Temperate and Tempting
“Russians are connoisseurs of the cold.”
—Hedrick Smith, The Russians, 1977
Of course this little string of words rings true for, as Russians know only too well, an immense swath of their massive nation is blanketed in a thick coat of snow for the endless, dark chapters of winter. Their choices, when faced with this bleak prospect, are to suit up and slog along despite the wrenching cold or somehow find their way to Sochi, the Black Sea’s refuge from the frosty blasts of freezing winds and shivering blizzards. It’s here, according to enthusiastic promoters, that winter temperatures are surprisingly warm, practically balmy in comparison, promising 300 days a year of sunshine. In fact, that’s exactly why Stalin picked it for his favorite dacha where he could retreat and ponder his next move on the world’s political stage.
In the Spotlight
Stalin wasn’t alone in his adoration of Sochi. The kings of neighboring Abkhazia kept this area for their own from the 6th to the 15th centuries, building churches throughout the countryside. The control was then passed to the Ottoman Empire, which ceded it to Russia in 1829 following the Russo-Turkish War. Sochi became an incorporated city in 1896. The resort grew during the Soviet regime when party officials relaxed here, taking mineral baths and medicinal cures offered by the lavish sanatoria including the Matsesta Bathhouse and Springs, plus opulent Rodina and the Italian-style Orzhonikidze. Matsesta, for your information, means “firewater” and is so named for its sulphur springs that are high in minerals like sodium chloride. Believers claim these curative waters are beneficial for those with, among other maladies, cardiovascular conditions.
The current President of the Russian Federation, Vladimir Putin, has attracted foreign investment for Sochi and courted the world’s attention by winning for his beloved city the honor of hosting the 2014 XXII Winter Olympics. This is actually possible because the snow-capped Caucasis Mountains are literally a pebble’s throw from Sochi. You can say that, though, of a lot of places because Greater Sochi is officially 90 miles long, making it Europe’s longest city and the world’s second longest.
And, speaking of sports, Sochi was home to two of Russia’s star tennis players Maria Sharapova and Yevgeny Kafelnikov during their early years. Surely, more will follow.
The Sea, the Trees, and Tea
Beachgoers find a rather pebbly seaside along this stretch of the Black Sea. But never mind. Resorts line the seafront promenade with staged areas complete with artificial palms, colorful umbrellas, and all the amenities for enjoying a day at the beach.
And parks abound including Riviera Park, established in 1898 by Aleksey Khludov’s son. Today, it’s home to the “Glade of Friendship” complete with trees planted by national and global dignitaries including every Soviet cosmonaut. But, the grand prize in the Sochi open-space category must go to the Caucasian Biosphere Reserve found just north of the city. Its 731,000 acres have been declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site and are definitely worth a visit.
Oddly enough, tea, yes tea, is grown in the hills of Dagomys some 13 miles west of Sochi. In fact, this area is considered to be Russia’s tea capital. And Russians do love their tea--in bone china, in porcelain as delicate as eggshells, or from traditional samovars. This tea-growing region was originally established as a Botanical Garden by Nicholas II. Today, it hosts visitors from around the world.
Strolling Through Sochi
The sea embankment area is known as naberzhnaya and is a good place to start. Sit here and watch the passing parade of locals or make your way to the Winter Theater. Completed in 1937, the 88 Corinthian columns and Neo-classical edifice complete its signature facade. A 200-foot-high steeple identifies the Maritime Passenger Terminal dating from 1955. And Stalin’s fingerprints are all over the landmark Railway Terminal Station, so typical of Stalinist architecture.
There should be ample time to sample a local dish or two. And, why not? Where else are you going to get zakuski (smoked or pickled fish), ikra (caviar) slathered on heavy dark bread, or some more commonly-known dishes including borsht (beet soup), blinis (pancakes) with a thick coating of jam, or pirozhkis (piping hot pastries stuffed with ground meat and vegis)? Another specialty is a spicy bean stew called lobiyo. For just a snack, there’s jelly-coated nuts called churchkhela. All this may not be on “South Beach” but you’re only in Sochi once.
Or, maybe not. Perhaps, you’ll want to return in a few years to witness the ongoing transformation fueled by foreign investors, resort developers, tour operators, and the curious traveler on the prowl for the world’s next hot spot. Sochi just might fill the bill.