Wednesday, July 21, 2010

BLACK SEA PART 8: SOCHI, RUSSIA

Our cruise ship made only one stop in Russia, and we were excited to enter the country that during our youth was a symbol of fear. However, Bob came within inches of missing his chance to set foot on Russian soil. Unfortunately, he had caught some bug or had eaten something that didn't agree with him a few days before, and after two days of Pepto-Bismol and Kaopectate, we were about out of the medication we had brought from home. When he stopped by the doctor's office on the ship to ask for additional drugs the morning we docked in Sochi, Russia, they got all excited and told him he would have to be quarantined for 24 hours. Just like that. He came back to our room hoppin' mad.

However, when he went back after his shower to plead his case, they had not, at that point, processed his paperwork OR given him the additional medication. They told him that if they had a file on him (which they would have to create to give him meds), international law required that he be quarantined. Well, he withdrew his request for medicine, they tore up the paper he had already filled out, and he sped out of there like a greased pig. By that afternoon (Day 3 of feeling ill), he was well enough to eat caviar. But more on that later.


Sochi, Russia, is the site of the next Winter Olympics in 2014. It's hard to believe this beautiful resort city with (kind of) sandy beaches could play host to skiers and snowboarders. Sochi Russia Port(Click to enlarge and see the swimmers on the beach in the lower right corner. Note the waterslide. It kind of looks like a ski run, right?)

Apparently, many of the venues are several hours inland (and upwards) from the city in the Caucasus Mountains. Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, known for his love for skiing, has tried out the new resorts and pronounced them excellent, a source of pride for the locals.

Our tourist rules were much, much stricter in Sochi than anywhere else on our trip. Everywhere else we went we were allowed to wander at will, but in Sochi we were required to stay at all times with our group and tour guide. I wonder how that will work during the Olympics?

We entered the city through this very beautiful building, behind which you can see the mountains where many of the Olympic events will take place:
Sochi Russia Immigration Control
There were signs of construction, but NOTHING like what we saw going on in Beijing when we traveled there a few years before their Olympics. Note the single crane in the background of this shot.

We had a wonderful guide named Konstantin who had recently graduated from the university with a foreign language major. He said he planned to continue school--eventually--and made it clear he meant to avoid the required year of service in the Russian army. Konstantin was disarmingly open, something we did not expect and perhaps would not have gotten with an older guide.Konstantin

We started out by walking through a beautiful park that runs parallel to the ocean, very much like the pedestrian park in Odessa. Our guide pointed out that the area was originally a swamp and was loaded with malaria. During the early 20th century, developers used eucalyptus trees to somehow soak up the swamp water and purify the area.
Stalin, who loved classical architecture, had his winter theater here:
Sochi Russia Immigration Control

Another Cannon/cannon picture:

This modern panther sculpture was discovered covered in pink paint one morning. (The Pink Panther--get it?) Nice to know the Russians have a sense of humor.

After a short drive, we arrived at Matsesta Mineral Springs, located in a heavily forested area. The water there is loaded with 27 different minerals, but the sulfur is the one that is hard to miss. You can close your eyes and pretend you are in Yellowstone. It looks beautiful:
Matsesta Mineral Springs, Sochi
But on closer inspection, the water definitely isn't something you'd want to drink:

The area was developed into a spa in 1902, and a HUGE sanatorium was built on the premises for those seeking cures for respiratory ailments, joint problems, and skin diseases:


We were not allowed inside the Sanatorium, but there were some artistically arranged stones being flooded with smelly water for us to look at:
Matsesta Mineral Springs, Sochi
As testament to the "healing" powers of the waters, we saw this horribly corroded iron fence. It didn't make me too eager to hop in for a bath:

A very Yellowstone-y looking spot:

After leaving the mineral springs, our final stop was Joseph Stalin's dacha, or vacation home. Stalin spent a lot of time here between 1938 and 1941, and then again after the War until he died in 1953. Our guide told us that Stalin was paranoid about being assassinated, so he had the house painted the same green color as the deep forest that surrounds it. Even the roof is green. Also, there is a large center courtyard that originally held a fountain, but Stalin was afraid of water, so when the advance party came to check out the dacha the day before Stalin arrived to stay there for the first time, they ordered that the fountain be dismantled in a single night and a flower garden be planted in its place.
Stalin's Dacha, Sochi

Stalin, the great strategist, not surprisingly loved to play chess:
Stalin's first wife died of tuberculosis, and his second wife, according to our guide, committed suicide in 1932 because of her husband's cruelty to her (although officially she died "of an illness"). Stalin had two sons and a daughter. One son was taken as a POW by the Nazis. They offered to trade him for a high-level German soldier that Russia had captured, but Stalin refused to negotiate and his son was either killed or committed suicide. The other son died of alcoholism in 1962, and Stalin's daughter immigrated to the United States in 1967. Pictures of Stalin's family members:
And at the bottom, the famous picture of the Yalta Conference. (More on that to come in my next post about Yalta itself.)

We learned that Stalin spoke five languages well, was only 5'2", was pale, and had joint problems. (Maybe that's why the dacha was so close to the mineral springs at Matsesta.) I thought this was a rather creepy wax figure:
But it got a little less creepy when my cute husband got chummy with Old Joe:

Also, Stalin loved Charlie Chaplin movies and American westerns and had a projection room in the dacha:

A totally unexpected surprise at the end of our tour was a reception that was set up for us on the top floor of the house. There were three long, skirted tables covered with a "snack buffet" of finger sandwiches and various fruits:

One of the sandwiches got Bob pretty excited because it had a dollop of caviar, something Bob has always wanted to try. This is red caviar from trout eggs rather than the more widely known black caviar from sturgeon eggs:There was also a glass of wine for each guest, or water for the abstainers like us. (Actually, vodka would have seemed more appropriate than wine, don't you think?)

While we were eating, our guide answered "any questions we wanted to ask." Here is what I wrote down in my notes:

*Stalin is perceived by the Russians as being a very strong leader. Gorbachev is VERY disliked by Russians because he broke up the Soviet Union, which has had a lot of negative consequences for education and health care, not to mention loss of territory.

*Medved, the current president, is a puppet of Prime Minister Putin, who was the President just prior to Medved. Konstantin said he likes Putin as a person--he's very charismatic--but he does not like some of his policies, especially that freedom of speech and assembly is being cut [which makes Konstantin's outspoken manner that much more surprising].

*One very annoying lady in our group asked, "If there are so many problems, why do you live here?" It was such an American thing to say, as if we have the only acceptable way to live, and the question made Konstantin quite defensive. "Because this is my homeland," he said, among other things.

Overall, our first exposure to Russia was pretty positive. The city itself was beautiful, and we were very impressed by our well-educated, freely speaking guide. However, there were undertones of the government control so often associated with Russia, including this escort that we had out of the bay at the end of the day:
Maybe if we weren't so paranoid, we would have seen it as a friendly, courteous gesture. Maybe it was.

6 comments:

  1. I think the escort was just the harbor master which we had at every port. In many ways, Sochi was our least interesting port, aside from the fact it was RUSSIA, the place I thought I would never get to as a youth. Part of that was due to the wealth which was so evident and the fact that it is so new historicly, with the lack of really interesting things to see. It would almost seem like a normal American place to live. Of all the places we visited, it was also the hottest and most humid.

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  2. Bob, I think I enjoyed Sochi and the sites of Yalta much more than you did, probably because I was in a WWII mode because of the reading I was doing on the trip (see next post). As for heat, I thought Istanbul beat it by a long shot. I think you are talking with your sick stomach!

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  3. I would never have thought to bring my own Pepto-Bismel. I'll have to remember that!

    These pictures are quite a contrast from your past posts. As you say, they could be places in the US. Unique history, not so unique buildings and scenery.

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  4. Interesting colors in this post from the brilliant blue color in the water and sky of the harbor to the greens in the sulfurized waters. Is the water really that color? Lovely.

    Glad Bob made a speedy recovery--I, too, would not have wanted to miss Russia!

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  5. You were restricted in Sochi because I am sure you didn't have visas, something typically required to visit Russia.

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  6. Yes, that is true. We did get visas for Turkey, but were told not to for Russia. That was the cruise company's call, and we could have tried to get them on our own. We did love Russia, don't get me wrong. The lingering memories of past decades, the source of my paranoia, were an interesting contrast to the beautiful city we visited.

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