Odessa is a city straight from literature – an energetic, decadent boomtown. Its famous Potemkin Steps sweep down to the Black Sea and Ukraine’s biggest commercial port. Behind them, a cosmopolitan cast of characters makes merry among pastel neoclassical buildings, lining a geometrical grid of leafy streets. Immigrants from all over Europe were invited to make their fortune here when Odesa was founded in the late 18th century by Russia’s Catherine the Great. These new inhabitants gave Russia’s southern window on the world a singular, subversive nature. As well as becoming a duty-free port and a major Mafia stronghold – it is still the latter – Odesa also attracted ordinary holiday-makers with its sunny climate, self-confidence and sandy beaches.
True, the city’s appearance grows tattier as you head south past half-empty sanatoriums towards its beachside nightclubs. However, this East–West crossroads makes up for that with sheer panache. Local writer Issac Babel claimed Odesa had ‘more charm than any city in the Russian Empire’ and that’s probably still true in modern-day Ukraine. The source of this charm is Odesans themselves: a breed apart, they’re stylish, cultured, funny, savvy and not easily impressed.