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Learning Russian

“Sasha has a Dacha in Sochi”…..these  words taunted me throughout my Russian CD course some years ago. It was a catch phrase, part of a jingle designed to tell the student that it was time to wrap things up at the end of a lesson before moving on with the program. 

Russian is no easy language, even the basics are frustratingly tough and not much stuck with me from the lessons on those CDs. However, “Sasha’s dacha…”, the words and the annoying jingle I fear will be with me for life.  “Саша имеет дачу в Сочи”. “One day”, I remember thinking, “One day, I’m gonna check out that dacha in Sochi and maybe even Sasha as well.”

Beach and Sunshine

Sochi is on the Russian East coast of the Black Sea at no more than a few hour’s motorcycle ride from the city of Krasnodar. It thrives as a summer holiday resort for locals and, in Soviet times, was no doubt a prized retreat for the Communist “nomenklatura”.

The town mostly hits the headlines these days when it hosts the annual Russian Formula One Grand Prix, or when it’s the chosen venue for a notable international convention of some kind. Sochi was also the venue for 2014 Winter Olympics which was definately odd for a location known for beaches and sunshine.

My chance to visit Sochi came as I explored the Russian plains north of the Caucasus on my motorcycle. I had ordered spare parts for Lucy (my motorbike) and needed to wait while these travelled to the Krasnodar BMW dealership from Moscow. “Perhaps”, I thought, “I’ll really get to see a dacha in Sochi after all!”

The Riviera

The narrow Black Sea riviera road twisted  its way around the limestone outcrops under the warm June sun. I caught occasional glimpses of the sea in the openings between the bushes and trees just off the road to my right. The water sparkled for a few short instances before it vanished from sight, sometimes for a mile or two, and then reappeared  glittering to the horizon.

There were magnificent Stone Pine trees to admire, just like the ones I knew from the Mediterranean with high dark green canopies that offered welcome relief along the road from the biting sun and littered the ground with twiggy pine needles.

The scenery however, was no Mediterranean landscape. The pine trees, to start with, were not as dominant as they so often are along the coastlines of Italy, Spain and France. It was leafy trees like the ash and sycamore that claimed most of the scenery at the water’s edge. Also, the symphony of tireless cicadas that pace the hot mediterranean summer days was totally absent here and there was no real “buzz” from insects in the foliage at all. It actually felt very still, a little eerie and odd. The beaches were pebbly rather than sandy and the water, most of all, had a dark, bluish green tinge, never quite turquoise like in Greece or Spain.  I guessed the Black Sea must have earned it’s name this way, though I’m sure there’s probably another story to that.

Downtown Sochi

Sochi greeted me with tall hotel blocks, traffic and busy shopping centres no different to other family holiday resorts around the world. Young couples with children eating ice cream crowded the pavements while the elderly mostly sat on benches in the shade. Powerful  German sports cars ploughed up and down the main coast strip and contended the road with American Harley’s, Italian and Japanese sports bikes. This was clearly a place for the show of affluence. Accommodation wasn’t cheap either and I struggled to find a room for less than fifty Euro.

There was definitely something about downtown Sochi that reeked of nostalgia. Most of the hotel architecture was grim and boring. It looked like the construction work had been done in a hurry in the late sixties and seventies without much thought for design. The beaches were dull, rather cramped and narrow and the pebbles made walking bare foot uninviting. The odd stretches of soft grey sand were few and far apart.

However, family fun and atmosphere was everywhere to see with excited children playing with delight in the water and watchful mothers and fathers close by. Water scooters for rent and floating “banana raft” rides were available as well. Also, there was no shortage of blaring Russian dance music from bars and restaurants especially on the “Primorskaya Ulitsa” promenade where most of the beachfront action took place.

After dark I found that night life offered a variety of open air bars with the usual lights, lasers and DJs playing Russian music. Young couples danced side by side with older ones. Sons and daughters danced with parents and grandparents while small kids darted around mischievously. It was a family atmosphere for sure although this did not deter the adults from the consumption of outstanding amounts of alcohol in a stereotypical Russian way. I couldn’t help noticing how the dancing became more and more imaginative as the hours went by.

The Olympic Park

The Sochi Olympic Park was next on my list of highlights to check out. A huge construction project completed in 2014, still shiny and new,  just a few kilometres south of the old town.

The spectacular park contained the Fisht Olympic Stadium, the Bolshoi Ice dome, the Arena Skate Centre, the Sochi Autodrome (Russian Grand Prix) and more. There was also a theme park for family and kids but perhaps most interesting of all features was the Sochi Medal Plaza with its huge  fountain known as the “Waters of the Olympic Park”. Behind the fountain stood the rather phallic looking Olympic cauldron upon which the Olympic flame had burned for the entirety of the past Olympic Games. Every Saturday night at the fountain there’s an magnificent water and lights display which I was lucky enough to see and enjoy.

Wrapping it Up

Did I like Sochi? Yes and no. It’s a family resort for a family holiday. It’s expensive and frankly the beaches are disappointing. However, the atmosphere is relaxed and chilled. There is entertainment and something for everyone.

Would I go back? Probably not, but perhaps I would be tempted for the Russian Grand Prix or to watch some soccer at the Olympic Stadium during the 2018 FIFA World Cup (to be held in Russia).

Did I find Sasha’s Dacha? There were many beautiful houses and villas around Sochi. It occurred to me though, as I admired them, that I had no idea of what a real dacha was supposed to look like. So, I like to think that Sasha was there, somewhere…..and I hope he’s doing just fine!

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