Yalta's air – an invigorating blend of sea and pine forest sprinkled with mountain chill – has always been its main asset. Back in the 19th century, doctors in St Petersburg had one remedy for poor-lunged aristocrats: Yalta. That is how the Russian royal family and other dignitaries, such as playwright Anton Chekhov, ended up here. Old parts of Yalta are still full of modest and not-so-modest former dachas of the tsarist-era intelligentsia, while the coast around the city is dotted with the luxurious palaces of the aristocracy. But back in 1913, a Russian travel guide remarked that Yalta was a long way from the Riviera in terms of comforts and civilisation. And it hasn't got any closer, despite the extremely beautiful setting in the shade of the chalk-faced Mt Ay-Petri.
A workers' paradise in the Soviet times, Yalta was badly hit by the wild commercialisation of the 1990s, but it is undergoing a visible gentrification. The view from the spruced-up seaside promenade, lined with swaying palm trees, is no longer obscured by the rusting carcasses of sunken boats in the harbour. And a very happy-looking granite Lenin seems particularly pleased when babushkas gather at sunset to dance the waltz and polka on the plaza that still bears his name.