Odessa? Oh-yes-sa!

Thursday, April 19, 2018 Road Junkies 0 Comments


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.

  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.