Ukraine: Vacation in Odessa: That’s why tourists come in the middle of the war

Four million tourists visited the beautiful port city in 2021. Russia’s invasion changed everything. Why are visitors still coming?

The sun bathes the magnificent neo-baroque building of the Odessa Opera in its glaring light on this warm June day. A singer’s voice wafts out of an open window, he’s practicing for better times. It smells of the sea, which is a few meters away but unreachable because the city’s port of soldiers of Ukraine is secured.

A young woman in an elegant dress takes a selfie in front of the sandbag walls. A few meters away, a woman is leaning against the frame of one of the purple, eight-seater, open-top electric vehicles. Wearing a yellow baseball cap, large sunglasses, shorts and t-shirt, she is talking to the driver. Ludmilla is waiting tourists.

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Ukraine: Four million tourists came to Odessa before the war

Odessa, the pearl of the Black Sea. Founded at the end of the 18th century, it grew as a multicultural city in which people from dozens of nations lived together, a city about which the Russian national poet Alexander Pushkin once said: “Here you can breathe all of Europe.” patina of decay has settled over many of the tenement houses, residences and hotels of central Odessa, yet the pre-war city’s Mediterranean charm attracted many tourists from all over the world. There were almost four million last year.

The war has caused the tourism business to collapse. Before the opera, a flutist plays against the practicing singer. A year ago you could hardly have walked here, it was so crowded. “Back then,” says Alexej, “I was earning the equivalent of ten dollars a day, now it’s 1.5.” curfew applies, he can no longer dingle from table to table.

Boat tours are impossible – because of the mines

The tours are advertised on a sign by the mobility scooter that Ludmilla is standing in front of. The boat trip through the harbor. Descending into the underworld of Odessa with its legendary catacombs. Immerse yourself in the city’s rich Jewish history. Visiting the places where the city’s legendary gangsters met, Mishka Yaponchik, the “Robin Hood Odessa” or Sofia Blyuvshtein, known as “Sonia the Golden Hand”. crime queen of the city rise.

Ludmilla says that a lot of things are no longer possible now, there’s a war going on. No boat tours anyway, there are mines out there. The Potemkin Bridge tourist magnet par excellence, which leads from the harbor up 192 steps to the city center and which Sergei Eisenstein made world famous with his film “Battleship Potemkin”, is currently not accessible. A tour with the electric car, but that’s possible. She offers a discount. 150 hryvnia instead of the usual 200, that’s about five euros.

The small mobile trundles off, on board are Vlada, a city guide, two somewhat withdrawn young women and Anatoliy and a friend. The two come out Kramatorsk almost 1000 kilometers to the east in the Donbass, where the war is now destroying everything. “We are in Odessa for the first time, we like it very much,” says Anatoliy, the two use the short drive to shoot what feels like a thousand photos.

Ukraine War: The port city was spared the catastrophe for the time being

“We still have maybe 10 percent of the number of tourists we had before the war. Most that come now are refugees from other parts of our country,” says Andrej, the driver. But somehow he keeps his head above water. “Those who love life, keep going.” That’s a saying that couldn’t be more typical for a resident of Odessa. The city is considered a center of lightness, laughter and humour.

In March it seemed as if the war could soon put an end to this ease. The Russian army was just outside Mykolaiv about 140 kilometers to the east, and there was talk of an imminent one Pincer attack on Odessa, from the north, from the east, from the sea, Crimea, annexed by Russia, is a few hundred kilometers to the south-east. There were even warnings of an impending attack from the West, from the Moldavian separatist region of Transnistria, where 1,400 Russian soldiers are stationed and from which it is just a two-hour drive to Odessa.

the catastrophe the port city was spared for the time being. However, air alarm sounds here again and again. Every now and then the Ukrainian air defenses practice at night, then the thunder of gunfire rolls over the sea, and in the darkness red stars from explosions pop up. During the day, however, some of the magic of the city has returned.

Ukraine: Soldiers look suspiciously from the sandbag castles

The electric vehicle drives slowly through the streets of the old town lined with mighty maple trees, it torments itself over the tram tracks on which the old trams drive, it passes cafes where people sit and chat in a relaxed manner. City guide Vlada praises her city, tells about the sheik who once lived in one of the palatial buildings with his 40-strong harem lived, from the cake bakery formerly housed in the mint green ‘Haus Ligmann’, from the English club which used to be where the Merchant Fleet Museum is now.

Some of the street signs are covered, they did that to the Russians to confuse them should they come to their town. Soldiers look a little suspiciously out of the sandbag castles in front of the public buildings, many passers-by smile at the sight of the tourist mobile.

Finally, it rumbles over the cobblestones of Derybasivska, the promenade that takes its name from Admiral José De Ribas, a Spanish officer in the Russian service who founded Odessa. Derybasivska is lined with ice cream stands, snack bars, restaurants and souvenir shops. Many are closed and boarded up, but some are waiting for customers.

These days, t-shirts and mugs with a picture depicting a Ukrainian soldier serving a soldier are selling particularly well in souvenir shops Russian warship shows the middle finger. It is the Moskva, the flagship of the Russian Black Sea Fleet, sunk off Odessa in April.

Odessa: People in rabbit costumes sell hugs

In the city garden, along which Derybasivska runs, roses bloom and fill the air with their beguiling scent. Across the street, a violinist plays Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit.” Numerous people are sitting on the benches around the fountain, squinting in the sun or chatting animatedly. A group of Arabic-speaking tourists snap photos with the crowd, who have dressed up in bunny costumes and are selling hugs. “We come from Saudi Arabia‘ says Aziz, in his mid-20s. Actually, they are only here for business, but they wanted to take the opportunity to see the city. “Odessa is safe at the moment, we’re not afraid. It’s a beautiful city,” enthuses Aziz.

In Sauvignon, a few kilometers from the city center, Olga Luashenko and Nastia Danchuk are sitting on the sand of a small beach in front of an ensemble of wooden holiday homes, laughing and taking selfies Black Sea in the background. The two are from Cherson, a city west of Odessa that was captured by the Russians in March.

In April, the two fled the occupied city. They stayed with friends and relatives. “It’s my first time here on the beach, I like the sea, I like the quiet,” says Nastia. She’s 25, her husband is a soldier. “I wish the Germans would supply more weapons. Preferably sniper rifles so my husband can kill more Russians.” Then Nastia hugs her friend and the two laugh and pose for a photo.

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