Her peremptory instructions were I thought a trifle unnecessary. Weighed down by the heavy brown mass which smelled of rotten eggs, and conscious of a stinging sensation from the salty mud on tender parts, movement of any kind seemed impossible. But as the grains of sand trickled through the timer and warmth seeped into my bones I began to understand why the mud baths of the Kuliarnik sanatorium have been popular for more than 100 years.
The old spa hotel, on the shores of a wide inland lake just outside Odessa, first opened its doors in 1890. During the Soviet era, the Kuliarnik, and more than 20 other sanatoria on the Black Sea coast, were resort destinations for thousands of sun-starved Soviet citizens from Moscow and Leningrad. Now, with independent Ukraine's economy hard hit by the collapse of the Russian rouble, tourists from anywhere are few and far between, and Kuliarnik is largely empty.
But stewing gently in the next bath was Boris, a plump American, who had emigrated from Ukraine more than 20 years ago. When Svetlana told me to get out and helped me hose off the viscous, clinging mud, he said: "You gotta gargle - it'll cure you of everything." I took some mouthfuls of the hot mineral water and nearly choked. He laughed, and later, as we emerged glowing from the baths to walk along the shore, he told me that he often came back to the Kuliarnik. "The accommodation is pretty Spartan but it's so cheap for us Westerners," he said. "Only $200 for 20 days' full board."
Looking out at the acacia trees by the lake, he said thoughtfully: "The people here are a million times better than they are in the States." I knew what he meant. I had first come to Odessa four years before by cruise ship, and climbing the Potemkin Steps from the port for the first time the baroque splendour of Odessa's centre came as a surprise. The ornate opera house, and the wide, leafy avenues belonged, I thought, to some southern Italian city, and not the Slavic fringes of the former Soviet empire. I fell under the spell of the city and returned frequently. Now, on my fourth visit, I was staying with Sasha Boldereff, a historian who had written a book about Odessa. "My city has a cosmopolitan history and a unique spirit. Turks, Greeks, Russians, Poles and Jews have all helped to build it," he said as we walked through the centre on a bright, spring day.
Odessa was built on the orders of Catherine the Great on a bluff overlooking an empty cove on Ukraine's Black Sea coast. Work started in 1794, and within 30 years avenues, squares and palaces designed by French and Italian architects fanned out from the port. The city prospered in the mid-19th century, but 70 years of Soviet neglect and the economic crisis in Ukraine have taken their toll, and many of the graceful old buildings are shored up with scaffolding and wooden props, their stucco facades pitted and peeling.
Odessa was built from soft sandstone mined from tunnels, and the next day we went by car to visit a nearby village which had been one of the sources for the materials. Here Alexei Samarukov, a lean man in camouflage uniform, equipped us with head torches and powerful batteries, and led us into a tunnel in the walls of a quarry. We plodded through the darkness, our torches illuminating piles of rubble and blocked-off chambers. Work had started in the 1840s and on the walls, where the soft stone bore the marks of handsaws, graffiti drawn by miners in lampblack could be clearly seen. Alexei told us that there were more than 2,500km of tunnels and that the uncharted network had been used by runaways, revolutionaries and rebels for more than a century. We found animal bones, cartridge cases, and broken lamp glasses in what had been a Ukrainian partisan headquarters in the Second World War during the German siege of Odessa. Alexei was employed by the Odessa city council to rescue anyone who got lost in the tunnels, and told us with a smile that, should we get separated, it would take four days to walk underground back to the city.
We passed tree roots like spiders' webs dangling from the ceiling, and then came to a vertical shaft which led to the surface. Scrambling up we emerged in the middle of the vegetable garden of a tiny blue- washed cottage. The front door creaked open and an old babushka poked her head out. She seemed unfazed by the sight of five sand-encrusted men emerging from her potato patch.
The following weekend was the Orthodox Easter, and in Sasha's flat preparations were well in advance. On the Friday he and his six-year-old son Gleb baked all afternoon and only at midnight, when the last round cakes were eased from their tins, did Sasha declare the day a success. "I am a Cossack by nature," he said, "but I can make better cakes than any woman."
On the Saturday, at midnight, we joined the crowds at the church in Slobodka. Bearded priests were chanting prayers and swinging incense burners. Finally at four, under a clear sky full of stars, we joined the crowds outside and placed Easter cakes and painted eggs in baskets on the ground. They blessed the cakes with holy water, and then I, Sasha and Natasha walked arm in arm through the streets to her mother's cottage, where a huge Easter breakfast was waiting. In the warm living room, its walls covered in Turkish rugs, friends and family were gathered. We sat down at a table covered with dishes of cooked meats, varelniky (stuffed pasta), cheeses and Ukrainian rye bread. Many toasts in vodka were drunk to our mutual prosperity and a better future for Ukraine.
As the taxi crawled home down deserted streets, Sasha was pensive. "Times are hard," he sighed, "but however bad things are we always manage to keep that special Odessa spirit going."
Nick Haslam travelled as a guest of Ukrainian Travel, 27 Henshaw Street, Oldham, near Manchester 0L1 1NH (tel: 0161-652 5050), which specialises in small groups and tailor-made trips to Ukraine. A return flight to Odessa, via Vienna, with Austrian Airlines costs pounds 349, plus tax.
DOCUMENTATION AND MONEY
A visa valid for up to three months can be obtained from the Ukrainian embassy (tel: 0891 515 919) for pounds 20 or through Ukrainian Travel for an extra pounds 5. Take dollar travellers' cheques or, better still, cash - dollars or Deutschmarks - which can be changed in street kiosks in all cities and towns in Ukraine. Change only what you need for a few days - the Ukrainian hryvnia (pronounced "greevna") is, like the Russian rouble, prone to sudden devaluation. Credit cards are accepted in large hotels and restaurants.
Recommended reading: Lonely Planet Travel Survival Kit: Russia, Ukraine and Belarus, pounds 16.95. The Ukrainian embassy (tel: 0891 515 919).Reuse content