OdessaSeptember 1 in Ukraine
Hangovers, a developing sore throat and a long, bumpy and hot bus trip made the trip to Odessa an arduous one, but eventually we were deposited into the heaving mass of humanity at Odessa’s bus station and market. After the relative sedateness of Transnistria this was quite a shock to the system, but we both fell in love with the place almost immediately. It was immediately thriving, gritty and exciting, and as we walked toward our accomodation closer to the city centre it progressively became grander and more beautiful. Much grander than I was expecting, giving hints of what must have been a truely fantastic and luxurious city back in its heyday in the beginning of the 20th century.
Of course, as with most of Eastern Europe, the 20th century has not been the kindest, but Odessa is now on the up again due to it today being the largest port in Ukraine and domestic seaside destination, following Russia’s recent annexation of Sebastopol and Crimea. It is a vibrant, safe, cosmopolitan city of tree-lined streets, gardens and parks with multiple museums, a grand concert hall, a period-defining opera house, outdoor cafés, restaurants, bars and colourful street culture. It is a city to stroll through, relax in and explore. The people are friendly, the food is wonderful and international, the architecture stunning and the ambiance decidedly romantic.
I could write an entire blog about the food in Ukraine, but suffice to say I have never had such technically proficient and high class food for so cheap in my life. Every meal has been to a standard that defies the dirt cheap prices, we have consistently eaten like kings at south East Asian prices.
We spent the first evening wandering down to the sea front, drinking in a wine bar and having an incredibly decadent meal at a restaurant recommended by the wine bar’s owner, before grabbing an early night. Overnight, my throat only got worse and what I originally thought was a cold, I was pretty convinced was actually tonsillitis. Luckily (or irresponsibly) Ukraine is one of the very few places in the world where you can buy antibiotics over the counter (which probably explains the fact that there are pharmacists on literally every street corner, doing a roaring grey market trade), so following a consultation and recommended dosage from Dr Google, I procured a course of penicillin for $1 and tried to push through. We originally planned on taking a walking tour, but the guide was nowhere to be seen at the designated meeting point so instead we took ourselves to the markets for a wander. After this, I was fading fast so it was decided to dose of sea air was in order and so headed to the beach, hired sun lounges and lay in the sun, swan and drank cocktails while enjoying the decidedly Ukrainian beach ambiance and clientele.
We had also read about the Odessa Catacombs a labyrinth of old lime stone quarries that extend for an unknown number of km’s beneath the city (estimates range from 1700 to 2500 kms). the catacombs are still being mapped and explored by professionals and amateurs alike. One such explorer is Valentine, our guide, who has been exploring the catacombs for 40 years, collecting thousands of artefacts, including the skeleton of a ww2 partisan, who’d been shot in the leg and who’s body was surrounded by empty medicine vials, providing a grim tableau to one of the Catacombs most violent and important history’s, as the base for partisans, and hiding place for Jews, during the Nazi occupation. Taking a tour with Valentine was a great decision. He was a wealth of knowledge concerning the catacombs and also spent much of the tour debunking numerous myths and old wives tales that are told to tourists on more commercial tours, including pointing out a cross that is one of the most instagrammed spots in the catacombs, complete with a romanticised story of it being hundreds of years old. Valentine knows better, seeing as he was there as a teenager drinking and smoking as his friends decided to carve the cross as a joke. It was a great tour though, giving us a small sense of the vastness and wildness that abounds underground.
On our final evening Sophia was keen on seeing a show at the extremely grand Opera House. It so happened that there was a Ballet performance of Sleeping Beauty and the Prima Ballerina was Australian, so it was too perfect to pass up. Sticking with my pledge to always say yes to dubious ideas while travelling, I was happy to tag along to be able to see inside the building and for the experience, and I am very glad I did as the building has to be one of the grandest I have ever been inside. We sat in the Balcony’s for the outrageous cost of $18 per seat.
It was a great cultural experience, but can’t say I’m any more convinced about the high arts than before I went. It did, however, reinforce my belief that humans are funny and continually confounding creatures.. No self respecting adult would dress up in their finest clothes and go for a big night out to the latest Disney animated fairytale, but mime the same fairytale via interpretive dance in gaudy costumes to classical music and suddenly it’s considered high art worthy of contemptuous high society.Read more