City By The Black Sea

Amid a crowd of tourists, a mother rolled a baby stroller up to the top step of the Potemkin Steps in Odessa, seemingly unaware of the horror inspired by a similar scene in Sergei Eisenstein's film "The Battleship Potemkin."

The mother was not shot by tsarist troops, nor did the baby's carriage roll down the 142-meter staircase to Odessa's port -- but if it had it had, it would have ended up in a car dealership.

Odessa has changed a lot since the time of Eisenstein, and even then it was no longer the city where writer Isaac Babel grew up. Writing about his hometown in "Lyuba Kozak," a story from his collection "Odessa Stories," Babel described a place where "the sun hung from the sky like the pink tongue of a thirsty dog, the gigantic sea rolled on to Peresyp, and the masts of far-off ships rocked on the emerald water of Odessa Bay."

Today, the stairs may end in rows of shiny cars and the spiky masts cutting the sky have been replaced by the red and yellow necks of heavy-duty cargo cranes, but no matter how much the city changes, it will always retain the character of a port.

Odessa sits on a curved bay on the northern shore of the Black Sea. The sheltered stretch of water attracted early settlers -- the Greeks built a city here in their drive to turn the hinterlands of the Black Sea into a Hellenic breadbasket.

Over the centuries, everyone from the princes of Kievan Rus to the khans of the Golden Horde and the sultans of the Ottoman Empire controlled the city. It was known as Khadjibey until the late 1790s, when Russian forces won it from the Ottomans in the treaty that ended the Russo-Turkish War.

The city's thriving port boosted Odessa's business sector as well as its cultural diversity. The Albanian, Armenian, Bulgarian, German, Greek, French, Italian, Jewish, Russian, Romanian and Ukrainian traders and sailors who came through the port profoundly shaped the city -- from the Italian baroque facade of the Odessa Opera and Ballet Theater to the Jewish Moldovanka quarter where Babel grew up.

Another scene out of Babel's "Odessa Stories" has a British and Malaysian sailor visiting Lyuba Kozak to trade contraband "cigars, fine [Japanese] silks, cocaine and filing tools, loose tobacco from the state of Virginia and red wine that had been purchased on the island of Chios."

Scenes such as this give Odessa its romantic and exotic allure.

Unfortunately, the attractive beach area south of the city -- accessible by the No. 5 tram -- is now cut into bite-sized chunks by crumbling concrete walls built during the Soviet era for the purpose of dividing one sanatorium from another. But the area is worth a look, if only to explore a post-Soviet wonderland of decaying resorts and rusty cable-car towers and snap a few bleak pictures of these areas of rusting absurdity to send back home. In all fairness, though, the area looks like it might be packed in summer with fun discos, kebab stands and plenty of places to have a picnic.

The main area of the city consists of block after square block of shabby but historic two- and three-story houses, some hiding interesting courtyards and all featuring on the first floor the blur of small shops found in any former Soviet city: shoe stores, appliance shops, tiny cafes, internet clubs and pharmacies, monotonous in their variety.

This area is most attractive at dusk, when the soft light drifts down onto the tree-lined streets. It is the ideal time to start a walk.

Maria Antonova / MT
The city is a post-Soviet wonderland of crumbling walls and decaying resorts.
Head north on Alexandrovsky Prospekt through a boulevard of dense trees. A left turn at the end of the Prospekt leads to the park around the Cathedral of the Transfiguration of the Savior, built in an eclectic classical style between 1795 and 1809. Here, crowds of men have traded the mostly quiet game of chess for raucous games of checkers and backgammon. Along one sidewalk, a small daily craft market offers the opportunity to purchase Odessan and Soviet souvenirs.

Deribasovskaya Ulitsa begins at the northeast corner of the park. This calm pedestrian street is named after Major General Jose de Ribas, a Spaniard in the Russian imperial army who helped capture the town from the Ottomans in the Russo-Turkish War.

Sadly lacking in outdoor cafes, the street is nonetheless worth the stroll -- both for the people watching opportunities it affords in the pretty, well-maintained Gorodskoi Sad and because it is bisected by Yekaterinskaya Ulitsa.

This street features a montage of a trendy but very enjoyable sidewalk cafes and restaurants, ranging from sports pubs and French bistros to pizzerias and tourist traps.

Halfway down Yekaterinskaya Ulitsa is the newly restored Opera and Ballet Theater. Locals say that the inside is even more beautiful than the ornately carved, statue-bedecked exterior.

Yekaterinskaya Ulitsa ends at Yekaterinskaya Ploshchad, a roundabout featuring a statue of Catherine the Great, pointing toward the sea. She led Russia's drive to the Black Sea, and the city was rechristened as Russian territory two years before her death.

The right fork at the roundabout leads to the top of the Potemkin Steps. At night, the staircase offers a light-dotted nightscape of the harbor -- a much more romantic way to see it than during the day when the smoke-shrouded steel bones of the port are exposed.

Getting There

There are daily trains from Kiev's main train station as well as international flights. By train, the 12 hour journey is best done overnight.

Where to Stay

Zirka Otel, 70 Uspenskaya Ul., tel. +380 63 629 1529 or +380 48 722 2343


Rooms range between $14 and $70 a night. Both dorm-style and private accommodations are available.


Group sailboat cruises can be arranged by Progulki Na Yakhtakh, tel. +380 67 489 4663 or +380 50 336 8610.

Where to Eat

Estrellita, 1 Yekaterinskaya Ul., tel. 372 920 or 375 049

The restaurant features Spanish and Mexican food as well as a Latin dance class on Thursdays and Sundays.