SOCHI, Russia: The main roads and boulevards of Sochi have been plastered over with Olympic Games posters, slogans in Cyrillic and billboards welcoming sports fans to the Russian Black Sea resort. But for most visitors, the real Sochi will be what they find when they travel off the beaten path of the Winter Olympics, which run from Feb. 7-23, to soak up the sounds, flavors and even the waters of this Soviet-era spa city.
From its open-air markets to the mineral baths that made it the playground of the Soviet communist elite for much of the 20th century, Sochi will offer a glimpse of Russia that few visitors usually have a chance to see.
Here are tips for getting the most out of a trip to Sochi.
Josef Stalin’s love of Sochi and its subtropical climate, lush forests and sea views boosted the city’s popularity after World War II, making it the ultimate Soviet vacation spot.
For the small price of a ticket, visitors can tour the villa built for Stalin on the grounds of the Green Grove spa where a billiards table still stands, with his favorite cue on display.
Stalin’s desk is still there along with a kitsch life-sized wax sculpture of the late dictator, and the wood-paneled rooms of his wartime getaway still hang heavy with his presence.
The Green Grove, where the buildings are actually green, is just one of many of the stately stone spa resorts built for those in Soviet times who had the privilege of vacationing at Sochi and using its mineral baths and curative springs.
While many spas are off limits without reservations or the right connections, a little further into the mountains of Krasnaya Polyana visitors can enjoy an old Russian tradition: the banya, or bath, replete with birch leaves to beat the body, cleansing the skin and improving the blood circulation.
Two of the most famous baths are Banyaland and British Banya, owned by Briton James Larkin who moved in 1992 to Krasnaya Polyana, a site for winter sports events. Both offer various kinds of bathing meant to rejuvenate weary travelers. (britishbanya.com/?p=801) (www.banya-land.ru)
Further up the mountain of Krasnaya Polyana, which means red glade, trails give hikers and cross-country skiers a chance to see some of the winter flora of the region, which at more than 2,000 meters will be covered in snow.
LOCAL FLAVORSWhile Sochi was known as a beach destination for tourists during Soviet times, there is now little in the way of beaches along the city’s pebbly shore.
For locals, the concrete piers and construction materials that jut out into the sea serve as diving platforms, but they increasingly fret about chemicals in the water from construction waste upstream.
In town, Sochi’s central market offers the sounds, smells and flavors of a traditional open-air market. Butchers and bakers show off their wares beside stands where women in white aprons sell local cheeses, smoked or wrapped in spices.
An adjoining outdoor market offers fresh and dried fruit, spices and the classic Caucasus seasoning Adjika – “spicy” in Abkhaz – a fiery mixture of peppers, salt and seasonings.
Walking from stall to stall, visitors can sample an astounding variety of nuts, fruits and delectable sauces and also hear some of the languages that represent the rich diversity of the Caucasus region.
English-speakers may not be in large supply, but at any time, stall workers will speak Russian, Armenian or even Abkhaz, the obscure western Caucasian tongue which has up to 67 consonants.
Directly to the south of Sochi lies Abkhazia itself, a breakaway region of Georgia with close ties to Russia. Moscow has said travel to Abkhazia would be forbidden during the Olympics.
Market salesmen may also offer passers-by the famous locally made spirit chacha. Distilled from grape skins, it’s a harsher version of Italian grappa. Almost all of it is homemade in residents’ backyards or cellars and is probably best avoided, given the lack of sanitary controls.
The curious can find a bottled variety in local stores.
After working up an appetite, Sochi offers a bounty of various cuisines, including traditional Caucasian dishes.
Genatsvale, which lies in the direction of President Vladimir Putin’s presidential residence in Sochi, fashions itself as a restaurant serving food from Georgia and its breakaway region Abkhazia. A local favorite, it is sure to be full of people and pumping with the music on full blast.
Another haunt is the slightly kitsch but popular Amshensky Dvor, or Amshen Court, fashioned as a castle, complete with turrets. For a hefty sum, you can pick your own sturgeon to grill, try the homemade wine and gorge on Khachapuri – a rich bread filled with Sulunguni cheese. (www.amshendvor.ru)
Visitors shouldn’t miss the local culture museum next door.
After a day of watching skiing or figure skating, Sochi has plenty of bars where Olympic guests can relax over a drink.
Both gay and straight visitors will be welcome at Mayak, a nondescript building behind one of the city’s main streets.
The club operates in the shadow of Putin’s ban on gay “propaganda” aimed at minors, a law which has prompted international criticism.
Visitors can ring the bell and speak some broken Russian into the intercom, and then a bulging bodyguard will escort anyone who passes control into the red velvet interior. Locals gather at the bar, and groups can reserve a table, where a little plaque will have the waiter’s name inscribed on it. (www.clubmayak.com)
Those who stick around until midnight can catch the nightly drag show that combines a bit of stand-up, some lip-synching to very loud Whitney Houston and a lot of sequins.