The Catacombs: All of the Things We Don’t Know We Don’t Know

30 Dec

A guest blog by Patrick

We awoke on our final full day in Odessa to the promise of an exciting surprise adventure. Sammi loved making us guess what we were going to be doing, so she started dropping hints.

Hint #1: We’re going to be walking around – wear comfortable your only shoes.

Hint #2: The temperature is going to be a consistent 13℃ (55℉), which is warmer than outside.

Hint #3: People (kind of) make something there.

Obviously, we were going to be exploring a sliver of the almost 3000km of catacombs located underneath Odessa and its environs. Would you be surprised if I told you that Colleen and I did not guess that correctly?


Now I DEFINITELY don’t know where I’m going.


The catacombs of Southern Ukraine provide an incredible slice of the area’s history. Given the limestone geology of the region, people started mining rock to be used for roads and buildings hundreds of years ago. Each brick, which required about 4 hours of painstaking labor to remove, yielded miners a tiny sum of money. Yet, over the course of centuries the catacombs expanded into an unbelievable network of tunnels that can be explored for days on end. From our location approximately 15 miles away, it was possible to walk, crawl, and squeeze all the way to the city centre. You can check out a bit more here:



Exploring the depths of the Earth.

We had an amazing tour guide who led us through the twisting passages, explaining the history and geology of the underground labyrinth in Russian. We paused to enjoy the beauty of complete darkness, listened to a symphony created by drops of water, and admired the historic drawings that marked the catacomb walls. Highlights included Colleen and Ira squeezing through the tiniest of crevices like spelunkers, Marta orchestrating some amazing underground photos, and Sammi holding her unlit flashlight at an area of interest for minutes before realizing it wasn’t turned on.





Creepy. But good color coordination.

When we emerged from the catacombs our senses were assaulted. Being underground for so long was the equivalent of two hours in a sensory deprivation tank: Ukraine never looked so beautiful! It was, in many ways, a spiritual experience.

Our guide expanded upon that: “Most of us think we have to look outwards and explore the outside world to find happiness. But what we really need is to look within and explore the infinite tunnels and passages that exist on the inside.” True.


Inside the catacombs I asked one of my favorite questions while drawing a Venn Diagram in the dirt. “If this is a circle of all of the things we know, and this is a circle of all of the things we don’t know, how much overlap is there. In short, how much do ‘we know that we don’t know’ versus how much do ‘we don’t know we don’t know’?

So why do I bring that up? Well, this Mystery Trip was full of an endless supply of knowledge that I had no idea I didn’t know. Ukraine has such a rich history and beautiful culture, yet few Americans know anything about the place. It’s a shame. But that’s the beauty of travel. Not only does it enlighten us about the things that we’re curious about, but it also introduces us to all of the things we don’t know we don’t know. And that sums up the Mystery Trip in a nutshell: a beautiful exploration of all of the things we don’t know we don’t know.


We somehow managed to navigate our way back to town (“IIIIIRRRRRRAAAAA!!! MMMMMAAAARRRRRRTTTTAAA!!!”) along construction-filled streets. While on the way we got a call from the Airbnb host saying we were supposed to check out in 4 minutes. Whoops. ‘I Planned This’ had accidentally booked our stay for one less day than planned. As Ira hung up the phone we hit standstill traffic. Uh oh.

When we finally arrived back at our place we had negative 34 minutes to pack up and leave. Did the cleaning ladies fold our dirty clothes for us?

We headed to a hipster market so Marta could feel at home. We also wanted to eat, use wifi to sort out some trip admin, and rest after a long morning underground. We dispersed to source provisions: fresh mussels, snails, whitefish, tiny shrimp, oysters, pizza, bread, and beer. Yummy!



Fine purveyors of Black Sea-food.



Fresh seafood!


We booked ourselves into the Hipstel Hostel solely to please Marta. Just kidding, it got great reviews. Colleen, Marta, and I headed there while Sammi and Ira stayed behind to plan. Apparently something had thrown a wrench in the plans. More on that later.



That pretty much sums up how much of a saint Ira is.


We had plans on our final night in Odessa: some of Marta and Ira’s friends were playing a concert at a hip local bar. After refreshing ourselves at the Hipstel we headed out into the rain for an exciting evening of live music, dancing, and mystery. Our first stop was a bar named Shkaff, where we tried the Shkaff-burger and Shkaff-beer while listening to some upbeat live music. We got in some dancing (Sammi may have even snapped a bit) and had a great time!



Ukranian ‘beer plate’ – deep fried garlic bread, sausages, and (literally) string cheese.







Music that sounds nothing like Radiohead’s ‘In Rainbows’.



Music that sounds nothing like Peter, Bjorn, and John.



From there we stumbled into a Buddha Bar, where we drank warm hemp milk and ordered the most exciting shot on the menu: a Green Mexican. We started a dance party and got lost in some crazy artwork.


“What’s your favorite shot?” “We only serve one.  A Green Mexican.” “We’ll take three.”



“Maybe it’s not the art that’s trippy, but rather the way that you perceive it that is in fact trippy.”

From there it was off to a Soviet bar, where we ate pickles, drank beer called ‘My Dark Past’ and ‘My Bright Future’, and marveled as EVERYONE belted out 90s Russian pop songs at the top of their lungs.


Surveying the menu at the Soviet Bar.



My Bright Future.



My Dark Past.



My Bright Future about four hours before it painfully became my dark past.


Around 3am talk turned to where the night was headed next, and naturally we all agreed that the wisest thing to do was walk down to the beach and skinny dip in the Black Sea. We gave each other New Year’s Resolutions as we ambled in the cold, contemplating how cold the Black Sea was going to be. We found an open convenience shop near the beach, where we purchased paper cups full of vodka to keep us warm while immersed in the bone chilling water. We wasted little time jumping in, and less time jumping out. Within four minutes the entire event was in the books, and we were slugging vodka from paper cups on the way back home.

We wrapped up the evening with a rousing game of Deep Sea Adventure before getting to bed as the sun came up. Keeping with the Mystery Trip schedule, Sammi took the opportunity to inform us of the rough plan for the next later that day: we have to drive back to Kiev. Oh boy, tomorrow’s going to be a long day…

One Response to “The Catacombs: All of the Things We Don’t Know We Don’t Know”

  1. deekerson February 8, 2018 at 1:36 pm #

    This is an amazing account of adventures I know I don’t want to know about. J k. Sort of.

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