Looking like a living Liberty print, Odessa’s new promenade park spills over with blossoming flower beds, picnics and couples waltzing in the shade. Tantalising slivers of the Black Sea appear through the trees and salty sea breezes wash over it all. This park is the first completed stage of the regeneration of the gardens surrounding the city’s iconic Potemkin Steps, made famous by the director Sergei Eisenstein in his silent 1925 film Battleship Potemkin. In the film, the Tsar’s Cossacks fire at civilians and, in the most famous scene, a pram goes tumbling down the 192 steps that lead down to Odessa’s docks.
Now, the steps form the architectural landmark of the city, as well as acting as a centrepoint between two new gardens. The Istanbul garden is complete, with its Turkish fountain and portrait artists, while the Greek garden, promising to highlight local archaeological finds, remains under construction.
Above the steps and gardens is the shady Prymorsky boulevard, a long walkway where families stroll in the shadows of acacia trees and grand, pastel-coloured mansions. This thoroughfare was described by author Edmund de Waal in The Hare with Amber Eyes as “a run of classical buildings washed in yellows and pale blues”.
A stone’s throw away are the crumbling Vorontsov Palace (built in 1827-30 by a Sardinian architect for the governor-general) and the Greek-style colonnade, both of which are being refurbished. Despite the crumbling decay of many mansions in the historic centre, Odessa appears to be a city on the move, eager to attract more visitors. New cafes appeal to local holidaymakers, and young people who have come south to escape the war in the east of Ukraine.
One of the best is Dizyngoff, five minutes’ walk from the steps. “Odessa has a long history of immigration, so we have no set cuisine style,” said co-owner Nika Lozovska, setting down a plate of kilka (sprats) on toast, a truffle-laced risotto, and a tomato salad. “This really is no-borders food.” Asian flavours, such as miso and cardamom, feature heavily on the menu.
Founded by Catherine the Great in 1794, Odessa was a booming free port in the 19th century – Jamaica rum, oranges from Jerusalem and tobacco from Virginia flowed ashore. At the excellent Jewish Museum there’s cutlery on display from the city’s original 19th-century Italian cafes, and memorabilia from prominent Jewish families; while the small Pushkin Museum displays the writer’s death mask (he worked on Eugene Onegin here), alongside his manuscripts.
But it was another writer, Moscow-born Konstantin Paustovsky, who summed up this nostalgic city best: “Odessa is the Levant. It’s the Black Sea … Italian Garibaldists, captains and port labourers, the influence of France, the bandits who value wit above all else, Italian opera, memories of Pushkin, acacias, yellow bricks, love of jokes, and extreme curiosity about every detail. All this is Odessa.”