Passport magazine: Russian lifestyle
Home Archive July 2008

About Us

From the Publisher

Contact Us

Current IssueArchive
Restaurant GuideRestaurant ReviewsInternational Food BlogsWine TastingsTravelMoscow EmbassiesAirlines to RussiaMoscow AirportsCustoms and VisasResidence permitMoscow Phone DirectoryMuseums and GalleriesWi-Fi Hot Spots in MoscowClubs!Community ListingsMoscow Downtown MapMoscow Metro MapRussian LinksInternational Links
Advertise with Us
Our Readers - a profileAdvertising RatesDistribution List
Click for Moscow, Russia Forecast
Our Partners
Knights of the Vine RUSSIA


Ah, Odessa, the Pearl by the Sea
After Catherine the Great founded Odessa at the end of the 18th century, it became a magnet for immigrants seeking their fortunes. Today locals say that Odessa is changing, and they are not wrong.
Text and photos Piers Gladstone

Odessa is a unique city with a unique history that informs its present and is shaping its future. Home to regal architecture, sandy beaches that have lured summer tourists for centuries, famous writers and artists past and present, and a thriving port, Odessa is one of the most interesting and welcoming cities of the former Soviet republics, making it a perfect destination for a weekend getaway.

At precisely 21:20, train No. 23 gently rolls out of Kievsky Vokzal. The brightly lit Seven Sisters building of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs slowly recedes into the distance, backdropped against a curtain of darkness. It is cozy and warm in our compartment, and we settle down with a cup of chai in the ubiquitous Russian Railways glass and metal holder, in preparation for our 24-hour journey to Odessa. In the early hours of the morning we are briefly woken to have our passports stamped, the rhythmical movement of the train lulling us easily back to sleep.

The newly restored Panteleimonovsky Church

Statue of sailors who staged a mutiny aboard the battleship Potyomkin Tavrichesky in 1905, Ploschad Yekaterynynska

Morning brings a Ukrainian landscape similar to a Russian one: villages of small izbi [huts], towns of concrete blocks and imperial and Stalinist railway stations whose platforms swarm with babushkas carrying plates laden with homemade goodies for the hungry passengers. As the day slowly slips by, the sky changes, the light mellows, and the landscape oscillates from rich farmland to gently rolling hills, bathed in the late aft ernoon’s golden sunshine.

“Everything is changing in Odessa,” our taxi driver states, and he is not wrong. All around there is construction, but thankfully it seems that much is focused on the renovation and preservation of the city’s charmingly elegant historical center. It is like a patchwork quilt of architectural styles from the 19th century, all laid out on a grid system. On one street one could be in Hapsburg Budapest, the next in southern Italy with vines snaking up and around courtyards and balconies. Th anks to the fact that the Red Army slipped out at night rather than be defeated by the advancing German and Romanian troops during World War II, Odessa’s tree-lined streets and boulevards were spared.

The multicultural architecture of the city reflects its multicultural roots. Founded at the end of the 18th century by Catherine the Great, Odessa became a magnet for immigrants from all over Europe in search of their fortunes. The new city quickly became a boomtown and by 1880 was Russia’s second-largest port. Much of this was a result of Odessa’s status as a dutyfree port, and somewhat like Dubai today, it attracted foreign investment, trade, and immigrants. Since the largest group of immigrants were Jewish, Odessa was, and to some extent still is, associated with Jews and their culture. A large number of Soviet humorists, such as Ilya Ilf & Yevgeny Petrov, hailed from Odessa, and at one time, in the late 19th century, 30 percent of the city’s population was Jewish.

Beneath the city and its surroundings lie over 1000 kilometers of manmade tunnels, known as the Catacombs. These too tell part of the story of Odessa. The sandstone from which the regal and neoclassical buildings of Odessa are built was quarried from beneath the city, leaving an unmapped network of tunnels, which were used by smugglers both to hide and transport the duty-free goods out of the city. Later, during World War II, the Catacombs were used by small but committed groups of partisans to wage a war of attrition against the occupying Romanian and German troops. Now, having been sealed after the war, they are the reason why the city has no metro.


Sausage seller, Privoz Market

Inside the recently restored central synagogue

A window looking onto “old” Odessa can be seen at the Privoz Market. Rows of vendors behind stacks of fruit and vegetables and babushkas with strings of dried mushrooms around their necks compete for trade in the outdoor part of the market, while the indoor meat market and dairy stalls have a hushed air about them. Samples of all the products, be it slices of sausages or knobs of chocolate butter, are willingly handed out for prospective buyers to taste. Everything is cheap, fresh, and of high quality. However, it seems that Privoz is about to be consigned to the history books. The charming Fruktovi Passazh [Fruit Arcade] has been closed and is now fenced off, and it seems the rest of the market is also under threat. “The government wants to tear down Privoz and make a casino,” says Tamara, a 50-year-old trader. “I remember coming here to the market as a child with my parents. Odessa is nothing without Privoz.”

While some history is inevitably being lost, modern Odessa and Odessans seem to be moving confidently toward their future. In Odessa’s equivalent of the elite Moscow suburb of Rublyovka, there are many architecturally adventurous and sometime futuristic houses that tastefully avoid the ridiculous scale that has been embraced in Moscow. Similarly, the restaurants and cafes in the center are inviting and have a sense of authenticity as well as good service (both of which can be hard to find in Moscow). Prices, however, are on a par, not just in the restaurants but also in the shops and the cost of real estate. “Odessa is becoming like London. Houses cost more than a million and a half dollars, and everything is for sale,” quipped one man.

Travel Information

Piers Gladstone traveled to Odessa by train from Moscow. A roundtrip ticket in a 2-person luxe compartment costs 5560 rubles per person. 

The best option for staying in the center is the American-owned and managed Executive Suites. Serviced apartments in this centrally located complex start at around $100 per night. English is spoken.

English-language guided tours of the Catacombs can be arranged through Eugenia Travel, vul. Rishlevskaya. +38 482 220554

 Copyright 2004-2012 +7 (495) 640 0508,,
website development – Telemark
OnLine M&A Russia Deal Book
Follow Us