J OURNEYS: THE S P I R I T OF DISCOVERY More Med than red
Mark Dodd finds vitality, optimism and bull salad in the Black Sea port of Odessa
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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