry reminds you how close the centre is to the harbour. And indeed in a few minutes you reach the Prymorsky Bulvar, a glorious alley. Here the younger generation particularly find the setting for romance and almost all the benches are occupied with young couples in varying degrees of entanglement. Halfway through the alley, the path opens out onto the Potemkin Steps, famously featured in Sergei Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin (1925): one hundred ninety-two steps in all lead towards the harbour and open the view onto the Black Sea. The steps were built in 1837, and the film tells the bloody story of a mutiny in late 19th century Tsarist Russia aboard the battleship Potemkin Tavrichesky, which sparked off by meagre maggot-ridden food rations and was violently suppressed by the army.
At the top of the stairs is a statue in honour of Duc de Richelieu (1766 – 1822), in a Roman toga, erected in 1828. The former French Prime Minister of the Bourbon Restoration served as a highly effective administrator of Odessa during his years in exile for 11 years from 1803 to 1814, laying the groundwork for a prosperous city. Following his majestic glance across the steps, the view opens onto the Black Sea, though today it is distorted by the prominent and luxurious Hotel Odessa right at the entrance of the harbour.
Leaving the harbour and the historic part of the city, the Ekaterininskaya Street brings us back to the Black Sea Hostel; not to be mistaken for the Black Sea Hotel, whose questionable reputation is the stuff of local gossip. The hostel is located close to the centre and lovely, administered by and English-speaking staff. Hostel guests receive a free English map of Odessa, as well as advice and directions to any sights one wishes to visit.
Most guests here are not usually tourists from abroad, but are either there for Russian language courses or temporary work contracts.
Over a glass of rich red Odessa wine in the evening you soon hear tales of the varied, often colourful backgrounds of those with whom one is sharing a room. A new arrival that evening was Michael, an American contract worker in Greece and who was travelling through Eastern Europe. Tired of a two-day ordeal on a Turkish ferry, he talked about his immediate future.
"I don’t have much money and I will be back in the States in 18 months" he said nevertheless with a charming smile," but I want to see Europe before I go home. Who knows if I ever will have the chance to come back." Odessa, therefore is only a short one-day stay for him before going on to Kiev, "but one to be remembered for its charm."
Above all, it is impossible not to be impressed with the richness of Ukrainian culture and the warm hospitality of the Odessites, as real in life as in legend.
The Ukraine has lifted the visa requirements for American and EU nationals. Stays up to 90 days do not require a visa, just a valid passport and a return ticket.
Flights from Vienna are available daily with ‘Austrian’ for about €750, from Budapest with ‘Malev’ for about €250.
The Black Sea Hostel (blackseahostels.com) is located in the City Center. One night in the hostel costs about €18 in summer and €15 in winter, 24-hour reception, light breakfast and high-speed Internet included.