Even when it was part of the Crimean Khanate Odessa was the biggest port on the Black Sea, a title that it retains today. The city was founded on the terraces shaped by the angry waves of the north- western Black Sea. Attila Atasoy, artist and modern- day traveler, describes this city opposite Turkey’s northern shores.
Before 1794 Odessa was the most important resting point for northern Muslims living within the borders of the Ottoman Empire as they made their pilgrimage to Mecca. Until that year, when the city was invaded by the armies of Catherine the Great, its name was ‘Hacıbey’. Even though its name changed, the city remained one of the most important cities opening onto the Black Sea. For a period of over 100 years, from the late 18th century until the early 20th century, Odessa was among the Russian Empire’s largest cities, alongside Moscow and St Petersburg.
Today the city is home to Ukraine’s largest port and has a high level of industry and trade. When Ukraine gained its independence in 1991 with the dissolution of the USSR, the country’s beloved port of Odessa struggled greatly during the transition to capitalism, along with the others who shared its fate and the wage gap in the city is still very high. While the newest models of luxury cars and jeeps roam the streets in one side of the city, on the other side rickety buses, trams and shared taxis rattle along in the slow traffic. In a country where literacy stands at 99%, and around 90% of the student-aged population enters university, a mid-level civil servant’s wage is around 250-300 dollars. But despite all the difficulties faced by the country, Odessa’s impressive parks and artists have never given up bringing life to the city. Thanks to them, in Odessa the hidden melancholy bears the colors of spring.
City of Tunnels
Unlike the majority of ex-Soviet cities, in Odessa there is no metro! This is because beneath the city lies limestone tunnels stretching 100 kilometers that were build 200 years ago. Limestone is a type of fossil that is formed over millions of years. It is a natural stone that can be easily mined and processed, is porous and protects against the cold and heat. And Odessa made use of the advantages of this wealth that lay beneath it.
These mined underground tunnels are known as the ‘catacombs’. Some of the tunnels reach depths of 50 meters, and it is said that when you include the branches that lead to neighboring villages, the total length of the tunnels reaches 3,000 km. Of course, I am just repeating what the guide book says… During the Second World War, the partisans hid here and resisted the occupation of Germany and Romania. Although the highly humid atmosphere and lack of sunlight caused the death of many of the partisans, after the entrance of the Red Army into the city in 1944, Odessa was declared as one of the Soviet Union’s four ‘Hero’ cities in 1945. The 21-metre monument that stands in the park named after the renowned Ukrainian poet and artist Taras Shevchenko is dedicated to the soldiers who died fighting for Odessa from 1941-44, and to the 280 thousand Odessans who died or were exiled.
The temperature in the tunnels is a stable 12-14 degrees Celsius year-round and the humidity level is 97%. Today this unchanging atmosphere is used as the perfect wine cellar in this city famous for its wine, champagne and cognac factories and its sanatoriums. Although Odessa may not have a metro, never fear, the city does have those ubiquitous double-decker tour buses.
You can get on and off the buses without worrying about getting lost in the city and to get your bearings, all you have to do is find the famous pedestrian shopping and entertainment street of Deribasovskaya. As street names are written in the Cyrillic alphabet and most people do not speak English, you may find you have some communication problems. But for those of you who speak Turkish, don’t forget that there is a chance you will receive a reply in Turkish, if in a different dialect.
- Tunnels: Beneath the city lie limestone tunnels stretching 100 kilometers that were build 200 years ago.
In order to link the city to the port, the Potemkin Stairs were built in the first half of the 19th century and are perhaps more famous than Odessa itself. When you look down the stairs you see only the landings, and when you look up you see only the steps. Of the 200 steps, 192 survive today. Although the lowest step measures 21.6 meters and the top step just 12.5 meters, they appear to be equal in width. The stairs were given the name ‘Potemkin’ in memory of the participation of the personnel of the Battleship Potemkin, which was moored in the city’s port, in the 1905 uprising in which thousands of people lost their lives. These famous steps gained international fame with Sergei Eisenstein’s 1925 lm ‘Battleship Potemkin’, but if climbing them looks too tiring, you can take the funicular instead.
- Currency: In Odessa a shared taxi costs 2.5 hryvna, a bus or tram costs 1.5 hryvna. 1 hryvna is equivalent to 1⁄4 of the Turkish lira, and 11 hryvnas is equivalent to 1 euro.
- Lead Role: Since 480 AD, before the Russian era, Ukraine has played leading role as the belief center of the Slavic race and also of the Russian Orthodox faith.
In the part of the city that is home to historical settlements, it is almost as though there is a duel between the limestone Stalin-era houses and the many-roomed Khrushchev-era houses. The Stalin- era houses have wonderfully high ceilings of 6-7 meters. They are at most four storeys high, as limestone cannot support anything higher. The Khrushchev-era houses are 1950s-60s Soviet classics. These multi-storied stone buildings feature family bedrooms and a shared living room, kitchen and bathroom. But whichever house you buy, you can only restore the interior as the external facades are state owned.
Like A City ‘Flaneur’…
One of the world’s most important opera houses is found in this city and it is known for having excellent acoustics. The Odessa Theatre also holds cultural events in a separate building. And one of the best aspects of spring is that these monumental buildings spring into life with cultural and artistic festivities. If you can find tickets, of course! But even if you can’t find tickets, you can visit these buildings and start your tour of the city from this central point.
Among the top sites to visit in the city are Tolstoy’s Palace, Catherine Square, and the City Hall and Pushkin Monument that stands in front of it. Renowned Russian poet Alexander Pushkin, who wrote that ‘you can smell Europe’ from Odessa, was exiled from the city from 1820-1824. Legend has it that one of the reasons for his exile was that he had an affair with the mayor’s wife.
Years later, as if out of spite, the mischievous Russians erected his statue directly in front of the city hall. And now that you know this whole story, I would recommend that you don’t leave without paying a visit to the Pushkin Museum.
The Pototsky Palace, the National Bank of Ukraine, churches with the classical domes of Russian Orthodox Architecture, and the Main Synagogue are places that you might want to add to your itinerary. While discovering the city you can, like I did, take the shared taxis or buses to the end of the line and watch the world go by on your way back to the city. This way you will see even more and have an even more enjoyable visit. You may well meet drivers and assistants who are of Turkish descent. Tahirova, one of the city’s suburbs, was founded by the Ottomans, and the old customs house was also built during Ottoman times.
- Shopping: In Ukraine alcohol, cigarettes, petrol and meat are very cheap. Odessa is home to Europe’s second biggest wholesale market ‘Seventh Kilometer Market’ and there are a noticeable number of Turkish companies who operate here. Shopaholics take note!
Around The City
If you want to experience spring on the opposite shores of the Black Sea, you can visit the fish restaurants and cafes of the coastal town of Arcadia and enjoy a ‘borscht’ in local restaurants. In the fish restaurants you may also come across an acrobatics or dance show; be prepared!
If you have enough time I would recommend a visit to the Fortress of Akkerman in Bilhorod-Dnistrovskyi, 70 km from the city. Built in the 13th century and known by the Byzantines as ‘Asprocastron’, meaning ‘White Fortress’, the fortress has retained the meaning of its name in almost every language. The fortress is a remarkable historical structure, with 2 kilometers of walls and 26 remaining watchtowers, and features on the UNESCO World Heritage List. The roads to the fortress are very good, and on your way there you can also visit what is said to be the village of Hürrem Sultan, also known as Roxelana, wife of Ottoman Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent.
What to Eat and Drink?
Ukrainian cuisine is famous for its sweet pastries, delicious salads and fermented drinks. Ukraine’s best-known regional soup is the Slavic classic ‘borscht’, which comes in two forms – green or red – and contains almost 20 ingredients. The main ingredient of red borscht is beetroot and red cabbage, while green borscht is made with a spinach-like vegetable called ‘ukrop’. Both are served with cream, called ‘Smetana’, and traditional Ukrainian black bread.
Main meals are dominated by vegetables rather than meat, and the top vegetables are cabbage and potato. ‘Varenyky’ is a kind of dumpling stuffed with potato, cabbage and mushrooms and served with a local red sauce.
Similar to varenyky is ‘pierogi’, which is served as a main course but can also be prepared as a dessert with sour cherries, sweetened cottage cheese or grape sauce.
‘Holubtsi’ is chicken, meat or ham with buckwheat or rice rolled in cabbage leaves and served with tomato sauce. Cottage cheese is widely used and the combination with cream and fruits in ‘syrnyk’ and ‘mlyntsi’ create a unique flavor.
The most popular drinks in the country include ‘uzvar’, a regional compote made by boiling dried and fresh fruits in water, ‘kvas’, made by soaking rye bread in sweetened water with yeast, and kefir, a fermented milk drink.
‘Medovukha’, also called ‘honey liqueur’, is made by boiling honey in water with yeast, followed by a long fermentation process.
This three-port city has accommodation options for every budget, with prices varying according to the season.
For example, in the resort district of Arcadia, which is of course more expensive in summer and cheaper in winter, there is the three-star Portofino Hotel and Odessa Hotels, the four-star Arcadia Plaza Hotel, and the five-star SPA Hotel Maristella Club. 4)
Those who want to holiday in comfort close to the center, near Deribasovskaya Street and Primorsky Boulevard, will have to loosen their purse strings, with hotels such as the four-star Londonskaya Hotel, Continental Business Hotel and Mozart Hotel, and the five-star Hotel Bristol.
But don’t let this scare you, there are also some hostels and budget hotels. Hostels include the International Hostel Apartment Kovalev, the Babushka Grand Hostel and the Ancient City Hostel, while budget hotels include the two-star Zirka Hotel and Kapri Hotels, or the Duke Hotel or Palladium Hotels. Of course you can find other options and easily make your reservations over the internet.