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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Soviet Resort Town of Sochi Strives to Recapture Glory

If you were a good shot, you might just be able to knock a coconut out of a palm tree with a snowball. For those who thought the twain could not meet, this subtropical enclave of Sochi where the white-capped Caucasus mountains preside over the Black Sea coast is enlightening.

In the summer months, from May to September, scantily-sheathed men and bikini-clad women stroll along the long, rocky beach. The city stretches an impressive 145 kilometers along the eastern coast of this vivid blue sea, which locals claim makes it the longest city in all of Europe.

Sochi still has a sense of being in a Soviet time warp, but compared to other Soviet-era outposts it is positively cosmopolitan. While new hotels, restaurants and shops are being constructed at a turtle's pace, the city's recent history as playground to the Party Brahmins and their bourgeois predecessors has left an indelible mark.

The long enfilade of majestic sanatoriums and hotels along the main beach avenue, Kurortny Prospekt -- Prospekt Stalina before 1956 -- where the elite took their cures, tells the story of Sochi's glory days. Those were better times, when funicular car after funicular car charged down from hilltops through cypress trees to bring incoming bathers to their destinations.

At the pristine white Frunze sanatorium, where Ministry of Defense big-wigs rest, tall gates and security booths still protect the columned fortress, keeping the great unwashed at bay.

But today the monumental archways and sweeping stairs of the Ordzhonikidze sanatorium invite ordinary guests to this former "palace of the people" which was once the domain of the country's honored workers. This temple-fronted neoclassical palace fit for a tsar, was built for the Coal Mining Ministry as witnessed by the odd respirator or two that lie around unused as the ravaged industry keeps the coal miners home.

Many of Sochi's resorts are becoming architectural wastelands as Russians who can afford to vacation are staying in posh new hotels like the Radisson or are choosing to sun themselves abroad. A smattering of new hotels are being built in Sochi's far reaches and a ski resort is being reconstructed to Western standards in Krasnaya Polyana in the mountains of northeastern Sochi, but the growing pains of the economic transition can be clearly seen along the city's old beach front.

In 1991, 4 million people visited Sochi, while 1996 brought only 840,000, said Sergei Panov of the city's Department of Tourism and Health Resorts. While the figures aren't in yet, Panov is hopeful that this year might put them back over the million mark.

With a history that reaches back to ancient times, Sochi only became a resort in the late 19th century. In 1866, perhaps as a prophylactic measure against enemy invasion, the tsar decreed that this Black Sea region should be settled. In addition to Russians, this area of the Black Sea coast was settled by foreigners migrating from throughout the Caucasus and Eastern Europe. Families that would have figured on any contemporary social registry -- Romanov, Sheremetyev, Golytsin, Gagarin and Dolgoruky -- were the landed aristocracy in this southern clime.

But by the time the grand waterfront hotel, the Kavkazkaya Riviera, was constructed in 1909, Sochi was already well peopled by Russia's emerging merchant class. The city's oldest extant sanatorium, the Riviera, was designed in the voluptuous forms of the style moderne -- akin to the international art nouveau. The newly monied could bask in the sea air to alleviate lung ailments or simply seek respite from their routine, amid a sumptuous opulence.

After the Revolution, such celebrated luminaries as poet and bad boy Vladimir Mayakovsky took their kefir here. Sochi natives like to boast of this hellion's exploits. One story goes that on a mid-July night in 1929 around 2 o'clock in the morning, resort guests were woken by protesting voices as the tardy poet had scaled the hotel and entered a neighbor's balcony in an attempt to get into his own room. The dezhurnaya, or porter, wouldn't let Mayakovsky in because he was not paid to work beyond midnight. The poet's angry complaint to the hotel management has since become a museum piece.

Today this former jewel in the crown fades as crumbling concrete has left the sinuous style moderne ironwork and decorative murals open to the elements.

Sochi came into its own in the Soviet era to become a resort on a grand scale and, by far, the largest in the country. After the Revolution, the style moderne was dubbed decadent and the new sanatoria built for the different Soviet ministries looked to the planar forms of constructivism and bore such names as the Sanatorium Avant-Garde.

In 1931, Myron Merzhanov, best known for the more traditional dachas he later built for Stalin, created a sprawling white compound for the War Ministry, the Voroshilov sanatorium, which, nestled amongst cypress trees, looks as if it wouldn't be out of place in the Hollywood hills.

However, as this avant-garde modernism became popular internationally, it too, was condemned as bourgeois. Under Stalin's leadership, Sochi was turned into a new Rome, with neoclassical sanatoriums lining the city's main avenue.

These sanatoriums took the names of their industry, like the Metallurgy sanatorium or in the cases of journalists, the Pravda sanatorium. After the war the Pobeda, or Victory, sanatorium became a prestigious landmark. Others still boast the names of one-time Stalin darlings such as the Kirov and Dzerzhinsky sanatoriums. Today most of these sprawling resorts stand half-empty.

With Krushchev's post-Stalinist thaw in the 1960s Sochi's New Rome aesthetic was recanted as the city's designers returned to modernism. Unlike in the capital, in Sochi architects were permitted to be slightly less than serious. In the construction of the circus, bus station and stores, steel-frame buildings were covered with great expanses of glass to create the otherworldly, futuristic forms of the Jetson's generation.

Of course, the natural beauty of the beach is the resort's true draw. Be forewarned that much of the beach is covered with rocks, so you might want to take along your tapochki and keep them nearby when you go swimming.

Culture vultures can sate their penchant for Soviet-era art at Sochi's Art Museum, (51 Kurortny Prospekt, tel: 999-948). At Sochi's History Museum (29 Ulitsa Ordjonikidze, tel. 922-349) one can learn how Sochi rallied in the name of victory during World War II, when virtually all of the sanatoriums were used as hospitals to treat the nearly 500,000 wounded that sought medical care. Space buffs can take in the spaceship Sochi's Honored Citizen and cosmonaut Vitaly Sevastiyanov rode in outer space.

Horticulturalists can have a field day at the Dendarium, where a thousand different species -- from strawberry trees to iron trees -- can be found. The subtropical park is over a hundred years old, park keepers boast that it is the largest botanical garden in Russia.

Where to Stay

While some of the Stalinist-era sanatoriums have opened to the public, many require that you stay a minimum of two weeks. The former Lenin sanatorium does allow guests to stay for just one night. Previously the domain of the Central Committee of the Soviet Union, this sprawling resort with its triumphal arches and colossal columns has been privatized and revamped into the Resort Complex Rus (22 Politechnicheskaya Ulitsa, tel: 8622-938-257).During the summer, a one-night stay at the beachside Rus costs $60-85 per person for a double room and about half off-season. The price includes three meals a day as well as sundry "treatments": massage, swimming pool, water massage and homeopathic therapies.

And even more exclusive locales are available to everyone. Stalin's own dacha compound Zelyonaya Roscha, camouflaged in green and secreted away in the hills, is now open to the public. Contemporary celebs like Alla Pugacheva and Patriarch Alexei II are among today's apparatchiki that have stayed at the "Green Grove." For prices ranging from $140 to $280 a night a couple can swim in the dictator's pool or shoot a few rounds in the leader's billiard room (Novorossiskoye Shosse, tel: -8622-970-283).

The mammoth 986-room Zhemchuzina Hotel is more centrally located in the heart of Sochi's beachside resorts. Built in the1980s this modernistic complex has a number of restaurants, bars, casino, swimming pool and beach. A one-night stay for two runs $100 and slightly less off season (3 Chernomorskaya Ulitsa, tel: 8622-924-355).

For those who don't want to fool around with Soviet nostalgia, the Radisson Lazurnaya is the only Western-standard hotel near the center of town. A night's rest at the Radisson is a cool $240 for a double room, while a villa can be had from $800 to $1,200. The 300-room

Radisson has all vacation amenities, beach, pool, tennis and shops. The hotel also caters to business conferences (103 Kurortny Prospekt, tel: 8622-975-974, or in Moscow 956-1700).

For the budget-conscious, small pensiones can be found here and there. Ask your travel agent or inquire at the airport or the train station. Your travel agent may also be able to negotiate a better deal for you in one of the pricier hotels.

Where to Eat

Cafes serving shashlik and other traditional Caucasian dishes like khachipuri and lobio can be found along Sochi's waterfront and downtown, but as most Soviet-era sanatoriums and hotels included meals in their vacation packages, good restaurants are still hard to come by in the city.

In Sochi's center, the Limpopo Restaurant serves Russian food prepared by a chef formerly employed by the Radisson, while Paskha, which offers Georgian cuisine, is popular with locals and has a comfortable atmosphere.

If you've got wheels the Taverna Kanon in the eastern Adler region of Sochi offers Greek food and music (Prospekt Kazachy Brod, tel: 44-81-89) The Turk-owned Bosphorous Restaurant across from the train station is Sochi's answer to fast food.

Getting There

Flights on Aeroflot and Transaero are both running about $150 one way from Sheremetyevo or Vnukovo to the Adler Airport in eastern Sochi.

Ivan Zholtovsky, architect of Sochi's art museum, summed up the omnipotent spirit of the time: "The architect organizes not only space, but human mentality as well, he is a true organizer of life."