The Black Sea port that will host the Winter Olympics next month has been effectively made over “from head to toe to soul,” said Andrea Sachs in The Washington Post. Long the “Summer Capital of Russia,” Sochi never before bothered to cut ski slopes into the surrounding Greater Caucasus Mountains, perhaps because the city’s movers and shakers were too busy enjoying the warm breezes and sunshine that sustain the area’s palm trees and tropical fruit trees. But Russian President Vladimir Putin had a dream of using the Olympics to transform Sochi into a year-round international resort, and neither the climate nor the threat of terrorism could turn back his bulldozers and cranes. Even a month before a pair of December terrorist bombings killed 32 people in Volgograd, military vessels were patrolling the waters off Sochi’s fabled coast.
I arrived during “anti-terrorism week”—a stretch of November when bombings were still a hypothetical and Sochi’s seaside promenade supported a genial outdoor-café scene that felt “more South of France than southwest of Siberia.” But the city was changing before our eyes: Buildings seemed to vanish overnight, replaced by new streets, new bus stops. Within weeks, the Olympic Village and skating events will take over a section of the waterfront, while new trains will transport skiers, bobsledders, and their fans from a new train station through a new tunnel to a new alpine resort about 40 miles away. When I visited, the bases of the slopes were still “loud, messy, and muddy.” But a pristine tram lifted me high above the construction mayhem all the way to the Gornaya Karusel resort’s spectacular 7,283-foot peak.
I eventually spent a full day alone in Sochi without Russian interpreters and guides. I’d already visited a local tea plantation, and found myself on one of those trains, enjoying its cleanliness and quiet. Everything around me was new, except the one feature outside my window that grabbed and held my attention—“the Black Sea, which has soothed Russians’ souls during good periods and bad, from time immemorial.”
At Sochi’s Grand Hotel Zhemchuzhina (zhem.ru/en), doubles start at $134.