Archive for the ‘Ukraine’ Category

Odessa 4

Saturday, 1 May 2010

Yesterday I did a tour of the catacombs that lie underneath Odessa and the surrounding area. They were used extensively by the anti-Nazi resistance during WW2. I am told there are hundreds of kilometres of tunnels, and more than 1,000 entrances/exits. Entrances still exist from building courtyards in the Odessa city centre, but they have been blocked up. The tour was at a village about twenty minutes drive from Odessa. There were three levels of tunnels, with a maximum depth of 80m. There was an amazing spiral staircase construction in one part. Special rooms were constructed for purposes like sleeping quarters (separate male and female), kitchens, laundry rooms, entertainment rooms, a school for children etc. There was a well too. Soldiers’ graffiti, drawings and carvings were still visible on the walls. Very interesting.


I think this last one says “Blood for blood, death for death”.

Today I went to the Odessa Literature Museum. One room was devoted to Pushkin, Mickievich (the Polish poet) and other writers (quite a long list of them) associated with the Decembrists anti-Tsarist movement who were exiled here. As I have mentioned, Pushkin for example thought himself hard done by, but a hundred years later Stalin was much more ruthless with his opponents. Those were somewhat gentler times it seems.


The last pic is of Vorontsov the Governor of Odessa, and the one before is Mickievich the Polish patriot, who, along with Pushkin was one of the plague of politically active poets who were sent to Odessa for the cuckolded Vorontsov to supervise, and who made his life a living hell.

I came across these last two statues on my way to the post office to buy stamps and post some postcards. So whoever receives a postcard dated 1 May, the next pics are of the Odessa Post Office from where I dispatched them. Great looking post office inside.


I also realised I have run low on reading material (having read and re-read The Black Sea, The Art of Travel and Meditations about half a dozen times each by now). So I went into a bookshop that had a foreign language section. I was after Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice, but they only had that in German. So I picked up Crime and Punishment by Dostoevsky (whom I have never read before) in a cheap and light paperback English translation. I have read the first chapter already.

In the Ukraine, 1 May begins a series of holidays that lasts over a week and culminates on Victory Day on 9 May. Today being Labour Day (international workers of the world unite!) in a former USSR city, I thought there might have been a street march. Perhaps there was, but I had no information about it, so I might not have been at the right time and place.

I also saw quite a few Jewish families today (Saturday) on their way to the synagogue located in what I know realise is Russian for “Jewish Street”. I think it must be a special Jewish holy day today.

The next is a monument to the Potemkin Battleship mutineers of 1905 with a quote by Lenin praisng them for being pioneers of the revolution.

And you didn’t really think you could get away with going so long without another pic of a church, did you?


At least I haven’t posted a pic of a bottle of beer for a while. But I can still talk about beer. At the City Garden pub-brewery they have 3 house-brewed beers on tap (which a bar in Chernivtsi termed “on flood”). They are:

  1. Monastic (wheaten red)
  2. Copper Burgher (barley red)
  3. Seven Forty (lager – they call it “Barley Light”)

In the Ukraine, “light” (or “svetle”) refers to the colour of the beer, not the strength. The menu also quoted the 1516 Bavarian Beer Purity Law “only ingredients barley, hops and water”. Three beer cocktails were also listed, in case you feel like mixing them yourself:

  1. Mexican bomb – lager, tequila, lime/lemon
  2. Bloodsucker – lager, fresh citrus, white wine, grenadine
  3. Horse Kiss – dark beer, tabasco, tomato juice

I have just realised that due to a misunderstanding on my part, my travel/medical insurance ran out a month ago. I have just got another policy through an Australian company on-line for another 3 months, just to have some peace of mind.

Lastly, I have made an executive decision about my next move. I bought a ticket for tomorrow (Sunday) to fly to Budapest, departing 1.30pm arriving 7.50pm, via Kiev. It’s only an hour flying time Odessa-Kiev, and 2 hours Kiev-Budapest, but a 3 hour layover in Kiev.

After a few days in Budapest I then plan to do a 2-week Southern Loop trip (Budapest-Budapest), similar to my 6-week Eastern Loop trip. I want to visit Pécs in the south of Hungary, which is one of the 3 European Capitals of Culture for 2010 (along with Essen, Germany and Istanbul, Turkey). Then Croatia, Slovenia and Trieste and Venice in Italy, and back to Budapest.

I’ll leave you with pics of my walk last night along Primorskie (another pedestrian only street)


Thought for the day:

My mission is to kill time, and time’s to kill me in its turn. How comfortable one is among murderers.

Emile Cioran – The Trouble With Being Born


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Odessa 3

Friday, 30 April 2010

Here are some more pics of around Odessa.

My bedroom in Odessa (at Babushka Grand Hostel). Well I told you I was “flashpacking”.


Odessa Railway Station

Main pedestrian street in Odessa (Deribasovskaya).


City Garden.


Pub brewery adjacent to City Garden.


“Mother-in-law” bridge. There are two versions of the story about the communist-era official who had it built . The first is that he loved his mother-in-law’s  varenniki (dumplings) so much he gave her an easier way to get to his place. The second version is that he had it built so that his mother-in-law would have an easier way to get home and have no excuse to stay over at his house. Take your pick which one you think is more plausible. I wonder if the wedding couple did the “chain the lock to the bridge” thing.


Middle pic is Pushkin turning his back on City Hall. Pushkin (as well as Mickiewicz, the Polish patriot poet) was exiled to Odessa for his radical views, not exactly the most terrible of punishments, but Pushkin considered himself a martyr. The book “The Black Sea” has an amusing account of this period of Pushkin’s life.  He was supposed to be kept busy by doing tasks for the Governor of Odessa, Count Vorontsov, which he resented because he was already busy. He had started writing “Eugene Onegin” in Odessa, and was also carrying on an affair with Vorontsov’s wife. He was sent on a fact finding tour to study locust damage in the area around the Dniester River but tried to get out of it by protesting that he was dying of a heart aneurism and was too sick to move, but to no avail. Pushkin never forgave Vorontsov for that and his final “report” was a 4 line poem:

The locusts flew over and over the plain\They landed on the ground,\Ate everything they found,\And then the locusts flew and flew away again.


The Opera and Ballet Theatre, opened in 1887, designed in neo-baroque style by 2 Viennese archtects, Fellner and Helmer.


Islamic Centre.


Seems to be a sculpture of a cossack. I don’t know anything else about it, but I like it.

Thought for the day:

Paradise was unendurable, otherwise the first man would have adapted to it; this world is no less so, since here we regret paradise or anticipate another one. What to do? where to go? Do nothing and go nowhere, easy enough.

– Emile Cioran – The Trouble With Being Born

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Thursday, 29 April 2010

I am back in Odessa after my side trip to the Crimea. It will be a nice place to be while I take stock and decide where my next move will be. There are a multitude of options available. Maybe I should ask for input from you, gentle reader who has chosen to waste make a wise investment in time by reading this blog. I think the options are:

  1. Go north-west, to northern Poland (Warsaw, Gdansk) then to Berlin, Prague and back to Budapest (maybe via Krakow for which I have a special reason to visit for a second time).
  2. Option 1, in combination with a side trip to Lithuania (Warsaw to Vilnius)
  3. Option 2, with a further extension into the other 2 Baltic states, Latvia and Estonia
  4. Option 3, and when I am in Tallinn, Estonia it is only a ridiculously short ferry ride across to Helsinki, Finland. No wait, this is getting ridiculous. The Baltic states are hardly Middle Europe, and Finland certainly isn’t. But my friend Linsey has made me jealous with her glowing reports of Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia, especially Vilnius. On the other hand the Baltics, maybe in combination with Russia and/or Scandinavia could be for a future trip…
  5. Go west, back to Budapest, see more of Hungary, and plan the northern loop (Berlin, Prague) from there. Or also plan a southern loop which could possibly take in Slovenia (maybe Croatia too), and Trieste and Venice in Italy. The logistics of getting to Hungary from Odessa is quite tricky however (for an Australian). That is because the most direct overland route necessarily passes through Moldova, for which Australians (but not U.S. and EU citizens) need a visa and a letter of invitation, and then Romania.  The more indirect route would mean backtracking to somewhere like Chernivtsi from where there is a bus to Romania (without entering Moldova). If I backtracked as far as Uzhgorod I could enter Hungary directly. But backtracking is not attractive. A third way of getting to Budapest is to fly. The cheapest flight option for Odessa-Budapest is with Aerosvit, the Ukrainan airline, via Kiev for about A$280. On the other hand a super cheap flight option is with the budget airline Wizzair. A flight from Kiev (overnight train from Odessa) to Katowice in Poland (from where Krakow is easily reachable by train in a couple of hours) is as cheap as A$52. The advantage for me of going as quickly as directly as possible to Budapest or Krakow is they are both places where I could leave my heavy luggage for a week or two and travel light (day pack and shoulder bag). I did that in Crimea and loved it.
  6. The World Chess Championship between Anand (India) and Topalov (Russia) is taking place at the moment in Sofia, Bulgaria. I think there is a ferry that goes from Odessa to Varna, Bulgaria. It would be amazing to see those two chess gods in the flesh. The 12-game match finshes around 12 May. Anand has just taken the lead in the match by winning the 4th game, and now has 2 wins to Topalov’s 1 win, with one drawn game. All the wins were with the White pieces.
  7. There is also a cargo ship that also takes passengers from Odessa to Istanbul, Turkey. I really want to see Istanbul before I go back to Australia, but I had been thinking of flying back with a stopover in Istanbul. But to arrive in Istanbul by sea would be amazing. Then of course I would have to work out how to get back to Central Europe if  wanted to contine my travels. Or I could return home sooner rather than later.

Those are my thoughts and dilemmas. Over to you my kind and knowledgeable reader for any suggestions.

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Bakhchiserai 2

Saturday, 24 April 2010

I can’t believe I have been away from home three months already (7 weeks in EU and 5  weeks in Ukraine). Time has flown. I’ve really enjoyed my trip so far, and there’s still a bit more to come!

I think I am starting to lose my pasty middle European complexion here in the Crimea, and starting a bit of a tan. The flowers are blooming,the trees are blossoming, the bees are buzzing  and the lizards are lounging.
Most of the places I have stayed in have been cities or towns, but Bakhchiserai is more rural, more like a village. I am feeling pretty laid back and relaxed here, chewing the cud with some of the locals.


It was a two hour bus trip from Yalta. I saw a bit more of the scenic view this time from the road high on the cliff looking down to the sea and orchards and vineyards as we veered inland. I also caught sight of a church built on another cliff top, which I read was built in the 19th c. in gratitude for an occasion when a runaway horse with a young girl riding stopped just short of the cliff. About a half an hour into the trip, the bus was climbing a hill and suddenly smoke started pouring out of the engine. A quick stop and a squirt from a fire extinguisher ensued. I was pretty doubtful we were going to finish the trip in the same vehicle, but nevertheless we did.

I am staying at Hotel Prival in Bakhchiserai. I found the address on the internet, but for the first time on this trip I didn’t book, just caught a taxi from the bus station and turned up at their door. Fortunately they had a room free. And it’s nice. Small, but very clean and with a view of the surrounding cliffs,with interesting rock formations and caves.

The place has the feel of a holiday camp. One of the activities they have on offer here is horse-riding (the authentic Tatar-Mongol heritage experience?). Just a little different to the activities offered at my hostel in Kiev, which included firing AK47s with real bullets, and tank driving!

I think I have reached the outer limits of European coffee culture here though. I had to settle for Nescafe for breakfast this morning for the first time on the trip, together with a couple of cheese cheburek (a kind of pastry specialty of the region, with either meat or cheese filling).

First thing I did today was visit the Khans’ Palace, only 15 minutes walk from my hotel. The Crimean Tatars are descendents of the Mongol “Golden Horde” who set up an independent political entity (“Khanate”) in the 15th c. It was soon invaded by the Ottoman Empire, but  being Muslim they managed to survive 300 years as a Turkish vassal state. This palace was saved from destruction by Catherine the Great who took a liking to it.

The next pics are of two fountains in the Khans’ Palace. Fountain seems to mean the kind where water gushes horizontally from a vertical wall (rather than vertically from the ground).  Reminds me of a camping trip I did with a few mates to Cathedral Ranges in Victoria, where we were lucky to find some water just as it was getting dark, trickling out of a rock, like one of these fountains. The first is the Golden Fountain.  The second,  is more famous because Pushkin  (whose bust is beside the fountain) wrote a poem about it called The Fountain of Bakhchiserai. It is also called the Fountain of Tears, because the last Khan of the Tatars had it made to place beside the mausoleum of his favourite concubine, a beautiful Polish slave who pined away in his harem. Pushkin started the tradition of placing two roses on it, one red for love and one yellow for sorrow.

Then I walked up the road to Uspensky (Orthodox Christian) Monastery, carved out of the cliff, followed by the Cave City of Chufut Kale, after a further walk up the cliff side. Along the way I spotted this waterfall.


Past this bell tower is the Uspensky church in a small cave cut into the cliff, along with other rooms for monastery living quarters. Photography was not allowed past this point in the monastery.

The honeycomb of caves in the cliffs was first settled by Christianised descendents of Sarmatians as early as the 6th c., and the Tatars first came here in the 15th c. before moving their base down to Bakhchiserai. After the Tatars left, the Karaim took over the “Cave City”. The Karaim were a fascinating people. Let me select a few quotes from Ascherson’s “The Black Sea”. (The Karaim)…”were a Jewish sect which began in Mesopotamia in the 8th c. AD”. They believed only in the Bible (first five books), not  the Talmud additional text, and reached Crimea in the 12th c., also moving north to the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. “In Crimea they kept their distance from the Christian or Moslem societies around them…One historian has remarked that between about 1200 and 1900AD almost nothing happened. Karaite history in Crimea was a long and peaceful blank”. Ascherson also says that during WW2, the Nazi racial bureaucracy in Berlin decreed that the Karaim were not to be included in the Final Solution because they were not “real Jews” but only converts, which was nonsense. In any event, this fine distinction was lost on the SS troops which ignored Berlin and slaughtered the Karaim anyway. Maybe the Nazis had them confused with another fascinating people, the Khazars who came from the Asian steppes in the 8th c AD and created a Crimean civilisation which lasted a couple of hundred years. St Cyril tried to convert them to Christianity, but they also considered Islam and in the end opted for Judaism. So they were the real Jewish converts, but they seem to have left no identifiable descendents.

Some of the caves of the Cave City of Chufut Kale and a very old archway (8th or 9th c AD I think).
Karaim Jewish prayer house, last in use in the 19th c.

15th c. Mausoleum of the daughter of the first Tatar ruler.

View from the top of the cliffs.

There are a couple of nice “caravanserai” style cafes in Bakhchiserai (this one is “Cafe Alie”),  with raised platforms and cushions for lounging on, reminding me of my trip to Iran two years ago. The soup is a local specialty, “lagman” with noodles and lots of veges. I also had some  “dolmas” – very Greek/Turkish dish. Finished off with a Turkish style coffee.
There is a functioning mosque here. It is interesting to hear the Muslim call to prayer in such a staunchly Christian country as the Ukraine. I am told that Tatars comprise about 15% of the local community, most I expect having returned from the exile to Central Asia ordered by Stalin.

Walt Whitman would have liked the Crimea with its fine scenery, mountains as well as sea shore.

Thought for the day:

If you would understand me, go to the heights or water-shore.

The nearest gnat is an explanation, and a drop or motion of waves a key,

The maul, the oar, the hand-saw second my words.

Song of Myself – Walt Whitman

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Saturday, 24 April 2010

I have arrived in Bakhchisarai and visited the old Khan’s Palace. Details soon. I think I will give Sudak and the sandy beaches nearby a miss and concentrate on Tatar history until I leave the Crimea to return to Odessa on Monday night’s sleeper train.

Do svidanya…

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Thursday, 22 April 2010

I took the bus from Sevastopol to Yalta yesterday, often travelling on a cliff road over the sea. Unfortunately I couldn’t see much though because of the pea-soup thick mist. At first I thought it must have been smoke from a bush-fire, but no, our bus was just passing through a low flying cloud.


I walked from the bus-stop to my accommodation (this travelling light is really good stuff), stopping for coffee and breakfast at a cafe on the way. I had booked a couple of nights at a place I found on the internet. I didn’t really know what to expect, but I didn’t expect what  I found.

I stood in front of the big iron gates, peering past the security guard room to the huge expanse of gardens and grounds behind. I wandered up a path and found a building, with “Sanitorium” written in Russian outside it. The staff in the office of the building seemed a bit perplexed to see me. I mumbled something about “internet booking” and they scrambled around, presumably confirming my unlikely story, and eventually asked for my passport. After all the formalities were taken care of, I was given the keys to my room and an official identity card, and pointed in the direction of the building where my lodgings were.


After a few minutes walking down one of the many garden paths, I spied a multi-storied apartment-style building, and found my room. It was nice. En-suite toilet and batchroom and it had a balcony from where I could see the Black Sea.

It was obvious that this complex was designed to be a sanitorium. Lenin made a decree that the Crimea was to be a place for working class people to receive medical care and rest, so sanitoria sprang up all over.  I think this one is still functioning as a sanitorium. Whether for TB, alcohol/drug rehab or “nervous conditions” I am not sure. It’s kind of a peculiar feeling staying here. I keep thinking of that Simon and Garfunkel song “Mrs Robinson” (…stroll around the grounds until you feel at home…). Or maybe I am thinking of “Hotel California”.
The information pack in my room was enlightening. I should see the doctor within the first couple of days for an assessment. And my alcohol and narcotic consumption will be restricted. But that’s OK. I know it’s for my own good. And I think I am starting to open up in the group therapy sessions…
I have taken the liberty of anticipating my medical team’s advice on what to do  when  I am in Yalta. Not too much excitement for one thing. A man of my age can’t be too careful about the old ticker. So I have only done two things (except just wander around of course).

First, I went to see Livadia Palace where the Yalta Conference of 1945 was held. That was to redraw the political world map after WW2, with the USA, Great Britain and USSR (led by Roosevelt, Churchill and Stalin) as the main players. It is a grand building (built for the last Tsar as a summer residence), and the interior is superb. Venetian glass chandeliers, marble fireplaces, oodles of wood panels and elaborate stuccoed ceilings, that sort of thing. And looking at the room where the main proceedings were held, with the original round table, and the same chairs as in the old photo,s brought the history alive.

Next I went up (and came down) the chair lift that goes from near the beach to the top of a nearby hill. That got the heart beat up just a tad more, but still well within normal limits  I’m sure.

I bought a ticket to go to Bakhchisarai tomorrow. This was a centre of the old Tatar Khanate. The Tatar people in the Crimea suffered the punishment of being sent into exile en masse (Siberia and Soviet Central Asia) after WW2 because Stalin accused them of having collaborated with Nazi Germany. The policy was reversed by Khruschev, and some have returned. I have had no contact with Tatar culture so far (except hearing a few Salaam Aleikhums today and seeing a few halal restaurants around), but I hope to learn more in Bahkhchisarai.

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Sevastopol, Tuesday, 20 April 2010

There is a Panorama painting here  in Sevastopol housed in a round building on top of the hill above town, commemorating the siege of Sevastopol of 1854-55 during the Crimean war. It is similar in size to the Panorama of the Polish-Russian battle I saw in Wroclaw. It also had similar foreground landscaping to give a 3D effect. The original was by a French artist in the late 19th c., and the building was started in about 1903 and completed by 1910. During WW2 the building and painting were severely damaged by bombing. A major military operation was mounted to transport fragments of the painting to safety by sea (coming under enemy German attack). After the war, in the early 1950s, a restoration project was commenced, and with the help of a large team of experts, the remaining fragments and original sketches, it was completed. The scale and detail of the painting and the effort put into both the original painting and the restoration is quite amazing. Sevastopol underwent another monumental siege during WW2 in 1941-42. Today at the memorial for thate event I witnessed a “changing of the guard” ceremony performed by some young people.

Sevastopol does not appear to be a city ashamed of its Communist history. The “Red Star”, “Hammer and Sickle” and images of Lenin are not uncommon around town.

After looking at the map, and since I am travelling so light, I decided I didn’t need a taxi and could walk to my hostel. And so it proved. When I got there the private room I had booked was already taken, so I had to take a dorm bed. But that proved a blessing in disguise. By the way, hostels in the Ukraine (like this one) are often just one or two bedroom private apartments, with extra beds/bunks installed. I paid only a quarter of what I had planned for this one. It’s really nice and I have the whole room to myself (no others in the dorm) and 90% of the  time the whole apartment to myself (the owner lives elsewhere, contactable by phone). Sweet.  Security is good, as always. I have the key to my room, a key to the apartment, and there is a security code to let me into the building.

My main activity on my fisrt day in Sevastopol was to go for a little excursion to nearby Balaclava, a pretty little port where the Ukrainian and Russian naval bases are located. Apparently, the Russians have a lease on their base until 2017 and there is a political debate on whether it will be renewed. I believe the locals are all for it. I guess it is good for the local economy with all the sailors based here, and in any case most people speak Russian and are pro-Russian in the Crimea.

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