Tuesday, March 31, 2015
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Hard times for Black Sea beauty

BRIAN OGLE revisits Odessa, Ukraine, feeling the pinch, big-time, from war in the east and economic collapse…

UKRAINE'S beach tourist city on the Black Sea, beautiful tree-lined Odessa, is feeling the pinch - big time! Its residents, restaurateurs and club-owners follow developments in the war in the east - just six hours or so down the road - and try to re-assure themselves that the scourge of Russian-backed separatism could not happen to them.

Apart from a disastrous and controversial fire which claimed 40 lives (most of them pro-Russian demonstrators) on May 2 last year, haughty, some would say pretentious, stylish Odessa has managed to steer a middle course through the maelstrom of Ukrainian politics, set in train by the game-changing Maidan demonstrations in Kiev which overthrew anti-EU President Victor Yanokovich 13 months ago.

The worry that Putin might want to add the former "Hero City of the Soviet Union" to his annexation of Crimea and advances in Ukraine’s Dombas is a big daily talking point in the bars and restaurants of downtown Odessa. But more pressing and more cataclysmic at the moment, and an even bigger issue, is the cost of living, with the Ukranian Hrvyna (pronounced Grevna) dropping like a stone in value. Most of the ordinary working class in the city, like the rest of the population of Ukraine, are struggling not just to make ends meet but to have enough money to put food on the table.

A hike in interest rates to 30 per cent was a recent desperation move by President Poroshenko to halt the slide of the Hryvna, and it has done, at least in the short term. At the time of writing it had stabilised at around 20 to the US dollar.

And it’s not just the businessmen and women who are anxiously watching and waiting for a sign that the conflict in the eastern Dombas could be winding down to some sort of peaceful stalemate, a move that could signal a return of at least some badly needed Russian tourists, and more Western cruise ships. But the thousands and thousands of people in this Russian-speaking but overwhelmingly pro-Ukrainian and pro-Kiev city work in or service the tourism industry, which has been brought to its knees.

The souvenir and Soviet military memorabilia sellers on the famous Potemkin Steps off Primorsky Boulevard too are finding it tough. A elderly tout with a wad of Odessa postcards and an even bigger wad of Hyrvna and (probably) forged dollar banknotes, was much more desperate than usual when I was there a few weeks ago. Another familiar face, that of a weather-beaten ex-military man on Primorksy who can provide a Russian or German war medal for virtually every incident in WWII lamented on the absence of cruise ship tourists trudging up the famous Potemkin Steps. And he was pessimistic that things would improve any time soon.

I talked to Lyudmila who helps her mother with her handicrafts stall at a small market in Odessa, a 100 metres or so from the bottom of the city's main pedestrian street, Derribasovskaya. After a disastrous 2014 ,already things do not look good for the coming tourist season and she is worried that a combination of poor sales last year and the continuing state of the Ukrainian economy - mainly due to the war - could spell the end for the army of home workers who carve, weave, hand-paint and laquer souvenirs for visitors.

As mentioned earlier, since last summer the Ukrainian Hrvyna has collapsed and ordinary household items cost almost three times as much for the locals in just 12 months. Last summer UK visitors got around 20 Hyrvna to the £1 sterling, when I was there last month it was 45 - great if you're a well-heeled Westerner but appalling if you're out of work or drawing wages of around 200 USD dollars - yes just 200 dollars, a month. Five years ago when I visited Kiev and Odessa £1 sterling attracted a princely 12 Hryvna - that was the good times.

Lyudmila, who used to be a comparitively well-paid civil servant working for the government in Kiev, is sad and philosophical about her home city, and the fate of the craftsmen and women and the street sellers who depend on visitors for a living.

“The sellers in the market here barely got through last year," she told me. “They depend for 60 per cent of their sales on Russian visitors, 30 per cent on cruise ship tourists, and the other 10 per cent of purchases are by locals. But with no Russians any more because of the war and hardly any Western cruise ships calling at Odessa, we are suffering just as much as Crimea which has been solated by the West because of the Russian takeover just under a year ago.

“I can't blame the cruise ship owners, they see just the headlines 'War in Ukraine' and think the whole country is in flames and a dangerous place to visit. But Odessa has been largely quiet apart from the May 2 fire, and of course cruise visitors will get amazing value for their money. People like my mother sell produce on behalf of the craftsmen and women who make the souvenirs. They are right down to the margins now, and if prices get lower they will have no option but to stop production.”

An example of the value to be had in Odessa are the rates currently being charged at some of the hotel's four-star hotels: my four nights in the Mozart opposite the neo-Baroque Opera House, cost me a princely 87 Euro for a four nights, yes that’s 87 EURO! But there was one add-on, the tourist tax. The receptionist was almost apologetic in asking for the 30 Hrvyna, the equivalent of a dollar!!

Odessa (Odesa in Ukrainian) has a Greek Street, an Italian Boulevard, but the 'queen of all streets' to quote a native, is Deribasovskaya, named after a Neapolitan of Irish and Catalan stock, who in 1789 while in the service of Catherine the Great conquered the crumbling Ottoman fort which would eventually become Odessa. Derribasovskaya is the place to see and be seen. By day it’s filled with shoppers and even resonates to the strains of bandstand music at the lower end, the City Garden, while in the evening it becomes something reminiscent of the wild west, with horses, ponies and carriages vying with buskers for a spot for the cobblestones.

The best place to observe the action at any time on Derribovskaya is my favourite watering hole, Kompot, with its budget priced Ukrainian dishes and my favourite, its home-made vanilla ice cream and mouthwatering cherry or apple strudel. It hard to beat for the atmosphere, with old guys in Panama hats, sinister looking middle aged gents, belles in sky high stiletto heels and mini-skirts and the odd babuska, taking time off for a coffee and a chinwag. What makes Kompot special however is the non-stop, at times almost maniacal French music which blasts away in the background. From Cherchez les Chat, to Non, Je Ne Regrette Rien it’s also a good way to start the day, with breakfast of tea, jam and a fresh croissant costing just £1.50.

Just a few yards away on the other side of the street is Liviv Handmade Chocolate where the smell of chocolate pervades everything. You can choose from dozens of choc favourites, but don't neglect to order warm milk chocolate with ice cream. Dreamy…!

But if Kompot is the budget-priced face of city centre, Grand Prix, just a couple of streets away at Bunina Str offers French cuisine at its best. However, I was amazed to hear from Natalya, the charming hostess who owes her fluent English to a spell on MSC cruise ships, that neither its owners nor the chefs are French, but it serves up food which would hold its own against chic French restaurants anywhere.

It's not cheap, indeed it’s a place for the well-off class in Odessa, but offers a veritable feast of French delicacies, from snails to fried brie, Tarte Tropezienne to a mountainous helping of profiteroles served in beautiful surroundings and walls adorned by French road racers of a century ago. And the presentation is often stunning... It's a place to spend a pleasant few hours which could easily extend into a whole day if you decide to investigate the extensive wine list.

But Odessa has hit hard times. The ordinary people have little of the creature comforts that we take for granted. But they are battling on against the odds, and the city centre still has fewer beggars and street sellers than well-heeled Belfast! They don’t complain much about their lot, they just shrug their shoulders and thank god for the little things in life.. A current online campaign currently urges people to ‘Pray for Ukraine.’ Odessa could certainly do with a prayer or two as it struggles for a living, and to stay out of the current conflict.

GETTING THERE: Ukrainian Airlines (www.flyuia.com) operates daily flights to Kiev/Odessa (and onwards to other destinations in Eastern Europe and further afield from London Gatwick using a modern fleet at competitive prices. The Foreign Office does not advise against travel to Odessa or Kiev but areas of the eastern Dombas and the city of Kharkiv are out of bounds.


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