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Introducing Odesa

Odesa is a city straight from literature – an energetic, decadent boomtown. Its famous Potemkin Steps sweep down to the Black Sea and Ukraine's biggest commercial port. Behind them, a cosmopolitan cast of characters makes merry among pastel neoclassical buildings lining a geometrical grid of leafy streets.

Immigrants from all over Europe were invited to make their fortune here when Odesa was founded in the late 18th century by Russia's Catherine the Great. These new inhabitants gave Russia's southern window on the world a singular, subversive nature.

As well as becoming a duty-free port, Odesa also attracted ordinary holiday-makers with its sunny climate and sandy beaches. True, the city's appearance grows tattier as you head south past half-empty sanatoriums towards its beachside nightclubs. However, this East–West crossroads makes up for that with sheer panache, and Odesans are known across the old USSR for being stylish, funny, savvy and not easily impressed.

But let's not get carried away here. Barcelona or Brighton it ain't, and the city does have a distinctly seedy feel. Prostitutes, con artists, drug dealers and the mob have all found their niche here, and the city is a magnet for sex tourists, wife hunters and general ne'er-do-wells from around the world. Also, nowhere else in Ukraine do the police hassle foreigners to such an extent, something you might experience firsthand should you head to the beaches in the evening.