The city of Sochi in Russia is in the news still for the next two weeks, and many reports from journalists and visitors have created the impression that the city by the sea is the last place on Earth one would want to be. But there is more to Sochi than the somewhat doomed Olympics' site, and it might very well be on your bucket list of places to see before you die. Here is why.
Lying along the Russian Black Sea, the city is almost 100 miles long -- just as long as Miami is. It is framed on one side by the surrounding Caucasus Mountain range. So, unlike Miami, here you have both water and peaks.
Also, this might very well be the only place in Russia with a subtropical climate, meaning hot summers and mild winters. Mild winters? How did they get the snow for the Games? Well, most of the games are up in the nearby mountains, where snow is aplenty, or down at the waterfront, inside refrigerated domes and buildings.
We all have an image of Russia as a white and frigid place where romantic longings, forbidden kisses, colorful dachas (country houses) and magical symphonies are the escapes of resigned citizens, who barely eat enough and live sad cold lives. We have all seen the same movies -- Dr. Zhivago anyone? Sniff sniff.
It might not be the French Riviera, but Sochi's temperature today (Sunday Feb. 9) is 55 °F, the same as in New Orleans or San Francisco. And it is only 46 °F degrees right now in Nice, South of France. Sochi has a humid subtropical climate, with winter day temperature averaging 52 °F from December to April, and 75 °F from May to October.
A predominantly Christian city, situated 1,000 miles from Moscow, the city is located in Europe, or in Asia, depending on whom you ask. Some say the divide between the two continents lies at the Caucasus range, others say at the Ural Mountains. The northeast part of the Sochi region is a UNESCO World Site Heritage, and according to the description on their website:
The Western Caucasus is one of the few large mountain areas of Europe that has not experienced significant human impact. Its subalpine and alpine pastures have only been grazed by wild animals, and its extensive tracts of undisturbed mountain forests, extending from the lowlands to the subalpine zone, are unique in Europe. The site has a great diversity of ecosystems, with important endemic plants and wildlife, and is the place of origin and reintroduction of the mountain subspecies of the European bison.
Now, don't go and walk all over it, okay?
Inhabited since the 6th century, the area has plenty of old stones, ruins, churches, walls, vintage remnants of various invaders and conquerors, for the history buffs, but that's just normal stuff in Europe. Pebble and sand beaches adorn the Black Sea coastline. When the water level is high, it is connected to the balmy Mediterranean Sea, which directly flows into it, and ultimately to the Atlantic Ocean. When the level is low, the Black Sea is in fact, a giant lake.
Lonely Planet guide book calls Sochi the Russian Riviera, and warns visitors about "traffic, high-rise buildings and an urban attitude." The travel specialist recommends the Town History Museum, the Arboretum and the club Malibu for its open-air concerts of famous Russian artists.
U.S. citizens are required to have a visa to enter Russia as tourists, with a passport valid at least six months after the date of departure from the country. The Department of State website has a warning about security:
U.S. travelers should be aware of cyber security threats and understand that they have no expectation of privacy when sharing sensitive or personal information utilizing Russian electronic communication networks.
Consider yourselves warned! And this is where Edward Snowden decided to seek shelter?
The prices for hotels and any other accommodations are way out of control during the Olympic Games, but in a normal summer season, guesthouses and hotels room rate start at about $45 per night, and a five-star palace will start at $105! Familiar to Americans hotel chains, such as Radisson and Marriott, have prices almost similar to the ones in the United States. The Stalinian neo-classic Grand Hotel Rodina will easily set you back $1,000 a night with a garden view, and $1,300 with a sea view.
From New York, you can fly to Sochi for about $920 in the summer, via Moscow, a 14-hour trip with Aeroflot, the Russian national airline. With Air France, also from New York, but via Paris, the voyage will cost you around $1,500. The average monthly salary in Russia is estimated at $923. In a resort town like Sochi, a 2-bedroom apartment, not on the waterfront, will fetch a monthly rent of $1,200. A pair of jeans cost over $100, and a gallon of milk is $2.40.
The city's claim to fame will not be over after the O. Games, as Sochi will host the Russian Formula 1 Grand Prix (2014 to 2020), and the 2018 FIFA World Cup. Its twin city is Long Beach, California. Finally, a resort destination where they don't speak English -- a great culture shock to experience! For those wondering, no, I am not getting bribed by Putin; I just want readers to be informed about the city in the news, that's all.
(Schastlivogo Puti! Bon Voyage!)