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The Potemkin Steps (Odessa, Ukraine)

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City: Odessa / Country: Ukraine / World Region: Europe

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      27.06.2010 23:26
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      One of Odesa's most famous sights

      Who would have thought that a simple flight of steps could be so interesting? The steps I am talking about are the Potemkin Steps in the Ukrainian city of Odessa, opened in 1841. Curiously, for a city that is home to lots of attractive buildings, it is this set of stone stairs that visitors flock to see. Allow me to explain...

      The steps were not made famous by the 1905 uprising of sailors on the Russian battleship Potemkin, but by Sergei Eisenstein's film account of the event which was made in 1925 and is today regarded as a cinematographic classic. The uprising was fairly significant at the time but not widely known of until the film was made. (Incidentally Neil Tennant and Chris Lowe - aka the Pet Shop Boys - recorded a new soundtrack to the movie a couple of years back which they played live against the backdrop of the film in various disused industrial locations in the UK).

      The uprising came about when sailors made a protest about the terrible conditions on their ship, the Potemkin. They had been served up rancid meat and had chosen instead to buy their own food elsewhere. The admiral was outraged at this act of disloyalty and ordered those sailors who had eaten the meat to stand before the ship's guns to demonstrate their loyalty. Those who did not come forward would be executed. One of the sailors encouraged his colleagues to rise up against their officers; the sailors killed all of the officers and took over the ship but the instigator of the uprising died in the rebellion. Hearing of the uprising, many of Odessa's citizens made their way to the docks to assist the sailors but not before tsarist troops had gotten wind of what was going on and rushed to quell the uprising. It was nearby, on the steps that the troops viciously put an end to the uprising.

      The steps were not re-named as "the Potekmin Steps" until 1955, the 50th anniversary of the uprising. Before that they were known as the Primorsky Steps which quite simply means "by the sea" and, indeed, the steps are situated in a prominent position overlooking the sea and Odesa's huge port. Cruise ship passengers often visit the steps as their first stop as it is so close to where the liners berth and the vast concrete and glass monstrosity directly across the road from the bottom of the steps is the passenger terminal.

      In fact the steps were intended to be a formal gateway to the city for those people arriving by sea and considerable thought was given to the design so that they would be more than just a way of getting up the hill to the upper part of town. The steps were designed by Francesco Boffo and built by an English engineer called Upton. There were originally 200 steps but there are now just 192: the missing steps were lost due to expansion of the port. The most interesting thing about the design is the dual visual trickery. The steps are arranged with landings at intervals but when you stand at the bottom and look up, you can only see stairs. However, from the top looking down, all you can see are the landings. The other optical trick is that the steps appear to taper but in fact they don't at all. These effects are created by building in slight variations to the height of each step though you don't notice this at all as you walk up or down them.

      We approached the steps on the upper level and they are reached by walking through the lovely tree-lined promenade of Prymorsky Bulvar. We visited on a hot summer's day and lots of locals were sitting on the benches that are placed at intervals under the shade of the trees on the picturesque boulevard.

      The steps are almost at the end of the boulevard. They are much wider than I expected (12.5 metres at the top step, almost 22 metres at the bottom step). A funicular runs down the length of the right side as you look down which is useful for wheelchair users, people with prams and people with mobility problems though the latter group should know that the steps are not very steep and that you can easily stop for a rest and sit on the wall on either side of the steps. The funicular that is in use today is very new having been installed in 2004 to replace an escalator that had broken down in the 1990s and the money to repair it mysteriously disappeared. Whether able bodied or not, I would advise caution on the steps as some sections are in poor repair.

      At the top of the stairs is the monument dedicated to the Duke of Richelieu who was the first governor of Odessa. The statue of the Duke was created by a Russian sculptor, Ivan Petrovich Martos, and later cast in bronze. It was unveiled in 1826 and although the steps were not built until a few years later, the steps were, for a time, known as the "Richelieu Steps". It is a shame that the works were carried out in this order as the impact of the monument is somewhat lost next to the scale of the steps. It would have been better had the statue been much bigger, or the statue should be placed elsewhere and there are plenty of suitable spots just far enough from the steps to make it look more impressive.

      As the steps are a popular tourist attraction it is only natural that all kinds of hustlers and hawkers should be in attendance to relieve you of your money. Here you can have your photograph taken with a scrawny monkey wearing a disposable nappy (please don't, those nappies are not environmentally friendly) or pose with a peacock (in Ukraine there is nearly always someone with a peacock at any tourist attraction), buy fur Cossack-style hats (yes in July!), red star badges and medals, bottles of vodka and even caviar. It was hard to know whether the medals were authentic or just more of the counterfeit stuff that sells well with tourists believing they are buying a piece of "red history" (and there is a mind-boggling amount of this stuff on sale across eastern Europe and the Former Soviet Union). One elderly man showed us a handful of medals along with a photograph of his younger self in military uniform and I felt incredibly sad that he should need to sell the medals now. Although he no doubt needed the money, I could not have brought myself to take them from him.

      Although there are beaches in Odesa that attract thousands of Ukrainians and Russians, Odessa is not really a holiday resort and I would think that most foreign tourists who choose to visit the city do so with an interest in history. Therefore this would probably be something most visitors would want to see. It won't keep you for long but it's certainly worth seeing, if only because the design is so interesting. The views are quite impressive and the steps are situated in an area with other attractions close by so you don't have to stray off the beaten path to get there. The Potemkin Steps are by no means breathtaking but certainly an interesting little diversion should you have time in Odessa.

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