The Charming City
Odessa might not be quite as beautiful as Prague or Paris. It might lack the hustle and bustle of a New York or Hong Kong yet still lack the peaceful tranquility of Amsterdam but none of that stops it from being the most unbelievably charming city. You would not have thought it on the drive in from the airport having been greeted by an icy blast that makes Prague look positively Caribbean. Nor is it revealed on the stroll from my hotel (yes, hotel - more on that later) to the Kosher restaurant I chose to eat in. But you begin to uncover it walking through Cathedral Square, even surrounded by vast swathes of military and police personnel. However, it becomes almost crystal clear in the most bizarre of circumstances: on the police-escorted bus ride (more on that later too) to the football stadium.
Yes, you read that correctly. Football stadium. Having received texts from Manchester United telling me to avoid walking through the poorly lit park because of the threat of violence (one that turned out to be real, hence the need for police-escorted bus rides), I was not expecting much. What was revealed is one of the most beautiful, if bizarre, football stadiums I have ever witnessed. It looked more like a carefully sculpted festival hall where opera or ballet should be performed. I lack photos (due to being on the aforementioned bus) and Google's are disappointing, so you will just have to take my word for it when I say that it is truly beautiful from the outside. It seemed almost wrong that it was the stage for 22 men running about after a ball rather than the great works of Tchaikovsky. Indeed, the game passed me by and of all the trivial tragedies in the world that a building as beautiful as this should play host to football must be up there.
Despite the freezing cold, something about the football stadium's aesthetic reassured me for my full day in Odessa. I was not disappointed. Words seem futile to explain why I could not help but smile walking around the place. And I seriously mean that. Few places make you happy just by your being there. For me, St Pancras Intl, the tea rooms at the National Gallery, Israel and now Odessa seem to have that power. Prague is stunningly beautiful; Paris wonderfully romantic; and New York superbly busy but I cannot say they make me happy in the same way that Odessa has. The highlight must be the Odessa Museum of Western and Eastern Art. Set in a exquisite old building, it looks almost shut from the outside. And something about that seemed right, as if somehow I should not have had the right to go inside, so wonderful were its contents. It was almost as if to enter would be to taint its beauty. It is maintained by a group of old ladies all of whom speak not a word of English but that did not matter one bit. You cannot fail to be mesmerised by the artwork on display, which included the rooms in which the individual pieces were housed. With every creak of the floorboard (and believe me, it creaked with every step) I fell that little bit more in love with the place.
The are numerous other landmarks that are worth visiting from the actual opera and ballet concert hall to Cathedral Square, home to a majestic cathedral through to various monuments and statues dotted around. There's even a large set of stairs (considered the formal entrance to the city from the sea) that you can go to if you like stairs. And views of the sea. I took in as much as I could in the time I had and headed to synagogue feeling rather odd without a suit. The service itself was lovely and I even found an English-Hebrew prayer book. It was refreshing to hear familiar songs; enjoyable to take part in their traditions (for example, everyone holds hands and dances/walks around the synagogue) and I was even invited back to Friday Night Dinner, an offer I gladly accepted. As I sat there amongst about 25 Jews, mostly speaking Ukrainian to each other and few conversing with me in Hebrew, I realised how grateful I am to be Jewish. There are many things that I have from birth that I did not choose that I was lucky enough to have anyway but having two Jewish parents is easily the thing I am most thankful for. I walked into the synagogue knowing no one and left the Friday Night Dinner 6 hours later with friends and a permanent invite back, should I ever be in Odessa again.
And I hope I will be. Much like my love of St Pancras confuses my friends or the allure of a cup of tea at the National Gallery is somewhat baffling to some, I am not sure you would really understand why Odessa filled me with such happiness. Sure there is wonderful architecture on display and if you enjoy art galleries, there are at least two worth visiting. I am told it is a lovely beach destination when it does not feel as if the cold is trying to invade your very essence. But Odessa, for me, was so much more than the sum of its parts. It comes together beautifully, I felt at home and the entire experience was topped off by an evening spent drinking, singing, eating and chatting with fellow Jews. Odessa, I am not quite sure how you did it and I fear I have not done justice to your charm in these paragraphs but thank you for a delightful couple of days.
The boring stuff: That feeling that places are shut extended to both of my hostels in Ukraine, the other being in Kiev. Whilst it makes for a nice comment in a blogpost when it is about an art gallery, the feeling of being somewhere that closed years ago is not a pleasant one when it comes to where you are supposed to be sleeping for the night. Combined with a somewhat inappropriate Holocaust remark the hostel owner in Kiev (Elements hostel) made after (pleasantly) discussing my Judaism when we first met, I decided not to risk hostels in the rest of Ukraine. Kosher food, if that's your deal, was easy to find in both Kiev and Odessa. Public transport is remarkably cheap in Kiev, not needed in Odessa (and indeed, I did not use it).