Day 5-6: Odessa, Ukraine

by - August 30, 2012

Day 5: Odessa Historical Centre

Odessa Opera House
The trains in Ukraine aren’t a whole different to the ones in Russia - which probably doesn’t come as a surprise.  Arriving at 7am after about as good a sleep as it is ever possible to get on a sleeper train, we walked through Odessa looking for our hostel.  The outskirts of the city are very rundown and the guys were starting to question my judgement about coming here.  This was furthered by the ominous staircase that led up to our hostel, looking like something straight out of Crime and Punishment.  I went up by myself first, just in case I had got it wrong, climbing the three flights of stairs and tentatively knocking on the door.  I nearly wet myself when a giant of a man opened the door and looked down at me asking what I wanted.  It turned out to be Adam, the hostel owner, who turned out to be an Ausralian gentle giant who had studied in Bristol. I called the other guys up and we settled into the TIU Front Page hostel which we immediately loved.  We cooked ourselves breakfast and then headed out into the city in the rain.

Potemkin Steps, Odessa
I have to admit that our first impressions of Odessa was that it wasn’t really up to much.  It is one of those cities that is more about the ambience than any specific sights, so we walked through the historical district with its pretty museums, government buildings and opera house - the opera house is widely regarded as one of the most beautiful in the world.  Unfortunately the rain didn’t help the city and spoiled the look a bit.  Our aim was to find Odessa’s main tourist site, the Potemkin Steps, which had been used in the film “Battleship Potemkin” by Sergei Eisenstein during the communist period in Russian.  It included the famous scene where a baby in a pram is knocked down the long flight of steps to the bottom.  Unfortunately it is one of those tourist sights that you can only really appreciate from the pictures from the air that you see in guidebooks and can never quite get the angle for on the ground.  We carried on through the historical centre, passing semi-sights like old town houses and museums that looked faded in the rain, deciding that maybe Odessa had been overrated on the internet.  Feeling a bit glum we went into a pizza restaurant for lunch that turned out not to have any pizza.  While we were in the restaurant however, the weather changed and we left to find that the whole feel of the city had changed.  We nipped into the Western and Eastern Artifacts museum that turned out to be nearly entirely ‘out of order’ (as the Ukrainian for closed appears to be), before literally re-visiting everywhere that we had been in the morning to see what it felt like in the sunshine.

Inside the Opera House
As we had been up early with the train, we decided to head back to the hostel to relax and clean up before our evening entertainment - a visit to the Odessa Opera House to see Verdi’s Requiem performed, with mid-range seats costing us the tiny cost of 3.90GBP.  It is probably the cheapest place in the world you can get an opera without it being rubbish - and is also probably one of the best places to see the opera, even if they say the quality of the performances have dipped since Soviet days.  We couldn’t tell a difference in quality though - it was a really good spectacle and very different to the standard backpacking sights we had been seeing.  Annoyingly, the tickets clearly said that cameras were not allowed, so I left mine at the hostel, only to find the Ukrainians happily snapping away all through the performance.  Luckily Katie had her camera with her so I borrowed hers.  After the opera we went out to a brilliant Ukrainian restaurant for a traditional meal in a pretty park, before going to a few bars to sample Odessa’s nightlife - supposedly the best in Eastern Europe.

Day 6: The Catacombs

Benny and Katie in the tunnels
Having said that the Opera was off the standard backpacker trail, we were ready to go one better today.  The amazing architecture of Odessa is almost entirely made from limestone that is found naturally a few metres below the surface of the city and surrounding countryside.  As a result, a vast network of shallow mines and catacombs is found in the city - a network that is reportedly 2000 km long (the famous network underneath Paris is only 500 km long).  They aren’t really a historical sight as such though - there are no hidden churches or tombs down there as it is just a mine.  It has historical significance however as it has often been used as a hide out, by people ranging from Russian smugglers to Ukrainian partisans fighting the Nazis. A tour guide had advertisements in our hostel so we booked him for the five of us plus a Dutch guy we had met in the hostel.  He picked us up and we travelled to the outskirts of the city on a public bus.

A miner’s poem
The tour wasn’t particularly official - we were sneaking into an entrance to the catacombs in somebody’s garden (we were told to move quickly and quietly into the entrance).  Luckily our two guides knew their way, as there are lots of stories floating around the internet about people getting lost and never being seen again.  Apparently Ukrainians come down all the time for parties and the like - complete with music, which is impressive considering the high risk of a cave-in.  We spent about an hour and a half in the caves, which varied in height between us standing tall and squatting.  We had no idea what to expect and it was a good experience - especially for Katie who seemed a bit nervous at first.  As I say, it wasn’t a particularly historical location (though a few poems written by miners were left on the walls), but was interesting nonetheless.

Odessa beach
We got the bus back into town and spent the rest of our day wandering around the city in the sunshine.  Having walked around the historical centre several times, we headed for one of Odessa’s beaches, just to see how it was.  It was a nice walk along the coast, but the views are almost entirely of Odessa’s giant cargo port and the beach was nothing special - made worse in the knowledge that the water is well known as being filthy.  It was getting late in the day, so we headed back to the hostel via one last look through the historical centre, getting some street food for dinner.  At 11pm we got a taxi to the train station (5 people plus the driver in a standard taxi) before getting the midnight train to Simferopol on the Crimean Peninsular, for the last part of the trip.

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