Travel: Operation Odessa

From the Potemkin Stairs to Pushkin

Got watermelons? Kim Fenske finds a stash during his exploration of Odessa.
Got watermelons? Kim Fenske finds a stash during his exploration of Odessa.


Traditional agricultural heritage blends with seaside resort tourism in Odessa.
Traditional agricultural heritage blends with seaside resort tourism in Odessa.

Story and photos by Kim Fenske

Always up for a challenge, I decided to fly overseas for the first time in my life to a region where I did not speak a single word of the local language. My general objective was to ascend the highest peak in the Carpathians of Ukraine, Hoverla Mountain, 6,762 feet, about three thousand vertical feet below my home at the base of Copper Mountain. Along the way, I was going to visit Odessa, the most important Black Sea port in the former Soviet Union.
With two weeks to go before my vacation days began, I bought tickets to fly into Odessa. Once committed to the trek, I booked a reservation for a couple of nights lodging within the Odessa Center, next to the Potemkin Stairs.
The Potemkin Stairs are probably the most famous historical site in Odessa. Designed in 1825 and completed in 1841, the Potemkin Stairs consist of two hundred steps that lead from Prymors’ka promenade down to the harbor of Odessa. The stairs gained fame during an early uprising of mutinous sailors aboard a ship called the Prince Potemkin who inspired socialist revolutionaries within Odessa to spring a brief revolt against imperial Tsarist Russia on June 14, 1905. 

Although this failed attempt preceded the Russian Revolution by a dozen years, the City of Odessa honors the revolt at an annual celebration with fireworks at the stairs.The Odessa Airport is like a small regional airport in the United States. As soon as I stepped off the tarmac bus and entered the terminal, a taxi driver approached me and offered to take me across the city. I explained to him that I needed to reach the Potemkin Stairs in City Center, about ten kilometers northeast of the airport. After studying the map that I had printed of the route and discussion with several other drivers, he showed me his offer on the screen of his cell phone. He was suggesting a charge of 360 UAH, which I knew was outrageous. I exchanged a couple of hundred for about 1,600 UAH at a window and turned away the driver.

Odessa street scene.
Odessa street scene.

Stepping outside the terminal, I attempted to find public transit headed downtown. Without being able to read cyrillic letters, I knew that I was not going anywhere. I turned back to the terminal and traded 10 UAH for a bottle of water. The taxi driver had not given-up on me, presenting a new offer of 200 UAH, about twenty-five for the trip downtown. I accepted the offer with payment and tried a bit of cross-language small talk as the driver raced down the narrow streets filled with congested and honking traffic toward Odessa Harbor.

The driver pulled into crowded circle and told me to walk. I grabbed my backpack and hiked down a narrow alley covered in scaffolding and graffiti, hoping to find the Geneva Apart.   found a small sign above a heavy iron gate that led to a corridor with several doors. Carrying my backpack, I was obviously looking for a room. As I stepped inside the passageway, a resident pointed to one of the doors where I found a doorbell button. A voice beckoned me inside, where I found a staircase that I knew enough to ascend three floors to another door. I opened the door and found a small desk with an English-speaking receptionist who provided me with a room assignment, door lock codes, and passwords for the internet.

Although it was early evening, I went straight to bed and awoke next morning at sunrise. After preparing coffee from bags that I had packed, I headed out to the Potemkin Stairs that stretch to the Black Sea from the statue of Duc de Richelieu to the Sea Terminal. Duc de Richelieu was appointed by Tsar Alexander to be the governor of Odessa after he was exiled to Russia by Marie Antoinette and helped lead the Russian Imperial Army resistance against an invasion from Turkey. 

Classic architecture in Odessa.
Classic architecture in Odessa.

I caught a tour cart, 50 UAH or six dollars, for an hour tour of the sites of Center City. The tour guide was able to speak in English to an audience comprising of two representatives of France, a couple from Italy, and me.

As the tour cart proceeded south along Prymorskiy Bulvar, we enjoyed the wide, tree-lined pedestrian promenade overlooking the harbor and beaches of Odessa.  We passed Odessa City Hall, located at the intersection with Pushkinskaya Street, facing a monument to Alexander Pushkin who was exiled by the Tsar to Odessa and a mounted naval gun from the British frigate Tiger that was sunk by Russian forces during the Crimean War.

The tour cart turned inland onto Tchaikovski Street, passing the fountain beside the Odessa Theater of Opera and Ballet. The most spectacular architectural achievement of the city, the Odessa Theater was designed in baroque style by two Viennese architects, Ferdinand Fellner and Hermann Helmer, to replace the original city theater that burned in 1873. The new structure was completed in 1887, with electric lighting provided by the Edison Illuminating Company of the United States.

Across from the Opera House, the tour passed the Mozart Hotel, one of the finest places of accommodation in Odessa. West of the Opera House, the tour cart entered a pedestrian mall on Deribasovskaya Street at the south side of The City Garden. Tents for a children’s book sale filled the mall and performers sang on the gazebo in the park.

The Twelve Chairs Monument in Odessa.
The Twelve Chairs Monument in Odessa.

 In the southwest corner of The City Garden is the bronze monument to The Twelfth Chair. Arising from a story by Jewish authors Ilf and Petrov, a member of the Russian aristocracy reveals to her son-in-law that she stashed all of the family jewelry in the stuffing of one of her twelve chairs in the dining room set to protect the treasure from the Bolsheviks during the Russian Revolution. The chairs were confiscated and sold by the government, so the son-in-law searches for the family treasure and attempts to track down each chair. Naturally, the son-in-law locates eleven of the chairs without finding the treasure.

The Twelfth Chair is represented by the bronze statue in Odessa. Visitors to Odessa pose for photographs in the Twelfth Chair for good luck and search for the lost cache of jewels. 

A sidebar to the story is that The Twelfth Chair was adapted into a movie starring Sharon Tate, Vittorio Gassman, and Orson Welles. The movie was released in October, 1969, two months after Sharon Tate was murdered by Charles Manson and his followers.

Beyond the bronze chair in the City Garden is an ancient mall named the Passage. The tight entryway opens to an expansive atrium several stories high, elaborate carvings adorning the ledges above the tile floor and protected with a canopy of glass.

After the tour of the Central City, I decided to expand my exploration of Odessa. Everywhere I walked, I found buildings under reconstruction covered in graffiti and deteriorating after years of abandonment. I searched for a Greek Restaurant called Papa Costa on Hretska, but discovered that it must be closed and replaced by another name. It was difficult to navigate, since no street names existed on many corners. In the end, I landed at Ukrainska Lasunka on a noisy corner east of The City Garden. I suffered through a bad choice from the menu of dry Ukrainian sausage, potato with bacon, and dry white bread soaked in a bit of garlic-treated olive oil, the worst meal that I ate during my stay in Odessa.

Summer stroll along an Odessa boulevard.
Summer stroll along an Odessa boulevard.

During the afternoon, I hiked south through the city. I enjoyed walking along the sycamore-lined cobble-stone streets. Buses and auto-tram electric trolleys passed with a frequency that I had never seen matched in the United States. I hiked south to the Odessa Train Station. Since I had no map to offer any guidance of what lay beyond, I turned east to find the beaches along the coastline. I found steps leading to the tunnels beneath the busy streets.  The tunnels were lined with cases of souvenirs guarded over by micro-shop entrepreneurs. Ascending from the tunnels into a park, I found street merchants hawking used books, beverages, flavored ices, and snacks. 

I stumbled along, passing a war memorial to the Ukrainian soldiers lost in the Soviet attempt to support a communist government in Afghanistan three decades ago. The walkway ruins and broken fountains of the Promenade provided a somber backdrop for the memorial. After a brief stroll along Lanzheron Beach, I returned north to the Central District at dusk.

In twilight, I hiked east of the Potemkin Steps to wander on the platform of the Sea Terminal. On the deck, I passed shops filled with wine, souvenirs, and other treats at the base of the modern Odessa Hotel.  Hundreds of visitors strolled along the edge of the platform above the expanse of the Black Sea.

Returning to the statue of Duc de Richelieu above the steps, I turned into the alley beside an Italian café and stumbled through the darkness to the locked gate at the Geneva Apart. Fortunately, I always carry a headlamp in my daypack and found the entryway to my hotel. Suffering from the adjustment to nine time zones and the disorientation from submersion in a foreign culture, I slept through most of the next day.

For dinner, I walked down to the City Garden and found Olio Pizza just off the square. Olio Pizza provided the most delightful meal of my trip with a supreme thin crust pizza, plate of vegetable slices, melon bowl, and watermelon lemonade. The cost of the meal was 160 UAH, about US $20.

Borscht is best!
Borscht is best!

Next day, I carried my backpack onto the streets for the hike to my next reserved hotel room, OK Odessa, near Arkadia Beach. Along the way, I stopped at the south end of City Garden to eat lunch at the tourist destination of Kamanets Ukrainian Restaurant. The plaza seating was surrounded by a melon cart, statue of a cow, and waitresses dressed in traditional Ukrainian garb. I ordered the mandatory borscht and varenicki. The beet soup was filled with healthy vegetables. The main dish of cheese-filled ravioli topped with sweet sauce stretched my tongue too far.

Smoked fish from the Black Sea at an Odessa market.
Smoked fish from the Black Sea at an Odessa market.

The internet map to my hotel indicated a location between the zoo and the train station south of the Odessa Center, near where my tiny tourist map indicated the world ended. I picked a street heading south and began exploring Odessa.

I proceeded along tree-lined streets, passing corner markets, street-side melon piles, apothecaries, and slow traffic zones ignored by motorists. I witnessed the back side of Odessa, abandoned buildings, ancient playground equipment, gilded chapels, and people with large bottles waiting in lines for a turn at the local purified water tap.

During my stay in Ukraine, I filtered tap water for drinking to avoid infection by bacteria or amoeba such as cryptosporidium, cholera, and Giardia. However, the greater concern over water quality in eastern Ukraine is chemical contamination.  Nitrates, ammonia, chloride, and other toxin levels are high due to inadequate water treatment.

Seaside in Odessa.
Seaside in Odessa.

I spent a few hours wandering south through the city, then turning east to search for the train station and beaches. I stumbled across a street vendor stand near a park entrance.  sking about my location, I was passed along to a man who spoke enough English to inform me that I had arrived at the zoo. Circling the nearby business district, I did not find another person who spoke any English. At the word “hotel,” I was directed to a dark and narrow staircase where I found a reception room on an upper level. After showing the name of the hotel where I had placed a reservation to the desk clerk, I did not receive any sign of recognition. I pointed to her computer and suggested “internet,” pulling my laptop out of my pack. I soon found a correct map to my destination that was several kilometers southeast of my position, near Arkadia Beach. Quickly memorizing landmarks to the location before closing my computer, I headed back onto the streets.

Within a few blocks, I found the Odessa train station and stepped inside. At a kiosk window, I asked for a “carta” Odessa, thinking the phrase universal language. The woman produced a map of the city. Not knowing what to pay, I placed 50 UAH in the tray and accepted her change.

Having no street name references, I proceeded by matching my steps to the shapes and number of blocks on the map. Heading east, I passed a display of Soviet-era weapons at a war museum. Then, I turned south onto a major street with trolleybuses circa the Cold War passing me every few minutes. Although I knew that passage on public transit was about 2 UAH, I was afraid of hopping onto any trolleybus or tram as darkness approached without knowing where it would take me.

At a peculiar bend in the road that I knew brought me close to a war memorial circle at the south end of a park near my destination, I found Fanconi Italian Restaurant. Drenched in sweat from carrying my backpack for six hours, I sat at a table beside the garden. I showed my water bottle to the first waitress who arrived at my table. I refreshed myself while trying to pick-up an internet signal. When a Ukrainian menu was offered, I only suggested “pizza” for an order. After a lapse of time, I was delivered out of confusion by a waiter who was able to suggest a meat pizza and understood enough English to provide me with a dark beer. My bill was 160 UAH.

As night fell over the city, I hiked southwest to a memorial spire with the image of Lenin over the names of men who fell during World War II in the war for freedom against fascism. I was relieved to know that I was within a kilometer of my hotel.

I passed a couple seated at the side of a tram track. The man yelled, “Hey, Machine!”

I smiled back at him and kept hiking. Beneath my dripping sweat, I thought that he was teasing me, alluding to Ueli Steck, the mountaineer known as the Swiss Machine, who summited the Eiger without a rope in 2 hours, 47 minutes. I later learned that what I understood to be a reference to an international mountaineering star was actually a greeting like “Hey, Man!”

After 8 hours of hiking, I was beneath the shimmering lights of the modern skyscraper OK Odessa Hotel. I was greeted by an English-speaking clerk in the lobby who expedited my room assignment. I paid 1600 UAH for two nights, US $200, and took a compressed elevator to my floor.  Once in my room, I had no electricity. I returned to the desk and received instructions to slide my access card into a slot to activate the electricity. Now, I was able to laugh at a review that I had found on the internet from another foreign visitor complaining about a power outage at this hotel that lasted his entire stay.

Arkadia Beach, Odessa, at the peak of the summer season.
Arkadia Beach, Odessa, at the peak of the summer season.

Young women hopefuls in string bikinis posed on the rocks for their friends with cheap, compact cameras while professionals with assistants holding reflective screens captured shots of mature models. Teenagers played volleyball, did somersaults on jet-skis in the surf, and rode giant parachutes pulled by power boats. Old round-bellied men roasted to lobster red stood and posed toward the sinking sun, capturing the last rays in the searing afternoon heat.

Visitors sat sparsely among the bars and restaurants, capturing relief from the outdoor sauna set at a constant ninety-degrees.After a night of rest in air-conditioned comfort, I wandered north through the central city and into the Memorial Park, passing a narrow pond filled with children’s rental boats featuring the faces of various animals. Beyond the park, I found a carnival filled with ancient rides, a disco-era tilt-a-whirl and a ferris wheel, stopping for a cone of citrus- flavored Italian ice. Throughout Odessa, caretakers offered pony and horse rides through the streets and parks. The world of children’s entertainment in Ukraine was like a trip back in time.

I checked into the elegant Mozart Hotel, where I thought that I had locked-in a low rate for a room over the internet. I discovered that the interrupted internet service that I had experienced across the city failed to complete my reservation. The desk staff invited me to stay, at a higher rate than the promotion, approximately double, an important lesson in confirmations.

Further challenges confronted me during the day, since I attempted to refresh my currency for the coming week of travel and discovered that automated tellers, contrary to assertions of tourist guides, rejected my money cards. In the face of my inability to communicate in the native language, figure-out the transportation systems, and obtain adequate currency to carry into remote parts of the country, I decided to curb my plan to travel through the distant Carpathians or Crimea.

I moved a few blocks off the Central District and found a Soviet-style apartment for approximately 500 UAH. The place was Renaissance Hotel Apartment in the center of a courtyard nearly invisible from Rishelyevskaya Street, managed by an Irishman.

During the next few days, I transitioned to austerity mode. I purchased Chilean wine for less than 80 UAH and basic food components from a market near Dolphin Beach. I was thriving on less than 200 UAH in groceries daily. I basked in 90-degree heat, sunbathing near a plaza with water shooting from the floor to cool visitors. At the north end of the plaza, the Dolphin Aquarium offered several shows daily.

'Old-school' amusement park ride in Odessa.
‘Old-school’ amusement park ride in Odessa.

One night, I returned to my apartment and overheard a man with a Southern accent discussing his lost credit card with his bank. I knocked at the door because this was the third time in three weeks that I had heard a native English-speaking person. When he opened the door and began talking about his visit, I realized that I was talking with a genuine Gomer Pyle.

He was a retired marine from North Carolina wearing a camouflage outfit to tour Odessa. I told him that seemed like a mistake to me. Like me, he did not speak a word of Russian. He said that he intended to marry a woman with whom he had communicated for a month. She was apparently a dentist who was not going to leave her office to settle in the United States. My new friend was going to sell his house and move to Odessa.  he two had gone out on dates for two weeks. He told me that she demonstrated no affection toward him, but he was only seeking companionship because his wife had died of cancer a year earlier.

The existing crisis was that his wallet vanished while he was out on a date the previous night. During our conversation, his translator telephoned to inform him that his date with his fiancé was cancelled. I invited him to join me on a walk through the Central District. I introduced him to sites that his companion had not shown him during two weeks in Odessa. As we parted, I warned him about the rampant fraud and petty theft in the city.

The end of my vacation arrived. I arrived on an overnight layover in Vienna and exchanged the small amount of Ukrainian currency remaining in my wallet for euros. I was glad to return to Western culture among numerous English-speaking guides.  However, I received a bit of shock from paying 30 euros for a trip to my hotel, Pension Weber, about 10 kilometers from the airport. If I had understood public transit in Vienna, I could have commuted cheaply and efficiently through the city.

I was immediately impressed by electrified tram stop across the street from my hotel. As I hiked along the streets, I admired the public buses, appearing as though they had arrived from a showroom a few moments earlier and passed shelters every ten minutes.

The evening was slightly cool as I walked beside neatly kept flower gardens and crisp homes. Cars parked along the street seemed as though they had been aligned with a carpenter’s chalk line.I stumbled into a Chinese restaurant where I was presented immediately with an English-speaking waiter and enjoyed the best meal of my trip at a cost of 16 euros.  Then, I retired to a beer garden and finished a flask of Austrian wine.

My return flight across the Atlantic was comfortable compared with my trip East, especially since my body had never adjusted to the nine time zone difference from Colorado. Dulles Airport security scan was swift, since I had packed my carry-on day pack inside my checked backpack. I only carried my passport, wallet, and a few euros in my pockets for fast passage through airports. As soon as I landed in Denver, I ate a Mexican dinner to satisfy a craving before taking a shuttle home.  The entire trip home, with layovers, consumed 39 hours.


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