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Black Sea Cruise: Odessa, Ukraine

Before dinner on the previous evening Professor David Tompkins of Carleton College gave a talk on Odessa, the Multicultural Jewel of the Black Sea. As he told us, Odessa is one of the youngest of the great European cities, having been founded by Catherine the Great in 1794, after the Russians pushed south into the northern Black Sea coastal areas that was under the control of the Ottoman Empire. A Sardinian general Jose de Ribas who served under Catherine the Great beat back the Turks and built the new city.

 In the 19th century Odessa became a thriving centre of art, culture and trade, and immigrants poured in to the city. But Tompkins pointed out that there was a dark side to the story of Odessa. The facts that are readily accessible through reputable sites on line  known are horrific.

On the eve of World War II the population of Odessa was around 600, 000. Some one hundred and eighty thousand thousand were Jews who had fled pogroms in other parts of Russia, and despite an ever-present anti-semitism, and the occasional pogrom, (notably in 1905), had thrived in the relatively, liberal cultured environment of Odessa.  Romania, allied with Germany took over governance of Odessa after a lengthy siege. By this time many Jews had fled and there were about 90,000 left in the city. On Oct 22,1941, a bomb exploded at a meeting of important Germans and Romanians, most of whom were killed. The remaining leadership declared that 1000 civilians would die for every German killed. Although it was not suggested that there was any Jewish connection to the bombing, almost all the 90,000 Jews from Odessa, were shot, burned alive, or deported and killed. Together with Moscow, Leningrad and Sevastopol, Odessa was considered by Russia to be one of the hero cities of the Soviet Union for holding out for a long time against the German forces.

According to notes from the Aegean Odyssey daily Journal: Odessa is the 4th largest city in the Ukraine with a population of just over 1 million. In the 19th century as part of Imperial Russia, Odessa was the 4th largest Russian city, after Moscow,  Saint Petersburg and Warsaw. I remember hearing about Odessa as one of the major ports from which Eastern Europeans escaping progroms, left for places like America, England and South Africa. My own grandfather told me he  traveled by ship to South Africa out of Riga in Latvia.

The Aegean Odyssey’s morning half-day excursion was a walking tour, titled Highlights of Odessa. Our bus first took us past the Potemkin Stairs to the town’s Archeological Museum. We were dropped off just past the Opera House (where we were to see a performance later that evening). Constructed in Viennese Baroque Style, this 19th century building is another iconic landmark of Odessa. From there we walked a short distance to the Archeological Museum where we learned about the Greek, Scythian and early Slavic artifacts.

p1110343-w500-h500.jpgThen we strolled along the tree lined Prymorsky Boulevard to the Potemkin Stairs. The Potemkin Steps or Stairs are another iconic image associated with Odessa. The 27 m high staircase is the formal entrance into the city from the sea and extends for 142 metres. Our guide pointed out the optical illusion that,  when viewed from below, only the steps are seen, whereas looking down from above, only the landings are seen. The statue of the Duke de Richelieu, first mayor of Odessa) looks down from the uppermost landing.

This giant stairway, a granite and asphalt covered staircase that we see today, was built in the 1930's but the original stairs, constructed for access from the town on a high plateau to the harbour below, were built between 1837 and 1841. Originally called the Prymorsky Stairs (Prymorsky in Russian or Ukrainian implies seaside or maritime), they were renamed in 1955 for the 30th anniversary of The Battleship Potemkin. Sergei Eisenstein's 1925 silent film  The Battleship Potemkin, was a famous  propaganda film that depicts the 1905 mutiny of the crew of the Russian battleship Potemkin against the Tsarist ships officers, an foreshadowing of the  revolution of 1917.

We had a photograph of our small UBC contingent taken with the UBC banner on the steps. Finally we walked back to Catherine Square (where there is a statue of Catherine the Great) to get the buses back to the ship.

I found two paintings of ballerinas among a large group of artist exhibits to add to my collection of dance paintings form different countries. OK it's now only up to three, the first being that tango picture from Buenos Aires, but I can still add to them.

The treat of this stop in Odessa was a private ballet performance by the State Academical Opera and Ballet Theatre for the travelers of the MV Aegean Odyssey, at the Odessa National Opera House. The two-part show consisted of a classical ballet – Les Sylphides (Chopiniana) and The Carmen Suite, a ballet set to a modern adaptation of Bizet’s music. See Odessa: A Night at the Opera House.  After the performance,  the three of us enjoyed a Ukrainian dinner at the Varenik Cafe near Catherine Square.

Odessa was the second stop where the MV Aegean Odyssey stayed overnight. The scheduled morning excursion for the second day did not interest me and I decided to skip it and sleep in a bit.  No such luck. Six am my internal alarm clock woke me up, and that was it for sleep. I popped out to the Lido Deck for my yogurt and coffee, worked through my early morning stretch, and then after showering and getting dressed for a dance lesson, I went up to the Observation lounge to try to get onto the internet.

Internet access has been the one disappointment on this cruise. The satellite coverage in the Black Sea area is poor and it sometimes takes several attempts to connect, and then the connection drops suddenly. I find that very interesting because I remember that even in the middle of the huge South Pacific ocean, miles from any land, internet connections though sometimes spotty, were better than this.

I decided to not even attempt to post to my Travelblogue, but to simply keep my log of the cruise, and post later. Having managed to get on line just long enough to post pictures of the Opera house on my Facebook account, I spent the rest of the morning writing and going through the nearly 1000 digital photos I had already accumulated.

After a quick lunch in  the Marco Polo Restaurant I moseyed along to watch Carol’s dance lesson in the Charleston Lounge, and to have a lesson myself.

We went to the briefing on the Nessebur, Bulgaria excursion for the next day, had dinner, and danced for a bit before going to hear the after dinner concert. The Odyssey Trio were playing a Classical Concert in the Ambassador Lounge. They are a superb trio who can play anything from Vivaldi to strict tempo Latin music. It is a please to watch the sheer joy on the face of the violinist as he plays. The Charleston Lounge set from 10:30 to 11:15 following the concert, was a “surprise” with the beautiful and talented female vocalist of Blue Velvet playing and singing a solo set featuring music from the movies.

As usual by that time, we had the lounge to ourselves. While recorded music was playing, our discussion got to the challenge of finding the beat. I always thought I have a strong sense of rhythm but I am finding on this trip especially, when there are a lot of very slow torch-songs without a distinct percussion or bass to focus on, that I am having difficulty even counting in certain dances eg.night-club two step. Acknowledging that the leader sets the beat and as the follower, I am supposed to just follow, I still find it difficult not to hear a distinct rhythm.  Our discussion turned into a series of challenges to Carol and myself to pick out each beat… and somehow it was after 12:30 before I got back to my cabin with music ringing in my ears.