Odessan odyssey

From the world’s largest labyrinth to the world’s the world’s first monument to Darth Vader, Odessa makes for an unusual yet captivating city break.

I know the phrase ‘Paris of the…’ gets bandied around all too often, but Odessa may well be worthy of that statement. It’s like the best bits of Paris, Milan and Istanbul have all been mixed in a Slavic hotpot. Plus, just like Barcelona, it boasts stunning beaches mere minutes from the city centre.

Odessa might not seem like the obvious city break destination, but there is plenty to see and do for a short trip, with countless eateries to suit all taste buds and green spaces that are simply captivating.

Ukraine hasn’t had its fair share of good press recently and Odessa, its third most populous city, is no exception, with violent clashes taking place there in the country’s 2014 pro-Russian conflict.

However, despite the delicate situation in nearby Crimea, it appears to be business as usual for Odessans and I felt nothing but calm as I wandered the city’s streets at all hours, being met by the locals with a warm smile and good humour every time.

Deribasivska Street
Deribasivska Street

Founded in the 18th century by Catherine the Great, Odessa blossomed from 1815 onwards when it became a duty-free port. The wealth of this period is evident in the stunning neoclassical and Renaissance revival buildings that border an easy to navigate grid street plan.

However, it is perhaps the immigrants that the Black Sea port attracted that has left the city with its greatest legacy, leaving behind a pan-European outlook evident in the wealth of artistic treasures on display and the multitude of world cuisines on offer in such a relatively small urban centre.  You only have to look at a map of Odessa to see this influence, with French and Italian Boulevards and Greek, Jewish and Albanian Streets listed, to name but a few. People from more than 130 nationalities live in Odessa today.

Tyler's in town
Tyler’s in town

Where to stay

Odessa boasts accommodation to suit all budgets, but it is advisable to book in advance if visiting during the high season in July and August. For those wishing to make their money spread even further, renting an apartment may be a good idea. There are plenty of touts offering rooms at all many arrival points, but if you arrive without a booking, your best bet is to visit the Central Vokzal Apartment Bureau, which is across from platform four near the train station’s rear exit.

Palais Royal Hotel

This boutique gem, situated next door to the ornate Theatre of Opera and Ballet, is housed in a 19th century building that was completely renovated in 2013. Plus, with only 19 rooms, you really feel looked after by the hotel’s friendly staff.

Breakfast is served in the hotel’s trendy restaurant, Sparja, which offers a choice of European and Asian-style breakfasts.

When making your booking, ask for one of the rooms with a private balcony. It’ll be perfect for sitting out on with a morning coffee while people watching below.

Room with a view at Palais Royal Hotel
Room with a view at Palais Royal Hotel

My room itself was rather clinical, but had everything I needed and was cleaned to spotless standards each day. This being Ukraine, however, there were a couple of quirks; noticeably the plasters holding up tiles in the bathroom and the mini-bar, which offered chilled condoms. Safety clearly comes at lower temperatures in these parts!

Other options

Mozart Hotel

For a touch more of the opulent, directly opposite Palais Royal Hotel is Mozart Hotel, which oozes European luxury, and its success in Odessa has seen it expand to six hotels in three countries. With an exterior designed in the Biedermeier style, Mozart Hotel is an exact replica of an aristocratic club that stood on this spot in the early 19th century.

Bristol Hotel

Across the road from the equally stunning Odessa Philharmonic Theatre, Bristol Hotel first opened in 1899 and continues to welcome VIPs, tourists and business travellers alike. Its historic legacy is clearly reflected in its décor and the Le Grand Café Bristol Restaurant is the perfect place for a romantic meal.

Places to eat

From the heart-warming stodge of traditional Ukrainian home cooking to cutting edge European fine dining, Odessa does not disappoint on the culinary front. Plus, with prices in Ukraine generally much lower than the UK, you can really splash out at every meal. Reassuringly, for those of us who don’t read Russian, most places I visited had English menus.

The café scene in Odessa is equally as diverse, with lots of independent coffee shops vying for your attention. However, if you’ve not got time for a sit down, most street corners and public squares boast at least one coffee van. These small, brightly-coloured vehicles contain an espresso machine and offer your favourite coffee variant at an equally tiny price.

Coffee vans on Katerynyns'ka Street
Coffee vans on Katerynyns’ka Street

Kompot

Walking in to Kompot is like stepping in to Grandma’s house (if she was Odessan) 30 years ago and enjoying simple cuisine that makes your stomach smile. The beetroot salad I ordered was perfectly presented, its cutlets were succulent and Kompot’s desserts felt like they were homemade just for me. Plus, don’t forget to try their eponymous ‘kompoty’, a traditional juice made from preserving fruit in jars.

There are four Kompot outlets within Odessa, but I cannot recommend the original restaurant on Deribasivska Street enough, and I enjoyed both an evening meal and a lunch here during my stay.

Kumanets

Leaving chic Odessa behind, Kumanets transports you to a traditional Ukrainian village from days gone by, complete with servers in folk dress, lavish floral displays and plastic cockerels. It may feel a bit gimmicky, but, thankfully the food hits the spot. I particularly enjoyed their ‘deruny’ (potato pancakes) and Odessan caviar, made from aubergines.

Farsh

Sometimes you just want a juicy burger and at this Odessa diner you won’t be disappointed with their meaty offerings. Haute burgers made from beef, chicken, duck, venison, ostrich, trout and falafel can all be washed down with a wide selection of artisan soft drinks and beer.

Lviv Coffee Manufacture

Freshly roasted ground coffee is the speciality in this outpost of the Lviv-based chain. Its rustic interior only adds to the charm; that and its delicious selection of desserts.

Kofeynya ZheTo

This tiny café is the perfect place to stop for a rest and beverage in the afternoon, and admire its fairy tale-like interior.

What to do

Get your bearings in Odessa by taking a stroll along pedestrianised Deribasivska Street and exploring the stunning City Garden. While here, make a point of visiting the lavish Passazh, a neo-Renaissance covered shopping arcade which echoes Milan’s Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II.

Next, head towards the Black Sea along Primorsky Boulevard. The highlight here is the majestic Potemkin Steps, made famous by Sergei Eisenstein’s 1925 silent film ‘The Battleship Potemkin’. Avoid climbing back up the almost 200 steps by taking the free funicular railway that runs parallel to the stairway.

At the eastern end of Primorsky Boulevard stands the pink-and-white colonnaded City Hall, which has also served as the city’s stock exchange and later the Regional Soviet Headquarters. In front, there is a cannon captured from the British during the Crimean War and a statue of the Russian poet, Alexander Pushkin.

Pushkin lived in Odessa for 13 months in 1823 after being exiled from Moscow. However, it seems he wasn’t exactly welcome in Odessa either and, following clashes with the government, the local governor was able to get the Tsar to send him packing from here too.

At the opposite end of Primorsky Boulevard stands Vorontsov Palace with its Greek-style colonnade that offers views over Odessa’s busy port. You can also walk over the padlock-covered Mother-In-Law Bridge, which is just around the corner.

Vorontsov Palace colonnade
Vorontsov Palace colonnade

There are two theories as to why the crossing is called Mother-In-Law Bridge; the first one is that, due to it swaying when jumped on or in heavy winds, it’s akin to mother-in-law’s tongue (not my words!). However, I prefer the other version that claims the bridge was commissioned by the local chairman because he loved his mother-in-law’s pancakes. She lived on the other side of Voennyy Descent to him, and so the bridge meant he could get to them more quickly!

Mother-In-Law Bridge
Mother-In-Law Bridge

A great way to see Odessa, particularly the resorts further out of town along the Black Sea coast, is to buy a ticket for the hop-on, hop-off City Tours, which sees you transported between all the major sights in a nippy e-shuttle, complete with a live guide.

My tour guide Larisa was a very staunch woman and I made a note not to get on her wrong side. I saw her go from placid guide to formidable force in 0.001 seconds when the e-shuttle driver decided to take a personal phone call. He was clearly shaken by her stern telling off as, when we stopped at the next location, he took himself off to a quiet corner, presumably to contemplate what he had done.

On tour with Larisa
On tour with Larisa

Despite her demeanour, I was impressed by Larisa’s knowledge and thought she would be a safe bet to take me on a tour of Odessa’s catacombs the following day. She told me that I was underdressed though and must wrap up warmer when we next met.

Catacombs

If placed in one line, Odessa’s limestone catacombs would stretch for over 2,000km. Originally quarried out for building in the 19th century, they have been used by smugglers since and people have even lived in them. Most famously, they sheltered partisans in the Second World War, who waged a war of attrition against the Nazis and occupying Romanians.

The catacombs themselves are situated about 15km north of central Odessa in the unassuming suburb of Nerubayske and can be difficult to reach under your own steam, so I would recommend hiring a guide and driver through your hotel to save time. The excursion will certainly be a memorable – if sobering – highlight of your trip to Odessa.

Although, taking Larisa’s advice, I had wrapped up extra warm, yet proceeded to be driven in the warmest car known to mankind. Clearly watching me drip with sweat from the front, Larisa said something to the driver in Russian, they both laughed hysterically and then one of the windows was opened a tiny crack.

Entering the Odessa Catacombs
Entering the Odessa Catacombs

As I visited during the low season, the catacombs were locked, so Larisa had to telephone the caretaker who promptly let us in and then locked the door as soon as we entered. His action made me feel a little uneasy and I certainly wasn’t reassured when Larisa escorted to me to a derelict passageway and asked me to turn off my torch.

I’d be lying if I said that at that point I was a bit concerned about my welfare. I was alone with an eccentric tour guide miles away from civilisation where no-one knew where I was. Oh, and I was now in the dark in a warren of – locked – catacombs.

I kept thinking about the tragic – admittedly disputed – tale of Masha, an innocent partygoer who ventured down into the depths with some friends on 1st January 2005. While down there, she took a wrong turn or two, and got lost. It took two years before the police were able to locate her body and retrieve it from the catacombs. I also read that the catacombs are a pretty good place to stage a murder, with its labyrinth structure hiding bodies from the law. Was I to be the catacombs’ next victim?

Well, thankfully, no.

A few seconds passed – although it felt like several minutes – and Larisa turned her torch back on, smiled and we continued back along the set route. I relaxed and began asking questions about the catacombs. “Yes my dear” or “no my dear” was how she would start a response, before giving me a light touch on my left arm every time. When she wanted to reiterate a point she was making she would recap a fact with “and I repeat.”

I soon warmed to Larisa; she was so much more than just a guide, as her off topic chat wandered towards describing times of yore. She had worked on the Soviet Union cruise ships and also regaled a story of taking oligarchs around Las Vegas. “Vegas! I don’t like it”, she concluded. She also allowed Protestants to sleep on her sofa, but I am not sure of that significance of that; it was just as hot in the car on the return journey and, being more concerned about not fainting in the heat, some of what she said was lost in my trance-like meditative state.

Also on the journey back to the city centre Larisa retrieved several crumpled five and 10 pound notes from her bag and asked if I could swap them for newer ones, which her bank would accept.

“I only have ‘hryvnias’,” I replied.

“Oh. That is most disappointing.”

Darth Vader

In April 2015 a law was passed in Ukraine that required all monument from the Communist era to be removed. However, rather than destroy a statue of Lenin on the outskirts of Odessa, local artist Alexander Milov decided to encase it within a titanium façade, creating the world’s first monument to Darth Vader. I made a point to seek it out while there.

It was quite difficult to find, but as soon as I saw the reception desk for the company who own the courtyard where it stands and said “Darth Vader” (I may have done this in a slight Russian accent), a blue camouflaged-clad security guard whisked me through the building to the glorious sight. It was remarkable how the artist managed to blend Lenin’s coat into the ‘Star Wars’ Sith Lord’s famous cape.

Alexander Milov - Darth Vader
Alexander Milov – Darth Vader

Apparently, the statue also offers free WiFi, but I could only connect to a HP printer on the second floor.

Travel Facts and Tips

  • Odessa is a great city to visit at any time of the year, with moderate winters and pleasant summers.
  • There are no direct flights to Odessa from the UK, but Ukraine International Airlines and LOT Polish Airlines offer one-stop connections via their hubs from London, or you can fly via Istanbul on Turkish Airlines from Birmingham Airport.
  • Ukraine’s ‘hryvnia’ (UAH) is a closed currency, so you can only exchange money once you arrive.
  • Bargain hunters should head to Seventh-Kilometer Market – thought to be Europe’s largest. Closer to the city centre, Starokonny and Privoz Markets are also a must for shopaholics.
  • Odessa was named after the ancient Greek city of Odessos, which was mistakenly believed to have been located here, although the city was the site of a large Greek settlement not later than the middle of the 6th century BC.
  • Stay healthy while in Odessa; the city’s six kilometre-long traffic free Health Track runs along the shore of the Black Sea and is popular with walkers, runners, cyclists and rollerbladers alike.
  • Odessa was a very Jewish city in the 1920s, but the Holocaust and anti-Semitism during the Soviet period reduced their presence. Many Jews moved to New York’s Brighton Beach, which is nicknamed ‘Little Odessa’.
  • If you’re looking to bring treats back home, you can’t go wrong with a box of chocolates from ABK or Rosheen, both Ukrainian manufacturers.
  • If you fancy a night out by the sea, head to Arkadia Beach, which offers a variety of cafés, bars and nightclubs.
  • Odessa is considered one of the capitals of Ukranian winemaking and tours can be arranged to nearby vineyards.

Yo! Tokyo

Bizarre and dignified in equal proportions, Tokyo is an endless city that never fails to surprise at every corner.

Nothing can prepare you for Tokyo. From the moment you step off the plane, you enter a colourful and ultramodern world full of bizarre gadgets and cute cartoonish mascots, but one that is steeped in tradition and precision.

Everything you’ve read about Tokyo is true; from the ultrarealistic plastic models of food outside restaurants enticing in diners, to the futuristic toilets that play sound effects to hide your bodily functions. It’s a bonkers city, but one that’s easy to fall in love with.

Plastic display food for sale on Kappabashi-dori
Plastic display food for sale on Kappabashi-dori

As the world’s most populous metropolitan area, you’ll be sharing your stay with nearly 40 million other people, but Tokyoites are some of the kindest and most helpful people you will ever meet.

Tokyo skyline as seen from Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building
Tokyo skyline as seen from Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building

Plus, hiding among the skyscrapers and neon are stunning temples and teahouses that offer little pockets of calm for you to recharge your batteries before you venture out once more into the sprawling metropolis.

Where to Stay

Space is a premium in Tokyo, so finding somewhere large enough to swing a lucky cat in can be difficult, but, wherever you choose to stay you can be guaranteed a healthy dose of ‘omotenashi’ – the Japanese spirit of hospitality. No request is too small in Japanese hotels and little in-room touches like pyjamas, slippers and tea sets compensate and make for memorable stays.

Hotel Gracery Shinjuku

Mere metres away from Tokyo nightspot Golden Gai, Hotel Gracery Shinjuku dazzles with scenic views of the city and facilities that combine the best of what both the East and the West have to offer.

Self check-in machines make your arrival a breeze and rooms are more spacious here than what is the norm elsewhere in Tokyo, complete with all the features you’d expect from a high-end hotel.

If all the noodles and rice are getting a bit too much for you, Hotel Gracery offers home baked pizzas in its Bonsalute Kabuki restaurant, or, after a busy day sightseeing, you can relax over a coffee and a sweet treat at Café Terrace Bonjour.

The hotel is overlooked by a life-size Godzilla statue on its eighth floor (this is Japan, after all), so you can sleep soundly knowing that the world’s most famous giant reptile has your back.

Hotel Gracery
Hotel Gracery

We also loved

Anshin Oyado

Make sure you spend at least one night in one of Tokyo’s space-saving capsule hotels. You might feel like you’re sleeping in a space no bigger than a washing machine drum, but they are comfortable and contain everything you need for a good night’s rest. The Anshin Oyado chain is a bit more luxurious than most and all its three properties in Tokyo are a two minute walk to the nearest station.

Sawanoya Ryokan

Charming suburb Yanaka has plenty of ryokans – traditional Japanese inns – and for those who are not too keen on the idea of communal bathing, Swanoya Ryokan offers private baths.

Shibuya Grandbell Hotel

A stunning boutique hotel with stylish, artistic touches in each room and a great breakfast.

Places to Eat

Tokyo is the ultimate foodie paradise, with cuisine to suit every palate and budget, from the truly weird (grilled salamander or pig testicles , anyone?) to comfort staples such as Japanese curry rice, ramen (noodle soup) and, of course, sushi. We were in Tokyo for five days and barely scratched the surface of what the metropolis has to offer, but found that from street eats to Michelin-starred restaurants, the quality of the food was always excellent.

Ganko Dako

Served from a glorified shed, this street stall might not look like much, but its delicious tako-yaki (grilled octopus dumplings) are worth making the trek into Meguro. Bizarrely, it’s located directly opposite the Meguro Parasitological Museum, which is worth a visit, if only to have another quirky story to tell when you get back home.

Meguro Parasitological Museum
Meguro Parasitological Museum, opposite Ganko Dako

Gonpachi

After splashing the cash in the Roppongi Hills shopping and entertainment complex, stop in for a bite to eat in this Edo-style izakaya (Japanese gastropub). The sushi and tempura are fantastic and don’t worry if you get a sense of déjà vu here – Gonpachi inspired the setting for the bloody fight sequence between Uma Thurman’s The Bride and The Crazy 88’s in Quentin Tarantino’s ‘Kill Bill’.

Gonpachi
Gonpachi

Kyubey

It’s a fact that wherever you try sushi in Tokyo, it will taste a hundred times better than what we eat in the UK. However, for a truly memorable experience, head to Kyubey, where your sushi will be made – and served – piece by piece.

Little Mermaid

Tokyo have adopted French-style bakeries and given them a Japanese twist, with breads shaped like cartoon characters and savoury doughnuts filled with curry sauce. The Little Mermaid branch inside Osaki railway station offers over 80 varieties of freshly baked goodies and makes for a great lunch stop.

Maisen

Tonkatsu (crumbed port cutlet) doesn’t come much better than at Maisen in Harajuku, served with mountains of shredded cabbage and sticky rice in a former World War II public bathhouse.

Robot Restaurant

In fairness, you don’t really come to this Shinjuku institution for the food; the star attractions here are the bikini-clad dancers and cavalcade of dancing robots that seemingly transport you into a real life Daft Punk video. No words can truly describe a night of camp cabaret at the Robot Restaurant.

Robot Restaurant
Robot Restaurant

What to Do

Experience Tokyo at its bombastic best by joining the throngs of people crossing Shibuya Crossing, one of the world’s busiest intersections, as neon signs and giant video screens blare out around you. Don’t forget to stop in one of the area’s purikuras, photo booths that airbrush away your blemishes and make you look like an anime version of yourself.

The Japanese national pastime is clearly shopping and there’s nowhere better to flex your credit cards than in Harajuku. Global designer brands line Omotesando, Tokyo’s Champs-Élysées, while the latest teen fashions can be found along eccentric Takeshita Street. Failing that, most areas of Tokyo have at least one Bullring-sized shopping centre for you to spend your yen in.

Takeshita Street, Harajuku
Takeshita Street, Harajuku

Let out your inner ‘otaku’ (geek) in Akihabara, Tokyo’s epicentre of all things anime and manga. Here you can experience the cosplay delights of a maid café or take in an AKB48 concert – imagine the Spice Girls, but with 130 rotating members who perform daily for cheering fans.

Reconnect with your spiritual side at Senso-ji, a lively Buddhist temple filled with the smells of incense and paper fortunes. Ensure you make time to visit one of Tokyo’s charming public gardens too. Hamarikyu Gardens was our favourite and after a relaxing stroll, we enjoyed a cup of powdered matcha green tea and all its antioxidant goodness in its traditional teahouse.

Hamarikyu Gardens
Hamarikyu Gardens

For a greater appreciation of Japan’s history, head to Tokyo National Museum in Ueno Park and explore a seemingly endless collection of samurai swords, woodblock prints and beautiful kimonos.

Getting around is a breeze and Tokyo’s public transport system is a masterclass in efficiency. The Yamanote Line circles the city like the Birmingham number 11 bus route on rails. Along with the Chuo Line that cuts through the centre of Tokyo, all the major tourist sites are easily accessible by rail, with trains arriving and departing every couple of minutes.

Yamanote Line train
Yamanote Line train

Travel Facts and Tips

  • Tokyo is a great city to visit at any time of the year, but if you want to experience Japan’s cherry blossom, book your visit for March or April.
  • Direct flights from London to Tokyo take 11 hours, 30 minutes, but Air France, Emirates, KLM, Lufthansa, Qatar Airways, Turkish Airlines and Swiss all offer great connections from Birmingham Airport via their hubs, for example.
  • Tokyo is gearing up to host the Olympic Games in 2020.
  • In 2015, The Economist named Tokyo as the world’s safest city.
  • Looking for a quirky gift to bring back home? The Japanese love their KitKats but offer a bizarre range of flavours including green tea, wasabi and sake.
  • Bring a small notebook with you. Most tourist attractions have a stamp at their exit and it gets strangely addictive trying to collect as many as you can as you go from place to place.
  • Public displays of affection are a taboo in Japanese culture, so save anything more than holding hands for your hotel room.
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Tokyo skyline, with Mount Fuji in the background, as seen from Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building

This blog post originally appeared in ‘Style Birmingham’ Issue 52.