Odessa, as a city, reminds me of no place more than New Orleans. It’s not the geography or architecture of these two cities, it’s the similarity of character and of their place in the greater pantheon of the cities of their respective regions of the world.
Like New Orleans, Odessa isn’t a capital. It isn’t even one of the larger cities in the country. Its citizens are by and large poor, its economy not the greatest. Its best days are obviously about 150 years behind it. Yet it’s still full of character, can still hold its own on a cultural level with towns that far outpace its population and economy. “Oh, yes — everyone knows that the funniest comedians/baddest gangsters/best writers are from Odessa” is a constant refrain there.
And of course, among these superlatives can be included “longest tunnels.” The city lies in a region that has no natural forests, and as a result the limestone of the surrounding area is the main building material and has been continually quarried for about 200 years. The result is a sprawling, mostly unmapped series of tunnels spreading out from the center of Odessa. The network is gigantic: well over 1,000 miles of abandoned stone quarries that have taken on the colloquial name of “the catacombs.” This is why I’m here, and it’s where I make a surprising discovery.
Over the past few years I’ve been to a lot of places, in a lot of cities, where your average tourist shouldn’t be — and many more that your average tourist doesn’t even know exist. I’ve discovered ancient Roman ruins in the sewers beneath the Capitoline Hill, dodged trains and the third rail in five of the 10 largest subway systems in the world, managed to avoid entrance charges for landmarks from Stonehenge to the Pyramids to Notre Dame.
That last one didn’t end so well: After climbing the Cathedral, I was caught and arrested when, for some reason, I decided I had to ring the bell.
I’ve become part of the world of people who break into national monuments for fun, put on movie screenings in storm drains and travel the globe, sleeping in centuries-old catacombs and abandoned Soviet relics rather than in hotels and bed-and-breakfasts. I’ve partied with people living in the tunnels under New York, squatters in an abandoned São Paulo mansion, and now Ukrainians in the Cold War bunkers and partisan hideouts under Odessa.