With a population of just over a million, Odessa (Одеса in Ukrainian, Одесса in Russian) is one of the five largest cities in Ukraine and, with its location on the Black Sea, the country's primary seaport.
I visited Odessa on a beautiful Sunday in May 2006. The sun was shining, the trees were in full leaf and the parks, pedestrian walks and streets were filled with people enjoying the warm weather. Men were playing chess in the park, mothers were tending to toddlers and young women were strutting their stuff in a style that is common throughout Ukraine – high heels, tight jeans or short skirts, and long flowing hair. And, because it was Sunday, some people could even be found in church.
Odessa is one of Ukraine's most interesting cities owing to centuries as a thriving seaport that attracted a wide diversity of cultures. Throughout the city are many grand and ornate buildings built during the time the city had a French governor and the Russian court was heavily influenced by French and western European culture. The city has a something of a Mediterranean feel to it. Although many of Odessa's older buildings have suffered neglect over the years, I am happy to say that an active restoration program is well underway and the city is being returned to its former glories.
Like most places in Ukraine, Odessa came under the control of outside influences over the centuries. As a port on the Black Sea, it was the site of an ancient Greek colony and during the Middle Ages served as a trading center for Kievan Rus, the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, the Tatar Crimean Khanate and the Ottoman Empire. But Odessa owes its present character to its years as part of the Russian Empire following its capture during the Russo-Turkish War of 1787-1792. The Russian city was official founded in 1794, during the reign of Catherine the Great. The city grew rapidly, especially under the governorship of Duc de Richelieu (from 1803-1814), who had fled the French Revolution and served during the war with the Turks in the Russian military. From 1819 until 1859, the city was a free port and attracted a very diverse population, including a large Jewish community (though various Russian pogroms over the years and Nazi occupation from 1941 to 1944 severely depleted their numbers). In 1920, following the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia, the Red Army took control of the city and it was absorbed into the Ukrainian SSR (and the USSR). In 1991, Odessa became one of the largest cities in an independent Ukraine. With its strategic location on the Black Sea, it is an important seaport, industrial center, naval base and home to a commercial fishing fleet.
One of Odessa's best known landmarks is the Potemkin Steps (as it was named during Soviet times and is still referred to by most, even though the official name was changed back to the pre-Soviet "Primorsky Steps" after independence in 1991). This collection of 192 steps and ten landings runs from Primorsky Boulevard (and a statue of Duc de Richelieu) down to Odessa's harbor on the Black Sea. The steps are famous for two interesting optical illusions. First, as you stand at the top look down you still only the landings (not the individual steps themselves), but if you stand at the bottom and look up you see only the stairs' risers and not the landings. Second, the bottom of the staircase is almost twice as wide as the top (71 feet versus 41 feet), creating an exaggerated sense of perspective that makes the steps appear much longer than they really are. The steps now lead down to the city's new passenger terminal and convention center, anchored by the multi-story Odessa Hotel. A funicular running parallel to the stairs spares the weary from the long climb up.
Another of Odessa's famous landmarks is the Opera and Ballet Theatre, completed in 1887 (on the site of a former opera house destroyed by fire). The theatre features ornate Viennese baroque, Italian Renaissance and French rococo architectural styles. The outside of the theatre is decorated with statues depicting scenes from Greek mythology and busts of famous artists. The theatre has been restored several times since its opening. It narrowly escaped destruction during World War II when time bombs left by fleeing Nazi troops were disarmed by the advancing Red Army.
Among Ukrainians, the city is also well known for the Seventh Kilometer Market, a vast collection of shipping containers converted into market stalls that spread over 170 acres. The market offers low prices on all sorts of consumer goods, including counterfeits of Western brands. Ukrainians, upon seeing someone flaunting items with Western logos (Adidas, Nike, Rolex, etc.), may dismiss the items as "from Odessa", meaning they are knockoffs.