Currently Sochi is in the news for its upcoming role as the host of the 2014 Winter Olympics. In the winter of 2011, Sochi was a little more personal... Mostly because of its cheap flights to and from Moscow. Having a lot of free holiday time but not a lot of money, a friend and I decided that Sochi in the off-season was an excellent choice.
In late December we flew into the local airport, Adler. The airport was small but modern – with an excellent WIFI connection (a pleasant surprise). As we stepped outside we immediately shed our jackets, thrilled to be going without heavy layers for the first time in months. Coming from Moscow's bitter cold, the Black Sea region's 50F weather felt just like summer.
Getting to downtown Sochi is a simple matter of hopping on to the right marshrutka (shared taxi) and having the patience to trudge through an hour or more of traffic.
We arrived at the beachfront hotel and checked in using the customary mix of Runglish that people in the service industry attempt when they hear you speaking English. There was no line, and only a few people loitering in the lobby. Come to think of it, they may have been workers. Suffice to say, it was quiet.
Sochi is definitely a summer resort town. Perhaps I'm ignoring the spirit of such things, but I'd recommend going in the off-season: everything's cheaper and there are fewer screaming, naked children running around. Sure, you can't really swim in the frigid water of the Black Sea mid-winter, but you can tour the town, venture into the awe-inspiring Caucasus Mountains, and walk along the stone beaches.
The Black Sea is beautiful even in mid-December, and the city of Sochi stretches all along the beach. Photo opportunities abound and you might even be lucky enough to see someone taking a brave plunge into the sea.
After meandering down the beach, we headed into the city.
Sochi was small. Beyond the beaches, there was not much to do aside from eat and look at architecture. So we walked. We walked through a Russian city's requisite open air market, winter festivals, and parks. Eventually we landed at the arboretum, well worth the entry fee and the breathtaking (literally) hike up the biggest “hill” I've ever seen. Climbing up into an abandoned ski lift that overlooked the whole city with the sea stretching to the horizon, it was easy to forget that we were in Russia.
As I remember, we collapsed into bed early that night, a mixture of exhaustion and illness forcing us into an early retirement; however, before we went to sleep we promised that we'd get up early and head to the mountains.
The region that Sochi is in borders Georgia, land of the beautiful Caucasus Mountains. The mountains, taking no notice of national borders, of course, extend into Russia – this is where the Olympics will be held in 2014. When we went a few years ago, the area was not quite Olympic-ready.
First of all, the road to get to the famed ski slopes dwindled down to a one-lane afterthought some point after leaving the city. Unsurprisingly, this caused traffic to back up significantly on our way. Cue a classic Russian scene: everyone (including the driver) stepped out of the marshrutka and had a 15-minute smoke break on the side of the road. Perhaps if I had smoked, I would have been more amenable to the break. As it went, I was just happy when we finally started moving again.
After a drive longer than I'd care to remember, we emerged at the base of the mountains. Underdressed and unwilling to ski, we bought tickets just to ride the lifts up the mountain. Well-worth it. We avoided breaking our legs and got to enjoy the gorgeous views of the snow-covered mountains. After some coffee at the lodge and a romp outside, we were more than happy to descend back to earth and back to warmer weather.
When I left Sochi, I was ready to recommend it to any and everyone as a Russian alternative to more expensive resort locations. (Even in the summer prices are fairly reasonable, comparatively.) But the Sochi I went to was quiet and peaceful; now, looking at pictures of the major construction being done in preparation for the Olympics, I can't help but feel sad for the town that used to be. Hotels capable of holding thousands upon thousands of fans are springing up everywhere and that awful one-lane road is now turning into a superhighway.There are many wiser and more informed people who can argue whether pre-Olympic modernization is more positive or negative for the affected community. I myself can only speak to the emotional connection between a person and place, and how somewhere's rapid evolution inevitably evokes strong sentimentality. Sadly, the Sochi of 2011 has become just another step on the path to modernization, and I've resigned myself to taking part in the grand Russian tradition of nostalgiya.