Lucie Wolner - 2014-01-02
Have you ever dreamed of skiing down (nearly) virgin Olympic slopes? Your dream could come true near Sochi, a small Russian seaside resort city set on the Black Sea near the Caucasus Mountains. Ever since it was elected host city of the 2014 Winter Olympics, Sochi has been redefining itself as the new Mecca of winter tourism.
Sochi holds a special place in Russian hearts. The silvery glint of the Black Sea and the snow-capped peaks of the Caucasus are celebrated in song across Russia from Vladivostok to St. Petersburg to Murmansk. Over the centuries, its shingle beaches been enjoyed by Russian aristocracy and the industrious proletariat of the Soviet Union alike. During the Bolshevik era, Sochi was associated with the carefree and happy days of the holiday season, as the masses came here to regain their health in neoclassic-style sanatoriums set amidst lush green parks. But shortly before the end of the USSR in 1991, the place had been all but forgotten. The wrinkles of time had begun to mark the pompous buildings reminiscent of antiquated Italian palaces and the whole city had something of a ‘party over’ feel to it. On 4 July 2007 this Sleeping Beauty was woken from a long slumber by a proverbial kiss from Prince Vladimir... Putin, who made it his business to win over the International Olympic Committee. And that’s how Sochi came to organise the 2014 Winter Olympic Games.
A titanic undertaking
The victory came as a something of a surprise: Sochi may have everything it takes to regain its status as a fine coastal resort, but there are no slopes, although this is where the Caucasus Mountains begin. At sixty kilometres from the centre of town, the peaks are now accessible after an hour and a half of travel, depending on traffic jams due to the construction sites and the comings and goings of officials. The financial investments are mind-boggling: there’s talk of 30 billion dollars - triple the original estimate - and over 55,000 people work on the different sites. Cranes, bulldozers, lorries and helicopters sculpt the mountains under the astonished gaze of visitors who can make out the four ski areas of Krasnaya Polyana - resorts that are going to make their cousins in The Alps turn green (and not white) with envy!
‘It took French ski resorts twenty years to reach a reasonable level of efficiency,’ says Frenchman Jean-Marc Farini, general manager of the Rosa Khutor ski station. Farini is in Krasnaya Polyana on secondment in a partnership agreement with the Compagnie des Alpes. ‘We’ve come here to bring this station to European standards within three years.’ Quite a challenge: everything is spanking new, from the ski runs, lifts and gondolas to the hotels and residences. During the 2014 Games, all of the downhill races will be held on nine kilometres of Olympic runs. ‘The project is supported and supervised by the Russian government. There’s no margin for error,’ Farini explains. The area covers 1,820 hectares with 80 km of runs between 575 and 2,320 metres altitude – the mean being 1,745 metres. In February 2011, the first tests were conclusive: Rosa Khutor was already capable of holding the European and Russian Cup ski championships. It seems the snow was fine, fluffy and plentiful thanks to the north-north-east exposition of the site.
Down the hill, Gazprom’s ‘Laura’ ski centre is also in activity. Their very chic Swiss chalet-style Grand Hotel Polyana stands out amongst the many hotels and apartment complexes. The boutiques of its shopping plaza display richly decorated windows, such as that of Bosco, the official sponsor of the Olympic Games and Russian athletes. Red and white anoraks seem to be the thing to buy. Next to the Alpika-Service station, the Mountain Carousel is the most over-the-top, with an escalator between two levels amidst the tracks. At the summit, the building that houses the gondolas resembles an enormous metro station in equilibrium. Skis and snowboards can be rented anywhere; and heli-skiing is another possibility. But no matter how you make it to the top, surely the greatest luxury here is being able to ski down nearly empty slopes.
Sochi by the sea
From spruce Adler International Airport, it will soon be possible to take a train directly to the base of the ski area (25 minutes by rail versus 40 by car) or head for the sea. For the latter option, the road passes in front of Josef Stalin’s dacha. Coated a gloomy dark green, the camouflaged villa lurks among the pines - the dictator was very security-conscious. A visit of the dacha reveals everything about the lock guards and large armrests that were meant to protect him from bullets. The property has been left in its original state, from the lovely inlays to the heavy curtains. A sincere but hardly objective guide leads visitors to Stalin’s bed: the dacha has been transformed into a reasonably comfortable hotel, if one doesn’t fear being awakened by the dictator’s ghost, that is. But if anyone is having nightmares, it’s got to be ‘Uncle Joe’ himself. In the lovely forest surrounding the dacha, ultra-modern designer buildings are going up like mushrooms to welcome the jet set - history has a sense of humour after all. The trail continues along the long and sinuous Kurortny Prospekt lined with famous sanatoriums graced with names of yesteryear such as ‘Avant-garde’ or ‘Metallurgy’. Don’t hesitate to open the door and ignore the desk staff - you’ll discover quaint, outdated architecture and reception areas that look like ballrooms.
The Russian Riviera
The road from the airport leads to a provincial port that seems to hibernate in winter. A few fishermen are visible on the oily sea. Here, Frenchmen Martial Simoneau and his son Bastien have opened the Brigantin Restaurant, where bouillabaisse is served and French is spoken, as it is in the Napoléon, their little tea room. Local bigwigs like to meet here before heading for the London Bar where Russian-doll waitresses flaunt the city’s finest legs atop 6-inch heels. In summer, the ambiance changes and the London Bar’s star status is eclipsed by the Platforma. Located in the centre of the local ‘Promenade des Anglais’ where babushkas in flowery dresses and leggy Russian beauties in bikinis stroll nonchalantly by, Platforma resembles an offshore petrol platform set above the waves; mermaids swim about under the glass floor.
At less than two hours by plane from the Russian capital, Sochi has become Moscow’s latest chic outpost, equally appreciated for its shore and its peaks. The oligarch Oleg Deripaska was one of the first visionaries to set the trend in motion with his private club Rodina, which has since become a luxury hotel. Even if you don’t choose to sleep there, you can stop in for lunch. Have a peek at the library: this is where the Olympic Games contract was purportedly signed. A little slice of history.
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