An unofficial tour of Odessa’s catacombs

The history of the catacombs in Odessa is rather different than any others I’ve previously visited. Most similar underground cities were built for protection from invading marauders or other challenges. And while Odessa eventually managed to have their catacombs used or similar purposes the initial digging had a much more simple beginning: the city needed stone blocks. The catacombs are carved out of the limestone which the city rests on, neatly extracted in block-size chunks of a standard measure, blocks which were used to build many of the buildings in the area. Eventually more than 2000 kilometers of tunnels were mined, resulting in an incredible maze running under the city.


Large caverns were carved out of the limestone as the miners worked. When the tunnels were repurposed by anti-Nazi partisans in the 40s these spaces were converted to meeting rooms, classrooms and storehouses.


There were many smaller passages as well. Much of the two hours we spent underground involved being hunched over whilst trying (mostly successfully) to avoid scraping our heads and backs on the limestone ceiling. There was crawling and climbing and wriggling at carious points in time, too. Needless to say, we were on one of the unofficial tours.


It was a bit eerie, after being underground for an hour or so, to realize that the guide was actually reading the graffiti on the walls at every turn. We soon discovered that it wasn’t really all graffiti; many of the markings were guides to the path as put in by the various groups which run the tours. They were the proverbial bread crumbs guiding us out of the caves. Thank goodness he knew what to look for; I don’t think my stash of starburst would have lasted us very long as emergency supplies.


At one point we came across a very different sort of markings on the walls. These were more elegant, full lines of prose rather than tag lines or icons. One of the guides read us a few lines of the poem. I don’t remember it now (and the translation was a bit loose) but I remember it being sweet and loving. At least it sounded that way.


Shortly after that we finally spotted daylight again. Still hunched over and now reasonably covered in limestone grit we made our way out of the tunnels and back into the real world, in the form of some guy’s back yard. No wonder the guides asked us to be quiet as we were leaving.


The official tours go through a museum with sections of the caves restore to more reasonably reflect what life was like for the folks living in the caves in the 40s. The unofficial tour showed the areas which are used today by folks partying on weekends or otherwise hanging out in the caverns for fun. Quite a difference, really. I’m not sure which is better as we only actually did the unofficial one and heard stories about the official one, but we definitely enjoyed the bit we did.


The official tour highlights the successes of the anti-Nazi resistance. There are reminders of the victories the separatists realized, including destroying the Nazi headquarters at one point and how they managed to avoid being gassed because the porous limestone filtered the noxious fumes away. They don’t talk as much about the fact that many exited the caves with tuberculosis or went crazy from living in the dark for two years. Not a huge surprise, I suppose to focus on the wins, but knowing the costs of winning is often useful for perspective.

From a logistics perspective we pretty much just tagged along with a group of folks we met at the hostel the morning we arrived. The guy running the show was Egor and the website for his Odessa catacombs tour is here. Look past the translation issues; the crew was pretty good on the ground once we were there. Not a ton of narrative, but enough to get a good feel for things and enough to leave me pretty satisfied with the experience overall.

Read more from this Trip Report under the Ukraine2012 tag here.

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Seth Miller

I'm Seth, also known as the Wandering Aramean. I was bit by the travel bug 30 years ago and there's no sign of a cure. I fly ~200,000 miles annually; these are my stories. You can connect with me on Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn.


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