The lowdown on the upcoming Olympic venue

JIM HEINTZ
Last updated 11:26 30/01/2014
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UNEXPECTED VIEWS: Snow-covered palm trees are an everyday sight in Sochi.

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For visitors to the Winter Olympics, Sochi may feel like a landscape from a dream - familiar and strange 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 how you'd think, 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.

Sochi is a resort city that's often called the Russian Riviera. If you've never been, this is what you can expect:     

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.

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 kilometres), Sochi is not a big city population-wise, with only about 350,000 inhabitants.     

WILL THEY UNDERSTAND ME (AND VICE VERSA)?

Volunteer staff at Olympics test events spoke excellent English and sometimes struck up conversations 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' organising 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.

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 about 50F (10C) 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 large dollop of sour cream is added.

Pelmeni, dumplings filled with minced meat or vegetables, meet almost everyone's taste.

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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 a good place to sample the food of nearby Georgia.

WHAT CAN I DO BESIDES WATCH SPORTS?

Downtown Sochi and Adler both have seaside promenades, complet  with tacky souvenir stands, lively bars and restaurants.

Sochi also has an attractive passenger harbor 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.

A swim in the Black Sea may make an unusual Winter Olympics memory. The beaches are stony and the water temperature will be about 50F (10C); 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, organisers say.

A classic Russian way to while away an afternoon is a trip to the banya, like a sauna but somewhat steamier.

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 Saint Petersburg.

February is the most severe of the winter months in both Moscow and Saint 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.

- AP

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