Exploring underground Odessa – the Catacombs
Slightly unexpectedly, Odessa is built above an immense system of catacombs. They are said to stretch somewhere between 2500 and 3000 km, but no one knows for sure because they haven’t been fully mapped. They have now become something of a tourist attraction and various companies will take you down to explore them.
We set out to visit the catacombs on a tour with Secrets of Underground Odessa Museum, organised by a friend of ours. A group of us met in a car park on a typical suburban Odessan street – grey blocks of flats on either side. Our guides picked us up and took us to a metal door, looking very much like it led to a garage or workshop. The door was unlocked to reveal a flight of stairs going down into the darkness. We were handed hard hats with lights fixed to the top, miner-style and led down the stairs.
The origins of the catacombs
The catacombs are made out of limestone and are thought to originate from the 16th century, when people began using the limestone for building. Their development really took off when Odessa the city was founded by Catherine the Great in the late 1700s. The limestone was mined to construct the city and tunnels were created under the new city and beyond.In the 18th and 19th centuries, the tunnels were used by smugglers. As Odessa is, and was, a port city, the network of tunnels provided a great place to hide goods coming in illegally, and to store products being sent out. Apparently, this also included the smuggling of slaves and women for the sex trade.
The catacombs and the War.
During the war, Odessa fell to the German and Romanian armies, who wanted control of the Black Sea port. After a siege and a battle, the Soviet Union lost control of the city in 1941 and occupying armies moved in. A group of partisans (freedom fighters) used the tunnels as a base for intelligence and sabotage operations. There were bedrooms and bathrooms, a hospital and a church. You can visit this area through the Museum of Partisan Glory. The complexity of the tunnels and the many exits all over the city meant that they could remain hidden down there and come up to cause havoc unexpectedly. The Nazis tried to block the entrances, flood them and gas them, but there were just too many.
Catacombs as a nuclear bomb shelter
Our trip down the stairs took us into an ex-Cold war nuclear bomb shelter. The tunnels had been lined with metal and strengthen, and a series of rooms created. There were offices and bedrooms, kitchens and toilets. Now much of it has been stripped out, but there are weapons to see, exhibits of protective clothing and gas masks, various pieces of machinery and lots of old Soviet signs. You can even use the toilet. Interestingly, they say that the bomb shelter wasn’t actually intact, so in the event of a nuclear attack, people sheltering there would not have survived.
Moving into the wild catacombs
Through the bomb shelter, we moved on into the wild catacombs. The walls were rougher and the floors more uneven and often made of mud. In places there was flooding and we had to balance on ledges around the edge. There were areas where the tunnels had collapsed and blocked exits. Tunnels led in all directions. You can see why it is not advised to try and explore them by yourself. There are marks and scratches all over the walls, probably indicating the direction to those in the know, but I can’t imagine how you wouldn’t get lost. At times we came out into caves and caverns where the man-made tunnels met naturally made features. In one big one, there was a small ‘lake’ with a boat. The guides made us turn off all our lights to demonstrate just how dark it was down there.
The catacombs have attracted people looking for adventure for years. It is quite common for groups of young people to go down to party. Many tunnels come lead to people’s basements, and apparently many people have a door in the cellar of their house or apartment building that leads down. There’s a story about a girl called Masha who got lost down there during a New Year’s Party. If you Google it, you can find pictures of what they say is her body, found years later. This is actually thought to be a myth, as there is no evidence that she is real, but you can imagine it.
Our group was a mix of English and Russian speakers, and we had two guides, one speaking each language. The English speaking guide, whose name I have forgotten, was excellent. Her English was great and she was really knowledgeable about the history. She told us about what we were seeing, while another guide led us around. Very oddly, another guy followed our group around, playing the guitar and singing in German. No idea why.
We visited an area used by partisans, including a makeshift church, complete with statues and crucifix. There was a collection of bottles that had been found over the years and other odds and ends. At the end of the tour we were taken to a table and chairs, still underground, to enjoy some ‘authentic’ homebrew spirit and snacks. Then we were led back through the tunnels to the bomb shelter, and up the stairs into the daylight beyond.
A fascinated tour of an interesting piece of Odessan history.
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