Odessa City Garden

Odessa’s picturesque, leafy, City Garden is one of the best places in town to observe, and be part of, the city’s diverse life pulse.

It was donated to the city in 1806, and is located in Old Town at one end of historic, pedestrian vul Derybasivska.

Statues abound throughout the park such as the bronzy lion, the delightful dancing people, and the seated bronze sculpture of Leonid Utesov.  Utesov was a famous Soviet jazz singer and actor of Jewish origin and was awarded the prestigious title of People’s Artist of the USSR in 1965.

City Garden appeared to be used by a cross section of the city’s diverse residents while I was in Odessa. Young people were buried in their cell phones. Older people worked on computers. Children played in the central pavilion and in and around the music fountain, which was currently dry. There were Muslim women dressed in black burkas, dog walkers, and Navy personnel in uniform.

The Western Naval Base, located in Odessa, is the current main naval base of the Armed Forces of Ukraine. It was formerly a base of the Soviet Navy.

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A opening along a stone wall in the park lead to a large open area with a massive pile of rubble from a demolished building. This was the only part of the park that didn’t feel inviting.

One day a group of what appeared to be volunteers were clearing the rubble. They were mostly male and of diverse age with the youngest being about five years old. Two girls were enjoying a makeshift swing which hung at the opening in the wall. A posted news article with photos indicated there was a plan in place to transform this area into a lovely part of City Garden.

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An enticing mix of restaurants surrounded City Garden.

My favorite place for dinner was a buffet restaurant that offered a wide variety of local food at rock-bottom prices, similar to the buffet restaurant I frequented in Podil, Kiev. Both appeared to attract a similar crowd of young professionals and students.

One young man who was in line spoke to me in fluent English. When I asked how he learned to speak English so well, he said he gets a lot of practice with his American friend who has been living in Odessa while he is writing a book. The low cost of living in Odessa makes it affordable for him to do this, he explained.

When I was passing through the park one day, I heard some voices in song coming from one of the restaurants. Women in traditional Ukrainian dress were singing Ukrainian folk songs in harmony next to a table where drinks and traditional pancakes were being sold to passer’s by.  

I lingered here for a while enjoying the atmosphere and music. It was the only place in Ukraine that I had experienced such an inviting outdoor promotion of a restaurant.

On another side of the park was a restaurant, called the Odessa Cafe, which was located in an attractive yellow, historic building. It is one of the oldest restaurants in Odessa. A sign in front of the cafe promoted a group of musicians who play “shuva” music on weekends. Never having heard of that kind of music, I was­ intrigued.

As I approached the cafe one Friday evening, a group of men, all dressed in dark street attire, were milling around the entrance.  Feeling a bit intimidated by them, I almost turned away. But the strains of lively music that drifted through the front door propelled me to walk courageously through the middle of them.

Inside it was packed with men crowded excitedly around a small band with a female vocalist. Partially-eaten community plates of food were in the center of each dinner table. I recognized the music to be similar to klezmer, traditional music of the Jews of Eastern Europe. Fans held up smart phones to record the show. I put my camera on recording mode also and started swaying to the music. I half expected to hear the popular Jewish celebration song “Hava Nagila.”

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Exploring Odessa’s Public Markets

I made every effort to visit at least one of Odessa’s many colorful markets each day. I never had to go too far out of my way to make this happen, as most of them were in Old Town, seldom more than a few blocks away from wherever I was at the time.

Privoz Market, the main city market near Odessa’s main train station, is one of the largest farmer’s markets in the world. The smaller Novyi Bazar, started in 1850, is located in the heart of the historic district in a building that is an architectural gem.

City Food Market, a “foodies” food court which is frequented mostly by upwardly-mobile young Odessans, occupies a stunning historic building in the heart of Old Town. Odessa Book Market, a fascinating holdover from Soviet times, stretches for a long city block under cover in a park-like atmosphere in old town.

Privoz Market

Privoz Market is one of Odessa’s top tourist attractions. It began in 1827 when wares were sold from the back of horse driven carts.

Full-fledged shops mingle with street-side vendor stalls and stout women perched on stools surrounded by their goods for sale. There are over 6000 vendors participating. Consumer goods abound. Huge individual sections of the market are devoted to meat, cheese, fruit and fish.

Eating samples of fresh homemade cheese in the large cheese section was a special treat. Buying any was a challenge because nobody spoke English. I watched what others were buying around me, tried to figure out what they paid, and then ordered the same.

I was constantly lost in the narrow maze of lanes, but that was half the fun.

City Food Market

The recently restored building that housed the City Food Market looked like a former palace from the outside. Itinerant tribes used to congregate here for jamborees. The two-story building is divided among prepared shops, each with its own kitchen dedicated to a particular product.

The international cuisine was delicious. The vegan and “green” stalls appeared to be some of the most popular. The young staff in the food court generally spoke English, which made ordering a wiz. I enjoyed observing the chic, young Odessan professionals who packed the place.

The prices were higher than what I was used to paying in local restaurants about town. But dining in Odessa was generally so inexpensive that paying a bit more in this “foodies” food hall hardly made a dent in my budget. The atmosphere was worth every extra hryvnia (Ukrainian currency) I paid.

Odessa Book Market

One day while I was crossing a wide leafy boulevard, I stopped in the middle to listen to a male musician with disheveled long hair playing popular tunes at an old upright piano. He was next to a casual outdoor bar and some book stalls. This was one end of the Odessa Book Market which was under a long metal and glass dome.

The book market was important during Soviet times when books were hard to come by. One book stall that caught my attention was promoting *Lonely Planet guide books in Ukrainian language.

Novyi Bazar

Whenever I wanted a quick breakfast of oranges, cheese, and some fresh bread, I headed for the Novyi Bazar, which was only a few blocks from my hostel. No English was spoken there and I didn’t know any Ukrainian. Whenever I bought fruit, I assumed any posted price was for a kilo and then proceeded to buy a kilo. Not a flawless way to shop, but I got the fruit!

Near the market was a traditional Georgian bakery. The neighboring country of the Republic of Georgia shared a common history for a time with Ukraine, both of them being one of the former Soviet Republics. Georgia’s traditional foods and baked goods of meat-and-cheese-filled pastries are popular all over Ukraine. I loved their hot bread which came out of their round, floor-mounted traditional oven.

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*A series of internationally acclaimed guide books especially geared to independent travellers

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Odessa’s Jewish Legacy

Once considered the Jewish capital of the Russian Empire, Odessa is filled with traditions, buildings and monuments with ties to this cultural legacy.

The small restaurant across the street from my hostel specialized in seafood from the Black Sea. In the middle of the street-side dining area was an old wine barrel topped with a humorous display of two traditional Jewish dolls dressed in the attire of their respective professions, a baker and a musician.

Purim at the Grand Coral Synagogue

During the Jewish holiday of Purim, I decided to spend the night at the charming California Boutique Hotel which was next door to the beautifully restored Grand Coral Synagogue, one of two functioning synagogues in Odessa. It was built in 1790. Purim commemorates the time when the Jewish people who were living in Persia during the First Persian Empire (550 -330BC) were saved from extermination by the courage of a young Jewish woman called Esther.

I checked into my hotel in the early evening and then proceeded next door to the synagogue. There I befriended a security guard who spoke English and stood close to him so as not to be too obtrusive in my street attire. Streams of children and young people were bounding joyfully in and out of the synagogue, many dressed in colorful costumes and masks. Adults who were with them were dressed in costume or Sabbath clothes. The guard explained that the time for the children to celebrate was over but the adults would return at 11pm to celebrate among themselves.

At the corner a food truck was surrounded by eager young people who had just exited the synagogue. A few boys were wearing a kippah, a head covering worn by Jewish men. I stood in the darkness watching and listening to the surrounding activity. Families, many with strollers, were socializing in front of the synagogue. Colored lights decorated the entrance to my hotel next door, in celebration. I later learned that the hostel was owned by an Israeli/American.

Later that night I looked out over the stone balcony of my room, and admired the beautiful stained glass window of the synagogue, which was lit from within. The sound of revelers inside pierced the clear night air. What a joy!

Brodsky Synagogue

In striking contrast to the activity at the Great Choral Synagogue that night, the dark, imposing Brodsky Synagogue which was just around the corner, stood in mute testimony to its grand past. Built in 1863, it was the largest synagogue in the south of what was the Russian Empire at that time. Two years ago, the synagogue was returned to the Jewish community after a century of state control. It is slated to be the future site of the Odessa Jewish Museum and Tolerance Center.

Both synagogues were in the vicinity of vul Evreyska (Jewish Street).

Holocaust Memorial

It was a beautiful, sunny spring-like day when I visited the Holocaust Memorial on the outskirts of town. The balmy feeling in the air belied the somber history that took place there during WWII.

I hired a local English-speaking guide, Anna Sokoloskaya, whom I met through the hotel next to the Choral Synagogue, to take me on a Jewish tour of Odessa which included the holocaust memorial. She ordered an Uber for us to get there.

Anna was extremely knowledgeable of Odessa’s Jewish history. She was not Jewish, but said she had visited Israel several times in order to broaden her knowledge of the Jewish diaspora. A large percentage of her business is taking people on Jewish tours of Odessa.

At the memorial site we visited the “Road to Death” that lead to the extermination camps for thousands of Odessa’s Jews and Gypsies starting in 1941. Along with memorial signs, the Alley of the *Righteous Among the Nations featured a tree dedicated to each person in Odessa who saved a Jew.

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* An honorific used by the State of Israel to describe non-Jews who risked their lives during the Holocaust to save Jews from extermination by the Nazis

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Odessa’s Hidden Courtyards

Odessa’s hidden courtyards intrigued, fascinated, and more often than not, surprised me.

Around the corner from Cathedral Square in the old town was my hostel, the door of which was deep inside a gated, old courtyard. The pavement was in upheaval, paint was sorely lacking everywhere, but it was clean. Laundry was often hanging out to dry between the walls of houses which surrounded the inside of the courtyard.

I eventually came to the conclusion that my atmospheric courtyard was typical of Odessa’s old traditional courtyards which were hidden throughout old town. The occupants were of diverse nationality, age, and profession. It was scarce on beauty, but revealed an interesting slice of Odessa life and culture.

My courtyard became my *Little Odessa. I soon felt very much at home there. I periodically exchanged friendly greetings in English with two Muslim women outside the entrance of their stately, two-story house. A couple of times I observed a young professional man tapping on a window as he approached a door of a house in the courtyard. The door opened quickly thereafter and he vanished inside. Once I was faster than he was and got a glimpse of a stunning, flower-filled interior. I often exchanged smiles with a middle-aged woman who was taking her dog out for a walk. Two adolescents occasionally played a noisy game of football (soccer) until someone called them in.

I observed a different kind of courtyard activity just outside my dorm window where I often sat while writing this blog. A large paved area with a volleyball net was surrounded by buildings. It was often a buzz of activity with students from the high school next door who were playing volleyball or football (soccer). First there would be a scurry of excitement, then a whistle, then total silence as the group exited the play area. Then I would get back to work until the next pleasant disturbance. Fun!

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No courtyard was more thought-provoking than the one where the Museum of History of Odessa Jews was located, which was a few blocks from my hostel. In the rear of the crumbling courtyard was a small apartment where four Jewish families had lived together during Soviet times. This museum pictured the lives of the Jewish population of Odessa before the Holocaust with a rich, diverse collection of items donated by descendants of Jewish families who managed to survive those times.

I couldn’t help but compare this humble museum to the grandiose Jewish history museum that I visited a couple years ago in Warsaw, Poland. The museum in Warsaw delved deep into centuries of Jewish history. In comparison, the museum in Odessa gave me the feeling I had walked into the lives of several Jewish Odessa families in the 20th century. It was cozy, informative, and heartbreaking, all at the same time.

The new handbook City Guide of Jewish Odessa, which I purchased at this museum, was a great help in my quest to learn about the city’s heritage. The smile on the fresh-faced Jewish boy on the cover made me feel like he was welcoming me into his world, which he did through this well-written guidebook.

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On the wall of one of Odessa’s more artistic courtyards was a mural containing the famed Russian poet, playwright, and novelist, Alexander Pushkin, in a very casual, relaxed pose. Born into Russian nobility in 1799, he was the great grandson of an African slave. He was eventually banished, for his political poems, to remote southern Russia, where Odessa was located.

It seemed every time I turned around there was some sort of remembrance of Pushkin, whether in the form of a statue, a bust, or a wall painting. This wall painting was the most endearing of all these remembrances, presenting him as a charmer, which I understand he was.

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* Little Odessa was a nickname sometimes given to Brighton Beach, NY, due to the Russian immigrants who settled there, largely Russian Jews, from Odessa.

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My Arrival in Odessa on the Black Sea

As I alighted from my nine-hour overnight southbound train ride from Kiev to Ukraine’s strategic port city of Odessa, I was greeted by the delightful, sea breezes of the Black Sea. It was mid March and spring was on the horizon in this southern port city.

Odessa is the third most populous city of Ukraine and a major tourism center, seaport and transportation hub located on the northwestern shore of the Black Sea. It is the only major port of Ukraine. Two other Ukrainian ports are off limits because of the current political situation with Russia concerning the Crimean Peninsula.

I shared a compartment on the train with three young men from Kiev who were on holiday for the weekend. They had booked an apartment on the sea in Odessa through Airbnb. One of the men named Sergio spoke fluent English. He worked in technology for a company out of Norway that has an office in Kiev. The common language among the workers in his company was English. We all talked into the night.

On arrival in Odessa’s main train station we all walked a half hour to the heart of Old Town and found a hearty breakfast in an Irish pub on vul Derybasivska, Odessa’s main commercial street. It was near a McDonald’s which had a delightful outdoor seating area outside a historic building. It was the most inviting McDonald’s I have seen overseas. An international money exchange place was located next door with exchange rates posted to exchange Euros, US dollars, and Russian Rubles, with Ukrainian currency (hryvnia).

After saying goodbye to my new friends I headed for my hostel which was located just off vul Derybasivska near Cathedral Square.

Every time I strolled along pedestrian vul Derybasivska, whether day or night, it was always bustling. A huge sign on one street stall read “Israeli Street Food” in English. Ponies, dressed to attract children, were usually standing or parading in the vicinity of the Israeli food stall, their owners looking for families with small children to entice for a ride. The street was lined with restaurants and coffee houses with outdoor seating offering front row seats for people watching. Buskers and fire performers provided entertainment for the price of a coin.

Cathedral Square is considered the spiritual center of Odessa because Transfiguration Cathedral, the main cathedral of the city, is situated here. The historic orthodox cathedral that used to grace this square starting in 1808 during Czarist Russia times, was destroyed by the Soviets in 1936. It was subsequently rebuilt starting in 1999.

A large market of hand-made souvenirs and artwork lined the sidewalks and plaza. There was a definite Jewish presence in some of the paintings, with several men wearing a *kippah. I found this particularly interesting considering the history of the Jews in Odessa.

Once an ancient Greek settlement, the Odessa region was eventually ruled by the Ottoman Empire. Empress of Russia Catherine the Great founded the port city in 1794, promising religious freedom and economic opportunity.  It was to provide new markets for the Russian Empire.

Odessa Jews came from the *shetyls of Eastern Europe looking for a better life during this time. The port city soon became home to one of Europe’s largest Jewish populations and a center of Ukrainian Jewish life.

On the eve of World War II, approximately one third of Odessa’s population was Jewish (200,000). The city’s Jewish population was nearly eliminated during WWII by Nazi-allied Romania. Now it is about 3% (45,000)

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* kippah – a brimless cap worn by male Jews

**Shetyl – a small town with a large Jewish population which existed in Central and Eastern Europe before the Holocaust.

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Saying goodbye to Lviv

Visiting the Museum of Folk Architecture and Rural Life was my last adventure before departing Lviv.

It was a bit of a hike on dirt paths through a hilly, landscaped park to get to the open air Museum of Folk Architecture in the outskirts of Lviv. Along the way I ran into a friendly young lady named Natalia who was walking her dog. She confirmed, upon my inquiry, that I was going in the right direction and then offered to accompany me.

Natalia, a native of Lviv, studied English in her early school years, then stopped. We still managed to communicate in English quite well. Her job is an insurance sales agent. Her passion is landscape architecture, which she does for a hobby. Twenty minutes later we arrived at the open-air museum. Our brief, friendly encounter was heart-warming.

One aim of the Museum of Folk Architecture and Rural Life is showing rural life in all its forms from villages in western Ukraine. A highlight of the outdoor museum was the unusual architecture of several well-preserved wooden churches including their fine ecclesiastical interiors. One church was a part of the UNESCO World Heritage List of wooden Orthodox (and some Eastern Catholic) churches of the Carpathian Region in Poland and Ukraine which were built between 16th and 19th centuries.

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Following are a few photos in memory of my experience in Lviv, a multicultural city that exudes European Charm and UNESCO history. 

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The Cafe Culture of Lviv

Lviv is often referred to as the coffee capital of Ukraine. Three centuries of European influence in the city have left a stamp in the Old Town in the form of unique, atmospheric cafes, with coffee dominating the scene.

Because I was staying in Old Town, I enjoyed visiting many of them frequently. In Rynok Square (Market Square) the street level of historic tenement houses, which are protected by UNESCO, are occupied mostly by commercial establishments – but what delightful commercial establishments some of them are!

The coffee complex

Lvivska Kopalnya Kava, for example, is a popular coffee complex in Rynok Square. It consists of a coffee-themed souvenir shop, a section where you can purchase recently mined and milled beans, plus two cafes. One cafe was a charming, light-filled, covered courtyard located deep inside the complex behind the shop. On weekend nights live music packed the place. I first discovered the inviting courtyard cafe when I was looking for the Lviv Ethnographic Museum. I finally found the stairway access to he museum in the back of the shop next to the cafe. The displays of traditional dress and way of life in the Lviv area was interesting and well done. I found the diversity of this complex intriguing, considering coffee was at its core.

The gingerbread shop

The young staff at the Lvivska Maysternya Pryanykiv (gingerbread shop) got used to me dropping by daily for a couple of their freshly-baked gingerbread cookies. One day as I entered the back of the shop where the cafe was, I noticed two staff persons behind the counter focusing intently on some writing material. They said they were learning French in order to better serve their customers. Another time when I came in, a staff person was patiently teaching children from the community, at a table full of colorful frosting, how to decorate cookies, while their Mothers looked on. I loved dropping in frequently, not necessarily for the delicious cookies, but more because there was always something interesting going on there.

Atlas Cafe

One evening was girl’s night out for myself and my four roommates from my hostel. Our place of choice was the historic, candle-lit Atlas Cafe which was tucked in a corner of Rynok Square. Its dark, carved wood interior with high hand-painted ceilings, brass chandeliers, and oil paintings on the walls, all added drama and mystique to the place. It was the favorite gathering place of bohemians before WWII*.   The interior was badly damaged during the war and is now completely restored.

Honey” restaurant/cafe

Honey” (translated), was a delightful, little cafe/restaurant on one of Old Town’s cobblestone streets near Rynok Square. On weekend evenings Dennis, a Ukrainian guitar player, could be found perched on a stool in front of a widow of the cafe while singing romantic ballads in English, French, and Ukrainian.  He never used any sheet music.  His music, the charming staff, and traditional desserts offered by the cafe, always combined to make a delightful evening for me.  Once I expressed my appreciation to Dennis for his multilingual talents.  He commented that he will not sing any songs in Russian as it is not popular to do so at this time, due to the current political situation between Ukraine and Russia.  

The strudel shop

Whenever I wanted an inviting place to work on my blog, I often visited Lvivska Plyatsky, a cafe in Rynok Square that sells fresh hot apple strudel with several choices of sauces. On arrival I would order some tea and apple strudel at the counter, find a cozy table, open up my computer, and make myself at home. Inspiration flowed, as long as I wasn’t too distracted by the beautiful people around me.

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*Atlas Cafe is included in “Jewish Lviv: 100 Addresses”  https://lia.lvivcenter.org/en/storymaps/100-addresses/

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