Ukraine’s underground world – visiting Odessa catacombs

Did you know that Odessa, Ukraine has the world’s biggest catacomb network? This incredible underground labyrinth spans something like 1,500 km, and is not only the world’s largest, but is also three times bigger than the Paris catacombs, which are the second largest.

Originally these subterranean caves came into being because most of the stone used to build the city was excavated from the rock below, creating an ever-larger cave over time. However, since then they’ve had a checkered history, being used for various purposes including a hideout for partisans during WW2, a lair for various gangsters to hide their ill-gotten gains, a hiding place for persecuted religious minorities, a dumping ground for rubbish and sewage, and even a place for youngsters to come and party.

Nowadays, the government shows little interest in these catacombs – either in terms of using them, or putting controls on their safety. As such, you’re pretty much free to wander in, although it is definitely not advisable to do so. As the famous story goes, a few years ago a group of teens headed down to the caves to celebrate New Year in the usual rebellious teen fashion – with drink and probably a few drugs too. During the night of revelry, one member of the group, Masha, became separated from the others and got lost. After all the other teens had left, she was left down there, lost and alone, and never found her way out. Her body wasn’t found until two years later, by some accounts. You can read more about the fact and fiction of Masha’s story here, but true or not, it’s a cautionary tale as to what may happen to you if you wander down alone and unprepared.

As soon as you go into the catacombs for yourself, you’ll see why.

Of course, it’s possible to go and see the catacombs in a completely safe way. The official tour takes you down into a small section of the caves underneath the museum, which shows a range of interesting artifacts which have been found there, especially plenty of WW2 weaponry, shells etc.

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However, the tour guide we found through word of mouth did not take us on the official tour, and in fact the website that is run by a friend of our guide does warn you that the tour is not affiliated in any way with the museum, instead, it only shows the ‘real’ catacombs. This sounded like fun to us, and so we arranged a tour for 10am the next day.

Our guide, a middle-aged and very skinny, chain-smoking Ukrainian man with somewhat hesitant English, named Valentin, showed up the next day and we drove together to one of the entrances out in the countryside. Valentin was an incredibly knowledgeable and experienced guide. In fact, we were very lucky to find him. This man has been independently exploring the catacomb network for thirty years, and is probably one of the best authorities on their history and how to find your way around them. He says that even in thirty years of exploring, often alone, he has never gotten lost, as he has learned over time the tips and tricks to navigating them and finding a way out. I’m including his details at the end of the post, for any other English-speaking tourists who might care to try the tour. I can confidently recommend him as an absolutely authentic and skilled guide.

So, after around 50 minutes drive we came to the entrance, and it suddenly became clear that this wasn’t exactly the kind of tourist experience that we expected.

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We crawled into the caves through an almost concealed hole, surrounded by a load of flies. Inside, we realised in an instant that these are not ‘commercial’ caves that are intended for visitors. Inside, it is 100% pitch black. Not one single crack of light comes from anywhere, and there is (of course) no electric lighting down there, nor any other type of safety measure or modern convenience.

Once you’re in there, you’re absolutely at the mercy of your guide, and there is simply NO chance that you would ever find your way back out again. The interior of the catacombs is a seemingly endless labyrinth, even though we can’t have even seen 1% of it. Within five minutes, you’re lost, in total darkness.

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Fortunately, we had Valentin to show us the way, and to tell us the amazing history of the catacombs. Within the seeming maze, you start to see how each and every part has been used over time for different purposes. A room with a low ‘table’ and ‘bench’ made of rocks, and an area cleared out for sleeping. Rooms where the partisans or persecuted people hid and slept. Places where old weapons, kettles, straw or shells have been left behind. Inscriptions on the walls – some functional (directions or warnings), others just rude and silly scribbles from teenagers who have wandered down, and others that are far more interesting, including Russian religious poetry carved on the walls by Baptists, hiding from persecution for following a religion other than the predominant Orthodox faith.

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The tour we took lasted 1.5 hours, although you could negotiate with your guide how long you want the tour to be and where you want to go.

There are parts of the catacombs that are well-known by experienced explorers, whilst other parts are completely unexplored.

As Valentin explained, how well-known each part is depends on how ‘difficult’ it is to explore. The parts we went into were accessible to a fit, healthy and reasonably adventurous person. Not that even these were ‘easy’ to get around. Sometimes we could walk, other times we had to bend double to fit under low ceilings, crawl through holes or clamber over piles of rocks. However at points in the caves you need to have real skills, experience and equipment to explore safely. In some places, water reaches your waist or chest. In others, you must crawl through long, low ‘tunnels’, navigate collapsed sections by climbing or crawling, and generally be pretty darn tough. Even in the ‘safe’ parts it’s pretty claustrophobic. As I said, it’s pitch dark, the floors are rocky and uneven, there are collapsed sections here and there, the rock is not very strong and has not been reinforced, so there is a risk that other sections will collapse, and there are parts with very low ceilings or holes to crawl through. It’s definitely only an experience for someone of decent fitness who isn’t afraid of the dark, or severely claustrophobic.

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Be sure also to bring a jumper with you, as the temperature down there is around 14 degrees, and sometimes lower. After a while you really start to feel cold, even if it’s boiling outside. It can also be a good idea to bring another lamp or torch, as the headlights provided are not very strong and if you run out of batteries you’d be in trouble. Otherwise, don’t bring much at all, as you’ll be actively crawling and climbing a lot. And obviously wear trainers or similar, with good grip.

I totally 100% recommend this experience if you’re an adventurous type, and interested in the history of this underground world. It’s not an easy or relaxing tourist-type tour, but it’s very interesting and exciting if you’re an active person. Make sure you do go and see the catacombs soon as well, because sections are collapsing, as I mentioned, and there is a possibility that this type of tour will be banned eventually, as it’s not 100% ‘safe’ down there, and there is always a tiny possibility of an accident or someone getting lost if they’re not sensible and don’t go with a real guide.

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If you’re interested in taking the real catacombs tour, you can call or text our guide, Valentin, on +380 (63) 821 39 67 — highly recommended.

If you’ve visited these or any other catacombs or cave networks, please share your experience in the comments. I always read them!

 

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