Odessa is one of Europe’s great cities. It has long, tree lined boulevards flanked by impressive buildings. It has a beautiful opera house, and its historic centre is high above the port, at the top of the Potemkin Steps, the city’s best known attraction, made famous in Sergei Eisenstein’s 1925 film, The Battleship Potemkin.
Odessa would be much better known were it not so isolated. It appeared tantalisingly close to me, living in Bucharest. But flying is not an option- there are no direct flights- and crossing into Ukraine via the Danube Delta is impossible. So the only option for me is the long trip via Moldova. I’ve been to Odessa twice, the first time on a day trip from Chisinau after a work visit to Moldova. It was winter, and I visited several of the churches, ending up at the Potemkin Steps towards dusk. I walked out to the end of the long pier, reaching the small St Nicholas (sailors’) church at the end. I went back up the steps using the funicular, in the dark.
The weather was mild for November, and there were many people promenading down Primorsky, the path which runs from the top of the steps towards the opera area. The opera itself, floodlit, made a strong impression seeing it for the first time. As I looked at the elegant Hotel Mozart, I was sorry that the trip had been so short. But I’d had a chance to get a feel of the atmosphere of this vibrant port, with its beautiful architecture.
Odessa is a relatively modern city and quite cosmopolitan. The key figure in its development was Cardinal Armand de Richelieu, a descendant of the better known member of his family, of Three Musketeers infamy. Armand de Richelieu fled the French Revolution, reaching Russia in 1795, a year before the death of Catherine the Great, whose reign saw a great expansion of Russian power. (It was around the same time that Russian settlers colonised Crimea, and for the first time outnumbered the peninsula’s original Tatar inhabitants). Richelieu was made governor of Odessa, then little more than a village, and he set about transforming it into the great city it is today. Richelieu’s statue still stands prominently at the top of the Potemkin Steps. Touching the sack of coins carved into the plinth below the statue is said to make you successful and rich.
My second visit was in August 2013, when I stopped in Odessa at the beginning and end of my Crimean journey. On the outbound trip, I arrived from Moldova at the Privoz bus station, near the magnificent railway station mid-afternoon, and spent the evening in the city, before taking the midnight train to Simferopol. Needing to collect train tickets and leave luggage, my first stop was in Odessa’s magnificent railway station, not far from the bus station where I had arrived. The station’s grand exterior and its vast booking hall with chandelier are a fitting introduction to the architecture of this superb city.
On reaching the station, I was immediately confronted by the language problem, which was to be a challenge throughout the trip. Collecting train tickets booked online was easy- I just gave the lady in the booking office my printout, and she gave me the tickets- no verbal communication necessary apart from spasiba. But when it came to finding the left luggage it was a different matter. It was a lesson in how a simple matter can be incredibly complicated without a common language. I found the word for left luggage in my Russian phrase book. But understanding the explanations as to how to reach it was almost impossible. I simply had to head in the general direction people pointed in. Finally I found it, right down the right hand side of the station, a couple of hundred metres down the platform. Then the next problem was to make sure it would still be open when I came to collect my case at 11.30 p.m. I sorted this out by writing “23.30” on a bit of paper, and pointing at the ground to indicate that was the time I would be back.
After all the complications at the station, I finally started walking towards the historic centre. I paused on the way at the Panteleimonsky Monastery, on the other side of the park from the station. This is an unusual structure on two levels. From the entrance, you go up a staircase to reach the church itself. The evening service was under way and the church was full of people and the smell of incense. Then walking further in the direction of the centre, I came upon a mosque. This seemed quite unusual, and testified to Odessa’s past as an ancient Tatar settlement, before today’s grand buildings were constructed. I walked on down Preobrazhenskaya, passing the vast Cathedral of the Transfiguration. Like the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour in Moscow, demolished under Stalin and rebuilt after the end of the Soviet regime, the Cathedral of the Transfiguration in Odessa is a modern reconstruction of the former church which stood on the site. Like the Panteleimonsky Monastery, it has two levels. The only other church I could think of with this feature is the San Fermo Maggiore church in Verona!
Dusk was falling by the time I reached the Potemkin Steps. I walked down, crossed the bridge over the railway lines, and then walked to the end of the vast modern pier, on which the defunct Hotel Odessa stands. Why this is empty is anybody’s guess- probably political incompetence or corruption or both. It must have one of the best locations of any hotel in the world. Large ships were moored at the side of the pier, below the pedestrian area, and the cranes of the great port could be seen all around. I reached the end of the pier and the small sailors’ church, which this time I could get inside, and then walked back to look for dinner.
The area around the Richelieu statue and the tree lined Primorsky street, which leads from here to the opera area are the favourite place for people to congregate, particularly on a summer evening, and this night was no exception. Odessa’s beautiful people, and a fair number of nouveaux riches, crowded the area and its bars and restaurants. A large white car was parked nearby, guarded by two minders. With a night train in prospect, I’d decided to eat well at the Boulevard restaurant, which is in one of the finest locations in the city, on the square with the Richelieu statue, and a view towards the steps and over the port. But the service was slow and I finished later than expected. So after a little stroll along Primorsky and past the opera, I ended the evening with a brisk walk down one of Odessa’s dark and deserted boulevards to reach the station. I didn’t exactly run, but I was watching the time carefully, remembering that I had luggage to collect. I got there just after 11.30, rather later than planned, but fortunately there was no queue for the luggage, so I was soon safely ensconced in a comfortable first class sleeper on the train for Simferopol.
On my return from Crimea five nights later, after the long return journey from Simferopol, I once again reached Odessa’s station under cover of darkness. I’d chosen to stay at the Black Sea Hotel, because it was near to the station and a reasonable price. But although everything worked and it was clean, it was distinctly Soviet and un-renovated. Breakfast involved rather a lot of heavy, unhealthy food.
The next day, I set out to join a walking tour from the Richelieu statue, organised by an excellent local agency called Odessa Walks. Julia, the guide, whose other job was as an actress, gave a detailed and lively account of the city’s history, including all sorts of anecdotes. We saw the “mother in law bridge” which crosses from the high point near the Richelieu statue to another high point opposite, so called because it was said to have been built because a local politician wanted to be able to reach his mother in law on the other side more easily. Julia also showed us the Tolstoy House, where the writer had lived. This beautiful building did not appear in either of the two guidebooks I was carrying, so was a great find. I went back there in the afternoon, after the tour. We also saw some of the cramped tenements where people had lived in overcrowded conditions in the time of Stalin after the wealthy had been moved out or forced to share with newcomers.
The weather had changed quite suddenly compared with the previous day, when I had made the long, hot train journey from Crimea. It was cloudy and grey, with a cold wind, and I regretted having left my sweater in the hotel. A boat trip looked unlikely, as there were few customers for the hourly excursions which leave from the pier. But after I’d lingered a while near the sailors’ church, I saw that a few people had begun to gather near the boat, and went back to join them. Eventually there were enough, and the boat took us on a blowy trip out of the harbour, past Odessa’s lighthouse and out to sea. I stood outside on the top deck in spite of the cold, and enjoyed the bracing sea air. The sea is in the blood for Brits, and I’m always on the lookout for a nice boat trip. Sometimes a good strong wind can add to the fun. The beaches were visible from a distance. It’s easy to forget when walking through Odessa’s historic centre high above the port that the city is as a seaside resort too.
After looking round the Tolstoy House, it was time to go back to the hotel, have a quick shower and change before going to the opera to see Barber of Seville. I’d planned this weeks before as a high point of the trip and wasn’t disappointed. Odessa’s opera house, which opened in 1887, is one of Europe’s great buildings and its opulence impresses from the moment you step through the door. A vast chandelier hangs from the ceiling in the auditorium, and beautiful staircases lead up to the higher levels. This was a fitting end to my trip, and after a good meal at the “Friends and Beer” restaurant close to the opera, I was ready for bed and the long journey back to Bucharest the next day.
As a postscript to my Odessa trips, a few months later, I watched a DVD of The Battleship Potemkin. This is a classic, and if you didn’t know about all the horrors of communism and the millions of deaths you would end up thinking it was a rather good thing. It is very effective propaganda and easy to see how many Western intellectuals were taken in by communism in the 1930s, when information about its effects was hard to come by. The incident with the pram with a baby in it rolling down the steps really stays with you. If you go to Odessa, it’s worth watching this film as background.