Mark Dodd finds vi­tal­ity, op­ti­mism and bull salad in the Black Sea port of Odessa

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Travel -

AHINT of old-style Soviet at­ti­tude can still be savoured among the Ukrainian cham­ber­maids who over­see day-to­day floor man­age­ment of the ram­bling tsarist-era Pas­sage Ho­tel in down­town Odessa. Rooms and their pay­ing oc­cu­pants in this his­toric old Haps­bur­gian-baroque style bil­let tend to be run more like ad­min­is­tra­tive work units by th­ese iron maid­ens, one of whom is per­ma­nently gar­risoned on each of the ho­tel’s six mas­sive floors.

My first en­counter with th­ese stern ma­trons is a re­quest to change rooms. My bed has only three legs; the bro­ken end is perched on the wooden ar­chi­trave that runs along the base of a peel­ing wall. The ques­tion re­sults in a brusque nyet and a vague prom­ise of an en­gi­neer to ex­am­ine the prob­lem the next day.

I am tired from hours ex­plor­ing this fas­ci­nat­ing Black Sea port so I drag the mat­tress off the bed on to the floor, pour a stiff vodka and cherry nec­tar and man­age a rea­son­able night’s sleep.

While ho­tels might not be such a bar­gain for the bud­get trav­eller, Odessa is a hid­den trea­sure for the more ad­ven­tur­ous. Founded by the ex­ec­u­tive writ of Catherine the Great, who de­cided she wanted a south­ern St Petersburg, Odessa to­day ex­udes a vi­tal­ity and ex­u­ber­ance in keep­ing with its raff­ish and glo­ri­ous past.

More Med than red, Odessa, on the Dni­ester es­tu­ary, is a bustling cos­mopoli­tan city of one mil­lion, Ukraine’s fifth largest and its most im­por­tant eco­nomic gate­way. A walk­ing tour is a great way to ap­pre­ci­ate the city’s stun­ning ar­chi­tec­tural her­itage, most of which mer­ci­fully sur­vived the worst that was dished up dur­ing an epic 72-day siege in 1941 by Nazi Ger­many’s ally Ro­ma­nia, a bloody stand-off with a legacy not forgotten, as I am to dis­cover.

No visit is com­plete with­out see­ing the Potemkin Steps, com­pleted in 1841 and im­mor­talised in Sergei Eisen­stein’s 1925 silent clas­sic, Bat­tle­ship Potemkin . Orig­i­nally 200 sand­stone steps swept down 142m in 10 lev­els to act as a gate­way to the port be­low.

Aside from mu­se­ums and churches, the most fa­mous ar­chi­tec­tural at­trac­tion is the neo-clas­sic style State Opera House, re­cently re­fur­bished and re­splen­dent with its or­nate stucco mould­ings and gilt frieze ex­te­rior. Odessans proudly pro­claim the Vi­en­nese-de­signed won­der to be the sec­ond most fa­mous in Europe af­ter Italy’s La Scala. Its pro­duc­tions are cer­tainly among the most af­ford­able with tick­ets to Verdi’s La Travi­ata rang­ing from the equiv­a­lent of about $15 to $80.

But it is Euro­pean foot­ball that has the lo­cals en­thralled when I visit in June and a crowd has gath­ered at a lo­cal ex­pat haunt, Mick O’Neill’s Ir­ish Bar on Derib­asovskaya St, to watch Ger­many play Turkey. The ma­jor­ity of the crowd is sup­port­ing Turkey, cheer­ing wildly each time their team scores a goal, which un­for­tu­nately is two to Ger­many’s three. Why sup­port Turkey?’’ I ask. The war,’’ replies Larisa, a 23-year old Odessa univer­sity stu­dent. Larisa has Greek-Rus­sian her­itage and re­calls a visit to Ger­many last year that left her less than im­pressed. I was in a shop in Ber­lin and this wo­man re­fused to serve me when she heard my ac­cent was Rus­sian. I think they don’t like us,’’ she says.

Odessa is mostly Rus­sian speak­ing, al­though Ukrainian is of­fi­cially the na­tional lan­guage. This week of my visit, mem­o­ries of the ter­ri­ble suf­fer­ing in­flicted on Ukraine by the in­vad­ing Nazis and their al­lies is be­ing played out nightly on lo­cal television. June 22 marks the an­niver­sary of the launch of Op­er­a­tion Bar­barossa, wherein 4.5 mil­lion Axis sol­diers ar­raigned along a 2880km front and the start of what would be­come the world’s dead­li­est con­flict, claim­ing 20 mil­lion Soviet civil­ian lives.

At lunch at Vasil­isa Cafe with my guide, Ma­rina, who has just grad­u­ated from Odessa State Eco­nomic Univer­sity, more light is shone on Ukrainian at­ti­tudes to­wards old’’ Europe.

I opt for a veal salad, pass­ing up a house spe­cial­ity, koschey, de­scribed on the menu as: Warm salad of cut bull’s tes­ti­cles cooked ac­cord­ing to all the rules of Rus­sian cui­sine.’’

Ma­rina ex­plains how her grand­fa­ther fought the Nazis as a 15-year-old par­ti­san fighter based near Odessa. The Ro­ma­nian oc­cu­pa­tion forces ex­acted a ter­ri­ble pay­ment for Odessan re­sis­tance, de­port­ing more than 60,000 civil­ians (mostly Jews) to con­cen­tra­tion camps or ex­e­cu­tion grounds, she tells me.

So given th­ese at­ti­tudes, just how much en­thu­si­asm is there for Ukraine’s bid for EU mem­ber­ship?

Sup­port for the eco­nomic poli­cies of Rus­sia’s Vlad­mir Putin are quite strong among older Odessans,’’ Ma­rina says.

Putin has im­proved Rus­sia’s eco­nomic de­vel­op­ment. The old peo­ple here who grew up be­ing cared for by the state are fear­ful of the con­se­quences of EU mem­ber­ship and how it will af­fect their cost of liv­ing.’’

I ask if she is op­ti­mistic about Ukraine’s fu­ture as an in­de­pen­dent coun­try fol­low­ing the suc­cess of the so­called Orange Revo­lu­tion. We sur­vived the Turks, the Ro­ma­ni­ans, the Poles, the war with the Nazis, the col­lapse of the Soviet Union. Now we have our in­de­pen­dence I am op­ti­mistic . . . it is the only way we can be.’’

www.theodessaguide.com Susan Kuro­sawa’s Depar­tureLounge col­umn re­turns next week. Arm­chair Trav­eller — Page 4


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Il­lus­tra­tion: Tom Jel­lett

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