We're on the beach at Koktebel. It's the middle of September: the sun is pouring down. Maxim has just gone off for some more beer. Sveta and the girls are topless. Vladimir Vladimirov and I, also naked, are bent over a rather ploddy game of chess - when I happen to look up. A familiar figure is stumbling towards us over the shingle, his head lifted skywards, his feet not quite managing to find a path through the uneven-sized pebbles, his right hand trapped around a mostly empty bottle of portwine. Good God, I think: it can't be. But it can. It can. It is. "Markov!" I call out.

Vladimir Bedulovich Markov turns, nods, and readjusts his course. "There you are," he says. "I've been looking for you everywhere. I stood around on Nevsky Prospekt for two days. When you didn't turn up, I figured you must have gone away. So I came here. Where else could you be? Have some 777(1)."

To cover my surprise, I take a long swig of the tepid rose-coloured mind-cleaner. "Great wine!," I say. (I can't help wondering what would happen if Markov were introduced to the real stuff - to Portuguese port. Would he find it too smooth? Too well-rounded? Too flavoursome? Would he object to its lack of rawness, its inability to make the drinker's mouth twist, his eyes roll in helpless disgust? Or, tipping the Taylors 66 down his throat straight from the bottle, would he not even notice the difference?)

In fact, there is no need for me to be surprised at running into Markov here, in this small village on the Black Sea coast of the Crimea, 3000 kilometres from St Petersburg. Koktebel is full of Petersburgers, and has been ever since the artist and poet Maximilian Voloshin settled here in the early years of this century and welcomed the northern intellegentsia and artists with open house. Certain rooms in pensions in the village are reserved for returning Petersburgers from year to year, decade to decade. And the main beach is a sort of second Nevsky Prospekt (2): walk five metres and you will be sure to have your hand warmly clasped by at least three artists, poets or intellectual alcoholics last seen on the corner of Mayakovskovo and Nekrasova.

Only there is something a little odd, something jarringly unfamiliar, about these familiar Petersburg types. Markov looks like himself, but in the others something has changed. Look at their bodies, for instance. Tanned, firm-muscled, confident, warm, sexy. Since when did Petersburgers have bodies like this? Since when were Petersburgers sexy?

And what has happened to the Petersburgian parade of urban tics and complexes? These brown, healthy, glowing athletes, part or completely naked, seem to be at ease with themselves and their surroundings. They sit in small murmuring groups, reading, tanning, talking, getting up now and then to cool their bodies in the clear blue water, to join in in briefly explosive games of volleyball, or simply shake hands with passing friends and acquaintances. St Petersburg, the capital of zamorochki and bad weather, is far away. These Petersburgers could almost be ... No. No. No. These Petersburgers still could not be mistaken for ordinary human beings. They are still, somehow, incorrigibly out of this world.

There is something unwordly too about the setting of the village itself. Approached from the east, Koktobel happens suddenly, startlingly, the dark baby mountain jumping up in front of the traveller on his right hand side, the lighter-coloured hills on his left extending a gentle encircling arm to steer him down into the bay below. Further to the west, around the corner, the mountains and bays settle into a rhythm. But here everything is for the first time. The sun, finding itself in new territory, glances round inquisitively, experiments with novel contrasts of light and shadow, of light and light. The sea jubilantly throws off its name and turns blue - bluer by far than the Mediterranean. On the promontory of the Karadag the distinctive nose and forehead of Max Voloshin, stamped miraculously in the rock at its foundation, keep watch over his old home.

"Koktebel shouldn't be here at all," says Vladimir Vladimirov. "It's not part of Russia. It's not part of the Ukraine. It doesn't belong to this Crimean coastline. It's an anomaly."

"A podarok," adds Alexei Alexeyevich, waving his glass of champagne at the view from the balcony of the old house under the mountain. "A one-off gift from the rulers of this planet. A mistake, in other words. A wonderful, miraculous mistake."

Vladimir Vladimirov and Alexei Alexeyevich Liverovsky have been coming to Koktebel every year for more than a decade. They always take rooms in the same house under the Karadag, a part of the village where the houses lurch together promiscuously on their way down the hill and, at dusk, murmurs of conversation float out into the street from vine-hung courtyards where people sit long over supper. Alexei Alexeyevich, twice married, is a boyish forty year-old with a degree of charm capable not only of prostrating girls much younger then himself, but also of securing forgiveness afterwards. Vladimir Vladimirov, a gentler, more reflective soul, pursues the same style of life, only at a more meditative pace. "Koktebel is where we come to mend ourselves, to recover from St Petersburg," he tells me. "Sun, water, good wine, mountains, sex. We live like epicureans for a month. Then, when we go back, tanned, happy, carefree, we're ready to be stoics again. We're ready to face the winter, the cold, the queues. It's Koktebel that makes all that bearable."

The following day, another friend, Karen, takes us up onto a mountain just around the corner, overlooking the Karadag. The climb demands concentration. Time is short. We have to hurry to keep up with the sun and with Karen, whose nimble fifty year-old feet carry him lightly up through the rocks. Every so often, he calls a halt. "Podarok" ('gift'), he declares with a beam of enthusiasm, as we catch our breath and see that the climb is broken at this point by a cool orchard of apple trees, by an icy spring (where Karen bids us drink, but sparingly: the water is precious), or by a view of special magnificence. "Podarok", he declares again, when we reach the bottom and crown our descent with a jump into the waiting sea.

The following day, exhausted, I wake up late. Vladimir Vladimirov is already laying table for breakfast in the garden of the old house under the mountain. "Porridge or semolina?", he asks me, always a rather English host.

"We're expecting guests?" I see that Vladimir has laid seven instead of the usual five.

"Only your friend Markov. He turned up yesterday afternoon looking for you. And a place to stay. He says he has no money, had it all stolen in Simferopol. I put him in the room under the verandah and gave him a hundred rubles to be getting on with."

"And who else?"

"Well, that I'm not sure about. I'm only guessing. But Vladimir Bedulovich was in such deep dialogue with Vera, our neighbour from across the road, over the supper table last night that I almost took her order for breakfast on the spot. We'll have to wait and see whether I was right."

A quarter of an hour later, Vladimir Bedulovich Markov emerges from the house. I almost fail to recognise him. His narrow Petersburgian chest has been upgraded to one three sizes bigger and the colour of Caucasian honey. His tangled hair has been replaced by a mop of sunny Ganymedian locks. And his hand clutches an umprecedented bottle of Madeira.

"Try some of this," he says.

Another two minutes go by and we are joined by a demure girl in dark hair and a long ivory-coloured dress. Markov acknowledges her arrival by splashing more of the Madeira into another glass.

"There you are,"Vladimir whispers to me on his way to make more kasha. "I was not mistaken."

How to get there

There are two ways of getting to Koktebel: the reliable method and the unreliable one.

1) The unreliable method: take the train or plane from St Petersburg to Simferopol, and a taxi or bus from Simferopol to the village itself. If you are lucky - if the train doesn't break down, if the plane isn't cancelled for lack of fuel - you will arrive in Koktebel feeling only slightly battered and shaken from the journey.

2) The reliable method: take two bottles of Pschenichnaya and a handful of friends (nothing else - no extra clothes, no cameras; oh, apart, that is, from a pair of sunglasses), go to a suitable spot within range of the airport and get drunk. Not just drunk, but blind drunk. The following day you will wake up in Koktebel, well-rested and in a wonderful state of pokhmelye. This method can be trusted to work even when the traveller has no money in his pockets.

(1) a famous and highly popular brand of portwine. Return

(2) Although it is true to say that Koktebel is part of St Petersburg, the same could be said, with equal justification, of a number of other places on the Crimean coast, each of which attract a faithful - and rather specialized - contingent of Petersburgers year after year. Return