Dnieper River Cruise: Odessa, "Pearl of the Black Sea"

Apart from its famous Potemkin Steps and the mutiny on board the battleship Potemkin, I had very limited perception of Odessa as a tourist destination.  Travel guide books suggested that its a city of great historical significance and point to glorious architectural wonders from the days of the tsars, some websites suggested Odessa as an up and coming business destination and also promoted dating with Ukrainian women and others hinted that it’s the mafia capital of the Ukraine and that it’s not safe to venture out in the dark on your own.  So, which of these conflicting comments do you believe?  When you don’t know a place, then certainly talk about a city run by the mafia can cause pre-visit jitters about personal safety, especially if you’ve got an imaginative mind and happen to watch mob movies like the Sopranos. 

So what’s Odessa really like.  It was scorching hot when we arrived in mid-August, made worst by a non-airconditioned taxi ride.  We had just been to Yorkshire where it was very cold and wet and the vast change in temperature hit hard at my travel-weary body, after a 5 a.m. start from Heathrow Airport.  I could feel a headache coming on.  As we drove the 10 miles from Odessa airport to the seaport terminal we went through city centre.  The heat, dust and glare of the afternoon sun made the buildings look as washed out and exhausted as we were and I was beginning to wonder where those promised elegant classical buildings were. 

The young cab driver was very polite but spoke no English, not even enough to confirm that we needed to be delivered to a boat and not a hotel.  We were therefore relieved when we saw the seaport terminal where our riverboat was to be berthed. My research indicates that a landmark to look for is the Hotel Odessa and when we saw this towering hotel, we knew we were in the right place. The cruise company recommended that one does not let go of your cab until you’ve sighted your cruise boat as their berth can be shifted around by the port authorities.  Much as we tried to retain the driver, time was precious and he was in a hurry, no doubt to rush to his next job.   It would have been so much easier if the cruise company’s instructions had been that we needed to enter the Port Authority building, go down a couple of flights of stairs and then exit right to the river boat berthing.  I guess if they had made it sound so simple, then more passengers would have done what we did, which was to arrange our own transfers, thus saving ourselves $400.

So focussed were we on finding out where our boat was moored, that we failed to notice this giant baby sculpture that was staring down in front of the Port Authority building.  This beautiful Statue of a Golden Baby symbolizes the rebirth of the City.

Odessa is known as the “Pearl of the Black Sea” and claims to be one of the region’s most beautiful cities, with wonderful beaches, shady parks and tree-lined boulevards. The next morning, we did our tour of the old part of town, walking through the historic city centre with its many splendid monuments. When we saw the Opera and Ballet Theatre, Vorontsov Palace and City Hall, my faith was restored, and to top it off, we made it to the Potemkin Steps with its 192 steps leading down to the harbour. The stairs were the setting for a famous scene in Serge Eisenstein’s epic 1926 film, Battleship Potemkin.  We were so fortunate that we got to see this film at the Sydney Concert Hall with a full orchestra providing the music.  The Steps and the orchestral tension created as the baby’s pram bounced down the 192 steps were indelibly imprinted on our minds.  So at the Steps, we did an instant replay of the movie scene and Tony even bounced down the Steps – loaded with his heavy bag of camera equipment.

At the end of the day, we had a nice feel for Odessa.  We felt perfectly safe exploring the city on our own – and did not have any mafia encounters!  There is a lot of work going on to beautify the central district and in a year’s time the area around the waterfront will impress with its boulevards and parks.  There are many outdoor cafes and restaurants and the shops stock very trendy gear.  Tony even managed to buy a pair of nice pants.  More on Odessa later …


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