Odesa and its “Catacombs”, Ukraine

Following on the brief revival of this blog to write about my experience in Ukraine (the first time around, as I also would end up going again for work a year later), we arrived in the early morning in Odesa, on the black sea, after what seemed like a long overnight journey across the country, while sipping on tea and beer that tasted like dark rye bread. Entertained only by the sound of the metal wheels grinding on the iron tracks or by our compartment’s official babushka limited attempts at communication.

At the end of this blog post, you can do something about the situation in Ukraine.

Not really knowing how to navigate this city, and many of the people here speaking Russian instead of Ukrainian, the 12 words of Ukrainian we learned were not too helpful. We were stuck. We walked a bit aiming to grab a bite to eat and elected to take a Uber or Uklon (local Uber-like app) to get to our hotel.

Our adventures in Odesa were just about to start, as when our driver showed up, a VERY pregnant lady, it only took 5 minutes of us driving around on a run-down street, with us chatting with her, to get a massive flat tire from an impressively deep pothole. Our driver being pregnant up to her ears, couldn’t really change the tire. So G came to the rescue. Fortunately she had a spare.

She was so thankful and was trying to offer us money, when we were her customers initially. After a bit of a back and forth we simply got a refund from the app, and convinced her to not pay us anything for installing her spare. And parted ways.

We promptly headed directly towards the black sea which we were eager to experience.

On the way, we would regularly see spray painted sigils on the cycling path, signalling the presence of “catacomb tunnels” beneath our bike path.

We biked around, stopping to see some monuments or drink water. Eventually reaching the sea.

Interestingly enough, we walked past a climbing wall. It looking safe “enough” according to G. He’s an experienced climber, whereas I know the basics but wouldn’t qualify as a “climber”. I left the climbing to him and opted to just chill.

We spent some more time nearby, exploring the empty husks of failed nearby property developments, jumping at the opportunity to take pictures of anything that seemed remotely interesting to our foreign gaze.

The sky’s colors were very pastel despite it not being late at all. It was a great opportunity to just relax, take a few pictures, and take it all in.

G, on the rocks

Ultimately we eventually headed back to our hotel. We had booked something a bit fancier than usual, an alleged 4 star hotel close to the center of the city. But what they called luxury, we just felt was very tacky. Fortunately, our room was a perfectly normal room, no fake crystal chandelier, pink LED’s under furniture, or slabs of marble randomly placed around.

After checking in, and walking around our new adoptive “hood” we headed to a local restaurant that was recommended to us. To our surprise it was also quite tacky, like in our hotel, but instead of fake-chic, we got the fake-rustic treatment.

We ate buckets of food. Dumplings, potatoes, pancakes made out of potatoes (Deruny) and other potato dishes topped with cream and such. Whilst the décor was a bit funky, the service was lovely and I’d happily go back. Ukrainians know a thing or to about being creative with potatoes it seems!

We proceeded to call it a night as we were both tired from the less-than-ideal sleep on the train and from walking and biking around all day. The next day, we had a big item on our list; we had booked a private guide to take us through the catacomb network of Odesa.

Getting up early and managing to get a quick breakfast, not-that-terrible coffee and, most importantly, finding the right but to get to our bus stop. A bus that would take us to our meeting point to the catacombs’ entrance.


Please note, I, in no way, recommend that you do visit the Odesa Catacombs. Doing so may result in harm, injury or loss of life. The Odesa Catacombs are in part officially closed to the public and some infringe on private or government property.

Одеські катакомби // Odesa Catacombs

The entrance we used

Odesa’s catacombs are a network of galleries, bunkers, tunnels, basements and storm drains that span over 2,500 kilometers. The galleries were mostly used as limestone mines in the 19th century, but the tunnels were stretched and widened for a variety of uses, including smuggling or as air raid shelters during world war one. The network is regarded as one of the largest urban labyrinth-like structures in existence.

The galleries have 3 levels, going as deep as 60 meters below the sea level.

There are over 1,000 different entrances.

To top it all; the catacombs were never properly mapped. It is estimated that less than 5% of the network is properly documented or mapped. Some entrances being directly in the city, others, opening in people’s yards out on the outskirts of the city.

Needless to say, without our guide who knows this part of the galleries by heart, or if we loose our flashlights, we’re dead and will probably never be found.

The catacombs are the source of many urban legends, scary bedtime stories, or actual stories of people going to an underground party only to never be seen again. Ranging from the ghosts of dead soviet soldiers, to drunk students getting lost and dying of dehydration, there was a lot of mystery surrounding the so-called catacombs and we decided it would be great to hire a local who knew part of the network and could, well, ensure our survival and tell us which stories he thought were true, and which were most likely fiction.

And so we entered the catacombs, carrying only water, a long sleeved shirt in prevision of temperature drops, our smartphones which are no use to us below ground, an energy bar and the flashlight our guide provided us and told us was very important we do not lose, less we lose ourselves.

The entrance as seen from the inside

After squatting to squeeze through the entrance and walking a few meters in, we turned the first corner and the outside light disappeared, engulfed almost completely by the underground. We were plunged in complete darkness and complete silence.

Having to crouch at times to get through openings or avoid obstacles. After only about 15 to 20 minutes, the lack of light, sound and the sometimes narrow walls and low ceiling creating this oppressive claustrophobic atmosphere, we already had completely lost any sense of direction. We pushed through.

As we walked into the galleries, our guide was very clear: we can’t go wandering about. This place has no map, there are not a lot of exits, and there are many sudden pits in the ground which are big enough for you to fall through. Some pits being as deep as 10 meters.

Creepy objects and feeling of impending doom set aside, we learned quite a bit about the Odesa and its relationship with this labyrinth. The formal “beginning” of the catacombs is traced back to 1830, roughly. Odesa’s fast expansion required stone, as a building material. Fortunately, geologically speaking, Odesa stands on a very large natural deposit of limestone. It was first mined on slopes and open air projects but at the time, this kind of extraction was completely manual and to satisfy the demand for stone the only option was to develop proper mines. Fast forward less than a hundred years later and the mines are a big problem.

Eventually, the extraction of stone from below the city was forbidden due to the increase in soil and building collapses. However, experts estimate that much of the illegal extraction continued.

During the Soviet-German war, the Eastern front part of the second world war, the underground city served as a shelter for soviet partisans. To this day, ammunition, tools and sometimes even weapons are recovered by people adventuring in the galleries.

Abandoned limestone mineshafts, construction holes, bunkers, tunnels, wells and natural calk and dilation caves led to hundreds of building collapses and the city abandoning any hope of and underground public transport system in the second half of the 20th century.

Modern technology and a renewed interest in solving many of the challenges the catacombs pose led the city to invest, since the 1960’s, more heavily in researching the catacombs, mapping them and building structural support in some areas, or cementing the entrance to particularly dangerous parts of the underground network.

Click to enlarge

What felt like an eternity of borderline spelunking, turned out to be just shy of two hours. We emerged on someone’s private property, pretty much in their garden. We briefly chatted with our guide who then left us at a nearby bus stop and we made our way back to the more central parts of the city

We wrapped up our trip of Odesa by more walking around, checking out the historical buildings, trying craft beer and eating in what is quite possibly the worst Mexican restaurant in Europe, “Mex”, in Odesa. See what a portion of nachos looks like in the gallery below. But that’s fine, they had draft Hoegaarden for dirt cheap.

We wanted to visit Transnistria, easily reachable from Odesa by bus, but we were in a time crunch to get back to Kyiv if we wanted to see Pripyat and Chernobyl next. We decided this would be reserved for another trip to Ukraine.

I highly recommend Odesa, which has a completely different feeling than the rest of Ukraine.

Next stop: a quick checkpoint in Kyiv and a visit of Chernobyl.

Before the Russian invasion, Odesa was a major Black Sea touristic hub.

If you are in Europe and want to Donate to a good cause for the Ukrainian war relief, but don’t know where to start, my friend Sophia, in collaboration with Katalina (Designer from Kyiv), are both Ukrainians. With COLORTOTHEPEOPLE they have a solidarity sale with shirt prints in the colors of Ukraine.

100% of the proceeds go to Libereco (German & Swiss NGO dedicated to Human Rights in Ukraine) & ProAsyl (German Foundation for Refugees and Human Rights). Almost 75% of your purchase total goes directly to the organizations above, directly to help Ukrainians.

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