CHAPTER 13:  IN WHICH WE DISCOVER A HIDDEN GEM

Balkans & Beyond, Days 23-25:  Chisinau, Moldova to Odessa, Ukraine.  Arranged by our hotel in Chisinau, our driver Alex picked us up promptly at 10 Tuesday morning for our transfer to Odessa in a spotlessly clean, late model Volkswagen sedan. Our first question to the part-time driver/full-time firefighter was what route he would be taking. As he would explain, our concerns about going through Transnistra, a disputed territory of Moldova which declared its independence from Moldova with a military conflict in 1992 and is now occupied by friendly Russian troops, were unfounded.  The mini-state's independence has been acknowledged by only three similar non-recognized states.

Regardless of what we have read from other travelers about uncomfortable experiences going through this militarized zone, Alex assured us that he regularly drives tourists to Tirasapol, the center of Transnistran government, with no problems. At any rate, he had decided on a different route to Odessa, bypassing Transnistra, because he believed the roads were better. And as we were to be reminded, ‘better’ is like beauty—in the eyes of the beholder (or the seat of the driver).
The 112-mile journey took four hours because the washboard road prevented Alex from driving any faster without bouncing us around the car like pinballs. And this was the good road. Beginning in Sarajevo next week-end, this journey will turn into a road trip for about four weeks, and we expect we’ll learn more about “good” roads—and border crossings.  Even at a friendly border, where Moldovan and Ukranian governments have combined their resources into one passport control checkpoint and where we were escorted by a driver who spoke both languages, the process took what for us seemed an uncomfortably long time. Had we been on our own, we would have probably been concerned by the 20 minutes we sat there in the car after turning our passports over to the border agents. Following Alex’s lead, however, we learned that some matters just take time. This will serve us well in upcoming weeks.

Upon our arrival in Odessa, we were ready to stretch our legs after dropping our bags off at the hotel we had booked. After walking a mile to the city center and finding a restaurant for lunch, we decided we'd rather stay in that area and called for an Uber driver to take us to our original hotel to pick up our bags and return us to the new place we had just booked. When he arrived, it was quickly clear that he did not understand English. Using the Google Translate app, we displayed on a phone screen our request in Ukranian. He again indicated he didn’t understand. After Google translated the request to Russian for us, he caught on and we were on our way. When we arrived and I pulled out my phone to book the return with Uber, we learned at least one English word that he knew: “Cash!”
Cathedral Park
In the remainder of that afternoon and over the next two days, we fell for Odessa. It’s hard to pin down exactly what makes it so likable. We didn’t find the people extrovertedly friendly—though they certainly weren’t inhospitable—but we felt a tone and spirit to the city that appealed to us, even with a communication barrier. Though Ukranian is the official language of the country, people in Odessa speak Russian, a holdover from the Soviet days. Most people we encountered, outside our hotel and restaurants, spoke almost no English, only a few functional words for their jobs. Yet we felt quite comfortable, welcome, and safe, in the city.
Odessa port
Ukraine’s third most populous city, Odessa is a major Black Sea port and a popular tourist destination for Ukranians and others in the region. Though various settlements had existed at the city’s location going back to ancient Greece, Odessa was founded in 1794 by a decree of Catherine the Great, whose Russian Empire had wrested the area from the Turks two years before.
Monument to Catherine and other city founders
Just two years after her pronouncement, Catherine died and her son and successor, Czar Paul I, was not so enthusiastic about the new city his mother had established on the Black Sea.  For Odessa to thrive, the development of its port facilities was essential, but Paul had other ideas for how to spend the money allocated for that purpose.  In an effort to persuade the new ruler of the advantages of having a seaport at his disposal, Odessa officials reportedly sent oranges and other tropical fruit to him at his winter palace in St. Petersburg.
Monument to Orange
The juicy goodness of the fruits moved the czar, and Odessa's funding was restored, ensuring its future and prompting city officials to build a monument to the orange.

An exiled French nobleman, the Duke of Richelieu, had joined the Russian Army and received the favor of Catherine, but like Odessa, fell out of favor when her son rose to the throne.  After Paul's assassination, however, his successor, Alexander I, appointed Richelieu governor of Odessa.  Under his 11-year tenure, the city grew in size and significance as he invested his talent and resources in its development.  A statue of the Duke in a prominent place in the city attests to his importance in its early years.
Duke of Richelieu returned to his native France after revolutionaries were ousted.
Odessa became a cultural and intellectual center of the Russian Empire, as its population expanded to  become Russia's third largest city.  During a 19th century construction boom, the city added numerous buildings with Mediterranean influence—baroque, Renaissance, Classicist and later Art Nouveau.  Today some have been restored while others are awaiting their preservation.


The city's two most recognized and praised buildings are the Odessa National Academic Opera and Ballet Theatre and the Passage Hotel.  Though we were not able to book a tour to see the spectacular interior  of the opera house, we looked at its baroque exterior from our hotel window.
Opera House  (photo from Wikipedia - Tour buses blocked the view while we were here.)
The Odessa Passage was built as a hotel near the end of the 19th century and in its day was the country's most opulent.  Shops, restaurants and offices on the lower floors now share space with a small budget hotel on upper floors, but its architecture is still admired.  When we visited, art students were sitting in the courtyard sketching the famous structure.
Odessa Passage
Perhaps the best known symbol of Odessa, however, is an enormous stairway leading from the port to the city.  Originally known as the Giant Staircase, or the Richelieu Steps (because his statue is at the top), the structure is now called the Potemkin Steps, renamed for a famous battle during Soviet days.
Potemkin Steps
The 192-step staircase is divided by nine broad landings, but its designers incorporated an optical illusion.  Looking down from the top, one sees only the landings.  Standing at the bottom of the stairs looking up, only the steps are visible.  For those who don't want to make the climb back up or want a faster way down, a funicular runs alongside the steps.
Deribasovskaya Street
One of Odessa's features that really won us over is its walkability.  Not only is this city of 1.2 million quite compact, it encourages pedestrianism.  A favorite spot of both visitors and locals is Deribasovskaya Street, a six-block pedestrian thoroughfare in the heart of the city.  Lined with restaurants and shops, the street is also home to City Garden, Odessa's first park, established in the early 1800s.
City Garden
An empty chair is one of the park's most popular features.  The sculpture references a novel, 12 Chairs, by a local author.  Not only is it a perfect photo spot, legend has it that wishes made while sitting in the chair will come true.
The Chair
At the top of the Potemkin Steps, the tree-lined Primorsky Boulevard offers another appealing place for pedestrians to wander.  In the evenings, colorful lights decorate the trees and enchant those who take their evening stroll along the cliff-top promenade.
Primorsky Boulevard
North and south of the city, Odessa offers sandy beaches for vacationers to enjoy the sun.  In mid-April, it was a bit cool for too much lounging, but summertime draws large crowds here.
Lanzheron Beach
We can't finish our say on Odessa without a word about its cats.  The city is home to thousands of stray cats.  Actually a better term might be neighborhood cats.  In many places on the street, in front of businesses, and in parks, evidence abounds that the people of Odessa are taking great care of these cats.  Truly stray cats never looked so healthy.  They're all over the city, wandering at will, hanging out with people working on construction projects, nosing after children playing in the park.  Even if Odessa had nothing else to recommend it, a city that loves its cats is definitely on our good list.
Tomorrow we'll reluctantly leave this lovely city on the sea and fly to Bulgaria's capital of Sofia for a few days.  Odessa will be a hard act to follow.  Just so you know, Sofia.

TUESDAY, 17 APRIL — THURSDAY, 19 APRIL, 2018
  3-Day Stats
    •  Started in:  Chisinau, Moldova
    •  Ended in:  Odessa, Ukraine
    •  Miles driven:  120
    •  Miles walked:  19.07
    •  Weather:  52° to 76°, sunny
    •  Strollers on Primorsky Boulevard:  3,612
    •  Odessa Street Cats:  4,835
    •  Unhealthy Odessa Street Cats:  0
    •  Letterboxes in Odessa:  1 (planted by us)
    •  Restoration Projects Underway:  419
    •  Other U.S. Tourists we Met:  1 (from Lake Odessa, Michigan)

Loved:  Before leaving home, our plans called for us to fly to Kiev from Chisinau.  When we learned there was a train to Odessa, we changed our course.  Even though the train wasn't running, we can't imagine enjoying Kiev any more than we liked Odessa.

Lacking:  American tourists.  As in Chisinau, we encountered far fewer Americans than in Western Europe and even in the cities we visited earlier on this trip.  Odessa is really a hidden gem; we wonder how long it will be before American tourists discover it.

Learned:  Even though there was significantly more of a language barrier in Odessa than we've experienced in any other European country (except maybe Moldova), we were still able to enjoy the city.

More Photos from Odessa
Transfiguration (Orthodox) Cathedral in central Odessa 
Transfiguration Cathedral 
Cathedral's High Altar
Cathedral exterior
A lush green space surrounding the cathedral is well-used. 
Odessa City Hall at the end of Primorsky Boulevard.
Opera House (R) in the evening
Imagine all this extra weight kept off nearby bridges from the love locks on the sculpture.
Wonder whether Willie Nelson knows he graces the cover of this restaurant menu? 
Another small but active synagogue, this one in Odessa.
Monument to the Unknown Sailor, honoring Soviet sailors who died "liberating" Odessa in World War II 
A sample of water from the Black Sea for our collection
Popular photo spot and performing spot near the opera house 
Potemkin Steps in the evening
From the top, only the landings are seen. 
Signpost near City Hall enumerates distances from Odessa to world cities.

CHAPTER 12:  IN WHICH THE ENERGIZER BUNNY ABDUCTS EASTER

Balkans & Beyond, Days 21 & 22:  Bucharest, Romania to Chisinau, Moldova.  Two weeks ago we arrived in Bratislava on Easter (the Catholic/Protestant version) followed by the Easter Monday national holiday.  Last Sunday we flew into Cluj, Romania, and learned that it was again Easter Sunday (by the Orthodox calendar) followed by the Easter Monday holiday.  And, though we laughingly assured ourselves it couldn't happen again—yes, it did.

Yesterday we flew from Bucharest to Chisinau (KEESH-eh-NOW), capital of the Republic of Moldova.  When we reached our hotel, we learned that we had arrived on Memorial Easter and that the next day was—a national holiday, Memorial Easter Monday, or Parents Day.  (Of course it is, because we're just so good at it by now.)
A cemetery on Memorial Easter Monday (photo from 326nfranklin.blogspot.com)
In Moldova, where 93% of the people are members of the Moldovan Orthodox Church, Memorial Easter, also called Easter of the Dead, is a very big deal.  And on this special Monday, thousands of Moldovans, dressed as if they're attending a wedding, flock to the cemeteries where their ancestors are buried, bearing gifts and food.  To honor the deceased and ensure that they are resting in peace, relatives and friends eat and drink graveside and celebrate the lives of their deceased loved ones.  The city provides extra buses and opens hundreds of parking spaces near cemeteries on this day to accommodate the throngs of cemetery visitors.

As mentioned, we had no idea about any of this until we were enlightened by the hotel staff when we checked in.  Meanwhile, we had booked a guided tour of the city today through a Canadian-based website called ToursByLocals.com.  We had mixed results with their agents last year—perfect in St. Petersburg, pathetic in Minsk.  In fact, we booked this event on a credit the agency issued us last year because of our atrocious experience in Belarus.
Nativity Cathedral, Chisinau
In all fairness, the city of Chisinau (the one called "the most boring capital in Europe") does not offer that many wonderful places for our guide Valery to choose from.  We compounded his challenge by showing up on a day when all the museums and government buildings were closed.  But he made the best of a difficult situation and even threw in a private concert at his alma mater where he earned a degree in music.
Valery shares some of his musical compositions.
His second university degree was in international relations and English, and it showed.  He was quite knowledgeable about the history of his country and many others.  His willingness to talk openly about Moldova's past and current situations made for a fascinating three hours.
The cathedral was built of local limestone.
First stop on our tour was the Nativity Cathedral near our hotel.  Valery explained that before Moldova was absorbed by the Russian empire in the early 1800s, Chisinau was a city of wooden and clay buildings which were regularly inundated by an overflowing river.  An ambitious building program by the Russians brought stone and masonry construction to the city as well as flood control and improved streets.  The orthodox cathedral was part of this building boom.
Christ is Risen, the LED lights proclaim on Memorial Easter.  
During the Soviet period, the cathedral, like most other religious buildings, was repurposed as an art gallery.  The city's only church allowed to continue functioning was St. Theodor Tiron Church, whose construction was financed by two brothers in the mid-1800s.
Situated near the cathedral, the Triumphal Arch was built to commemorate the victory of the Russian Empire over the Ottoman Empire in Moldova in the early 19th century.  Like most countries of Eastern Europe, Moldova has been occupied and claimed by any number of imperial kingdoms over the course of many centuries.  According to Valery, a bit of baksheesh to the Ottoman rulers had bought Moldova a degree of autonomy, which ended after the country was "liberated" by the Russians, the event memorialized by the arch.
After 100 years in the Russian Empire, Moldova was joined to Greater Romania after World War I, surprisingly the only time the two countries have been united, despite the fact that their people share a common ancestry and language.  The Romanian union lasted only until the country was occupied by Germany in World War II.  Moldova was delivered from German bondage in 1945 by the Soviet Union, which then insisted that it become the Moldovan Soviet Socialist Republic and built a large park with numerous Soviet Brutalist monuments celebrating Moldovan "liberation."
Jewish Cemetery
At our request, Valery took us to an old Jewish cemetery at the outskirts of town.  Like in so many parts of Europe, the Jewish population of Moldova shrank from 270,000 before World War II to about 15,000 today.  As a result, this large Jewish cemetery with more than 25,000 graves has fallen into disrepair.  Some graves were damaged by bombing in World War II and others have been swallowed up by thick vegetation.
Chava insisted on taking our photo.
We also stopped by one of two small synagogues still in Chisinau.  Before the Holocaust, there were 77, according to Chava, an Israeli woman we met who serves as a volunteer at the synagogue and helps to organize outreach programs.  After the disastrous condition of the cemetery, seeing the enthusiasm and hearing about the many activities and publications organized by this small organization left us quite encouraged about the local Jewish community.
The bus station
When we leave Chisinau tomorrow, the next stop on our journey is Odessa, Ukraine's seaport on the Black Sea.  Our research indicated that daily train service runs between Chisinau and Odessa.  But when we talked with the hotel concierge today about helping us book a ticket, she contacted the Moldovan railway and flatly stated that the train to Odessa operates only on Friday, Saturday and Sunday.  (Later we learned from Valery that the daily service, which travels a different route from the weekend fast trains, has been suspended while a bridge is under repair.) 

Knowing there was nothing to keep us in Chisinau for three more days, we asked about alternate modes of transport.  We already knew air was out of the question with no direct flights between the two cities, only 112 miles apart.  With connections, the minimum air travel time—through Istanbul or Moscow or Kiev or Vienna—was 15 hours, and the fares were exorbitant.  A rental car was out of the question because no rental company would allow us to take the car across the border and into Ukraine.
Moldovan marshrutka
With a straight face, the concierge suggested we could take a bus.  That sounded fine until we probed about the schedule.  Was it available online?  They leave every hour, she assured us.  Just go to the bus station and you'll find a bus going to Odessa and leaving soon.  But there's no schedule?  Well, it's a small bus, she finally conceded.  "Are you talking about a marshrutka?" we asked.  "Yes," she smiled in response, "a maxi taxi."  

If we were 30 years younger, we probably wouldn't hesitate to jump into one of these questionable rust buckets, with their reputation for reckless drivers, just for the sake of adventure.  But to ride five hours at our age across what we hear can be a difficult border crossing without an English-speaking driver?  We could go on about the reasons we had to pass on the marshrutka experience.  Suffice it to say, we finally settled on booking the transfer through the hotel, with the same type of car and English-speaking driver who delivered us from the airport.

So tomorrow we'll be moving on to Odessa for a few days, looking forward to seeing whether the Black Sea is really black.  (Having seen the Red Sea, we have our doubts.)

By next Sunday, we'll be in Bulgaria.  We think there's a 50-50 chance it'll be Easter!

SUNDAY, 15 APRIL & MONDAY, 16 APRIL, 2018
    •  Started in:  Bucharest, Romania
    •  Ended in:  Chisinau, Moldova
    •  Miles flown:  222
    •  Miles walked:  11.97
    •  Weather:  43° to 72°, sunny to partly cloudy
    •  Marshrutkas around town:  388
    •  Shops closed today:  92%
    •  Schools closed today:  100%
    •  Easters we've experienced this year:  3 (so far)
   

Loved:  The experience of meeting and spending quality time with a local.

Lacking:  Attractive options for getting from Chisinau to Odessa.

Learned:  That Easter still ain't over until it's over where you are AND where you're going next Sunday.


Romanian triskaidekaphobia:  Apparently it wasn't enough that we arrived in Bucharest on Friday the 13th and then were targeted by con men, the city took one more shot before we left.  While sitting in the gate area awaiting our flight from Bucharest to Chisinau, we were notified that there had been an equipment change and I had been upgraded to business class.  Unfortunately Ken was reassigned to a seat on 13, the last row on the tiny plane.  We were dismayed.  The number 13 has done us wrong so many times we assiduously avoid row 13 or even flying on the 13th. 

As it turned out, we were one of at least six couples who had been split in the seat reassignment jumble.  Once everyone boarded, all the mismatches negotiated a fruit basket turnover to reunite with our flight partners, and I joined Ken in row 13.  

Thankfully, we didn't have long to fret on the one-hour flight.  As the pilot enjoyed landing the small plane on a long runway in Chisinau, taking his sweet time to brake, I found myself repeatedly chanting the names of three people dear to me who were born on a 13th:  Mother, Cathy, Karen. Mother, Cathy, Karen.  Apparently the mantra worked because we were soon inside the terminal going through passport control.  Maybe the experience will make me a little less fearful of 13—until it bites me again.

More Photos
The busy Bucharest airport
Security screening, the universal experience of the 21st century flyer 
The entire interior of our plane to Chisinau
With a plane too small for a jet bridge, we bussed to the terminal again.
Loved the "Family Lane" at passport control in Chisinau
Nativity Cathedral interior
A special place just for love locks in Chisinau's Cathedral Park