The People’s Paradise
Established in 1896, Sochi is one of Russia’s largest cities onthe Black Sea, with a population of 300,000. A plethora of sanatoria was built here during the 1940s and 1950s, making Sochi the most popular resort in the former Soviet Union. Sochi used to be a paradise 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.
By Piers Gladstone
I open the French windows of our room at the Sanatorium Rus and step out onto the balcony. How green it is in Sochi and how fragrant the morning air. I sit down on one of the plastic chairs, close my eyes, feel the warmth of the early morning sun on my skin, and sigh deeply and contentedly. Moscow is a long way away.
Beach, Sanatorium Rus
There are three of us staying in Room 434, and we go in search of breakfast, getting lost in the endless corridors. At the reception we are directed up a wide flight of stairs where we find what looks more like a ballroom than a dining room. Chandeliers hang from the high roof, two rows of ornate marble columns stretch the length of the room and soft sunlight shines through the net curtains of the full-length windows.
We locate a free table and then walk the length of the buffet table; they appear to be catering for an army. Bowls of salads, thick porridge, greasy blinis with sour cream, various unidentifiable dishes, a catering tray of some kind of potato concoction, and frankfurters are on offer. I take two blinis and wait for the short fat man in a shellsuit to finish with the frankfurters. There are eight left. He takes them all.
I sip my prune juice. All around me there are tables of sunburnt and yet unhealthy-looking sanatorium-going families, surrounded by plates piled with food. We are the only ones who are talking. It is feeding time.
At the reception desk we study the notice-board’s lists of the various available ‘treatments.’ Things look very hospital-like as white-coated people glide past and across courtyards. It seems however, that most courses require between seven and fourteen days; the only treatments available for the casual weekender are the saltwater swimming pool (with Turkish bath and sauna) and massage. We opt for the beach.
The Sanatorium Rus was built in 1954 for the Soviet political elite and the extent of the architectural magnificence becomes apparent as we set off for the private beach. It is a truly colossal palace of arches, reliefs and columns, all set in manicured grounds complete with palm trees and fountains. Stone, marble and wooden benches sit in shaded and secluded spots. Flights of staircases lead down the tiered and landscaped gardens to the beach. At each level a path leads off in both directions, some with lines of wooden sunloungers under trees, flecked with dappled sunlight. A beachside promenade of gazebos, cafes and a restaurant all face the Black Sea. We could be in a luxury resort hotel anywhere in the world.
Dining Room, Sanatorium Rus
The beach is pebbled, and already has several groups of sunbathers on it. We locate three plastic sunloungers and drag them to a free spot, apply sun cream and recline. Birds chatter in the trees while the gentle lapping of the water smoothes out the ridges of Moscow life. For a moment I feel like I am not in Russia, until I open my eyes and see our fellow sunbathers. People lie prone on their backs with scarves draped over their faces, resembling corpses. Each group is obviously a family, and in true Russian fashion, the men are absent.
After an hour of studying Russian families from behind my sunglasses, I decide to take a dip. The sea is clean, but full of jellyfish with strange purple rings on their tops. For the most part they appear to be dead, so I go for the plunge. The water is cold, really cold. I gasp for breath as I surface, and head straight back to land.
Before lunch we make a detour to the massage clinic. We are told to sit at a desk and a dour woman in a white coat faces us. We explain that we are here for the weekend and would like to book a massage after lunch.
“A massage is a serious medical procedure”, she informs us sternly. “If you are here just for the weekend, you are not going to benefit from one day’s massage. Why do you want a massage?” she enquires of Josh. The reply of “for pleasure” appears to get lost in translation judging by her wide-eyed reaction. She turns to Brendan who states he would like a face massage. “Then you must go to the beauty salon.” She turns to me and I explain that I have a problem with a disc in my lower back, and would very much appreciate a medical massage. I am booked in for 2.30.
On entering the massage room, I see what looks like a bowl of cod liver oil and a spoon on a table. Two minutes later and I am lying naked on my front. Several towels are placed over me until I am completely covered. The towel covering my back and shoulders is removed and a mixture of olive oil and some other cream is applied. The massage is strong enough to give a touch of enjoyable pain and is very thorough. Once the massaging finishes, a scratchy cloth is used to remove excess oil, giving a tingly, pleasurable scratch, before some kind of lemon liquid is applied sending goose bumps all over me. The towel is replaced and the one that covers my bum and thighs is removed and the same process begins.
“Music Fountains”, downtown Sochi
My arms, hands, fingers, thighs, calves, feet, toes, neck and head all get the same treatment as I drift off to another level of being. I am vaguely aware of the sunlight coming through the window, the birds in the trees outside, the clink of the spoon in the bowl, a shadow passing across me as the masseuse moves around the table, the soft voices and the drifting clarinet coming from the sanatorium radio. Life must have been good for the Soviet elite.
“Where are your bathing caps?” demands the female attendant at the swimming pool. We look at each other in confusion, appeal to her and she lets us in without the necessary headgear. We start with a Turkish bath, shower and then go to the indoor saltwater swimming pool that is bathed in a strange luminescent green light. Tacky piped music fuses with echoing female voices. It seems that the men are still absent as ten or so ladies in shower caps do their lengths. We have a quick swim, feeling like intruders into a women-only sports day, and quickly retreat to the sauna.
At 7pm we are dropped in downtown Sochi by our taxi and walk along the wide pavements of the tree-lined boulevards. Everywhere there are terraced bars and shops selling the usual array of beach holiday products – bikinis, flip-flops, sunglasses, buckets and spades, every conceivable plastic toy a young child could want, and all the unnecessary things that people only buy when they are on holiday.
At the harbour there are a variety of boats, from old and battered tugs to several large gin palaces. Two old men sit and play backgammon, while others fish from the dock, one of whom sleeps while holding his rod. We inspect the recently renovated cruise ship terminal before dining on mountains of shashlik in the gardens of the Old Bazaar restaurant.
The evening air is filled with Saturday night expectation and energy as we walk off our dinner. Young dudes sit in their Ladas blasting out techno while their girlfriends text their friends. We join the human flow on the promenade by the sea. Packed al-fresco restaurants line its length and create a painful soundclash – each restaurant has its own karaoke. We stop at “Mouth of Truth”, a palm-reading machine. I pay my 20 roubles to the little old lady and put my left hand in the mouth of a bust of a Greek god. A slip of paper emerges: “You have the qualities of a leader, but your love life will be a story of jealousy and envy.” I ask the lady if the machine really works. “Don’t believe in these things,” she tells me, “believe in yourself.”
A large proportion of the clubbers at 8th Heaven – reputedly Sochi’s hottest club – are dressed from head to toe in white; the non-conformists proudly wearing their Von Dutch t-shirts, while the bar staff all appear to be wearing tops from Star Trek. The regional variations continue as we notice that many of the girls are dancing in front of the four mirrored columns on the dance floor. A blond in a little pink dress serenely smooches with her reflection and gives herself the eye for half an hour, while a J-Lo wannabee busts the moves she has learnt from years of MTV studies. Two go-go dancers gyrate on a podium to the slamming house music, and after a few more drinks we ourselves try a spot of mirror dancing.
The first thing I do on Sunday morning is to call the Hotel Zhemchuzhina (Diamond), a 965-room Soviet behemoth, to make a reservation. My two travelling companions are returning to Moscow and I want to be more central. But I have left my Immigration Card in Moscow, which seems to be a major bureaucratic stumbling block here in Sochi. Despite several minutes of pleading, the receptionist at Zhemchuzzhina cannot be persuaded to book me a room. The manager comes on the line; “If you come here, we will report you to the police;” then she hangs up. I try two more hotels who are as equally unwilling to take me in, and I start to wonder what life on the beach would be like. Eventually I find a room in a private apartment.
At 2.30pm I climb aboard the ‘excursion’ bus, bound for Mount Akhun. The trip costs 130 roubles (about $4.50). The bus is old and every one of the leopard-skin-print seats is full. We head out on the coastal road, passing through a tunnel bearing the logo of the Moscow Metro before turning off towards the mountains. Svetlana, our tour guide who speaks permanently into her microphone, informs us that the mountain is 663 metres high and that we will shortly begin an 11-kilometre ascent up the mountain. “If you think you are going to vomit, make a sign and we’ll stop the bus.” With that, the coach begins labouring, grinding upwards. The temperature inside increases and people fan themselves and their increasingly unhappy looking children with their hats.
We arrive at the summit without any sickness and from a look-out tower we are rewarded with a stunning 360-degree panorama, of the Black Sea, the hills covered in the fur of forest and a backdrop of snow-capped mountains. My fellow excursionists dutifully stand in front of the view for their cameras, while down below, a collection of chained and half-dead lion cubs, monkeys dressed in children’s clothes, eagles, peacocks, snakes and crocodiles wait their turn to be included in the holiday snaps.
The coach stops again at Matsesta and for an extra 90 roubles I join a wine tasting. All the tasters are given individual boxes of sugar-coated peanuts while Svetlana informs us that all eight wines are available for sale after the tasting.
The first wine is introduced while a young girl passes from table to table filling everybody’s glasses. When Svetlana finishes her sales pitch of the Muscat, everyone picks up their glasses, has a quick sniff, tilts their heads back and drains their glasses. It is sweet, but palatable. The second is a dry red, which I struggle to finish. The third is a dessert wine that I cannot drink. A lady asks; “Is this wine made from grapes?” and I wonder if she realises she has asked a reasonable question.
While I am looking for somewhere to pour the remains of my dessert wine, a pink wine is sloshed into my half-full glass. It seems that I am not missing out as a middle-aged man who looks like a retired bodybuilding truck driver loudly announces; “I can make better wine than this in my dacha.” He heaves his bulk up, takes the bottle from Svetlana’s hand, and proceeds to give us a lesson in domestic wine-making.
As if the wine has not been enough, tonight signals the start of the annual, weeklong Beer Festival. Sochi’s many parks are full of friends and families sitting in groups in the cool of the early evening. Thousands promenade along the streets while Theatre Square has been turned into a makeshift concert arena. Rows of children dressed in white dutifully cheer and clap when a woman in pink signals for them to do so. A full moon lazily rises overhead before its sky is invaded by fireworks.
I decide to start my Monday morning with a competition – to find the most vulgar souvenir possible in Sochi. I rummage around the usual suspects; necklaces and bracelets made from shells, various forms of preserved sea life, ashtrays, wind chimes, carvings and hats, before I come across a wonderful memento of my visit – a Sochi toilet brush and holder. Not the everyday stick-behind-the-stack toilet brush, however; the holder and the handle are made from clear plastic and are filled with shells floating in water. “I LOVE SOCHI” is inscribed around the top of the handle. For 280 roubles it is mine to take back to Moscow.
I decide that I have to experience the public beach – Sochi is advertised as a beach resort. The beach is in fact more like a rubble heap; but it is full of life. I rent an inflatable mattress for 50 roubles and settle down to soak up the atmosphere and some rays. On the concrete pier to my left, I can see three pairs of feet poking out from beneath the line of corrugated-iron changing booths. A middle-aged man in a leopard-skin thong is standing by his towel, legs akimbo, facing out to sea while he applies more oil to his leathery skin. An unidentifiable body is sunbathing on a wooden pallet. An old lady stands under an umbrella chatting with a friend, while another stands in the water splashing her legs. To my right are two young sisters screaming with delight as they chase and squirt each other with water pistols. Next to them a ten-year-old boy is filling a carrier bag with stones. Behind me on the promenade, a macho Speedo man walks by with his high-heeled, thong-clad bottle-blond girlfriend on his arm, buttocks wobbling (hers, not his). In front of me a large woman in her underwear is struggling to get out of the sea as she continually slips on the rocks and sits down heavily with a plop. Waves tumble over her as she huffs and puffs upright, only to slip again. In the end she crawls out on all fours. You won’t ever be bored in Sochi.
As the sun sinks, I drink a cold beer on a terrace overlooking the sea. The temperature is perfect. The school year finished today, and teenage boys jump off the nearest pier, yelling with delight. Two girls arrive on the pier and proceed to tear up their school exercise books, flinging them gleefully into the sea as a man walks past with his fishing rod over his shoulder. Groups of girls brush their hair and do their make-up after a day on the beach. As dusk approaches, people of all ages sit together quietly in this transitional hour, while waitresses and karaoke singers prepare for another evening.
As the Tupolev climbs and Sochi recedes, I realise how refreshed and relaxed I feel. My wallet also feels different – it is 600 roubles lighter after having to bribe my way through the airport thanks to my deficient documentation.
Piers Gladstone travelled to Sochi on Aeroflot for $171 including taxes.
A room per night including meals at Sanatorium Rus
(Tel: 8622 594196 or 8662 594200) costs $25 per person, based on three people sharing.