The word ‘catacombs’ is used most frequently to describe an underground cemetery, as in the case of the Paris Catacombs. Not so in Odessa, the seaside jewel of southern Ukraine. The Odessa Catacombs are more of a combination smuggling network/partisan tunnel system/just plain cool oddity, and during YPT’s Eurasian Adventure tour, it was our privilege to check them out…
Mind your head
Everyone in our group was equipped with a hard hat, for reasons that would become abundantly clear to me by the end of the tour. During the hour and a half or so that we were shut away from the light, I personally must have banged my head some seven or eight times – enough that the Ukrainian guide tailing the group stopped bothering to tell me to be careful and instead just started laughing at me.
Low ceilings are not the only danger of the Odessa Catacombs. There is, in some points, standing water that will give you a fairly nasty damp sock if you do not watch your footing. I, in my capacity as rear guard for the group, did not watch my footing (I was too busy protecting everyone else from peril) and thus ended up with a damp sock. This was to prove a minor inconvenience for several hours. Luckily I am nothing if not a professional, and I soldiered on despite the very real threat of incipient trench foot.
The Kessel Run in less than 12 parsecs
One of the catacombs’ most infamous applications was as a smuggling network. Since some of the tunnels come out at the Black Sea, Odessan smugglers became adept at using them to smuggle all manner of goods to and from the seaside city – alcohol, tobacco, luxury goods, and people. Yes – it’s an unfortunate fact that people trafficking used to be a big thing in Odessa, and many a young woman was shanghaied away to an unpleasant fate in the Ottoman Empire and beyond.
The tunnels found another purpose during the Nazi occupation of Ukraine in 1941: they became a handy hiding place for the Soviet partisans that remained behind when the city fell to the Nazi-controlled Romanian Army.
Over the next three or so years, the Soviet partisans that had fled to the tunnels made life very difficult for the Nazis and their Romanian puppets, popping up every now and then to harry the occupying forces. The Nazis tried everything from pumping poison gas into the tunnels to simply flooding them, but the catacombs are so vast (there are a whopping 2500 km of tunnels under the city – enough to stretch all the way to Paris) that their efforts were in vain. The Nazis were utterly unable to capture the partisans, and everyone felt a little bit better about the city falling to them.
The Cavern Club
It’s not all doom and gloom in the catacombs – during our time there we were treated to a subterranean shot of the good stuff at what appeared to be a Viking long table that had been stuck down there for the occasion. There’s a lot to be said for strong tea and stronger horseradish vodka deep in the bowels of Odessa, and I’d heartily recommend it. There were even some decorations left over from Hallowe’en, which lent the cavern some seriously spooky vibes.
Lost and never found
The Odessa Catacombs are notable for two things: their sheer vastness, and the porous limestone from which they’re fashioned. The limestone means a couple of things: because it’s porous, water from above can filter through and therefore things like underground lakes and partisan-potable water supplies exist. But on the other hand, it’s eerily quiet down there.
Limestone swallows sound quite efficiently, as I found in my capacity as rear guard – lag behind so much as ten metres, and you’d be quite unable to find your way back to your group. It also means that people shouting would likely be completely unheard by search parties.
Rumours abound of people who’ve gone missing in the catacombs over the years. Whilst this has undoubtedly happened at some point in the past, many such rumours –such as one concerning a student called ‘Masha’ who reputedly got lost after a boozy New Year’s Eve – are likely urban legends. Nevertheless, it would be extremely easy to get turned around in the tortuous, pitch-black tunnels. Don’t go wandering off on your own, is what I’m saying.
Whether you’re in Odessa for a boozy seaside holiday or you’re there for posh stuff like caviar and opera (nb. the author does not know too much about posh stuff), the Odessa Catacombs are not to be missed.
Want to be physically restrained and have stroppy nurses inject vodka into you? Check out our article on Kiev’s Palata No. 6. For a first-hand look at the Odessa Catacombs, sign up for YPT’s Eurasian Adventure tour.