As Ukraine's southern metropolis on the Black Sea, Odessa has always been a magnet bustling with visitors. Back in the days of the Soviet Union, Odessa was already well known as a prosperous, elegant and progressive city. As of today, Odessa gains more and more recognition for the same reasons. Historically Odessa is an important port city and the city being a economic and cultural hub, it knows a dynamic and diverse atmosphere. Its architecture is very rich and abundant in ornaments. Various styles decorate the city's wide boulevards and the city has more of a mediterranean feel than an Eastern European one. Odessa's architecture has severely been influenced by French and Italian styles and this makes it one of Ukraine's most beautiful cities.
On one of the Black Sea's abundant long summer days, a walk over the promenade is a true sensation. The center is truly stunning and the long promenade that stretches above the sea is one of the local's favourite hangouts. Lined by old trees this pavement reaches from the City Hall along the world-famous Potemkin Steps towards the Opera, Odessa's eye-catching landmark. For lovers of architecture this is a real paradise as in the center all buildings are well renovated and you can catch Odessa's wealth of history in a blink of an eye. The promenade is packed with all kinds of people like in any large city - entertainers, lovers on the benches, people with strollers and now and then a skateboard rider zipping in between.
The city's street plan is well though through and the city is divided into blocks and a pattern of straight streets. Odessa's architecture, as said, is marvellous. Outside the center, unfortunately, many buildings need renovation to preserve their beauty. The collapse of communism and the aftermath that hit the whole country surely left its scars on the city, fortunately it still shows its charm. The center is very well maintained and when Odessa's tall trees are fully green, the boulevards invite for a stroll accompanied by a cool breeze from sea. Odessa is truly a delight. Its location near the beaches makes is a busy party destination as well - there are many clubs along the shore. Odessa's most famous beach is Arkaida, which can be reached by tram, trolleybus and of course a taxi.
Getting to Odessa is relatively easy - although flights from other European cities might be expensive and often require a change of flights. Getting in from Moldova's Chisinau, Romania's Iasi or the Ukrainian capital Kiev are some ways to avoid expensive flights. Besides, Eastern Europe's extensive railway network caters those who have the time to travel a bit longer to get to their destination and enjoy the scenery. From Chisinau, Moldova's capital, trains and buses pass the breakaway country Transnistria. From Kiev, modern and comfortable overnight trains are a very good option as well. Odessa's main train station and bus terminal are a couple of kilometres from the center. A taxi might overcharge you but the walk is not too long and for the adventurous ones - some of the many marshrutka coaches will get you there. Odessa has always been known as a wealthy city and even though it can be cheap for western standards - large hotels can be very expensive. Small-scale hotels and the many hostels are a very good option, as are apartments. Odessa is a truly nice city and I suggest anyone with a sense of adventure and some extra time to see more of Ukraine to visit.
From Odessa, I wanted to cross the Black Sea to Batumi in Georgia. I had heard of regular ferries making the journey in two days. I went to the office of Ukrferry, located right in the center of Odessa. I knocked the door and was greeted by a friendly lady, who said the sales agent was not there. I had to return the next day. In the morning, I went to the office again and met a friendly man with a black suit, a firm posture and a large, golden ring around his finger. "Where you go, Mr. Lion?" he asked me. I explained I wanted to go to Batumi and he kindly guided me through the reservation process. In a couple of days, I would board the Greifswald. I prepared for my trip, bought a guidebook for the Caucas region and was, above all, very excited. I took two buses to the Illichivsk port south of Odessa. Information on how to get to the port was provided by the company. I needed to go to another office near the port to get the actual ticket. As all was well and I arrived at the port, the waiting began. As the port is seen as a border, you go through a passport and possibly luggage check as you leave Ukraine. It took about three hours for the checks to start, during which I finished the whole guidebook for the Caucas region. I was already deciding what to see and do. Most passengers were truck drivers. As it is an exhausting drive around the Black Sea to get to Georgia, many just prefer to take the ferry. Only two others were travelers, the Italian Enrico and his sister, whose name I forgot. I later found out Enrico was a long-distance runner, as he practised daily on the deck of the ship. His running over the cabin's roof was what would wake me up in the mornings, shortly before breakfast.
Enrico and his sister would directly take a train to Tbilisi and then move on to Armenian Yerevan. Then, they would fly back home. I was very happy that I had another two full months and all freedom to explore as I wished. I also wanted to go to Azerbaijan, for which a visa was needed. But I digress. We got our passports checked by a lady with a perfectly symmetrical face and deep, dark-blue eyes. Furthermore, she had very dark hair, an army coat and a large, fur hat with Ukraine's Coat of arms pinned on. With violence, she slammed red stamps in all passports. She never seemed to get exhausted of banging on her small, metal desk that filled half of her small booth. She did not speak a word to anyone. As we boarded, it was already dark. Dinner was served from a counter that also had such ladies that just loved to smash with things. "What you want?" asked the blonde lady with a golden tooth. "What do you have?" "Soup and bread." As my choice was clearly limited, I chose soup with bread. With a handy arm-movement she grabbed a soup spoon large enough to function as a steel helmet for a kid. Just as short as our conversation had been, so quickly she served the soup. With a loud CLUNG the spoon hit the bowl and with a BANG it was placed on the counter. She took baked bread from a basket and I could hear it getting crushed by her fingers. Bread does not make a BANG if you put it down but judging the loaf's state, it was obvious that she had served it.
The food was all fine. Every day they served something new, from pasta to potatoes and meat with vegetables. Mostly, only hearty meals apart from the watery soups. Drinks were lemonade, served along the tables from a large pan with an equally, way too large spoon. As most passengers were truck drivers, they had time to relax on board as their trucks were outside. As I do not like the sight of dark water and high waves, I mostly remained inside. The sea was quite rough, also according to people frequently crossing to Georgia. Most truck drivers were smoking outside to kill the time, like the many signs prohibiting this, went unnoticed.
I shared a cabin with Hamlet, an Armenian "biznesman", as he said. When I came in, he directly introduced himself. "Hamlet. You want peanuts?" I kindly took some and he started telling me an extended version of Dutch history, I was very impressed. He seemed to be fond of peanuts, he ate nothing else besides the three meals a day. Ah, and he loved crossword puzzles in Armenian. A language with a beautiful script, different than Georgian but also very interesting. As the sea was so rough, we took a day longer to cross. As we reached Georgia, we looked over the whole western part of the Caucas mountains. One of the best panoramas I have seen. Also, the long northern coast of Turkey was in full sight. It took two more days to be able to get to the port. The high waves did not allow us to get there, the risk with such a large ship was too big to take.
I must say I found the staff on board of the ship to be very friendly and helpful. It just took one initial conversation. Their whole life stories suddenly came out as well. They had interesting lives but also quite hard as they spent a lot of time away from home. But again, so did all the truck drivers. Above all, the staff really comforted me when I got seasick. A journey that took days longer than expected but I would not have wanted to miss. I had said goodbye to Ukraine, promised to return and was ready for a new part of my adventure; Georgia.