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Published: October 23rd 2016
Bolshaya Moskovskaya Hotel
Beautiful building on the main pedestrian drag of Vulytsya Derybasivska.
A few years ago in Belgrade
, I had a conversation with an Irish guy that I have never forgotten. I'm sure I have mentioned this before somewhere in another blog entry but we were talking about weird geographical obsessions; a single, unusual place that for no particular reason, you just really want to visit. For me, that place is Minsk and I have already had two attempts to visit the place aborted. For Luke, the Irish guy, that place was Odessa. I wonder if he ever made it; if I had kept in touch with him, I'd have told him that I had now made it - that I had fulfilled his Odessan obsession.
And with a new country came new weather. It was cold. And it rained. Oh, how it rained. This was the first rain I had experienced since a storm in Macedonia
It was pretty abrupt too. It never ends gradually however - one day it's hot and sunny and the next day- boom! It's autumn. It's been this way as long as I've remembered. My long run of days with 25+ degrees and sunshine was over - I now had at least one month of cooler
One of many nice little stretches of beach on the coastal path up from Arkadia back towards the city.
weather ahead of me.
I had always imagined Odessa to be a bustling, rough n' tumble port city, like I expected Marseille
to be. And given its proximity to troubled Crimea and seeing the city appear in one of Jason Staham's Transporter movies, I also thought that the place might be a little dodgy.
Like most bus stations, Odessa's certainly does look a bit dodgy and it seems a Soviet tradition to have a big market right next to it and the busyness and dodgy characters around had me a little apprehensive; chavvy-looking, squatting Slavs in track suits stare me down as I walk past with macho, slightly threatening, disrespectful grins on their faces as they see the unusual sight around here of a conspicuous Asian guy dressed like a Westerner.
But away from the bus station, the city is actually quite pretty. Where Tiraspol
was simply a Soviet outpost, Odessa has a bit of history dating to the 18th century where it was a major trading post due to its position on the Black Sea - indeed Odessa's port is the biggest on the Black Sea and with 1m inhabitants, is the third most populous city in the
Inside Spaso-Preobrazhensky Cathedral
Sneaky, forbidden picture that I took. It is palatial in there.
Ukraine. Due to its history it has tree-lined streets and lovely neoclassical buildings; due to its population, the place has a busy vibe and a nice energy to it, a world away from Tiraspol. For a start there were loads of ATMs (that I could actually withdraw cash from), well-stocked 24hr supermarkets and cool-looking eateries, one of which I ate at.
I don't know why I didn't think of it before but when I sat down, I realised I couldn't read a single, Cyrillic thing on the menu. Only the English of the waiter helped me order a grilled half-chicken. That was about as exciting as things got that evening though; unless you want to count getting through the gauntlet comprised of four locked doors - one without a key - and no lighting that got me back into my empty hostel.
The next day was quite possibly the worst weather I've had for sightseeing all trip. The mercury plunged to just ten degrees, it was constantly raining and the wind had blown over a few trees overnight.
Odessa however, is a surprisingly beautiful city. It is well-kept and is a pleasure to walk around (even better when it's
Odessa's main pedestrian street in the old town centre.
not raining), with a few outstanding buildings doubling as major landmarks. There are plenty of nice cafes, restaurants and bars to hang out in too.
The most impressive sight was perhaps the interior of the city's cathedral which is palatial; rather than a mish-mash of colour, there is a white theme, sharp frescoes and lots of gold. I couldn't take pictures in there unfortunately - there was a staff member keeping a close eye on me to make sure I didn't - but I managed to sneak a couple, although they weren't from the angles I would've ideally wanted.
The main pedestrian street of Derybasivska is a cobblestone delight but Odessa's other most famous sight is the Potemkin Stairs - which of course were half hidden from the public for restoration. It's a necessary evil - and something I had a bit of bad luck with a few years ago when seemingly every sight on every trip I went on was covered in scaffolding - and I guess they have to do it some time, so why not when I'm in town.
Perhaps Odessa's most peculiar sight is the Witch House - a building that looks like just a facade
Lovely place for a stroll - even in the pouring rain. This path leads from the City Hall to the Potemkin Steps.
but is actually triangular in shape, fooling your eyes. This trickery is why it is called what it is.
I managed three hours of sightseeing which was more than I had wanted out in the wet and the cold; I was getting brain freeze, my hands were so cold I could hardly use them properly and I didn't use my camera as much for fear of it getting too wet. The two jackets that I luckily decided to wear were both soaked through as were my shoes and socks. Time for a shower and a cup of borsch
(Russian/Ukrainian style soup) then!
I'd been told by all who had been here that Ukraine is super-cheap; and I would definitely concur. In Odessa, a city with so many stylish shops, cafes and restaurants, I found this to be surprising. 1€ gets you a long way here and a 'small' backpacker's dinner of a kebab or a noodle box would only put you back about 1€-2€ and things like chocolate bars, pastries and big pots of yoghurt would all cost less than 0.50€ each. Therefore I decided to treat myself by going to a slightly gimmicky Ukrainian restaurant to try some
Ukrainian restaurant serving Ukrainian fare, with a rural Ukrainian theme.
With the staff dressed in traditional clothing and the restaurant decorated completely with rural, Ukrainian objects and textiles, it looked like a place set up for tourists and indeed there are English menus here, even if most of the people in the restaurant that night were locals.
Although no Ukrainian would care to admit it, Ukrainian cuisine is pretty much the same as Russian; some might say even identical. Take my soup for example; borsch
, which I had for the first time in Russia
. I love beetroot so it was always going to go down well, but I have had tastier soups. The best item I ordered were the meat-filled pancakes, the meat shredded so fine it almost resembled purée. Perhaps I should've ordered something else other than dumplings with meat - they were too similar to the pancakes but not as tasty. They also came in a portion much bigger than I was expecting and having already had soup and pancakes, I only just managed to finish them. I had planned on having salo
- coagulated pork fat - stuffed with chocolate, raisins and nuts, but there was no way that was going to happen. As this
Lovely 19th century shopping arcade on Vulytsya Derybasivska.
was a proper restaurant, the bill came to about 8€ - which for three dishes and a drink is pretty good value!
I had also been told that Ukrainians aren't exactly the friendliest people too and that misery is their default facial expression. So with these expectations and having got used to the lack of smiling in Eastern Europe, I wasn't too fazed when I discovered the anecdotes about Ukrainians to be true. Despite this however, there is still the odd occasion where I can't tell whether a local is just donning their default facial expression or whether they are being genuinely rude; either way, if you're not used to it, it can be intimidating.
One thing I didn't expect was that Odessa had beaches! Alas, it was now too cold to swim but I thought I'd go check them out anyway.
And I was surprised by the amount of flashness, hotels and flash hotels down by Arkadia, an area just behind the beach that was like a mix between Coney Island and Playa Del Carmen
- except that the beach is nowhere near as good as in Mexico!
There are loads of beach clubs like you'd find in Playa
Who knew that Odessa was the Ibiza of Ukraine?
del Carmen, but they all looked in a bit of a state at the time. They were all being packed up for the winter and I don't think the previous day's deluge did anything to help either. To be honest though, I was a little surprised to see that Odessa even had beaches and beach development - it looks like the place would go off at the height of summer. I guess that Odessa is one of the few in-country options available for Ukrainians looking for a beachside party.
Walking along a coastal footpath back towards town that was popular among joggers and cyclists, I noticed that there were lots of nice little stretches of beach and in some places the water looks nice and clean. But they are all interrupted at regular intervals by ugly, concrete piers. The developments nearer to town are a bit older - a little quaint - apart from the glass monstrosity that is the Nero Dolphinarium. It was a little juxtaposed having the flash dolphinarium next to cafes and stalls that look like they've 'round since the 70s. There were some dolphins being trained in the outdoor pools which was pretty cool to see;
What beach resorts looked like forty years ago.
even if I believe that dolphins should be doing flips and shit in the sea, rather than in an aquarium.
I have to admit that I didn't find Odessa overly tourist-friendly. There seemed to be no tourist services at all or even a tourist office, let alone a walking tour or anything like that. The lady who owned the hostel was nice and friendly although she really only did the bare minimum as a host. For things like sorting out transport connections, where to catch buses, where to buy bus tickets, working out the public tram system - I had to work it out all by myself. I also had no Lonely Planet entry for Odessa, so even sorting out what I needed to see was a DIY job.
And doing things DIY is even harder when you can't even read, let alone speak the language. Ukraine has perhaps been the most difficult place I've been to so far in this respect. When something is in Cyrillic, you can't even say what is written - so I end up eating at places where I can point at stuff.
One more observation about Odessa; there are loads of redheads/gingers/gingas/fire-crotches/rangas/Fanta-pantses here!
These well kept gardens are a nice place to chill out. When it's not raining, that is. The statue in the foreground is that of Leonid Utesov, a famous Soviet jazz singer from the 60s who hailed from Odessa.
Ireland might have a new contender for number of redheads.
Anyway, three days was enough for Odessa and the weather and my empty hostel ensured that I had some free time to make some plans!
I was originally hoping to stay with my friend Corb in Zurich
but he's not going to be in town while I am there. Therefore, I ended up booking a flight back to London for October 23rd - the same date that my first backpacking trip around Europe
ended exactly nine years ago. Pretty poignant then.
I hadn't originally wanted to go back to London before heading across to Asia, but it's the best place for me to arrange visas, it will be nice to go somewhere familiar for a couple of weeks, it'll be nice to stay put for a couple or weeks and I have some other things that I need to sort out there - so it made sense to go back. I'm looking forward to it, to be honest.
But it means that I now have a deadline to meet - I now have a month to get from Odessa to Basel. It means that I don't have as much flexibility with my plans
Notice anything unusual about this building?
now and that I will have to keep moving fairly quickly. I got a bit burned out doing that in Central America when I finally booked a flight to leave the continent then; hopefully it won't be the same this time around (read: it will).
Therefore I have to move. Next stop: Kiev.
До скорої зустрічі (do skoroi zustrіchі)!
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