In 2011 I visited Ukraine, first arriving by train in Odessa from Moldova. I wrote about the trip a few years ago and with the awful events taking place at the moment, I thought I’d share my travels during far happier times, whilst I pray for a return to peace.
Train Journey: Chișinău to Odessa, Depart 07.23 Scheduled Arrival 12.18, 190KM
We had already bought our tickets so spent our last few beans on journey supplies, boarded the train and waved Moldova a fond farewell.
The journey would take us into Crimea. I had brought Orlando Figes’ excellent book of the Crimean War, as I wanted to understand the major conflict that had notoriously played out in the region we were now visiting.
I had heard of the likes of Florence Nightingale, Lord Raglan, the charge of the Light Brigade etc., but did not know the detail behind the legends. I was to learn about a horrid conflict, of basic yet fatal mistakes and the origin of the balaclava helmet.
The journey went without a hitch. The Ukrainian border control guards seemed on the stern side, but not too much new there. Their hats however were the largest that I had ever seen. They would have made the grand master black pudding champion of ‘Ecky Thump’ fame seem like novices (search ‘70s comedy ‘The Goodies’ for an explanation of the fictitious sport played in Northern England).
Ticket to Ride
We arrived right on time around midday and landed into chaos. Odessa station was huge and there were crowds of people hanging out there – day trippers, long distance travellers, holiday makers, business executives, foreign tourists, traders, gypsies, tramps and thieves. For the first time on the trip it felt like we would need to work hard to get what we wanted, which happened to be an overnight train ticket to Sevastopol.
All signage was in Ukrainian and the phrase book I had purchased in the UK wasn’t helping much. There were people everywhere – queuing, waiting, sleeping, gossiping, buying, selling, drinking, stealing and rushing. The large ticket hall must have had twenty windows, each with a queue at least ten deep.
Hamish (my travel buddy) attempted to find out which queue we should join to purchase tickets on the overnight train to Sevastopol, but gave up pretty quickly. There was nothing else for it but to join a queue and hope for the best. We played the game of queue racing, each joining a different queue and hoping to be the first to the window.
Hamish was winning easily when after waiting in line for over thirty minutes, his window was snapped shut abruptly. Ha ha! It became apparent that the sign on each window proclaimed the time that coffee/cigarette and lunch breaks would be taken by the person staffing that particular window. Luckily mine had already had their caffeine & nicotine hit, so I won!
“Do you speak English?” Negative. “Train. Sevastopol. Tonight.” Full. “Tomorrow?” Full!!
After exchanging written notes and pissing off about fifteen locals who waited behind us, we managed to ascertain that the next available train was four days away. Goodness only knew why the trains were so popular, but whatever the reason it threatened to scupper a load of our plans.
We could have booked in advance in the UK through and agency, but that would have cost $180 each so we thought we would just book when we arrived. What should we do now? Queue again and take a train somewhere else? That would mean missing out on the Crimea and we didn’t want to do that. Plan B would be to try and book a bus.
Rucksacks were ditched with the grumpy (back to normal) left luggage guys, some currency obtained and a quick coffee drained before it was off to the bus station we sloped. Trying to decipher the tram timetables was proving a little tricky. We enquired at a convenience kiosk and the friendly owner not only told us which tram to get, but also sold us some tickets.
We let two trams that were packed to the rafters go by, before squeezing ourselves onto the third one. After fifteen minutes we saw a building that looked to be the bus station, before untangling ourselves from the mass of bodies and getting off at the nearest stop. Thankfully we were in the right place.
Only four ticket windows were open and the familiar but unwelcome sight of huge queues met us. Forty minutes later we had our tickets for the overnight bus departing at eight that evening and arriving next morning at seven. As soon as we had the tickets, a feeling of dread engulfed us. Eleven hours on a bus and overnight at that. Yuk!!!!! At least it was slightly cheaper than the train.
This still gave us plenty of time to explore Odessa. A quick look at the map showed we could easily walk to the centre from the train station so we headed back there via a slightly less crowded tram.
As we walked towards the centre, we passed a travel agency that proclaimed themselves as ferry specialists. I then had a brainwave. I was happy to lose the money spent on the dreaded bus if we could take a ferry south around the Black Sea coast to Sevastopol.
Hamish was not sure. The money was not an issue, but many hours on the water was. On anything other than a millpond he would be sick as a dog. We once took a ferry from Naples to Palermo and whilst me, my wife and his partner had a great time eating, drinking and laughing at the awful singing entertainment, Hamish had been confined to his bunk unable to contemplate anything other than the spin cycle going round and round in his stomach.
On that very same trip we had visited the Blue Grotto on the island of Capri. The boat out to the grotto was fine, but then we had to wait in line to transfer to rowing boats. The engine of the boat was switched off and we bobbed from side to side as we waited for our turn. Hamish turned white then grey and finally green.
His dutiful girlfriend Terri helped to bundle him into a rowing boat and commanded the rower to take them to shore, foregoing the spectacle of the mesmerising azure blue waters of the deep cave. The things you do for love!
When we were reacquainted some forty-five minutes later, he was still sprawled on the ground like a starfish that had been stranded out of water!
I could go on but you get the point by now – he was extremely reluctant to take the ferry. I helpfully explained that the sky was blue, there was not a hint of wind and that we were unlikely to experience choppy waters as we would stick close to the coast (I had no idea whether that was true but it seemed plausible!).
He started to buckle when I reminded him of the long, uncomfortable bus journey that awaited us. The bus was bound to be full of huge, loud, odorous, beer swilling, take away eating, chain smoking blokes. It would be hell with no sleep whatsoever. He readily agreed that we could go and enquire about how much it would be and what the departure options were.
“We would like ferry information please.” Where do you want to go, Bulgaria or Romania?” “No, Sevastopol.” “No ferries to Sevastopol since five years.”
What a waste of time and effort and now we were dreading the bus even more having conjured those gruesome images of antisocial giants.
We tried to push such thoughts to the back of our minds as we determined to enjoy all that Odessa had to offer. We soon found ourselves sat at a comfortable pavement side café that was filled with plenty of full paid up members of the Odessa beautiful people club.
We may have been impostors, but we happily enjoyed a plate of pasta as we watched the world go by.
Hunger sated, it was time for a stroll. This appeared to be Odessa’s favourite pastime. Families, lovers, elderly couples, dog walkers, tourists, everybody strolling serenely.
The few exceptions were those that chose a ride in a decorated horse and trap driven by men in traditional costume, plus the odd cyclist.
We headed past the ornate city hall and straight towards the famous Potemkin Steps, named after the battleship, infamous for the 1905 rebellion that was crushed by the tsarist forces.
The steps are Odessa’s most famous landmark. Not quite the Eiffel Tower or Statue of Liberty, but impressive all the same. When viewed from below, the steps appear to be a continual cascade (in actual fact flights of steps are separated by large flat areas of concrete) and when viewed from the top, the steps appear to be the same width all the way down, whereas the bottom step is almost twice as wide as the top one.
They are said to be the inspiration behind Chicago Central Station steps, made famous in the gangster film The Untouchables. I imagined a runaway pram flying down the steps as we walked down them. Look out below! Obligatory photo call accomplished, we descended the famous stairway.
At the bottom of the steps, we now faced the main port area. I love ports – full of fascinating activity, people arriving home or going on a trip, a vast array of goods loaded and unloaded, sailors mingling with travellers, lorries full of containers getting into position bit by bit, wives and parents standing on the dock waiting for or waving off loved ones.
Ports are just about the greatest place to see life played out before your eyes and I have been known to spend hours in the likes of Piraeus, Jakarta and Rotterdam just taking in the scene.
Odessa wasn’t quite in that league, but still a great place to wander for an hour or so. It was pretty hot so we treated ourselves to an ice-cream and watched the ferry arrive from Varna in Bulgaria, with one set of passengers disembarking closely followed by a different set embarking. This brought back those memories of summer holidays on the Bulgarian Black Sea Coast.
I wondered whether there was any such thing as a booze cruise on the Black Sea – some how I doubted it.
Some more strolling, a couple of beers and a tasty vegetarian pizza, and then it was time once more to contemplate the bus journey ahead. We certainly were springless in our step as we trudged to the train station to retrieve our rucksacks. The bad tempered left luggage attendant, who virtually threw our bags at us, did not improve our mood one jot.
Coming next – an uncomfortable night and irritable morning.