Saturday, August 18, 2012

The catacombs, at last!

During the nearly seven weeks that have passed since we left on this trip we've taken out the guidebooks almost every night and talked about what we'd like to see in the different cities we'd visit. The old towns of Wroclaw and L'viv were a must, as well as the Chapel of Skulls and Nikolay Pirogov's  mummy. But the discussion always ended with "and we must go see the catacombs in Odessa!"

And so we went. The hostel set us up with an English-speaking guide, who was called Ivan and turned out to be genuinely passionate about the catacombs, even mentioning that he had sometimes had his birthday party in a big hall under the ground.

There are about 2000 kilometers of catacombs in the Odessa area, created in the 19th century by people digging for limestone to be used in buildings and statues. Later some of them were used by partisans in the second world war, their headquarters being deep underground where the air is is cool, around 6 degrees Celsius, and very moist. The thought of spending longer periods of time underground - or being born there and never seeing the sun, like the horses used to transport the limestone in the narrow corridors - is quite disturbing.

There are several entrances to the catacombs but many of them have been blocked for security or commercial reasons. Obviously not all the catacombs are safe, but the Museum of Partisan Glory that operates the official tours to a reconstructed partisan hideout probably also dislikes people exploring the catacombs on their own without paying for a guide.

We took the official tour, where it looked like the catacombs had been reinforced for security, and electric lights had been installed. It still most definitely wasn't a walk in the park, and we made sure to stay close to the guide not to get left behind in the dark.

Ivan's plan was to also take us to a "wild catacomb",  one of the nearby tunnels which has been open for everyone to explore. He enthusiastically described the large halls and low tunnels, with pre-WW II drawings on the walls. But when we got to the entrance it turned out things had changed since the last time he had been there a few weeks ago. The entrance had been blocked by a heavy concrete slab, and this catacomb therefore made completely unaccessible.

I think Ivan was even more disappointed than we were, having been permanently robbed of his favorite catacomb. We can only hope that the entrance will be reopened some time in the future!

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