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)
* 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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