Waking up in Odesa, the sea breeze permeates the cabin and is an immediate inspiration. Walking out and towards the white-domed wonder of the train station, set under a pale blue sky, is quite something. In the air is the sound of gulls and ‘taxi, taxi’. Actually, I’m new here so decide on ‘taxi taxi’ as the best option, just in the first place to find my place and get some bearings (pun intended, I am a bear you see).
I ask about the fare, which comes back as 40hrv. It tells me my place is pretty close. But, no matter, by then I’ve seen the Lada Niva I’ll be riding in, so it’s a sale. The owner of this, continuing the white-theme, 4x4 is a proud one, informing me that his is the best-kept Niva in Odesa. It’s a big claim, but I decide to take it on trust, and true, by the time the weekend is out, I haven’t seen a better-maintained Niva. Still, it must be said that 40hrv, when my hotel was just a couple of streets away, was a bit steep. No matter, the first taxi is the ‘learning taxi’. I chuck my bags into my digs and decide to go out and explore early- morning Odesa.
And early-morning Odesa it is: just past 7am and deserted all over town. So, with empty streets it’s immensely pleasant to stroll along flicking through my guidebook and finding out various Odesa titbits as I make for Primorskiy Boulevard, the central sea-view promenade in the eastern side of the city. I pass Deribasivskaya Street en route and call into McDonalds for a coffee. I’m sure if Kitten were here, she’d say it wasn’t as tasty as Lviv’s. I would point out, as I always do, that liquids cannot be tasty! I’m happy here anyway, already effortlessly enjoying the weekend buzz. There’s something about going to the seaside that is particularly invigorating, that fresh ocean salt scent mingling with the crisp spring tones in the early morning dew. I love those first, teasing glimpses of blue starting to expand into a panoramic view.
Big City by the Sea
Walking along Primorskiy Boulevard, I admire the spectacular port scenery and the business of the morning street-cleaners tidying up the city for the day ahead. They are busying away and doing good work, the place is spotless. Moving from the little men to the big man, I stop for a photo of the Duc de Richelieu (one of the founders of modern Odesa) statue.
Then, there’s the glory of the Potemkin Steps, one of the main things to see and do in Odesa and, shamefully, I don’t descend them. There are two reasons for this: one is that there’s some kind of an exhibition of various Soviet-style images hanging down over the steps a little like drying washing; the other is that frankly, I’m becoming a little tired. Train sleep is not real sleep; it’s enough to get you up, but not to keep you up. Having an engagement at Dacha restaurant at 4pm, I fancy a little nap pre-late lunch. So it is, I head back to the hotel for a little head-down time. It’s going to be a beautiful day, I can tell that, and much as I’m loathe to sacrifice any of it, better that than walk around like Banquo’s ghost.
I wander back to the hotel, once again leafing through my guidebook, seized by a newfound curiosity about this city I have today and tomorrow in. Its history goes all the way back to 1240, with a small Tatar settlement founded by the then Khan of Crimea and originally named after him as Hacibey. A period of Lithuanian control followed, before it passed into the Ottoman Empire, with whom it remained until 1792. The city as we know it today was founded by decree of Catherine the Great in 1794. All this information sends me off nicely to sleep.
Siesta Sets Up the Day
I wake up around half one and switch on the television. There’s a debate with a religious-looking guy and an interviewer. She’s interviewing him in Ukrainian, he’s replying in Russian. If you get the sense that many people here are either forcing themselves or being forced to speak the language, it’s freer here. I’d stopped off at Puzata Hata for a quick bite en route back to the hotel, and been spoken to in Russian. Maybe everything’s just a little freer by the sea. I had a friend here who told me she went on holiday with several Ukrainian girls to Odesa. They all had boyfriends but, upon boarding the train, all declared they ‘did not have boyfriends for the duration of their Odesa getaway’. My chances of meeting such liberated young ladies are slightly limited by the fact that, although the temperature is set to be 30 degrees and Deribasivskaya Street is already jumping, it’s still pre-season. The Arcadia beach club area doesn’t open until June, and the little online examination of the discos has thrown up the best, or maybe just the most familiar sounding to a Kyivite, Forsage, which is far and away from the seaside surf.
Deribasivskaya Street itself is an intoxicating cavalcade of shops, stalls, buses converted as cafes and throngs of people. They are out with that Ukrainian combination of ice-cream, shades, and amusingly sloganed t-shirts (one guy's said "I recycle women" – does he really think that’s going to do him any favours? Or perhaps here, that’s just what the ladies are looking for, so he knows his audience). In any case, it’s a pleasure to amble up and down for a few minutes.
But time is pressing a little as my Dacha reservation is at 4pm and it’s around half two. Having left my guidebook back at the hotel, but consulted the map prior, I decide to try to walk there. It looks like a little walk, nothing major. I head up and along, enjoying the tree-lined Odesa streets as I stroll.
Then, seeing a taxi, I decide to ascertain how far I am by price-gauge. He wants 100hrv, which on the basis of my earlier Niva fare, means about four streets away. The minimum he can be talked down to is 80hrv, bemoaning the price of the old benzene. Well, if you drive a massive Volvo mate… In any case, he’s friendly enough, he’s just saddled with a gas-guzzler, and he does look like he may also like the ladies, wearing a medallion as he is.
I continue on foot and soon pass a car I’d gladly pay 100hrv just to sit in and touch the steering wheel. It’s a magnificent Rover 800 – the only one I’ve ever seen in Ukraine. A rich dark reddy-maroon, right down to the wheels, it’s currently being worked on by a proud owner. I attempt to bond with him, my being a fellow Rover owner, but he’s busy. Not unfriendly though, as he lets me fire off a few snaps.
There’s a lot to photograph here, next up is the Vera Kholodnaya statue. Charmingly adorned with a red bouquet, she is to be found before a park, laid out with various tourist-item stalls and paintings. It pains me to walk past tourist stuff, but now’s not the right time. Speaking of time, I’m starting to get a little concerned about it, and so duck through a charming park replete with reading, relaxing inhabitants and a most becoming bandstand.
I know that continuing down this street will take me to the famous Opera House, but I’m starting to think that Frantsuzky Boulevard may be a little further than I’d thought. Or even that I’ve walked far from the most direct way. No matter, I’m loving the Odesa sun, architecture and atmosphere. Reaching and regarding the Odesa National Academic Theatre of Opera and Ballet is really something! Opened in 1810, destroyed by fire in 1873, topped up in 2007, the modern hall was constructed in neo-baroque style. It’s like a little white Albert Hall of wonder.
There are quite literally hundreds of weddings taking place in town today. Well, okay, not hundreds, but lots. Having already seen nearly a score of young ladies taken out of circulation (to reference that recycling t-shirt), there’s another across from the National and the best yet just beyond it. Now, I like a tattoo, one, two, even a few tasteful ones can be quite the thing. But a big leg tattoo is quite something, especially for a young lady. And the one in front of me now wearing a wedding dress is sporting just that. As is her bridesmaid. It’s charming to think that here’s a town where girls who get tattoos on their legs still dream of their day in white.
I arrive at Dacha a few minutes later, having finally given up on walking and found a fabulous taxi – a Nissan Gloria no less, today is really full of firsts – for a fair price. Dacha is situated just off Frantsuzky, in a long stretch of parkland that cushions the city from the coast, and I’m immediately struck near speechless by the place. You walk in through a garden which is like a scene from a botanical dream. Take in if you will, the glorious seating, all white around you. The shower, working, for when it gets just a little too hot is a nice touch. The bed, working, for when it gets just a little too blurry, is great. A colleague of mine has arranged for me to meet a couple of friends of hers here, and so it is I step up to my table to meet Sasha and Katya. They know Dacha well, it’s somewhat of an Odesa institution, and show me around the inside.
Now it is, as the name suggests, an actual Dacha, converted in 2004 as a restaurant. Inside, each room retains the theme of its former function. So, the bathroom still has a bath (not sure if that works), the bedroom no bed but a dresser with Chanel No.5 from the 60s (how cool) and a collection of little Soviet jugs. Coming into the front room, you find a Soviet stove, an original Steinway and a stack of classic caviar tins (unopened, best left that way).
The entire place is adorned with photos harking back to another era, an era which had its faults but was magical in its own way. The staff are numerous and flutter around in gloriously faded floral tops, like they’ve just flown out of an Enya video. It’s all like being in some kind of magnificent sepia dream. What’s the food like though? Well, we’ve been unable to resist the multiple vodkas by the door, so fire up a table full of them. Then, it’s onto Red Caviar, Pickled Mushrooms, Baked Peppers, White Mushroom Soup, Dumplings and Fresh Vegetable Dacha Salad. And that is just me. It really is. In between each course, a vodka of a different extraction freshens the palate as Sasha, Katya and I dine on.
This is quite simply the best food, in the most magical surroundings, I have ever experienced. The ingredients are mostly locally sourced too, with many unique to Dacha. To go to Odesa without coming here would be like not seeing the sea.
To Beer with Bear Beside the Seaside
The sea is exactly what I do next, bidding farewell to my new (full) friends and patting my belly going the couple of minutes through the park, down the wooden walkway, onto the seafront. The sun is starting to set as I wander along the now emptying beaches and promenades, boasting stunning views. I resolve to return the next day, before that is the business of checking out Forsage, which is a taxi ride out of the centre.
At Forsage, it’s interesting watching the Odesa girls party. These are girls who get themselves juiced up on cocktails – I tell this later to a chap I know in Kyiv, who said that’s like turkeys plucking their own feathers out for Christmas. The club itself is fun, but a bit ho-hum. In any case, you don’t come to Odesa to go to a standard disco, you come here for Arcadia. The taxi home is a lot better – a seriously tooled up Lada Riva, which includes electric front windows and even a TV. The guy has taken out the seatbelts though – so Odesa!
Come Sunday, I must admit, I’m still a bit whacked after Saturday’s exertions. So, what to do in Odesa if you feel such a way? Simple, you head down to Lanzheron Beach, park your gear and beach out. Now, I am alone but find my sand-neighbours an absolute pleasure to be around. Not only are they a pretty tasty bunch, but they also watch my bag while I go off for a beer (right by the beachfront, ice cold, 10hrv – vive la Odesa!), take a dip (cold but crystalline water), and feed on such reasonably-priced snacks as are walked by.
Approaching sundown, I stop for a few tourist items and make my way to the train station. I return to Kitten in Kyiv with an overwhelming love for Odesa now also occupying my heart. t
Return tickets on the sleeper train – 384hrv
Huge meal, many vodkas, at Dacha – 400hrv (approx)
Mid-range hotel – 500hrv
Beers and ice-creams – 200hrv
Taxis for weekend – 200hrv
Souvenirs – 150hrv
Sundries – 200hrv
Grand Total: 2034hrv