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Nestled in a harbour along the Black Sea, Odessa is one of Ukraine’s most diverse and atmospheric cities. It is a unique entity, a young city that feels much older – a curious mixture of vintage Soviet realism murals, genteelly decaying art nouveau buildings, monuments to the Russian Revolution and glitzy shops stocking the latest European fashions.

An unapologetic Russian-speaking enclave in independent Ukraine, it is bound to draw you in with its own brand of humour, warm Mediterranean air and tragic, yet glorious history.

Romance
On any given Saturday, if you linger in your wicker chair at the Boulevar, an almost endless procession of newlyweds and their entourages passes before you along Primorsky Boulevard, Odessa's main promenade. Local sweethearts are not the only ones tying the knot; Odessa is Ukraine's capital of mail order brides, and the city's many matchmaking agencies encourage you to "bring love into your life and warmth into your home." The happy couples pose at the top of the Potemkin stairs or by the statue of the Duc de Richelieu during their fifteen minutes of fame before another party takes their place.

Illusions
The Duc was at one time the city's governor. He is still referred to as "the father of Odessa" due to his successful tenure, which attracted French and Italian aristocrats to the area and helped to shape Odessa into the third most prominent city in tsarist Russia after Moscow and St Petersburg. Now he is also the butt of a local joke, which encourages you to "look at the Duke from the luyk (manhole cover)", located to the left of the statue. Odessans are the jokers of Ukraine, who celebrate April Fool's Day in style with the raucous Humorina festival.

One of Odessa's most famous sites is undoubtedly the Potemkin stairs, designed by Italian architect Franz Boffo and immortalised in the film Battleship Potemkin, commemorating the sailor uprising of 1905. If you stand at the top and look down over the busy port, the 192 steps appear to be exactly the same width even though the bottom steps are much wider.

Beneath the surface
As you stroll the wide, cobbled streets of the city centre, some lined with strange, twisted trees that look as if they have been planted upside down, you pass by the elegant grandeur of the restored 1887 Opera House.

Peek into the yards of the crumbling 18th Century buildings, and you will be met with a contrasting scene of humble domesticity  -  washing drying on the line, and babushkas passing the time of day on the benches. Until the '80s every yard in Odessa had its own entrance into the maze of underground catacombs, but all were closed up to stop children wandering in, never to return, and today you may only access a small section of the tunnels on a guided tour.  During WWII, Odessa's partisans used the catacombs with great success to strike against the Nazi-Romanian occupying forces, responsible for decimating the city's thriving Jewish community to which Odessa owes much of her character.

Culture and nightlife

Odessa was cosmopolitan long before the post-Soviet advent of international cuisine now prevalent in the city. Conquered by the Russians in 1789, during the Russo-Turkish wars, the city became a free port in 1815, attracting a diverse mix of Greek, Turks, Armenians, Italians, Jews and Ukrainians among others, who paved the way for the 100 or so nationalities that now reside in the city. The diverse eating scene ranges from the over-the-top Ukrainian kitsch of Kumanets and Ukrainskaya Lazunka (cnr Ul Deribasovskaya and Ul Yekaterininskaya; (487)25-84-12) and the Soviet nostalgia of Aliye Parusa, to the exquisite sushi of Yokohama and the incredible Italian-Assyrian fusion cuisine of Casa Nova, where a glass of wine costs an average Ukrainian's monthly pension.

Since Soviet times, Odessa has retained a reputation as a fun-loving destination. In the summer, follow the locals' example and hit the immensely popular beaches, packed with bronzed bodies. Neither Otrada nor Arkadia get top marks for cleanliness, but the sun worshippers do not seem to mind. After sunset, Arkadia pounds with the bass of the its many nightclubs, which attract the young and the fashionable. Odessans love to shop, and given the city's centuries old mercantile tradition, it is little surprise that Europe's largest outdoor market is found on the outskirts of the city. Take a bus to Seven Kilometres and while away an afternoon by wandering row upon row of wedding dresses, leather goods, furniture, jewellery and everything in between. Or stroll into Moldovanka, a dilapidated 18th Century Moldovan neighbourhood, its weekly flea market selling anything from original Nazi "souvenirs" to samovars and busts of Lenin.

© 2011 Lonely Planet. All rights reserved. The article ‘A portrait of Odessa’ was published in partnership with Lonely Planet.

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