When I heard Sochi was to be the site of the 2014 Winter Olympics, I was surprised. Having studied abroad in Sochi in 2002, I knew that the sunny beach-side city was the premier summer vacation destination in the Soviet Union. I had spent a whole summer exploring the black pebble beaches, lush green semi-tropical mountain sides, and sprawling sanatoriums that claim to be able to cure everything from asthma to arthritis. As a Consular Officer serving with the U.S. Embassy in Moscow, I was excited to revisit the city during the 2014 Winter Olympics. I was prepared to be impressed, given the reports that this would be the most expensive Olympics in history, and couldn’t wait to explore some of my old haunts in a city I hoped I would still recognize.
In the summer of 2002, I travelled to Sochi as part of a college language exchange program. I lived with a host family and attended classes at the Sochi State University of Business and Tourism in the heart of Sochi, not far from the port. I still remember deplaning on the tarmac at the airport, being surprised at how small the airport was, and learning how chaotic it was to find a marshrutka (minibus) to take me into the city. Restaurants were difficult to come by, and there was only one small fast food restaurant near the university. Most of the restaurants served traditional Georgian dishes of grilled meat and vegetables. I spent much of that summer lying on the beaches, touring the sanatoriums, and visiting tea plantations and waterfalls in the mountains. I was the only foreign exchange student in the whole city and was something of a novelty. I was even interviewed on a local radio news program about my thoughts on Russia and whether I was enjoying my time in Sochi.
I was amazed at the changes I witnessed on my return to Sochi. Gone was the aging Soviet infrastructure and in its place were beautiful new restaurants, railway stations, and a large and modern airport. Where there had once been sleepy sanatoriums and a congested two-lane highway, there were now high-rise luxury hotels and expansive freeways with multi-directional overpasses. The Olympic Park is beautiful with glistening, architecturally interesting sporting venues, and food stands selling Russian favorites such as borsch (traditional beet soup) and blini (Russian crepes). The mountain cluster was impressively equipped with new gondolas and ski lifts whisking passengers to snow capped peaks.
One thing that has not changed is the gorgeous natural wonder of the Black Sea region. The black pebble beaches and snow capped mountain peaks were just as I remembered. Delicious Georgian food was still being served and Sochi’s commitment to being a tourist destination felt reinvigorated. The 2014 Winter Olympics come to a close this weekend, but I am hopeful the infrastructure improvements and natural beauty of Sochi will continue to attract generation of people to explore the mountains and relax on the black pebble beaches.
About the Author: Matthew Lamm is currently serving as a Consular Officer at the U.S. Embassy in Moscow, Russia. He helped with American Citizen Services on a temporary assignment at the 2014 Sochi Olympics.