SOCHI, Russia — For visitors to the Winter Olympics, Sochi might feel like a landscape from a dream – familiar and strange all at once. Palm trees evoke a tropical seaside resort, but the Black Sea itself is seriously cold; turn away from the palms and the jagged, snow-covered peaks of the Caucasus Mountains rise nearby. Lively and garish modern buildings mix with Stalin Gothic piles, like trophy wives on the arms of elderly men. Billboards are written in an alphabet where some letters sound exactly like you think they do, others mean something else and the rest are flat-out alien.
What may seem oddest of all is the city’s cheerful and relaxed aura in a country stereotyped as dour. Even a local statue of Vladimir Lenin catches the casual vibe. He’s not haranguing the masses, just standing under some trees with one hand in his pocket as if he’s killing time waiting for a date.
Some questions and answers about the resort city often called the Russian Riviera:
AM I IN SOCHI?
Rather like New York City, Sochi is a sprawling municipality, incorporating four boroughs. Confusingly, one of the four is called Sochi. So it’s possible to both be in Sochi and say “I’m going to Sochi.”
All the Olympic events take place in the Adler borough, though the snow sports venues are often referred to as being in specific settlements such as Krasnaya Polyana and Esto-Sadok.
Sochi borough is more or less the Manhattan of the city, home to the best restaurants, coolest clubs and the main cultural institutions. The urban part of Adler also has attractive restaurants.
But while its attractions are relatively cosmopolitan, and its coastline is 90 miles long (145 kilometers), Sochi is not a big city population-wise, with only about 350,000 inhabitants.
WILL THEY UNDERSTAND ME (AND VICE VERSA)?
Volunteer staff at Olym-pics test events spoke excellent English and sometimes struck up conversations just to improve their skills (or show off). But outside the Olympic venues and large hotels, communication in languages other than Russian is likely to be difficult. The Games’ organizing committee recommends that mobile-device users download a translation app.
The Cyrillic alphabet isn’t as hard as it may look, and spending a couple of hours to master it brings sizeable rewards. Russian has many loanwords from English, French and German, so being able to sound out words can make the place pop into better focus. For example, knowing that “teatp” is pronounced “teater,” it’s a reasonable and correct guess that it means “theater.” Note that bars advertising “xayc” are offering “house” music and not a homey atmosphere.
HOW’S THE WEATHER?
Rain, snow, sun, fog, warmish, cold – a few days at the Olympics likely will include them all. On the coast, where the ice sports and opening and closing ceremonies take place, daytime temperatures should be around 50 degrees and freezing is unlikely. In the mountains, temperatures generally don’t get severely cold; at the lower elevations, where ski-jumping and sliding sports take place, the prospect of rain and above-freezing temperatures is a concern.
WHAT’S FOR DINNER?
Russian cooking can be hard on the waistline but good for the taste buds. Even nominally low-calorie soups such as the beet-based borscht boost their count when a typical large dollop of sour cream is added. Pelmeni, dumplings filled with minced meat or vegetables, meet almost everyone’s taste. Entrees often come without additional items, so potatoes and other vegetables must be ordered separately. Russia has a wine industry of sorts, but refined palates may find it disappointing. Vodka, seen as both Russia’s treasure and its curse, is often ordered by the gram, with 100 grams (3.5 ounces) the standard to get the night started.
Sochi also is a good place to sample the food of nearby Georgia, including the renowned cheese-filled hot bread called khachapuri and tsatsivi, chicken in walnut sauce, and the plum-based soup kharcho.
WHAT CAN I DO BESIDES WATCH SPORTS?
Downtown Sochi and Adler have long and appealing seaside promenades, complete with tacky souvenir stands, lively bars and restaurants. Sochi also has an attractive passenger harbor, whose spired terminal is one of the city’s standout buildings, and an art museum.
The most idiosyncratic attraction may be Sochi’s extensive mountainside botanical garden, the Dendrarium, with an unusual array of plants showing the variable climate.
Sochi has long been a choice destination of Russia’s political elite. Joseph Stalin’s summer residence in Zeleni Mys even features a wax mannequin of the dictator at his desk.
A swim in the Black Sea might make an unusual Winter Olympics memory. The beaches are stony and the water temperature will be around 50 degrees; concerns have been raised about pollution in the sea around Dagomys, north of downtown Sochi. Although most of Sochi’s sports facilities will be devoted to the games, the Gornaya Karusel ski area expects to have some slopes open to the public, organizers say.
A classic Russian way to while away an afternoon is a trip to the banya – like a sauna but somewhat steamier. If your hotel doesn’t have one, it can likely recommend a good one nearby. A proper trip to the banya involves several hours of repeatedly heating up and cooling down, along with snacking and having a few drinks.
Local tourist agencies offer other excursions. These include day trips to the separatist Georgian region of Abkhazia, but visitors will need a double-entry Russian visa to get back into Sochi, and travel to the rest of Georgia is forbidden to those who come to Abkhazia from the Russian side.
WHAT ABOUT THE REST OF RUSSIA?
A trip to Sochi can be a jumping-off point for exploring other parts of Russia, notably Moscow and St. Petersburg. Unless there’s time to spare or the spirit of adventure overtakes you, the train isn’t a good option. The fastest train from Sochi to Moscow takes a full 24 hours; St. Petersburg is another half-day beyond.
February is the most severe of the winter months in Moscow and St. Petersburg and visitors to these cities should be prepared for temperatures colder than anything they’re likely to experience even in the mountains of Sochi.