Black Sea coast: An unspoiled corner of Russia
August 31, 2010
As a frequent traveler, I’ve always longed to arrive at a place, set down my bag, let out a sigh and think “This is it, the place I will stay for a good long time, maybe even forever.”
But that day has yet to come.
If the beauty of the surroundings and the climate were all one needed to take into consideration, I know I have found my place already. It would be the coastal area of the Black Sea in Russia, just east of the modest-sized city of Gelendzhik, roughly between the Crimean Peninsula and Sochi.
In 1991 I was living and working in Moscow when an acquaintance took me down that way for the first time. One visit and I was hooked.
At the time, Gelendzhik was a ramshackle place, with its parks and public buildings in need of a good sprucing up and a dash of color. Despite the hard times of the era — the Soviet Union was withering away and the Russian Federation had yet to be born as an independent country — the perfect arc of the harbor and the smell of pines hinted at the potential of better times to come.
Today, beneath the hills from which a slogan emblazoned into the hills in giant letters once proclaimed “Lenin is with us,” thrives a prosperous resort town complete with four-star hotels, bustling restaurants, waterfront cafes, well-tended monuments, shopping malls and gardens bursting in brilliant reds and yellows. A chairlift whisks visitors to a vantage point from which the horseshoe-shaped bay glistens below. And the ode to Lenin has been replaced with the logo of a local cell phone service provider.
On a Saturday night I sat on a bench along the waterfront promenade and watched the parade of life go by. Families with strollers stopped to buy the young ones ice cream. Groups of older women posed for photos alongside the whitewashed railing of the promenade. Rail-thin young women, glammed up to the nines, haughtily strutted past on their impossibly high heels. Music blared, and a blaze of neon lights dazzled the senses.
But most of the time I spent far, far from the bustle of the city, at a “dacha,” or summer residence, on the outskirts of a village known as Praskaveevka. Our hostess, Lyubov Fyodorovna, welcomed my Russian friend, her 12-year-old daughter and me into her home as if we were her own children.
The Hilton it was not. The drinking water came from a bucket dropped into a well. We brushed our teeth and washed our dishes at a sink in the backyard. The shower was also an outdoor affair. A cat and her kitten tangled underfoot. We slept on narrow beds in the back room of the house, dozing off to the sound of bird songs or the yelping of jackals in the nearby hills.
The days slipped by in their own quiet rhythm. While my friends would reach the beach by means of a creaky minibus that slowed to a jogger’s pace along the route’s steeper inclines, I would often opt to walk along the coastal route, passing by a landmark known as Skala Parus, or Sail Cliff, and then alongside sheer cliffs in a palette ranging from slate gray to red-brown, abruptly giving way to large smooth rocks and a sea of subtly changing shades, at times a turquoise green, in other instances navy blue. Sometimes I would find myself completely alone; less often, I would pass by small groups of campers in tents or couples lolling in the shallow surf.
Once reunited with my friends at the public beach, the day would melt away in an unhurried mix of swimming, dozing on an air mattress and lazing in the shallow surf. A dozen or more excursions were offered locally, to include visits to mysterious ancient tombs known as “dolmens,” rafting or mud baths, but I was content to stay put and chat, catching up with the ups and downs of my friend’s life over the past seven years. The one outing I did make was in the company of my friend’s daughter — a three-hour excursion on horseback with a stop to swim in a pristine, deserted lake nestled high in the hills, teeming with a riot of vegetation.
In all the years I’ve been swept away by the natural beauty of this area, it’s had the air of a somewhat forgotten corner of paradise. But could things be changing soon? It’s been rumored among the locals that none other than Prime Minister Vladimir Putin is building a summer residence just a few kilometers down the road from the village proper.This supposition is substantiated by the presence of a grandiose sign proclaiming a special building project and a guardsman’s booth at the entrance to a newly constructed road that disappears into the hills. Locals say you can no longer stroll east along the coast from Praskaveevka without running into special forces who will block your passage.
Some of the villagers are optimistic that the presence of Putin will lead to improvements in everyday life, such as an increase in the strength of the electrical current. Others fear the worst, such as being forced to vacate their homes.
In the seven years since I’d last visited Russia, much had changed. Prices on many food items have reached European and U.S. levels, and treats such as a beer or ice cream in some cases cost more than what I would pay back home. Previously inexpensive natural products such as garden-fresh tomatoes or honey now command a premium as well. Public transportation remains a bargain, albeit none too fast or frequent. While numerous private homes have been built, it’s possible that many proved too ambitious for their owners’ pocketbooks, and they remain unfinished. Much real estate is on offer, and the cost of a plot of land reaches into the tens of thousands of dollars.
Other changes are more subtle. The infrastructure for tourism has been expanded, and you can now buy a T-shirt with an outlandish slogan or towel with the name of the resort town you’ve visited in Cyrillic letters.
I’d be delighted to share this unspoiled corner of paradise, but for those who don’t speak Russian and aren’t familiar with the way things work in the country, the logistics of a visit to this area would prove challenging, to say the least. The nearest international airport into which I was able to arrange a flight was inKrasnodar, and from there it’s a good three- to four-hour ride in a private car. While I was initially quoted a taxi fare of 4,000 rubles, unhurried negotiations resulted in my finding a ride to Gelendzhik in a private vehicle for just 1,000 rubles, or about $34.
As a foreigner, you are obligated to register with the local authorities within three working days of your arrival. If you’re staying in a hotel that caters to Westerners, the reception will automatically do this on your behalf. While I tried to accomplish this on my own, I was unable to find the proper authorities to help. Finally I broke down and spent two nights in the luxurious Hotel Primorie to get the proper documentation, which nobody ended up asking me for upon my departure from the airport in Sochi anyway.
While I enjoyed the hot bath, flush toilet and the high-thread-count sheets of the hotel, what I was really after lay somewhere in the hills to the east. Putin and I may not have much in common, but apparently, we both know a good thing when we see it.