Sochi

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Sochi

Population: 420,500

Main industries: tourism, construction, agriculture

Mayor: Anatoly Pakhmonov

Founded in 1838

Interesting fact: Thanks to its climate and a propensity of hot springs, Sochi has over 220 health resorts — more than any other town in Russia.

Sister cities: Cheltenham, Britain; Epsoo, Finland; Rimini, Italy; Trabzon, Turkey; Long Beach, California, U.S.

Helpful contacts:
The city administration's hotline for investors (+7 8622-64-33-59);
Sochi Chamber of Trade and Industry chairman Vadim Lavchencko (+7 8622-96-75-48; tppsochi.ru).

SOCHI — When Zeus chained Prometheus to a rock and sent an eagle to pick at his liver as punishment for giving mankind fire, the Titan's torment was abated by the spirit of the Agura River, which brought him food and salved his wounds after the eagle's daily visits.

But Prometheus probably wouldn't recognize his prison today.

The Agura that tended to his wounds still flows today — but now it passes through a Soviet-era sanitarium and under a railway track that skirts the coast.

It is just one of many hostelries on a 150-kilometer strip of conurbation known to the world as Sochi — Russia's premier domestic seaside resort and the site of the 2014 Winter Olympics.

As the legend of Prometheus suggests, this patch of Black Sea coast, where the snow-capped peaks of the Caucasus mountains tumble down to a subtropical coastal plain, was for centuries part of the ancient Greek world — and a key source of slaves.

Colonized by Greeks in the first millennium B.C., the region remained under Byzantine and then Cherkess, Adygh and Abkhaz rule for centuries, and a sizable Greek population remains here today.

Major Businesses

Olimpstroi Corporation (37 Kurortny Prospekt; +7 8622-43-40-49 (Sochi); 3 Teatralnaya Alleya; +7 495-989-79-00 (Moscow); sc-os.ru) oversees the bulk of the vast construction projects designed to transform Sochi ahead of the 2014 Winter Olympics.

Matsesta Tea (141 Izmailovskaya Ulitsa; +7 8622-67-99-89; www.matsestatea.ru) exports black and green tea grown on its 180 hectares in the hills above Sochi. Tea production began at the end of the 19th century, and today the Krasnodar strain is the region's most important agricultural crop. Excursions are available.

Sochiarkhproekt (2a Krasnoarmeiskaya Ulitsa; +7 918-308-80-72) is one of several local architectural firms doing well amid the city's construction boom.

Russians arrived in the mid-19th century as their empire pushed into the Caucasus, and the tsar's armies crushed local resistance in a 40-year struggle that became known as the Circassian wars — a bloody business that caused outrage in Europe and is the subject of compensation claims by the descendants of the Circassian population to this day.

The Russians established several forts and Cossack populations in the area, but the city that stands here today began to take shape when the government started to encourage emigration from other parts of the empire to consolidate Russia's foothold in the area.

By the early 20th century it was already earning its name as the Caucasus Riviera. But it was when Josef Stalin decided to build a summer residence here in the 1930s — and the Soviet elite inevitably followed suit — that Sochi took off in its current incarnation as a kind of Russian Bognor Regis.

Ever since, Sochi has been a primary place for Russian leaders to govern and businesspeople to get close to them. Today the summer residences of both Prime Minister Vladimir Putin and President Dmitry Medvedev here mean that Sochi is second only to Moscow as the dateline for Russian political reporting.

Where political leaders go, business leaders tend to follow. The resort has become a favorite destination for conferences, forums and trade summits of all kinds. In addition to an annual international film festival in June that attracts second-tier Hollywood stars, the town this year hosted Russian Railways' annual international industry forum and at least one banking conference; this week Putin will host the annual Sochi investment forum. And the First All-Russia Congress of Blondes will run here Sept. 23 to 25.

But alongside this world of sharp suits and $10 espressos lies a decaying tourist industry that relies largely on less affluent — or less adventurous — vacationers to sustain it.

Those familiar with Britain's decaying Victorian resorts will soon see the Bognor — or Blackpool — parallel.

After Stalin's patronage, the town was soon teeming with hotels, vacation camps built for both workers and party bosses — and that very Russian form of hostelry, the sanitarium. (In World War II, the town was essentially turned into a giant hospital, which you could say was playing to its strengths).

Its popularity continued despite being tarnished by city-planning howlers like a railway line that runs along the beach for most of the length of the coast, meaning sunbathers are periodically deafened by passing freight trains.

But since the Soviet collapse and the growth in popularity of destinations like Turkey and Egypt, Sochi's tourist industry has suffered an undeniable decline.

Today there are really two Sochis — an up-and-coming, well-heeled playground of the rich and famous attracted by the presence of government bigwigs like Putin and the billions of dollars being sunk into Olympic construction projects, and a slightly seedy, cheap and cheerful resort that smells of decay, poor service and tiredness, and relies on the less affluent to sustain it.

The 2014 Olympics is meant to change all that.

The federal government is pouring in billions of dollars to create an Olympic Village and venues on the coast at Sochi and at the nearby mountain resort of Krasnaya Polyana.

Officials dream that after the games the area will come into its own as a paradise resort — a kind of Russian California where you can swim in the sea in the morning and ski in the nearby mountains in the afternoon.

For MT

Anatoly Pakhomov,
Sochi mayor

Q: What do investors like about Sochi?
A: Sochi has been and remains the focus of attention of investors. Even today, our city is not just growing but is becoming international.
Preparations for the Winter Olympic Games in 2014 are in full swing, and we have also signed contracts with Formula One and will be a venue in the 2018 World Cup. These 21st-century projects are opening up a bright future not only for the resort of Sochi, but also for all our current and future business partners and investors.
The competitive advantages are the favorable climate, a great geographic location, a healthy environment and resort atmosphere and a great customer base.

Q: What is Sochi doing to attract investors?
A: Sochi is ready to provide potential investors with the most favorable conditions for work. An appropriate regulatory framework for it exists. Moreover, we will set aside 4,600 hectares for development in special investment areas.
At the Sochi-2011 International Investment Forum this week, Sochi will present investment proposals in two areas: resorts and residential real estate, and transportation and infrastructure. These apply in particular to the Olympic Park, the central promenade, a new amusement park and a shopping center.

Q: What still needs to be done?
A: The main purpose of the Olympic project is to completely modernize the infrastructure of the resort, which has basically been in stagnation since the middle of the last century. New transportation and energy networks and upgrades to resort areas and housing are absolutely necessary for Sochi to function.
Sochi 2014 means that in just three to four years we will achieve complete modernization of the urban infrastructure. In other circumstances such a grandiose project would take decades.
We plan to continue to develop Sochi as a resort that operates year-round and to introduce new service standards that meet international requirements for high-end resorts. But it is also important to preserve the unique qualities of Sochi as a spa town.

— Roland Oliphant

Local cynics point out that even in the mountains you can only ski in winter, while no one dips so much as a toe into the sea until it has safely warmed up in mid-summer.

The centerpiece of the government's effort is six vast Olympic stadiums arranged on a circular seaside site in Adler, just south of the city center. But contractors are also laying high-speed rail and road links and drilling tunnels through the mountains on the route to the Krasnaya Polyana, renovating the railway station, and throwing up power plants, waste incinerators, shopping centers and multistory parking garages.

The entire 150-kilometer stretch is a hive of construction, meaning that the view from your hotel room is quite likely to include at least one crane and you may eat breakfast to the deafening rattle of pneumatic drills.

Businesses ranging from General Electric to Italy's Ansaldo — a generator producer — have rushed for a slice of the lucrative public works' contracts.

An attendant building boom in the hotel sector has seen new buildings sprouting all the way up into the mountains on the way to Krasnaya Polyana — and has supported an interesting little boom in Italian furniture imports.

What to see if you have two hours

Sochi is not a city crammed full of sights that one can rewardingly stroll around, especially as the frenzy of pre-Olympic construction reaches its crescendo. There are building sites everywhere, roads are clogged with large trucks hauling loads of sand and cement, and the railway frustratingly cuts along the shoreline on much of the coast — making beach-going a noisy business.

Nonetheless, there are attractions within reach for the visitor with a couple of hours to kill. Apart from taking a dip in the Black Sea (provided the water is warm enough), locals recommend the Dendrary Botanic Gardens (Kurortny Prospekt Dendrary) — some of the largest in Europe, with 1,500 species of trees and shrubs and even a small zoo.

The trick is to take the cable car (next to the Millennium Building on Kurortny Prospekt) to the top and then walk back down. Don't miss out on the second part of the garden, on the other side of the road after you descend.

What to do if you have two days

The stunning landscapes and mountain gorges of the Sochi National Park are a must-see. The walk up the Agura Gorge to visit the waterfalls — and Stalin's dacha — is great way to spend an afternoon.

Do not believe overconfident locals — or out-of-towners — who breezily say you can make the waterfall walk in 15 minutes. It's a stiff walk — much of it up steep paths — of 30 to 60 minutes to reach the first one. But the circular lagoon cut into the forest is more than worth it. Take a decent pair of shoes and keep children away from the ravine's edge. You can swim in the lagoon.

Looming over the gorge are the Eagle Rocks — named after Prometheus' tormentor — and Mount Akhun (663 meters). An observation tower built in the 1930s offers an even higher vantage point from Akhun. The road to the summit starts near the mouth of the Agura.

What to do with the kids

Parents should not be at a loss with young children. For the adventurous, the hike up Agura Gorge is exciting and stunning. But when the kids want to have some fun, try the Mayak Aqua Park (3/7 Primorskaya Naberezhnaya), fully equipped with slides (including one alarmingly dubbed the "Kamikaze"), fountains and everything else necessary for watery entertainment, including a kids' section.

Riviera Park (1 Ulitsa Yegorova; +7 8622-64-33-77) has been a pleasure garden for more than 100 years. A bit like Moscow's Gorky Park until its recent makeover, the Riviera has the same combination of tacky stalls, Ferris wheel rides and family entertainment. It's fun in a Blackpooly kind of way.

Nightlife

There is only one place to be seen in Sochi, and that's the Plotforma nightclub — which as the name suggests is built on a kind of pier near the Restaurant Calypso. It is a prestigious venue for the rich and beautiful that attracts swarms of paparazzi and likes to feature big-name DJs, but its main draw has to be the bikini-clad girls floating on inflatable mattresses below the club's glass floor.

"The kind of place where lots of girls don't mind getting naked," as one regular said, it has big bouncers to keep the male clientele in line and impose a hard-line face control policy. If you're pretty enough to get in, cover charge ranges from 500 to 1,000 rubles, and an average drink price is 350 rubles (Tsentralnaya Naberezhnaya; +7 8622-90-08-88; plotforma.ru).

For more reasonable prices, you can smoke water pipes and knock back Cha Cha — a local spirit brewed from grapes — in one of dozens of bars on the sea front.

There are also many concert halls, where Russian pop stars perform just about every night during the summer.

Where to eat

Restaurant Calypso (2 Ulitsa Moskvina; +7 8622-62-40-33; kalipso.ru) is the place to go if you want to rub shoulders with local power brokers and visiting dignitaries from Moscow. Guests who have enjoyed the restaurant's Italian and Mediterranean menu include Prime Minister Vladimir Putin and President Dmitry Medvedev. You'll pay for the privilege though — the average bill is 3,500 rubles.

Vladimir Timayev,
Member of the coordinating council of Environment Watch North Caucasus, a pressure group that monitors environmental violations.

Q: How long have you lived in Sochi?
A: I was born in Sochi in 1955. After I left the army, I decided to come home and settle down here again. So you could say I’ve lived here half a century.
The best thing is that it’s very beautiful, and it’s warm! That’s very important for your spirit. And, of course, its a federal resort and the only city in Russia located in the subtropics. I’m a man who is used to the sea and sun, and I can’t live without them. I’ve lived in other cities — in St. Petersburg and Moscow — but it’s just not the same. All my family live here, my friends are here, so you could say I’m a Russian man who doesn’t know Russia’s climate all that well.

Q: Sochi is changing dramatically. How do you feel about that?
A: For me there is one very positive change: that there are now massive road works going on. Roads and railways are extremely positive, and the town needed it.
As far as the environmental situation goes, that is another question. There are obviously problems and encroachments on our national park by various building projects, sometimes in connection with Olympic construction. And I’m opposed to that.
We’re a small town, and essentially our economy is tourist-based.

— Roland Oliphant

Also on the sea front near the elite Plotforma nightclub, Sinee More (Chernomorskaya Ulitsa, Solnyechny Beach; +7 8622 66-21-21; sineemore.net) rivals Calypso for celebrity diners, including Medvedev, perennial oppositionist Boris Nemtsov and the "Russian Frank Sinatra" Iosif Kobzon, as well as a host of socialites and pop stars. The average bill for the seafood-dominated menu comes to around 5,000 rubles, but don't necessarily expect anything special. Asked to recommend a specialty from the menu, a nonplussed concierge mumbled, "Well, we've got lots of stuff … oysters and fish and things. And beef, too."

Also, check out Restaurant Amshyenskii Dvor (15a Krasnoflotskaya Ulitsa; +7 8622-95-51-21), a well-appointed Armenian place on the road to Krasnaya Polyana and attached to an ethnographic museum. An average bill for one runs to 1,200 rubles.

Where to stay

Business travelers with a well-heeled expense account will be keen on the SAS Radisson Lazurnaya (103 Kurortny Prospekt; +7 495-411-77-77; radisson.ru/hotel-sochi). Its slogan, "Beachfront Chic in the Caucasus Mountain Range" is slightly misleading — the 18-story, 299-room tower is actually on a hill above a cliff, and it's a steep walk and elevator ride to the shore. But it is certainly luxurious.

The hotel boasts swimming pools, tennis courts and a private beach (accessible by stairs or the elevator from the cliff edge) that hosts impressive parties in summer.

A major venue for conferences and business forums, the hotel complex includes seven conference halls, comprehensive Wi-Fi coverage, and decent office facilities. A dedicated conference coordinator can organize things.

The piranhas in the restaurant aquarium are also a nice touch — reminding you of what might happen if you cross the wrong senior government official during your stay.

Standard rooms start at 5,750 rubles per night for a single in low season and top out at 9,600 rubles in summer. The top-end "presidential" villa will set you back 68,200 rubles a night during August.  

The Hotel Sputnik (17/1 Novorossiiskoye Shosse; +7 8622-69-92-00; sputnik-sochi.ru) is built for vacationers. The 18-story concrete Toblerone at the center of this Soviet-era sanatorium compound underwent a comprehensive renovation in the last decade, and it is well maintained and comfortable compared to others of its vintage. The management recommends a smaller, three-story block for families with children. The leafy and well-kept grounds on the banks of the Agura River provide a cool refuge from the heat. Guests have included space pioneer Yury Gagarin, crooner Iosif Kobzon and Oscar-winning film director Nikita Mikhalkov.

While relatively comfortable, it is first and foremost a tourist hotel. Patchy Wi-Fi access and a tiny "business center" that closes at 9 p.m. may inconvenience business travelers. Rooms start from 2,680 rubles per person per night. A breakfast buffet in the site canteen costs 220 rubles extra.

The three-star Almira (8 Bestuzhevskaya Ulitsa; +7 8622-69-35-15; hotel-almira.ru) also has a private beach, though the management insists that it is perfectly legal to close it off to nonguests because it does not run down to the shoreline. Tourists favor it in summer for the beach and business travelers in winter for its close proximity to the Adler airport and the main Olympic construction sites where many of them have business.

Its 97 rooms start at 3,900 rubles per night with breakfast in high season (July through August) and bottom out at 1,950 rubles in November through April. But check in advance during the busy New Year's holiday period.

Conversation starters

The climate and surroundings give the locals an almost Mediterranean friendliness, and striking up a conversation should be easy.

The biggest story in town is obviously the upcoming Olympics and the construction works, which affect everyone and everything, and almost everyone has an opinion they are willing to share.  

While there are plenty of people happy to take the long view of the current disruption — "It's only temporary and it will make the city better" is a common enough view — there are plenty of grievances lying below the surface, ranging from locals being turfed out of their homes without adequate compensation; willful disregard for environmental standards; and the usual stories about corruption linked to the vast sums that attend any large public works' project in this country.

For a less-loaded conversation, ask about local history and legends, starting with Prometheus and Jason and the Argonauts. The place is teeming with stories, many with multiple versions, and locals are proud of the area's immense natural beauty.

How to get there

Sochi's airport — in Adler — has been upgraded with a brand-new terminal, and Russian Railways is in the process of a similar modernization of the main rail terminal, meaning travel to Sochi should become much more comfortable in the future.

The newly renovated airport at Adler is connected to Moscow by more than 20 flights daily, operated by half a dozen airlines, with slightly less frequent flights to many regional cities and other former Soviet republics. Prices for the two-hour, 1,360-kilometer flight are heavily dependent on the airline, season and whatever high-profile event or conference is scheduled — you could easily pay 12,000 rubles round trip, but the ticket can rise higher.

Slaves to the romance of rail travel will find that Sochi is well connected to the Russian rail system. A 30-hour train ride from Kazansky Station will set you back 2,500 rubles in economy class (more for bedding) and about 6,200 rubles for a place in a four-berth compartment. A slower 38-hour train from Paveletsky Station costs about 4,200 rubles for a place in a compartment and 1,750 rubles for economy class. Gluttons for discomfort can travel from as far as Siberia, including a four-day direct train from Nizhnevartovsk.

The ferry terminal (+7 8622-60-96-03; seaport-sochi.ru) has connections to Trabzon in Turkey (3,500 to 5,000 rubles), Gagra in Abkhazia (250 to 500 rubles), and Tuapse and Novorossiisk (1,819 rubles). Ferries to Batumi in Georgia (3,000 to 3,500 rubles) are still restricted to Russian, Georgian and other CIS citizens.