"YOU’RE a journalist? Ahhh, you must come on my bus, no problem!”

It was lunchtime on a searingly hot day last month in Lublin, eastern Poland, and my FlixBus into Ukraine was long gone, (thanks again, Brexit) but it didn’t matter.

The Ukrainian driver of the next service to Lviv, operated by a different company, just wanted to get people into the country who would tell stories about the war, no payment necessary.

In May, on my first trip to Ukraine since the Russian invasion, I had stayed in Lviv to get a feel for a city very much at war but at the same time far away from it, at least geographically.

This time, I would stay in Lviv for the weekend and then head to Odesa. The Pearl on the Black Sea is still 200km or so by road from Russian-occupied territory but is a city Vladimir Putin covets for strategic, economic and symbolic reasons. It has been subject to some dreadful atrocities since February.

Ukraine, as most people know by now, is vast, and driving from Lviv to Odesa takes about 12 hours.

En route, aside from endless war-related roadside billboards, (“Russians, welcome to hell!”, “We are on our land, and you will be in it” etc) gas stations are a reliable reminder of the conflict. Queues of cars snake out of those that still have fuel and inside animated adverts for matches jauntily suggest the product can be used to set Russian soldiers and military equipment on fire.

The war really started to make itself felt as we neared Odesa on the long, straight highway south from the city of Uman. The military checkpoints that are part of any drive in Ukraine these days became more frequent, the laminated military accreditation in my pocket suddenly more than a curio for Instagram.

On a particularly straight stretch of road near the outskirts, large concrete protrusions were affixed to the highway that cars had to weave around. “To stop the Russians from using the road to land planes,” explained Felicity, one of two travelling companions from the NGO Nonviolent Peaceforce.

It isn’t difficult to see why Odesa is viewed as special, both by Ukraine and by the invaders. The best part of six centuries younger than Lviv, Odesa’s signature architecture style is an impossibly grand mix of art nouveau, Renaissance and classicist, in gorgeous pastel colours.

Heavy French influence – the Duc de Richelieu and Count Andrault de Langeron, governors of the city in the early 19th century, credited with designing much of the place – is everywhere.

Odesa's famous seafront was far from deserted, but numbers were clearly much diminished. Vika Vorobiova, a local and founder of the war-volunteers community Volunteers V2, told me she reckons the current population of the city is perhaps half of the usual one million.

The National: Volunteers V2’s Vika Vorobiova hands out food and other essentialsVolunteers V2’s Vika Vorobiova hands out food and other essentials

Sunbathers lie on the boardwalk rather than the beach, the latter being cordoned off with a single length of tape – a surprisingly subtle measure given that it and the waters beyond are studded with land and sea mines to guard against an amphibious landing by the Russians.

“It’s subtle because everyone knows why it’s out of bounds but nobody wants to be confronted with it too harshly,” I was told later.

Hours after I arrived, news came that a man had been killed by a sea mine while taking an illicit swim. “Summer has never been as sad as it is now,” said Vika.

On my first day I wandered in the afternoon sun through Taras Shevchenko Park, which sits on the shoulder-like point in the city where the port turns into the beach, which then runs south as far as the eye can see.

In the park, I passed the smart-looking stadium of FC Chornomorets (Ukraine’s football season was cancelled when the war broke out) and a large memorial to soldiers killed in the Soviet Union’s decade-long war in Afghanistan.

Ice cream vendors served the occasional customer and were clearly a little surprised to take an order from a non-Ukrainian. The lack of people was obvious almost everywhere – an amusement park near the beach was open for business but completely deserted, a visual metaphor for the current situation.

As the 11pm curfew approached each night I walked home, sometimes in the middle of the road, through completely empty city-centre streets, the grid layout of which reminded me of the Eixample area of Barcelona. The knowledge of how busy those visually similar streets in Catalonia would be at that moment only made the scene more eerie.

Some of Odesa’s best-known sites were possible to view up close while I was in town and some weren’t. The world-famous National Academic Theatre of Opera and Ballet could be approached from the front but not the back. Thousands of sandbags were stacked up around it and masking tape covering the road signs outside with the aim of inconveniencing invading Russian troops.

The National: ; Sandbags cover Odesa’s Duc de Richelieu monument; Sandbags cover Odesa’s Duc de Richelieu monument

The area of the Potemkin Steps and the statues of Catherine the Great and the Duc de Richelieu was closed to everyone apart from residents, which is what one soldier must have thought I was when I was waved through a checkpoint at dusk on my first evening.

Volunteers working to entirely cover the Duc de Richelieu statue in sandbags was an enduring image early in the war, and now there it was in front of me. I ambled down the steps before belatedly noticing a roll of razor wire stretched out just in front of me, and took that as my cue to leave.

The next day I was due to go and see a very different side of Odesa during the war.

I had connected with Vika thanks to her Volunteers V2 organisation, which since February has grown from her helping elderly neighbours into a 15-strong group of volunteers helping around 500 people every day, many of them refugees from eastern Ukraine.

“Word of mouth is working and we help single mothers, disabled people, large families, migrants and everyone who needs it,” she said. “We cover all areas of Odesa now and we also send parcels across Ukraine by mail. We help with medicines, personal hygiene products, food, baby food, diapers and hot meals and we also found guys who bake fresh sourdough bread for us.”

At lunchtime, I met up with Vika and her friends and colleagues Nika, Olya and Marina, four brilliant, energetic, forward-looking Ukrainian women – human opposites of Vladimir Putin’s grim, revanchist worldview.

It soon became clear I was in entrepreneurial company – the cafe we met in belonged to Nika. When I praised the kombucha I was drinking, I was told it was Vika’s kombucha company. Marina told me with a rueful smile that she had plenty of time to volunteer because there wasn’t much call for her usual vocation of interior design.

I accompanied the volunteers to a housing project in the northern suburbs that is being used as temporary accommodation for refugees from the east. A sharper contrast with the beauty of the centre would be hard to imagine. A crowd of dozens – mostly elderly refugees – gathered outside a collection of crumbling Soviet-era apartment blocks.

I stood with Nika and watched Vika orchestrate the handing out of food and essentials with the authority and skill of a four-star general. The volunteers’ visit was clearly the most important moment of the day.

Anastasia, who had arrived from the east with her now-unemployed husband and two children, said: “Vika is my saviour, if it wasn’t for her I would have died of hunger a long time ago.”

Others talked about the volunteers’ deliveries bridging gaps while they waited for their disability allowance or pensions to come through. “They are not used to having to ask for these things,” Vika told me later, “but such times ….

Conditions inside the apartment blocks were deeply sobering, elderly people forced to exist in cramped hovels with mould on the walls, their possessions crammed around them and no improvement to the situation in sight.

Back at Nika’s cafe, the five of us sat with cold drinks and filled croissants in the late-afternoon sunshine, and Vika talked of a longtime bond with Russia now irrevocably broken.

“When the war began we were in shock,” she said. “I thought nobody would touch Odesa, that this is the heart of the world. They used to say Odesa was ‘mama’ and Rostov (in Russia) was ‘papa’, but now everything is destroyed, we no longer have a ‘fraternal people’ in Russia.”

A few days after I left, 21 people were killed by a Russian attack on an Odesa apartment block, widely seen as “revenge” for the Ukrainian military’s victory on the strategically vital Snake Island.

Vika’s message for the people doing these things was swift and decisive: “You are not people, you are biomass. Let everything return to you a hundredfold.”

Information on donating to Volunteers V2 can be found on their Instagram account at instagram.com/volunteers_v2/