Challenge #1: Find our way to the catacombs.
Challenge #2: Buy a ticket and go inside.
Although we arrived an hour before the catacombs were scheduled to close, they already seemed to be completely abandoned: the entrances were padlocked shut, and the only person in sight was an old woman in a small souvenir stand who didn’t understand even one word of English. We tried our best to communicate that we wanted to go inside, she listened for a minute, picked up her phone, made a call, and seemed to indicate that we should wait. But fifteen minutes later nobody had come. She was still sitting idly in her shop, and all the doors to the tunnels – now officially closing in 45 minutes – remained locked.
Eventually a small a school group started gathering nearby. Again, neither the teachers nor the students could understand us – but we took their presence as a good enough indication that tours were indeed still running. And as it turned out, the simple act of trying to communicate with them ended up providing an unexpectedly lucky solution:
Two girls nearby, who we’d previously assumed to be just another pair of Ukrainian tourists, happened to overhear. One of them said “Hello” in perfect English.
They were the English tourguides! They weren’t even scheduled to be working, but by total coincidence had shown up for a bit of off-duty training and upon hearing of our plight, said they’d be happy to give us a tour anyway. Score 😀
It turned out to be loads of fun, mainly because the “tour” was just the four of us and felt more like a few friends roaming on their own than a preplanned sightseeing itinerary. Plus, nearly every stop along the way they’d unlock a gate to some off-limits passage, letting us into to all kinds of rooms we shouldn’t have been able to access. At one point, when we heard another group approach in the distance, they asked us to hide so they wouldn’t get in trouble for our little backstage tour. We ducked quietly into the old commander’s quarters 🙂
(I should probably mention that Odesa’s catacombs, 2000km of limestone quarries originally created to provide building material for the city, were later used as shelters for partisans hiding out during WW2. This is what most of the tour focused on: the underground facilities, which included everything from a school to a concert hall to stables for horses. Hundreds of partisans lived in the tunnels for more than 30 months during the war – so long that apparently many of the horses went blind from never having seen the sunlight.)
Anyway, we had a great time running around with our new friends and ended up spending far longer than we’d initially anticipated. By the time we made it back to the city it was nearly 6pm – but we decided to make a quick run to the beach anyway. Although barely 30 minutes remained until the sun would fall below the overlooking hill and cast its shadow over the sand, at least we can say we made it to the beach on our last day in Odesa.
And now, it’s time for just one last night out 🙂