Julian Evans: The place that changed me

The writer and broadcaster's first glimpse of Odessa was from the Black Sea, and it was a clear case of love at first sight

I first went to Odessa in the Ukraine five years ago, when I was just short of 40. It was September. I approached the town from the Black Sea, which, as a first sight of the town, could not fail to cast a spell on me.

The first thing I saw from the boat was the long stretch of the Potempkin steps leading to a vast crescent of painted yellow mansions at the top. I only saw the colour of the houses at first, this dash of yellow and then as I got closer, I realised how immensely high the steps were. Looking up, I saw that the city sits on a cliff over a large port.

I only absorbed the details gradually. In front of the yellow houses was a row of chestnuts trees, just turning into autumn oranges and yellows. All around was the fresh salty smell of the sea. It was, quite literally, love at first sight.

Coming off the boat, I couldn't stop walking. It was one of the most beautiful and spacious places I've seen. The architecture is baroque Italian on a Russian scale. The houses are so romantic, the boulevards so wide, and there is very little traffic, so the overall atmosphere is wonderfully airy.

I know it sounds sentimental, but there are so many trees in Odessa that it's like being in a wood most of the time, not a town. The city is so quiet and peaceful that when I first heard the foghorns from the boats in the port, I just thought: that's not a horn, it's a song. The melody of Odessa!

Walking around, I felt that Odessa is a capital that has been bypassed by politics and has been allowed to maintain a freedom of spirit and intelligence. For example, there were no billboards, and the people in Odessa were completely themselves, unaffected by commercialism.

The mental effect this had on me was that I felt free to think again for the first time in ages. I didn't feel assailed by the rush of the world.

My favourite place in Odessa was the busy Deribasovskya Street. Here I would sit for hours and look, and keep looking at the local people living an old-fashioned life, the value of which I feel we've lost in the West.

Many people earn money in the old ways - buskers play the accordion, people dance and dress up as animals, and artists and craftsmen sell their creations.

The effect is astonishing. Remember when you were a kid, and the days seemed endless and your mind went on and on, thinking and mulling things over? That's Odessa. A place to think and a place just to be.

The next instalment of 'The Romantic Road', a 10-part journey through European literature presented by Julian Evans, is on Radio 3 at 5.45pm on Sunday 21 May.

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