International news is hardly a good tourism advertisement, and Ukraine is no exception. Even Odessa, one of the country's most memorable cities, is talked about now as a battlefield between pro-Ukraine and pro-Russian forces, a silent ghost of the place which, until a year ago, could easily fit onto any Best-Cities-To-Visit-Before-Crowds-Discover-Them list.
Situated in the southwest corner of first imperial Russia, then the USSR and now Ukraine, this great city on the Black Sea has often fallen under the radar of Western travellers, but throughout its history Odessa has been a link, and not a wall, between East and West. Ancient Greeks lived in its environs from the 7th Century BC, and many other peoples inhabited the region. The fortress which was the direct predecessor of modern Odessa was built in the 15th Century by the Tatars, and in 1529 passed to the Ottoman Turks, who ceded it to Empress Catherine the Great in 1789.
Inside the homes of central Odessa. The stairs and corridors often crumble and many apartments are still shared between different families, like in the infamous komunalka in Soviet times
The empress evaluated the position of the fort as a trade and military outpost with access to navigable warm sea, and ordered a city to be constructed in its place. In the following decades, two Westerners played a crucial role in the new Odessa. A Spaniard on Russian service, José de Ribas, (his name was Russianised to Osip Deribas) became Odessa's first mayor and the creator of its initial city plan, an ambitious layout of straight streets and gardens which is almost intact. Further development was made under the governor Duc de Richelieu, nephew of the famous French cardinal.
Odessa cherishes both men. The statue of Richelieu, clad in a Roman-style toga, greets those who have climbed the 192 steps of the Potemkin Stairs. De Ribas has a statue, too, at the beginning of the pedestrian and very properly named Deribasivska Street. The measure of both men's achievements impressed another Westerner, Mark Twain. Visiting in 1867, the otherwise caustic writer was smitten with the almost American atmosphere of Odessa, a city of new, low-rise architecture, straight streets and bustling crowds.
Sailors fill the streets. The city was the biggest naval base in the Black Sea of the USSR
There is something else in Odessa which strikes the newcomer – its multicultural vibe. Since its very beginnings, Odessa has been a melting pot of various nationalities and cultures, including, but not limited to, Russians and Ukrainians, Moldavians and Bulgarians, Crimean Tatars, Greeks and Jews. This inimitable mixture, together with Odessa's position as a centre of international commerce, created a distinct, and much loved and feared specimen, the Odessite. Born in imperial Russia, nurtured in the USSR and evolving in modern Ukraine, the Odessite is street-wise, has a great sense of humour and is often not afraid of bending the law.
A young Ukrainian
It is hardly a coincidence, then, that Ostap Bender, the charming rascal of Soviet writers Ilf and Petrov, is an Odessa native – just like his creators. The city is littered with mementos of Bender. On Deribasivska Street stands the monument to literature's probably best known piece of furniture before the sword-made Iron Throne of Game of Thrones. It is the stool where, in the Ilf and Petrov 1928 satirical novel 12 Stools, a Russian aristocrat hid some diamonds before the Bolshevik Revolution. Ostap Bender immersed himself in the quest of tracking down the gems, only to end up helpless, poor and in a position to consider a career as a undertaker. In a manifestation of the typically Odessian sense of humour, a block of flats on the fringes of the old centre now claims, with a mock memorial plaque, that Ostap was indeed a undertaker there.
A mock plaque dedicated to one of world's literature most charming rogues, Ostap Bender. It reads: "In this house from 31 March 1931 to 1 April 1932 OSTAP-Suleyman-Berta-Maria-BENDER-bey worked as a undertaker "
Odessa exudes literature and art, and while walking around the centre and looking at the fine neo-classical buildings in various stages of decay, one can imagine that every second house was the home of some prominent figure. Plaques abound, informing you where writer Nikolai Gogol lived for three months, and where artist Mikhail Vrubel spent several weeks of his life. There are plaques to Bulgarian men of letters, too, marking the house where young Ivan Vazov lived and the school where poet and revolutionary Hristo Botev studied.
The great national poet of Russia, Aleksandr Pushkin, who was exiled to Odessa for misbehaviour in the capital, has a statue at the one end of the Primorski Boulevard. It is hard to miss it, as the thoroughfare leads to the city's most notable landmark, the Potemkin Stairs.
The Potemkin Stairs were built in 1837-1841, at a "monstrous cost." Originally, they had 200 stairs, but eight of them were destroyed in 1933 during enlargement of the port
Climbing a hill of 27m, the Potemkin Stairs are a fine optical illusion. If you stand at the bottom and look up, you see only the steps and none of the set of platforms between them. When you change position and look down, it's vice versa: you see only the platforms and not the steps.
What makes this staircase famous is another piece of art, the 1925 silent film Battleship Potemkin by Sergei Eisenstein. Based on a historical event, the brutal crushing of a protest by the Tsarist army in 1905, the movie has a gripping sequence of mass murder on the Potemkin Stairs, including the iconic image of a lonely baby pram rolling down the steps.
If Odessa begins to sound like one long art reference, do not despair. Life here is extremely enjoyable. It has probably the best and most diverse restaurant scene in Ukraine and is easily explored on foot, which is ideal as you can immerse yourself in the atmosphere of a city hovering between its Soviet past and modernity.
Chess players near the Odessa Cathedral
Here, street carts sell kvass, a fermented beverage of rye, and hot-dogs advertised as "Made after Michael Jackson's recipe." The programme of the beautiful Opera House is a treat, and so are the quality of the performances and the ticket prices. Chess players fill the benches in the gardens of Odessa Cathedral, which was demolished by the Soviet authorities in 1936 and rebuilt in 1999-2003. Sailors and lovers stroll along the Primorski Boulevard, and elderly women sit silently in the funicular by the Potemkin Stairs.
"Happy birthday, Shurochka!" Odessa is covered with graffiti with birthday wishes, declarations of love and even quarrels between lovers
In summer, Odessa becomes even better, with its pleasant beaches and the lively Arcadia, an entertainment and night life spot which has hopes to become something like Sunny Beach.
Most of the remains of Soviet times are sombre, like the old "Death to Fascism!" slogan on an ancient locomotive parked by the central railway station (contrary to your expectations, this place is much cleaner that Sofia's central railway station). There is a sight from the Soviet era, though, which encapsulates Odessian wittiness and has nothing to do with Communist turgidity.
The pedestrian Mother-in-Law Bridge is the longest, tallest and narrowest bridge in Odessa city. It was built in 1968 to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917, but the builders failed to meet the deadline. Odessites, for their part, failed to catch onto the official name of the bridge. The structure, which spans a narrow and deep ravine, topped with houses, was initially called Komsomolski, and then Kapitanski Bridge.
The Mother-in-Law Bridge vibrates even when people walk a little more energetically, but is a vital part of life in Odessa
For the people of Odessa, though, it was Bridge of the Mother-in-Law. As rumour had it, the local dignitary who initiated the construction had personal reasons for doing so. He lived on one side of the ravine and his mother-in-law lived on the other side. As a frequent visitor to the dignitary's home, she often refused to leave at night, citing the long walk as an excuse. Tired of this unwanted guest, the dignitary ordered the bridge to be built, so his mother-in-law could get home easily, even in the dead of the night.
Ironically, it is the Mother-in-Law bridge where young Odessites lock padlocks as a sign of eternal love.