Black Sea Cruise -- Odessa

Odessa, Ukraine
Visited August 11, 2008
Our next stop was at Odessa, about as far north as one can get on the Black Sea. This former and present free port is connected to Europe by railways and pipelines. It's a huge manufacturing site and historically Russia's 3rd largest city. Established as a Russian naval fortress in 1794 by Catherine the Great, an early wave of Italian architects gave today's old city a decidely Italian neo-classical feel.

Primorsky Boulevard

Nowhere is this more evident than on Odessa's grand pedestrian walkway, the Primorsky Boulevard which clings to a cliff parallel to the port where an Ottoman fort once stood.  About 500 yards in length, it is bisected by a grand stairway capped by a statue of the Duke de Richelieu -- a French noble who saved Marie Antoinette's life as the mob stormed Versailles. Fleeing the French storm, he joined the Russian Army. In 1803 as Odessa was rising, the Tsar appointed this 36-year-old governor. Eventually he returned to France -- as Prime Minister, helping to negotiate an easier settlement post Napoleonic wars for his native country since he was the Tsar's buddy. This statue was the first monument in the city to its first hero.

Duc de Richelieu
Ivan Martos's bronze of Armand-Emmanuel du Plessis, duke de Richelieu
The statue sits between two arc-facaded buildings at the top of the Odessa steps (often called the Potemkin steps). These were built around 1830 by the Sardinian Franz Karlowicz Boffo who designed over 40 buildings in Odessa, including those at the middle and each end of the Primorsky Boulevard.   He also designed the empty space which bisects the Boulevard and leads down to the port.

The Potemkin Steps

Look carefully at the top of the picture below and you will see the good Duc's statue as well as a few other illusions. the Potemkin Steps, so renamed after Sergei Eisenstein's created one of the most famous scenes of filmdom in the propaganda classic The Battleship Potemkin. (YouTube it by clicking here). Less than 90 feet high, this passageway appears much longer because the steps are almost twice as wide at the bottom, giving the impression of parallel lines merging in the distance. The small statue of the Duc de Richelieu contributes to this deception. While these appear to be continuous steps, in fact, there is a landing every 20 steps -- landings which can't be seen from the bottom of the stairs.  From the top, it's the opposite and viewers see only the steps immediately in front of them; everything else looks like a landing.  (Click here for such a view).

Odessa Steps with Movie
The steps today and in Eisenstein's The Battleship Potemkin (inset)
Walking back along Promorsky Boulevard, we straddled lovely buildings on the Pushkin Statue landside and landscaped gardens on the sea side.  At the end of the promenade, we were greeted by what Odessians feel is the most realistic statue of Pushkin anywhere.  Behind Pushkin rises Odessa's city hall (once a stock market). Facing him 500 meters at the other end of Promorsky Boulevard is another Boffo palace, that built for his hated boss (and husband of his lover Elizabeth), Prince Vorontsov.

City Hall

City Hall (picture below) was once two two solid rectangles separated by a Corinthian columned open portico. In the 1870s, Boffo's design was modified to cover the space in back of the columns, changing the open space to a grand entrance.

Odessa City Hall
Odessa City Hall
Every half hour, the clock at center top sings out an operatic  love song to Odessa. Marble statues at top and sides reinforce the building's neo-classical lines.

Behind city hall stands an earlier neo-classical building now used as the Archeology museum where we visited some of the 160,000 exhibits without getting too excited.

The Odessa Opera

Visible from the port, the Odessa National Academic Theater of Opera and Ballet symbolizes the resurgent Odessa.  The opera's 19th century Viennese baroque/Frech rococo/Italian Renaissance design was by Viennese architects Ferdinand Fellner and Hermann Helmer who designed over 20 theaters in their careers. Restored neoclassic statuary gleams from most niches and flat roof areas. Air conditioning was provided by bringing ice to the basement and hoping the cold would drift up through the vents.

But this now beautifully restored Italian baroque building quickly fell (actually sunk) on hard times, almost from the time it was built. After the foundation was laid in 1884, the building began to sag under its own weight -- over 6 inches on the east side in the first few years. Around 1929 a 42-ton firewall was added inside, causing the inside walls to crack. The root cause of the problem was that the site occupied a filled-in ravine. Its weight rested on shifting clay.  Luckily the opera escaped most WWII damage even though Odessa was heavily bombed by the Germans. The Germans attempted to destroy the building at their exit by placing explosives in 40 spots inside -- but the quickly advancing Soviet troops arrived before the Germans could have their way.

Odessa Opera House Detail

Muse Melpomene, with panthers pulling her chariot, rides the Odessa Opera House
As the Soviet Union began to implode, money dried up and already sparse maintenance all but disappeared, causing even more settling of the building as water began to accumulate below after every rain. The roof leaked badly as well. What the Germans were unable to do with dynamite, the Soviets were doing with time and neglect. Luckily this was reversed in recent years and today the Odessa Opera (where  Rimsky-Korsakov, Rachmaninoff, and Anna Pavlova performed  amid perfect acoustics) sparkles inside and out.

Cathedral Square

Next we were off to Cathedral Square, named after the cathedral that didn't exist for over 60 years after Joe Stalin had it dynamited in the middle of the night in 1936. Post-Soviet Odessa is rebuilding the 19th century building from the outside in.  Below is a somewhat fisheyed view of this work-in-progress.

Odessa Square Cathedral
Rebuilding of the Spaso-Preobrazhensky Cathedral started in 1999.
As you can see, this is pretty much complete on the exterior.  Inside, only the lower level has rooms which are complete and worship ready.

Odessa Transfiguration Cathedral -- lower level3
Orthodox icons abound in the lower level of the Transfiguration Cathedral.
Outside the new cathedral, the square is alive with Odessians of all ages, riding ponies (real and fake), taking each other’s pictures with cell phones, browsing/shopping at the arts fair.  Presiding over all of this is the statue of Prince Count Mikhail S. Vorontsov, Pushkin's nemesis/victim. He built his mausoleum in the original cathedral.

Global Tea 

We spent the afternoon at a delightful tea hosted by an extended Ukraine family of two sisters and their daughters (and a friend) in their early 20's.  The young women were fluent in several languages -- and each was an only child. Most of them were pursuing graduate degrees with one about to start working for Morgan Stanley in London.  The new Ukraine appears ready to go global!

Click here to see many more Odessa picturesfrom this trip

Click here to see our last stop: Varna, Bulgaria

Click here to see our previous stop: 

Geek and Legal Stuff

Please allow JavaScript to enable word definitions.

This page has been tested in Internet Explorer 7.0 and Firefox 3.0.

Created on September 15, 2008

Click to see more about the author

TIP: DoubleClick on any word to see its definition. Warning: you may need to enable javascript or allow blocked content (for this page only). 
Click here to see our cruise mates
Fellow Travelers: skip right to your picture, by clicking here.
TIP: DoubleClick on any picture to enlarge it.
TIP: See the rest of our travel pictures by clicking here.

Odessa Map from Wiki