There is a city that I see in my dreams.
Oh if only you knew how I love it by the Black Sea
A city amid flowers of acacia
A city amid flowers of acacia by the Black Sea
Life there is always beautiful
Whether you are old or young
But every spring how I am drawn to Odessa
To my sunny Odessa, to my sunny city on the Black Sea.
- Semyon Kirsanov
Leonid Utesov’s Soviet-era hit still describes what visitors can expect in their trip to this “southern capital of Ukraine.” Built over top of the Ottoman city of Khadjibey by Spanish-born General Jose de Ribas (Osep Deribas, in Russian), then serving under Prince Ivan Gudovich, the city quickly became an important Russian port. In its first two decades, the population grew to 20,000, usurping the important role of main Russian Black Sea port from the river city of Kherson by the end of the Napoleonic Wars in 1815. It was in part because of those wars that the city grew so fast; in 1804, the exiled Duc de Richelieu (four generations removed from the infamous Cardinal Richelieu) fled to this city, where he received both a welcome and a request to carry out all the tasks needed to make this military outpost into a modern port. Much of what the city center of Odessa is today is because of Richelieu, whose statue stands in a prominent hilltop location.
Before the Crimea War, the city was regarded as a “free port” of the Russian Empire, and this attracted a globally diverse migrant population that turned the city into the “Pearl of the Black Sea”. Culture and the arts grew from this mixture, and was only temporarily disrupted when the English and French bombarded the city in 1856. It was from Odessa that much of the idea of Israel got its start - by the end of the 19th century, despite periodic pogroms scaring large numbers away to places like the Ottoman province of Palestine, the city was around 37 percent Jewish.
Like Los Angeles in the United States, the sunny weather drew early cinematographers to Odessa’s shores. An early Russian masterpiece, Sergei Eisenstein’s “Battleship Potemkin” was filmed in part on the great staircase built during the city’s “free port” days. Eisenstein’s creative license with history, taking all the street battles that raged on many of the streets during the Potemkin Uprising in 1905 and posing it as a single massacre on what would later be called the Potemkin Steps, solved a major cinematographic problem. It was so expertly filmed that even today many tour guides mistake the massacre on the steps for reality, as opposed to cinema magic.
With movie stars and beaches, of course, comes shopping. The city center is chock full of great places to spend money on fashion, and there are many cafes and similar places to be seen in the Porto Franco District. High above the water, there are some decent views, not the least of which is seen from the so-called “Mother-in-Law Bridge” (or “Tyoshchyn Most”), which traverses a deep valley on one side of the district called the Military Descent.
The story of this bridge’s nickname stems from the story of a party official named Mikhail Sinitsa in the 1960s who had to deal with an unhappy mother-in-law, who each day would determinedly go down from her hill, and back up to his place across this valley, and each day arriving in a very bad mood. In order to make her mood more pleasant and, some say, more conducive to making bliny pancakes that he loved so much, he hired the architect Vladimirsky to have it built. As with many bridges in the former Soviet countries, today it is adorned with “lovers’ locks,” padlocks set in place by newlyweds with the intention of “locking tight” their union with each other (the keys are afterwards thrown off the bridge in order that the lock never be opened again).
Below the many historical buildings, such as the Vorontsov Palace and the Opera Theater, are yet one more uniquely Odessan sight, one for the tourist that is not particularly claustrophobic. The catacombs were originally the result of contractors quarrying limestone from what was thought to be a convenient nearby source - the rock below the city. Fortunately, this practice was halted by the end of the Russian Revolution in 1917, but there are still a large number of tunnels that exist, some going as deep as 60 meters below sea level. In World War II, the partisans of Odessa used these catacombs to get past German soldiers, turning the city into a treacherous battlefield for what should have been soldiers in rear-guard duty. The only tourist access is provided from the Museum of Partisan Glory in the northern part of the center.
Odessa offers a great many more places to visit, including the largest outdoor market in Ukraine at the Seventh-Kilometer Market. The Black Sea is pretty just about any time of the year - just be sure to bring a camera.