Odessa, Ukraine

July 2019

Part One…

We landed in Odessa in the mid-afternoon on a direct Fly Dubai flight from Dubai.

There was a glimpse of the sad, crumbling old airport building as we taxied in. Eventually we saw the huge, modern, glistening, new terminal, which looks like all the other ones in the world built over the last couple of years. Despite this structure, the tarmac looked like a grey patchwork quilt and on the edge of the runway was an old plane with its nose dangling sadly amongst the tall grasses. As we waited to disembark, we peered outside the airplane window and could see baggage handlers using a shiny red tractor to pull the luggage trolleys.


Our first impressions on the plane and in arrivals were of blingy matching tracksuits and a lot of knee-length denim shorts. Perhaps we were looking for eastern European stereotypes- or perhaps they were all playing with us. We were soon to find out!

A Black Sea port and the third-largest city in Ukraine, Odessa is known for its beaches and 19th-century architecture. It was once part of the Turkish Ottoman Empire but used by Catherine the Great to build a fabulous city and trading hub in 1794.

Why Odessa? Why Ukraine? All I knew of Ukraine were the stereotypes; ‘The Breadbasket of Europe’ and from the countless documentaries I absorb- it was one of the regions of the Soviet Union which suffered most in the Second World War.

Odessa is known in travel guides for its beaches, street cafes, strip clubs, labyrinthine courtyards, wine bars, nineteenth-century architecture, quirky museums and oodles of culture. Lots of young, vibrant people and decaying, gorgeous buildings in a baroque palette.

Why did my husband, Miss Eleven and I come to Odessa?

We were visiting Odessa simply because Miss Eleven and I wanted to have a European holiday- food, culture, lovely old buildings and a sense of history- but my husband insisted that the entire continent is too expensive and too crowded and too full of people like us (tourists) in July. My husband, henceforth to be known as Mr J, also works in the ‘-stans’, and one of his colleagues, Alex, is from Odessa. Alex suggested a trip to his city might be a good compromise- as well as an excuse for us to hang out with his family.  We didn’t even get to the beaches- after all, we live on a tropical island!

Preparations for the trip were complex- the online visas for Australians were $USD80 each and if not filled in absolutely and meticulously correctly, promptly returned. (I set the family record at having mine returned three times). We had to prove we had flights and accommodation before they would grant us entry. Having never been to this area before I played it safe and booked us into an Accor Hotel. If we had our time again, we would find an Air Bnb and live like locals- it is a city with everything you need in walking distance.

We stayed near the white thing poking out into the sea.

We ended up in a gorgeous hotel right on the Ekaterina Square, overlooking the Potemkin Steps. It was probably one of the most expensive hotel in Odessa, but we were treated like movie stars and made to feel very special to be there. Except when it was the opening night of the International Film Festival and actual movie stars were in town pouting and posing and getting instagrammed in the fancy front lobby, so the daggy shorts, Tshirt and gungy sneakers posse that is my family were politely yet hastily ushered away from the glitterati section and into the elevator. We can neither speak Ukrainian nor Russian, and we were not familiar with any of the faces on the red carpet rolled out near the Opera House when we walked past that earlier in the day, either.

Just to our right as we exited the hotel and nodded politely to the finely costumed porter is the elegant statue of Catherine the Great. To the left was a view of the Black Sea Harbour beyond the Potemkin Steps.

She is formidable and scary even as a statue!
Just outside our hotel: walk straight ahead for the Potemkin Steps. Named after Catherine’s favourite boyfriend. Of the time.

I was super excited by the prospect of standing next to the towering image of such a formidable leader. This is the closest I will ever get to going to the Russia of my third-year studies, the Russia of dense literature, denser Tsars and a vast swathe of land and peasants. Ukraine is NOT Russia I must stress. It used to be part of the USSR but is very staunchly and proudly independent from all that now.

It was warmer than it looks in the photo.

Today’s city walk started on the tree-lined boulevard up to the famous ‘Kompot’ cafe where I had little syrniki cheese cakes ( a mix of New York cheesecake and pancakes) and cocoa for breakfast. Miss E had strawberry compot ( like watered down jam used as a drink) and meat pancakes.

Walking is recommended as a mode of transport, even if just to exercise off the massive amount of delicious carbs, fats, and other yumminess available everywhere in Odessa.

We then walked a couple of kilometres to the huge Privoz market where we saw a lot of meat, cheese, vegetables and colourful synthetic clothing. I bought a teapot with a diorama of the Black Sea painted on it. At the markets were the older people; men in bulging singlets, shorts and sandals and bum bags; women with bleached hair, makeup and long nails and smoking whilst spraying water on fish to make them appear fresher.

I assume they taste better than they look.
Vegetarian nightmare. Most of Ukraine is a vegetarian nightmare, actually. I am sure there are clean eaters lurking in the shadows, but we didn’t see any. The surprising part about the market was it didn’t stink like rotting flesh. It was extremely clean.
Miss E deciding which item she would like to rot her teeth with.
CHEESE! All delicious. ALL!
Creative cheese.
I think I must have eastern European genes, because I also love, much to the disgust of my family, any pickled food.
BREAD! So we have the cardiac arrest trifecta of meat, cheese and bread covered. Now we just need to find a bar.

Miss E bought a kilo of blackberries and I bought a kilo of flat donut peaches, which we snacked upon all afternoon.  All along the way was the most stunning baroque architecture and interesting haircuts and outfits. Also little dogs of all breeds. And lots of very arrogant, entitled pussycats standing their ground in doorways and on footpaths.

I miss stonefruit, so spent the afternoon walking the streets and eating a kilo of these juicy delights.

Being July, the days stretched out until ten pm and the cobblestone streets were constantly milling about with people. Pavement cafes lined the roads and avenues of acacia trees shaded during the day and were lit by fairy lights and shadows by night. Lots of Instagrammers here, too. Ukraine has a lot of young people who are particular about their appearance. The strip clubs and bars along the thoroughfares were full of bright young things looking beautiful and being seen. The people-watching was fun as we sat in a street-side bar drinking different beers and lots of cheese and charcuterie boards. 

The last few times we have travelled, I have made a conscious decision not to know anything about the place we are going to and let everything be a surprise. I do not, in hindsight, recommend this philosophy… there’s a chance you can miss out on stuff. Hence the belated look at the Lonely Planet over my meat and beer afternoon snack. Thank goodness for the LP- if not for that we would never have made it to the Chocolate Museum which was just across the road from the bar! It literally was a few rooms of old chocolate. Not recommended.
This probably should have been a warning to not bother with the Chocolate Museum…
An example of the visual and sensory exhibits at the museum.

As Alex can attest, anyone under 30 can’t remember the Soviet times; Ukraine became independent in 1991. The twentieth-century history of this place is tragic- the civil war, famine, pogroms, collectivisation, the war and its aftermath and then, of course, the environmental catastrophe of Chernobyl- no wonder the older ones look permanently miserable. He said he can’t remember independence as he was too busy drinking beer and chasing girls.

We ended up at an Irish bar eating processed meat and drinking beer. Across the road was the ‘Chocolate Museum’, which was literally 3 rooms of old chocolate on display. We left within 5 minutes- it smelled of dust and rotting chocolate! Then to the opera house and my favourite image of the day- a bored young woman on the harbour view walkway smoking cigarettes and chatting on her phone whilst trying to sell big clouds of white fairy floss.

I hope the poor girl never reads my blog… probably should have asked if it was ok to take a pic of her.

Odessa is pleasantly flat, and the streets are wide and dotted with gorgeous architecture, bars, cafes, restaurants and there was always something interesting to look at in the most obscure of places. It is a beguiling place to just wander and enjoy. A memorial to Steve Jobs (a giant hand you can sit in?) and a Museum celebrating Jewish culture are only a few blocks away from one another. You can probably stop for a dish including fried cheese and meat and a large glass of beer in between.

This pretty much ticks all my boxes for a good holiday. Miss Eleven, not as fond of beer and heart-stopping foods as her parents,  found a virtual reality gaming centre and also a shooting range where she was able to sink some bullets into a paper target with a Czechoslovakian sniper rifle.

Miss E showing us how it’s done- sharp shooting whilst wearing double denim.

She and Alex’s ten year old had their own kind of fun with the dads while I went off on other adventures, which I will tell you all about in my next blog.