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Odessa: exploring Southern Ukraine


Ukrainian adventure, part 3: Odessa, the Potemkin Steps and Prymorsky Bulvar

Friday, 12th September 2008

I’m writing up this entry on Saturday morning as yesterday was just dreadful. After a restless night on the train, I awoke in a rainy Odessa feeling absolutely awful: upset stomach, aching all over and shivery. Fortune smiled on us a little though, as our young driver was waiting for us outside the carriage and, after a walk of what seemed like miles to the transfer car (you forget just how long these overnight trains are) we were whisked away to the Black Sea Hotel (Hotel Chornoye More) and a room we could check into immediately. I made straight for my bed, and lay down until early afternoon in the hope of improving my condition.

Still feeling terrible, I threw myself into the shower at around oneish, determined to explore a little of this fascinating and famous Ukrainian city. A look around the hotel room in the now blazing sunshine showed it up for what it was; its personality was distinctly Soviet, with its dark brown painted doors and architraves, badly chipped and damaged, its cream wood-chip wallpaper and crowning glory of Kremlin orange curtains, which, despite their best efforts, failed miserably to meet in the middle. And to think ours was supposed to have been one of the refurbished rooms! It must have been refurbished in 1972; I’d love to have seen one of the others.

The room itself, with its shabby Soviet chic, was more than adequate, but more disappointing was the distance we were from the centre and, indeed, the sea. It was a good half an hour’s walk through not the prettiest of streets, with no access by bus, trolley-bus or tram. The only alternative was to take a taxi, but prices were relatively extortionate, ranging from 30 to 50 hryvnia within a few yards of asking.

Arriving at the City Hall, with its impressive crimson walls and brilliant white colonnades, one couldn’t fail to be impressed by Prymorsky bul, Odessa’s stylish seafront walkway, complete with replica ‘gas’ lamps. Having seen the state of the place between the hotel and Prymorsky bul, though, it did all seem a little ‘fur coat and no knickers’.

We made our way to the famous Potemkin Steps (all 192 of them) and dined in a superb (if rather slow) restaurant opposite them. I could only manage a dish of borsch with some bread, but Jamie managed some impressive looking potato dumplings stuffed with meat and mushrooms; maybe I would be up to trying something more adventurous here before we had to leave.

This was enough for my fragile state; reluctantly, we made our way back to the hotel, where I took to my bed for the remainder of the day and night, surfacing briefly to eat, via room service, some inoffensive Ukrainian ravioli filled with meat, cabbage and potato, and watch an endless stream of Ukrainian cookery programmes, packed to the brim with wonderful, over-the-top presenters. So much for our first day in Odessa – let’s see what tomorrow would bring.

Saturday, 13th September, 2008

A rainy day in Odessa is what Saturday ushered in. In fact, a rainy day over the whole of the Ukraine; what happened to those glorious, sunny skies that the BBC website had predicted for months before we came? It felt as if Odessa was slipping away from us: one more night in this hotel and we’d be checking out and Simferopol bound, ready for that supposedly arduous car transfer to Yalta, and we hardly seemed to have seen any of this notorious city. Time to put that right. I felt considerably better than yesterday, despite a persistently grumbling tummy, so we took a light breakfast in the restaurant and braved the worst of the rain clad in jeans and coats. The temperature wasn’t too bad, but it was miserable weather. We eventually fetched up at Eugenia Travel where, with the assistance of a very knowledgeable Janna, who also spoke excellent English, we booked ourselves on a private tour of the city for 250 hryvnia each; we would depart for the three hour trip at 2pm.

Janna also pointed me in the right direction for a “very big book shop” where I could purchase a book on Odessa. When we arrived at the store, it was indeed a vast bookshop, and I did find a suitable volume. The girl on the till was not of a particularly favourable disposition, however, and – without a smile – informed me that neither of my visa cards would work, and I would have to pay cash. Now I knew that at least my visa debit was working fine, as I’d just drawn cash on it from the ATM a few minutes earlier. Cards generally seemed to be a bit of a problem throughout Ukraine: we had experienced problems in Kiev and Lviv, even at ATMs, which were very hit and miss. The lovely Janna all but refused to take my visa, explaining it made it difficult to pay the guides, so again I had to stump up the cash. I can’t believe they live so hand to mouth; perhaps they do.

Book purchased, it was back to the hotel for a quick beer in the bar before being collected by the very forthright Amelia and her trusty subordinate driver. Unfortunately, the tour was literally a bit of a wash out, being a whistle stop tour of Odessan highlights through rainy, misty windows which did everything they could to obscure the view. Amelia refused to leave the minibus – “I am too cold” – and so we rarely stopped for a look around anything. Once, we were permitted to get out to examine at closer quarters the Roman wall discovered during the refurbishment of Prymorsky bulvar, the Maritime Boulevard, but our guide remained inside and we battled through torrential rain. You can tell when a good tour is kept down when its proposed three hour duration can be made to spin out little more than two. Most of that time, having decided that Jamie was my son, she went on to quiz us annoyingly on our knowledge of Russian history and culture: “I know English writers,” she proclaimed, “like Charles Dickens and Jonathan Swift, so you should know Russian artists…”. Well we did know the obvious ones like those. She ended with a mild put down: “Normally it is American tourists who know nothing, but English ones are usually educated.” Excepting us, then, that would be. Oh well, at least it had given us a heads up for tomorrow should the weather turn clement enough for any meaningful exploration.

What she did give us was an insight into Ukranian life and economy. Most of the working class, she explained, earned an average of 500 to 600 hryvnia per month, whilst to survive it was necessary to earn at least $2,000. As taxation was at 40%, most employers worked a scam, only declaring a smaller amount of workers’ earnings, thus making it impossible to work out any kind of national average wage. There was also a critical shortage of professionals; “Many of the qualified Polish doctors have gone to England,” she told us, “where they can earn proper salaries. This left a huge gap in skilled medical professionals in Poland, so in turn, many Ukrainian doctors have gone to Poland, where the standard of living is approaching that of western Europe, so now we have a great shortage. People just cannot earn enough money in Ukraine, but prices are like those of the west. This government does nothing about it – it just doesn’t work.”

After being dropped back at the hotel, we decided to settle ourselves in the bar again, as the ever strengthening rain precluded us from any worthwhile outdoor activity. A dour security guard barked at me in Russian, telling me I wasn’t allowed to take my camera bag into the bar, and that I must leave it in the cloakroom. No such order had been issued at lunchtime, and as there was about £4,000 worth of kit in there, I flounced out in a fit of pique, telling him what he could do with his bar. This is obviously the price you pay for having a rather seedy casino attached to the hotel, and combined with a room which was barely clean, empty condom wrappers and beer bottles under both beds which remained for the duration of our stay, and brusque, unhelpful staff that on one occasion offered us Russian girls, it prompted our resolve to inform Regent of this unfortunate choice in their itinerary. We had even asked a receptionist if there was any alternative conveyance to the beach than Shanks’s pony, but she told us no, it was best to walk. We later discovered that both a trolley-bus and a ‘little yellow bus’ went directly there just a block away. Perhaps she couldn’t be bothered to get involved. Wrong job, lovey.

This unpleasant little exchange did lead us to discover the superb Alpina restaurant just a few blocks from the hotel. Here we enjoyed authentic Ukrainian cuisine and a couple of glasses of a Moldavian Cabernet Sauvignon in a relaxed, friendly atmosphere at a price that represented great value. Our meal inside us and the rain still pelting down, we retired to our room and drank our Odessan ‘Champagne’ watching more of the Ukrainian cooking programmes to which, by now, I had become addicted.

Sunday, 14th September 2008

A misleading, clear blue sky announced the day, fooling us into shorts and t-shirts which post-breakfast clouds heralded a mistake; the temperature hovered at a worse than predicted 16 degrees, a coolness exacerbated by a light breeze blowing in from the Black Sea.

Still, there was much to be done, so we made a valiant effort to get around as much as we could, visiting and photographing the amazing National Opera House, City Hall, the bust of Pushkin, Prymorsky bulvar, the Potemkin Steps (only so called after the wildly inaccurate 1925 film Battleship Potemkin), the port itself and the recently relocated statue of Catherine the Great, as well as the more permanent one of Duc de Richelieu, overlooking those famous steps in his Roman toga.

We lunched again at the excellent ‘Bulvar’ restaurant before taking a turn around the grounds of the Vorontsov Palace, now a music academy, and ‘Mother-in-Law’s Bridge’ before a trip back to the hotel to change into a less conspicuous, more sensible jeans and coat arrangement; the sun had sort of remained, but in a diluted, cloudy form. A half hour walk back afforded us the opportunity to enjoy a couple of expensive pints of Guinness and Kilkenny in Mick O’Neill’s Irish Bar, before a quick supper and trek back to the hotel for our bags. A short walk to the station and we were on the 10.51 night train bound for Simferopol, ready for our transfer to Yalta. Crimea, here we come.

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