Extreme Tourism – Exploring the Maze of Odessa Catacombs

When your daughter stops wearing ponytails in her hair and isn’t taking her favorite doll to ‘bath time’, you have to admit: she grew up. What does it mean to you? It means that you should expect a few changes, and not all of them for the best. One of these changes being your annual family vacation. If you have seen bored teenagers watching TV in the hotel and listening to their iPods without leaving their rooms for hours in some of the best all-inclusive resorts in the world with beautiful pools, food to die for, ocean that intoxicate you more than any wine, you probably know what I am talking about. These strange individuals, who begged you for attention several years ago, now need something else, something different, something that would make their hearts beat a little faster and body temperatures take a sharp turn upward.

Let’s leave these teens glued to their TVs and think for a moment. Do you have any ideas on how to make your family vacation a bit more interesting and surprising than soaking in the pool, watching baskets being weaved, one strand at a time, and learning how to Hula dance in a Polynesian Cultural Center? I have something for you, but before that let’s journey back in time to Odessa, one of the most beautiful cities in Ukraine.

Most of the city’s 19th century houses were built of sandstone mined nearby. This created a very complicated labyrinth of underground tunnels beneath Odessa, known as “catacombs”. These catacombs are an estimated 2,500 kilometers of labyrinths stretching out under the city and surrounding area of Odessa. Odessa’s catacombs are much younger than the catacombs in Paris or Rome, but exceed either in length quite extensively. In the present only 1700 km of Odessa’s catacombs are studied. The average height of a tunnel is 1.5 – 3.5 m, and a width of 2 – 4.5 m. The depth can reach 50 m below sea level. Because of these catacombs that span underneath the entire city and beyond, Odessa does not have a subway system. Catacombs were used and broadened by local criminals. They were also used as a refuge for slave traders, who smuggled stolen women out of the Odessa port to the slave markets of Constantinople. Later during World War II catacombs became a home for thousands of partisan rebels. There are no forests or hills around Odessa, so during the war the only place where Ukrainian partisan rebels could hide was in these catacombs. The partisans used the tunnels as a base for attacking the occupying Nazi troops. There were five partisan groups and 45 other groups, a total of 6,000 people that operated in these tunnels.

The manned opening to these tunnels is located on the outskirts of the city. The entrance is beautiful, with giant stairs cascading down from ground level. Soon the tunnels become very narrow. The small yellow light bulbs every 50 ft are now lighting the way for those who want to experience the life of the Odessa underground. It is hard to imagine that 60 years ago hundreds of people, including women and children, lived there for two and half years, hiding, barricading the entrances, sneaking food and water from the surface. Even now, once in a while, people find something that belongs to history: weapons, hollow places inside tunnels that have been used as bedrooms or rooms to store stolen goods.

As any mysterious place, catacombs have their own legends. One of them is about an extremely rich man who was traveling on the Titanic. He was saved by one of the ships and taken to Odessa. In honor of his rescuers he made a model of the Titanic out of pure gold. This little golden treasure has been hidden in Odessa’s catacombs. Hundreds of people have tried to find this treasure using secret maps, but up to this day nothing has been found. Many people still believe in the story and who knows, maybe some of us will find this golden ship one day in the dark tunnels of Odessa catacombs.

Another story tells us about a God that lives in these catacombs. He protects the treasures. If somebody decides to carry the findings outside, he or she will be punished by the ravenous God, and will never be able to return from the coldness and darkness of the catacombs.

The darkness and mysteries surround this place. It inspires people, cures them from boredom and loneliness, and gives them a way of reevaluating their own problems that now look so small and insignificant when you are underground so far away from other human beings and the sunlight. However, today the catacombs have a more cheerful impression. The inventive residents of Odessa have adapted them for paintball games and rock festivals. Underground Gods do not mind if you try new things. After all, they do need some company.

Ok, now our travel back in time is over. Let’s go back to our bored teenagers that we left in our hotel rooms. Tell them about the catacombs, and who knows, maybe a trip to Odessa will inspire them to try something new. And after you are back from the underground the idea of hitting Odessa’s night clubs or spending couple of lazy days on the Odessa beaches will sound quite attractive!

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