Friday, July 9, 2010


The day after experiencing Ceausescu's depressing Bucharest, we had our breath taken away by stunning Odessa, Ukraine. Established in 1794, Odessa is now a city of 1.2 million. In the 1800s, it was the 4th largest city under Russian control (behind Moscow, St. Petersburg, and Warsaw). It once had a very large Jewish population, but 25,000 Jews were killed and another 35,000 deported during the first six months of occupation by Axis powers during 1941. Despite being part of the USSR until 1991, Odessa looks more like Vienna than Bucharest. In fact, many of the buildings in the waterfront area were designed by the same Austrian architects that designed some of the buildings in St. Petersburg.

The first thing we saw were the famous Potemkin Steps, which lead from the docks up to the city proper. Designed to create an optical illusion, from below one can see only the 192 steps:
and from above, one can see only the ten broad landings:

I wish the street in front of my house were paved with cobblestones:

Along with the graceful architecture, the thing that is most striking about Odessa is the riot of color. In just the first block, we saw these buildings:
Lime green
Pink and silver

Cherry-chocolate brown (appropriately, the German embassy)

Lovely Salzburg gold

A close-up of the high-class street musicians. No druggie guitar players for this city.

Even the Orthodox churches get in on the action:
Assumption Cathedral

St. Elias Cathedral

By the way, our guide, a tiny little Ukrainian woman with excellent English, noted that in addition to the Orthodox churches, there are two Catholic cathedrals, two Jewish synagogues, and one Mormon church, which she pointed to as we drove by (a regular two-story, yellow and white business-looking building) and noted that it had been there about ten years.

There are many other signs of the city's cultural refinement:

*Wide streets designed on the Greek grid system and lined with tall, leafy trees. Broad, tree-lined Primorsky Boulevard, for pedestrians only, runs for several miles overlooking the coast:

*A statue of Alexander Pushkin, Russia's famous poet and novelist, as well as a street named "Pushkinskaya." (Pushkin apparently lived in Odessa for all of thirteen months in 1823-1824.)
*An excellent marble copy of the Laocoon, the ancient Greek sculpture that is said to have inspired the Renaissance: (The original is in the Vatican)

*And last but certainly not least, Odessa's famous baroque-style Ballet and Opera House, designed, again, by Austrians. It was stunning. Please note how even the Odessan sky enhances the beauty of the architecture:
Our guide told us that when Tchaikovsky conducted one of his symphonies here, the orchestra gave him the gift of a baton with these words engraved on it: "To an immortal; from mortals."

We like getting a Cannon with a Cannon picture wherever we go:

We did a little shopping in Odessa. I purchased a nesting matroyshka doll (painted with scenes from Pushkin's stories) from this woman, whose son insisted on hopping in the picture with her:

. . . and two little-girl-sized appliqued aprons from this sweet woman (who didn't speak a lick of English but seemed happy to have her picture taken with me):

Finally, we paid a visit the the Ukrainian version of the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier: The Tomb of the Unknown Sailor. We happened to be there on the 69th anniversary of the Nazi attack on Odessa in 1941. It's hard to imagine bombs hitting this lovely city. Odessa withstood the Nazis for 73 days (Paris managed only 37). We just missed a big commemorative ceremony, but there were still TV crews walking around.

The pathway leading up to the monument is lined with the graves of those who died liberating Odessa from the Nazis:
A beautiful obelisk, with the Black Sea in the background, is decked with flowers:

A television crew still on the job:

The site has an honor guard made up of four fifteen- or sixteen-year-old schoolchildren, two boys and two girls. Our guide says every Odessa teenager gets one turn to stand here for fifteen minutes wearing a traditional Ukrainian sailor costume. They stand quietly and proudly like good soldiers, march off together (somewhat clumsily) when their shift is done, and are replaced by four other teenagers.

Our final image of beautiful Odessa was this statue we saw on the dock where we boarded our ship:"Birth"

A few years after visiting Odessa I ran across The Hare with Amber Eyes by Edmund de Waal.  It is the author's story of inheriting 264 tiny Japanese wood and ivory carvings and his search for their history. He learns that after having been made in Japan, they spent time in Paris and Vienna before ultimate returning to Tokyo.

However, as he explores the carvings, he also learns a lot about his ancestors who owned them. He comes from a prominent Jewish family on par with the Rothschilds. I learned the Odessa played a very important part in Jewish history, and De Waal spends a significant amount of time there as he searches the past for clues. Chapter 36 has some wonderful descriptions of the city and the harbor, including the Potemkin Steps.

1 comment:

  1. I guess they've claimed Pushkin like the Mission Inn has claimed Ronald and Nancy Reagan--and the Reagans were only here for their honeymoon.

    Great post--I love reading this!

    Did you climb all those steps?