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Knights of the Vine RUSSIA


Text and photos Piers Gladstone

Established in 1896, Sochi is one of Russia’s largest cities on the Black Sea, with a population of more than 300,000. A plethora of sanatoria were built here during the 1940s and 1950s, making Sochi the most popular resort in the former Soviet Union. Sochi used to be a paradise of rest and recuperation both for the Politburo and the people; the politicians went the way of the Soviet Union, but the people are still very much here. Despite the lure of foreign travel, over 3 million Russian holidaymakers descend on this semi-tropical resort each year. And now, with the coming 2014 Winter Olympics, the politicians are returning and Sochi is about to change.

The facade of the Rus Sanatorium

I first visited Sochi three years ago, much to the surprise and disbelief of my Russian friends. “Why do you want to go there?” inquired one incredulously. “You would be much better to go on holiday to Croatia or Turkey.” Being relatively new to Russia, and wanting a taste of the “Soviet Experience,” I headed south to the Caucasus. I stayed at Sanatorium Rus, which was built in 1954 for the Soviet political elite. During the Soviet era, different trades and professions were segregated and housed in separate sanatoria. Like much of Sochi’s Stalinist architecture — such as the railway station that was designed by Alexander Dushkin (famous for Moscow metro stations such as Kropotkinskaya and Mayakovskaya) — Sanatorium Rus is a magnificent and truly colossal palace of arches, reliefs, and columns, all set in manicured gardens of palm trees that sweep down to the sea. The inside, apart from the grandeur of the marble-columned and chandelier-festooned dining room, was less than magnificent. White-coated workers and distinctly unhealthy looking clientele wandered around the stuffy interior of endless Kafkaesque corridors.

Family-friendly parks dot the city

Downtown Sochi, like most regional cities in Russia, has been experiencing a construction boom over the last few years. Cranes along with partially built and newly shining glass buildings loom large, and it seems that this will continue in Sochi for some time to come if the city is to be able to cope with the one million visitors expected for the 2014 Olympics. Quite where all the hotels, restaurants, and new roads that are needed will be built stretches the imagination because of the city’s geography; it is wedged between impenetrable mountains and the Black Sea.

Sochi’s pebbled public beach area is full of karaoke terraced restaurants and bars and shops selling the usual array of beach holiday products — bikinis, flip-flops, sunglasses, buckets and spades, every conceivable toy a young child could want, souvenirs, and all the unnecessary things that people buy only when on holiday. Although lacking in sophistication, it is disarmingly charming and fun. And on an “excursion” to the nearby Mount Akhum, I realized just how beautiful and untouched the surrounding areas are. Thickly forested foothills rise up to the imperious snow-capped mountains of the Caucasus range that stretches from the Black Sea to the Caspian, and it was this area that I came back to explore on my second trip to Sochi last year.

A 40-minute drive from Sochi, Krasnaya Polyana is a sleepy village of wooden houses and small hotels that is home to several ski runs, about to be awoken by the upcoming Olympics. This area is where all of the mountain venues for the Games will be built. At sunrise, Edik, my Abkhazian guide, took me up into the woodlands past the half-built dachas that are creeping their way up the mountainside above Krasnaya Polyana. Wisps of blue wood smoke and mist thinly veiled the scene below, while the dark and featureless pyramid of Mount Lachish was dazzlingly backlit by the rising sun. As a bright star of sunshine appeared to the left of the peak, the woodland exploded into light as thousands of trees simultaneously threw their shadows in symmetrical lines across the leafy ground. It was a magical moment that in a few years may not be witnessed by the early riser after the developers have finished.

Sunset fishing at Sochi’s port

The floor of the wood was carpeted in dry leaves, underneath which lay small and deliciously sweet chestnuts. Here also, scattered among the trees of the woodland above Krasnaya Polyana, are dolmen: small partially buried man-made walledin caves dating from between the 4th millennium and the 2nd millennium BC. There is no exact agreement as to what the purpose of these caves was or who built them. Theories from prisons to Neolithic fridges have been suggested, but the most likely is that they were used as burial chambers, evidenced by a body that was found curled in a fetal position inside one dolmen. The word dolmen originates from the Celtic language of the Breton of Northern France and means “stone table.” Dolmens exist all over Europe, but the Caucasian variety are unique because they were built with precisely dressed cyclonic stone blocks. Over the centuries, the stone from many of the region’s dolmens has been taken for construction of houses, but many more lie under the soil, as yet undiscovered, until perhaps when the bulldozers arrive.

While there is no doubt that the awarding of the 2014 Winter Olympics to Sochi is a hugely positive development for the area, not to mention Russian pride, there are concerns both about the implementation and success of the plans and their long-term effects on the city and its surrounding environment. Everybody I spoke with believed that the Olympics will bring much needed investment and jobs to the area — one only has to travel a few kilometers north of the city to see abandoned and dilapidated resorts and sanatoria, crumbling concrete monuments to a time of former glory and social desire. Many voiced concerns over corruption but accepted this as par for the course. And, while it is unlikely that either the elite or the foreign-holidaying Russians of today will be tempted to come to Sochi, it seems that the 2014 Olympics may well restore Sochi to its former Soviet glory in the minds of people.

A dolmen in the woods above Krasnaya Polyana


Several airlines fly to Sochi from Moscow, including Aeroflot.
The pale yellow 1930s Hotel Primorskaya at 1 Ul. Sokolova is a good mid-range hotel right in the center, close to the beach.
Rooms start at around 1000 rubles per night.
For a taste of the Caucasus, feast under the trees at Old Bazaar.

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