Odessa

The third largest city in Ukraine, Odessa is an interesting place, filled with wide leafy streets and some beautiful buildings, but you don’t need to look very far to find it quite run down and grungy. It’s a city (and country) with an obvious huge disparity in wealth between the haves with their flash cars, and have nots earning €250 a month. Ukraine definitely felt less safe and much busier than Romania, Moldova or Transnistria, though no worse than many Western European cities.

The Secrets of Underground Odessa Museum was a highlight, spending two hours 25 metres underground in one of the largest man made structures in the world. From the 1850s over 2,500km of tunnels were excavated to supply the limestone used to build the city above. There are 104 known mines, and no doubt more that have been forgotten about. The shortest is 95 metres long, the largest 1,000km long. After mining the tunnels were used for many things, including as pickpocket training schools, for people trafficking, and by partisans during WW2. A unique species of underground shrimp has evolved to live in the water in the tunnels.

There are also 361 purpose built bunkers built between 1957-1972 and abandoned after 1988, with heavy looting in the 1990s removing anything of value, including cables, equipment, and even most of the doors. We visited a bunker built to house 1,200 female prisoners in the event of a nuclear attack, though supplies would only have lasted a week, making it a little pointless.

It was a 35 minute Uber trip from the city centre but the Memorial of Heroic Defense of Odessa Museum was well worth an explore. It’s a free park filled with Soviet era guns, tanks, a plane, boat, and diesel submarine.

Next to the park was the attractive Church of St. George the Great and Victorious.

The Museum of Western and Eastern Art was a fascinating place, as much for the building, a run down mid 19th century palace, as for the collection of very average Western Art and surprisingly good Eastern Art, plus plaster casts of classical works. Unlike almost every other art gallery I’ve been in there was no air conditioning and the rooms were often flooded with direct natural light, not ideal preservation conditions.

The Tikva Synagogue is one of two working synagogues in Odessa, a tragic illustration of the impact of the Holocaust as before WW2 as much as a third of Odessa’s population was Jewish.

The Al Salam Mosque was unexpectedly large if sadly closed both times I passed by.

City Park is the most central and busiest park, home to some nice bedding and a few statues.

The Passage is a lovely late 19th century shopping arcade, very photogenic.

The Ugolok Staroy Odessy / Old Odessa Corner was an odd collections of sights, though there were good views of Odessa Port from the worryingly wobbly bridge.

Across which is the recently restored Colonnade of Vorontsov Palace, a slightly random set of columns with no safety rails to prevent potentially quite a fall.

The Potemkin Steps are an iconic if somewhat underwhelming and tourist filled spot that didn’t do much for me.

In front of the classical Odessa City Hall is the Monument to Alexander Pushkin, designed from his death mask.

Dating from 1887 the Odessa Opera House is regarded as one of the finest opera houses in the world, a quite stunning building.

I only went for one run in Odessa, the pavements looked a bit lethal in terms of trip hazards, number of people, and amount of roads to cross (as the city is on a grid layout). Instead I ran out to and along by the beach which wasn’t very pleasant, and not repeated.

The Cathedral of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary is the main place of Catholic worship, in a more familiar but personally less interesting Western church style.

Holy Trinity Cathedral had an unusual green exterior and a no photo policy inside.

The Svyato-Uspensky Cathedral was quite stunning inside and out.

St. Panteleimon Monastery was impressive from the outside but seemingly closed to visitors inside on both occasions I visited at the start and end of the day.

One block over from the monastery is the impressive Odessa-Holovna train station, which had a huge chandelier inside the main hall.

From here I finished my time in Odessa, catching a 14 hour overnight train to Kiev, which was an experience. The quality of sleep was comparable to a long haul flight, though thankfully without the jet lag at the end. It was better than overnight trains I’ve caught in Vietnam and Turkey, perhaps not as good as in Thailand.

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