14:05 Jul. 4, 2016
Making his first foray into Southern Ukraine, Darius Roby explores the city of Odessa and shares a brief account of his impressions there
My heart swelled in fascination and wild curiosity as the mini-bus made its way over the sparsely populated steppes of southern Moldova. It was a balmy early June day, and the road had again come calling, this time pulling me over the fields of wheat and grapevines, under the smiling Sun, towards the sea. After passing through Palanca and Moldovan passport controls, we continued a bit further along a thin and bumpy road with the River Dniester to the right, where we arrived at the Ukrainian border after a few kilometers. From what I understand, the distance between the Moldovan and Ukrainian border controls stems from an issue concerning the highway between Odessa and Reni, part of which passes through the territory of Moldova. After an uncomfortably long wait at the Ukrainian side of the border where all vehicles were stopped and searched, and a few unlucky passengers were questioned (I distinctly remember hearing Российские граждане), we continued on crossing the Dniester in a picturesque town called Mayaki, where there were fine vacation style homes as well as boats anchored on the river's shore. So close to Odessa, I found myself wondering how pleasant it would be to live there, enjoying the benefits of being close a major city while still living in such a scenic and charming town, closer to nature.
Read Darius Roby's other travel stories on Ukraine Today:
As interesting as the road to Odessa is, the city is on a plane of its own. As my friend Katya explained to me, it is a pearl upon the Black Sea, a city with its own unique charm shaped by its port, which brought in a diverse group of peoples – Ukrainians, Russians, Armenians, Tatars, Greeks, Italians, Moldovans, Jews, and Frenchmen, each leaving their own mark on the soul of Odessa. The city's Jewish element made itself immediately present to me, noticing two older men in the Shevchenka park wearing yarmulkes. The city's internationalism is reflected in its architecture, a symphony of western influenced Renaissance and Baroque styles, stemming from a time when European flair ran strong in Imperial Russia. I suppose that it is from this international flair that stems street names such as Frantsuzky (French), Italiansky (Italian), or Arnautskaya (Albanian) or even the famous Moldovanka (Moldovan) neighborhood. The city is russophone, more or less, as the people speak with a peculiar jargon that my poor Russian is often simply not capable of handling. Signs are usually in Russian, often in both Russian and Ukrainian. The statue of the Duc de Richelieu greets all travelers who dare to climb the Potemkin Stairs, welcoming them into a city that is almost contradicts itself. Founded in 1794, Odessa is a city that gives the impression of being far older than it truly is.
Close to the center, the Shevchenka Park is an oasis of nature, a last vestige of greenery before the sea opens up before you. Here, along the wooded paths, it is easy to forget that one is exploring the third largest city in Ukraine. There are many surprises for the wary eye. A short walk leads to the Alexander Column, dedicated in 1875 to Tsar Alexander II. Another path leads towards an observatory, striking romantic fantasies of observing the stars from the shores of the sea. There are women selling kvas, a slightly alcoholic, cold beverage with the earthy taste of black bread. What had once been an acquired taste for my American palate had since become a sought after source of refreshment during my forays into the world of the former Soviet Union. Beyond the park lies the port, where there is a monument to the Unknown Sailor. There, two girls and two boys, dressed as sailors and holding rifles, maintain a silent and somber vigil around a burning flame. It is pleasant to stand at the fence watching the great seafaring vessels dock and undock, beholding the wonders of international shipping, or to simply take inappropriate photos with the cannon guarding the shore.
The baroque architecture and the peaceful park aside, the most charming aspect of Odessa is, in my opinion, the individual courtyards. They contrast from the Mediterranean elegance of the city center and each hold their own respective secrets and stories. It is my understanding that in the past, many of these courtyards had secret entrances into the system of underground catacombs, but were often closed in subsequent years. The courtyards are enclosed by residences. They are not the typical grand apartment blocks that are an all too common sight in Eastern European cities, but rather crumbling houses that probably date from the late 19th or early 20th centuries, hinting at a more elegant past. Some have facades depicting Greek deities, while others are more plain, with freshly laundered rugs drying on the balconies. Noticing an old Lada chaotically parked in one such courtyard, I gave thought to the lives of the people who live there. Their stories of happiness, sadness, marriages, and the mafias for which the city is famous would be a fascinating topic to learn more about. I wonder if the catacombs that connect these courtyards served as secret passages for the city's proverbial criminal underground. What a colorful life the locals must have, something that can easily be deduced through the graffiti and street art plastered throughout the city.
Strolling along Grecheskaya Street, the midsummer Sun flared in its full glory, and despairing of the heat, a pleasant surprise awaited me. My eyes noticed a slight deviation in the pattern of the buildings and I went to investigate. There was what appeared to be a cellar, its door crowned with a statue of Cthulhu, fashioned from metal gears after a style that almost reminded me of - "Steam bar!" I exclaimed, as I read the sign on the door. Eagerly, we entered the door and descended down a dark tunnel that led into a pub. The eerie venue was barely lit save for a few single light bulbs scattered about. The walls were plastered with diagrams of failed flying machines from the nineteenth century, a replica model of the apparatus hanging from the ceiling, while gears and pipes decorated the rest of the wall. There was smoke emulating from the area of the bar, and I noted the aroma of hookah. Being refreshed over cold beers, interesting conversations, and the steampunk atmosphere, I found myself increasingly impressed by this curious city and the surprises of its more hidden venues.
Odessa has a multitude of eating options, ranging from local seafood to exotic Caucasian specialties. Strolling in the city center in the evening, Katya, knowing my love of solyanka, asked if I were interested in having the salty and sour soup for dinner. I nodded in affirmation and she suggested a nearby Ukrainian themed restaurant – Kumanets. After a exploring the topsy-turvy multicultural atmosphere of a city that hearkens back to the days of Imperial Russia, it felt a bit strange to suddenly enter the colorful world of Gogol, a little corner of the eighteenth century Poltavshchyna. At the same time, this is Odessa, therefore strange should be equated with normal. White painted walls with ethnic motifs, wooden chairs, and Sofia Rotaru playing in the background, I felt as if I had entered a traditional Ukrainian home. Waitresses in colorful vinoks and vyshyvankas were serving the tables and not for the first time - to my astonishment, I was reminded that solyanka is not a Ukrainian dish, but Russian. Not being present on the menu, there was a large and varied menu of other specialties to immerse oneself in the delicious world of Ukrainian cuisine.
As a writer I strive to exhibit the beauty of the world to those far away. Being driven by a love of traveling, history, friendly people, wine, and good food, Odessa stands out to me as a true jewel in the region. Whether it is the elegance of the baroque architecture, the city's privileged location on the sea, or the unique local subculture, Odessa will surprise and charm those who pass by. It is to my regret that I did not stay longer, to better discover what that makes Odessa what it is. One weekend is only enough to sample a taste of what the city has to offer, and that is impetus enough to carry me back to the shores of the Black Sea one day. Even as I stood in the bus station, contemplating my next adventures, I watched buses from as far away as Krasnodar enter the station. Locations further East entered my thoughts, creating fantasies of following the widening steppes until it takes me to places like the island of Khortytsia, or the Scythian and Cuman stone tombs at Nazarovka. However, this is a thought for another day, and remembering one of my favorite literary lines, wonderfully stated by Tolkien – the road goes ever on.