24/09/2010...2:38 pm

Postcard from Odessa

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Spirit of Adventure is docked in Odessa today, along with Compagnie du Ponant’s Le Boreal. It’s a big day all round as the Ukranian Prime Minister is in town. We’ve seen his motorcade several times, along with crowds of photographers, heavy-duty security guards and one small, peaceful protest.

Odessa is a revelation to all of us who haven’t visited before.

The cruise terminal is right opposite the famous Potemkin Steps, immortalised in the classic 1925 movie, The Battleship Potemkin, which was shown onboard last night. At the top of the steps, tourists pose for photographs and souvenir vendors peddle furry Russian army hats and ‘humorous’ Russian doll sets bearing the image of Barack Obama.

The city itself is a masterpiece in mid-19th century Baroque architecture, ornate buildings in cream and pistachio, pale yellow and soft pink laid out on a neat grid system along wide boulevards lined with shady plane and horse chestnut trees. Fountains splash in the autumn sunlight and locals sit in pavement cafes sipping cappuccino. There’s clearly no shortage of money; a couple of the prettiest streets are wall-to-wall designer shops, from Michael Kors to Donna Karan, L’Occitane and Hugo Boss. Toyota Land Cruisers and giant Mercedes muscle alongside ancient, battered Ladas.

I asked Galina, our guide, about the wealth, and she raised an eyebrow and answered, “Oligarchs.” Of which there are many, apparently, a fair few of them rich from illicit gains. It’s a far cry from how things must have looked 20 years ago as communist rule came to an end, an era Galina was reluctant to talk about.

Odessa’s original glory years were the decades of the mid-19th century, before the Crimean war, when it was a thriving, cosmopolitan port. Many beautiful mansions were built then, and we visited three today. My favourite was the Palace of Count Tolstoy, where the high-ceilinged rooms are filled with light, the creaking floors are made of ornate parquet and the walls lined with shot silk fabrics in rich reds. There’s a piano once played by Liszt, and tables of exquisite, inlaid mother-of-pearl. Tolstoy family memorabilia is displayed on the walls; this branch of the family was closely related to the famous author.

In the Literature Museum, we were treated in the dazzling room all done out in white and gold to a short recital by a string quartet, while the paintings in the Fine Arts Museum, housed in Count Potosky’s mansion, provided a fascinating insight into life in rural Ukraine in the 19th century. We had the place to ourselves, which made it all the better.

Tonight, we’re going on another of the ship’s excursions to the ornate Opera and Ballet Theatre to see a performance of Giselle, a welcome chance to go ashore again. Despite the fact that Odessa is a busy, working port, it has a friendly, laid-back, almost Mediterranean feel about it. Several of us today even agreed that we liked it better than St Petersburg – and that’s saying something.

SJB

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