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.
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.
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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