The snow report. Ticket sales. Train times. Terrorist threats. Construction problems. Civil and gay rights.
In this Olympic winter, there's plenty to talk about in Sochi, Russia. But if your host is translator and guide Anna Trotsenko, those topics probably aren't where the conversation is going to begin.
"We're not Istanbul," Trotsenko said earlier this year, leading me through the heart of the town. "We are not St. Petersburg. We are not Moscow. ...We are just a small resort city that is not very old. ... A very special city."
This demure introduction might not be what you'd expect for an Olympic destination hand-picked by arm-wrestling, glider-flying, crossbow-brandishing Russian President Vladimir Putin, then bolstered with an estimated $50 billion in construction spending. But Sochi, host of the Games that will begin Feb. 7, isn't your typical Winter Olympics city.
Palm trees and beaches
Greater Sochi (population: about 400,000) extends for more than 60 miles along the edge of the Black Sea. There are palm trees and beaches. Moscow is about 1,000 miles north. Though the commanding Caucasus mountain range begins just inland, the coast is subtropical, with average winter highs in the 50s and lows in the high 30s.
Boosters used to call it the "Caucasian Riviera." Until 2007, when it was selected to host the Olympics, Russians knew Sochi best as the summer spa city where Josef Stalin vacationed in the 1930s and Putin vacations now.
After years of labor by more than 60,000 workers, the south end of the city has sprouted half a dozen Olympic indoor sports venues, along with housing for athletes and VIPs. Thirty miles inland, in the mountain zone known as Krasnaya Polyana, another cluster of venues and resorts will host outdoor sports. To transform the 30-mile drive from the coast to the mountains into a 30-minute commute, Putin and company have built a new road and railway.
An international airport went up in 2010. Not long after the Olympics, Formula 1 racing is due to arrive. And in 2018, Sochi hosts the FIFA World Cup soccer tournament.
But what if this winter's production goes poorly? The world could turn away.
A modern city
In central Sochi, you'll find Michael Archangel Cathedral, one of the few buildings in town from the 19th century. The 1950s Marine Passenger Terminal includes a towering spire and the Chaika restaurant, whose patio is a fine place for a fruit tart in midafternoon. Elsewhere in town, fishermen gather under a seaside gazebo to cast for bottom-feeders. Couples meander on a bluff-top promenade near the crumbling Primorski Hotel, which once must have been wonderful. There are art and history museums, the sprawling Dendrarium (botanical garden) and restaurants specializing in sushi and khachapuri (Georgian cheese pies).
About 25 miles south of central Sochi stands Sochi Olympic Park, built in the once-lonely Adler area. The coastal Olympic Village will hold about 3,000 people (half of the athlete contingent) in several dozen Mediterranean-style buildings. International Olympic Committee officials will stay at the Radisson Blu Resort & Congress Centre. It's easy to forget that about five miles southeast of all this Olympic infrastructure, Russia ends, Abkhazia begins and the region's instability becomes clear.
Russia recognizes Abkhazia as an independent country that used to be part of Georgia. But Georgia and the United States still consider Abkhazia to be Georgian territory. Meanwhile, the U.S. State Department notes that terrorist bombings and hostage-takings "continue to occur in Russia, particularly in the North Caucasus region, which is less than 100 miles from Sochi." Russian and Olympic officials have said they are taking extensive anti-terrorism measures.
Last year's snow
Sochi's valley floor is about 1,800 feet above sea level, and the peaks near 8,000 feet. World Snowboard Guide has singled out the area for "well-maintained pistes" and "quality après-ski" but also "overly high prices" and unreliable snow.
With historic snowfall data in short supply, organizers have set up an armada of snowmaking machines and stored an insulated reserve of snow from the year before -- as much as 500,000 cubic meters.
At the Rosa Khutor resort, where the alpine ski events will be held, I couldn't help but think of a Potemkin village, the fabled, false-fronted Russian town that was built to impress strangers. And it's true; Rosa Khutor is an instant European village: several blocks of hotels and restaurants, complete with a clock tower, bridge over the River Mzymta, all in service of the gondola lift to the mountaintop. When I arrived, lampposts and park benches were stacked on sidewalks, awaiting placement. But it's not a false village, just shiny and new.
"I don't know what it was like five years ago, but it must have been so different," said Noah Hoffman, 23, a cross-country skier from Colorado on the U.S. ski team. "My family wanted to come, and I told them, 'Don't.' It's just so expensive."
Hunting lodge, by Warhol
The village's hotels, traditional on the outside, bold and modern on the inside, include the three-star Tulip Inn, a five-star Radisson Hotel and a four-star Park Inn by Radisson. The nearby Red Fox restaurant's dining room is crowded with antler chandeliers, chrome animal heads and leather armchairs. If Andy Warhol had a hunting lodge, this would be it.
I had a light dinner of mushroom soup -- frothy and wonderful, but, for $18, there wasn't enough of it.
Still, there's no denying the beauty of the snow on the slopes. While some of the world's top skiers were preparing for their World Cup races, I stood alongside the cross-country course, watching lithe figures blur past in their national uniforms, cutting twin ruts through brittle snow, as background chatter echoed in half a dozen languages.
In that moment, greater Sochi looked its best and felt Olympic indeed. Then the race began, and the competitors stowed their winning smiles and lurched up the path. Like Sochi itself, they were on their way, stakes high, results anybody's guess.
IF YOU GO
WHERE TO STAY
Peak Hotel, 77 Zashchitnikov Kavkaza, Krasnaya Polyana, Sochi. Two restaurants, two pools, spa. Ten-minute drive from nearest ski lifts. Buffet breakfast included. Doubles, $160 to $180 in winter (already booked for the Olympics); peakhotel.ru/en
Tulip Inn, Rosa Khutor Resort, Krasnaya Polyana, Sochi. 148 rooms, restaurant. Two minutes to ski lifts. Doubles, $175 to $250 in winter (booked for Olympics); tulipinnrosakhutor.com
WHERE TO EAT
Chaika, 1 Voikova St., Sochi. In the handsome Marine Passenger Terminal. European and Russian dishes. Large patio with sea view. Lunch and dinner. Main dishes $13 to $21; bosco.ru.
Red Fox, Building 13, Lavanda 3, Rosa Khutor Resort, Krasnaya Polyana, Sochi. French and Russian cuisine, regional ingredients, high style. Main dishes $16 to $36; en.redfoxsochi.ru
If you don't already have a running start, your own Sochi Olympics bid will probably fall short. CoSport, the Games' authorized U.S. ticket seller, stopped peddling lodging-and-ticket packages in mid-December. CoSport is also handling U.S. tickets for the Sochi Paralympic Games, March 7-16; cosport.com