When President Volodymyr Zelensky addressed Britain’s parliament in March, he evoked the spirit of Winston Churchill by vowing to fight on the beaches.
Two months on, the Black Sea city of Odesa remains braced for invasion, with air-raid sirens and missile attacks. On the beaches, though, the main risk of battle looks likely to be rows over sun loungers.
Despite the odd thump of naval exchanges, the city’s seaside strip was full of sunbathers at the weekend, as a heatwave brought temperatures of 25C.
Just a few hundred kilometres further to the east, the port of Mariupol lies in ruins, while tank battles rage in Donbas. However, Odesa resembles the bustling French Riviera.
Admittedly, many of the city’s beaches are mined to prevent an amphibious assault, while an 8pm curfew limits the chance for sundowners.
But after two years of Covid and three months of conflict, Odesa’s tourist industry needs business to survive. And for those hitting the beach, a dose of early summer sun feels just right after a winter of war.
“Sometimes you just want to lead a normal life, otherwise you start to go mad under permanent stress,” said Vadim Holubenko, a shipping agent who has been unable to work since February because of Russia’s naval blockade of Odesa’s container port.
Home to a million people, Odesa has long been a tourist draw for Ukrainians. Its attractions include the 19th-century Potemkin Stairs, leading up from the harbour. The city’s art nouveau architecture feels more European than Russian – and just like Cannes, there’s an annual film festival.
In the past month Odesa has suffered renewed bombardments from Russian forces. A fortnight ago, it was struck by seven missiles, one demolishing a shopping centre.
But with Russian ground forces still bogged down outside Mykolaiv, little more than 160km to the east, and making little real progress, Odesa’s tourism chiefs are rolling out the welcome mat as usual.
“It’s nice to see you here,” says Alexander Sheka, the city’s deputy director of tourism, who breezily describes the Russian missiles as “hellos from our neighbours”.
“Of course the tourism season has suffered here already this year,” he adds. “But the president’s office is saying it’s better to be at work helping the economy if we can.”
This year, visitors will have to watch out for more than just jellyfish or riptides – along with the booby-trapped beaches, Russian warships have left hundreds of mines in the sea.
Photography is also banned along large parts of the seafront for security reasons.
Like tourism bosses in the movie Jaws, Mr Sheka is torn between encouraging people to visit, and warning them of the potential dangers.
He is currently finalising air-raid evacuation procedures for museums, as well the beaches. “We have to work out what to do if there are people out swimming when something happens,” he says.
On the main seafront strip, where there are nightclubs, parks and amusement arcades, the only sounds of gunfire right now come from the model AK-47s at the shooting gallery. On a road nicknamed Fitness Boulevard, joggers and cyclists stream by. For many, it is such normal activities themselves that now feel strange.
Tetiana Slavova (30), who had just finished an exercise class, was reminded of the film The Matrix, where characters slip from one reality to the next.
“The war has taught people to enjoy what good moments they can, even if it’s just having a cup of good coffee here on the beach,” she says.
“My fitness coach had some people asking why is he running classes when people are dying. But he’s not a soldier, he’s just doing what he knows best, and he made 30 people in my class happy today.”
Natalia Polonska (36), manager of the Santorini restaurant, said: “We have to stop serving alcohol at 6pm but people just buy extra drinks so they can stay a bit longer. I’m not optimistic about business this summer, but we survived Covid, so we’ll cope.”
Would she serve a Russian tourist if they came to visit Odesa? “Hmm. Everybody is entitled to a holiday, but I don’t think we probably would right now.”
And even if this year’s summer season proves lousy, Mr Sheka has a weapon up his sleeve for next year – Ukraine’s recent Eurovision Song Contest triumph, which entitles the winning nation to host the event.
“We’re hoping it’s going to be here in Odesa,” he says. (© Telegraph Media Group Ltd 2022)
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