The Russian Riviera is a bit of a misnomer in that it really comprises only Sochi which is itself simply a district of the greater urban area also known by the same name.
It’s a region of contradictions, none more so than its hosting of the 2014 Winter Olympics in a subtropical city. Add to that, good shingle beaches lapped by a sea that remains uninvitingly cold until the season is nearly over and the vista of modern architecture sitting side by side with communist era concrete and your picture is nearly complete.
It’s a resort for the adventurous, despite the international recognition it received during the Olympics. It’s estimated that international travellers form only 2% of those that visit the city with the vast majority of its tourists coming from the cooler northern climes of Russia.
Sochi enjoyed more international attention recently when the Formula 1 circus arrived in Russia for the very first time in it's history. A new F1 track has been built around the complex of the Olymipc park and is every bit as spectacular as other modern F1 tracks such as Abu Dhabi, Singapore and Bahrain. Lewis Hamilton became the first name on the honours board from what turned out to be a rather dull affair in terms of racing, however the overall 'show' was seen as a success for the region and Russian tourism as a whole.
Areas of interest to visitors can be split into four distinct regions
This is the part of the Russian Riviera made famous by the Olympics. After the announcement awarding the Olympics to Sochi in 2007, the city underwent a huge makeover as the government sought to promote it as the modern and welcoming face of Russia. Visitors from before 2007 will not recognise much of the city nor its surrounding and especially Krasnodar Polyana which was almost completely rebuilt, as was Adler district which serves as the transport hub for Sochi.
The Soviet Monuments
Whilst originally erected to show the might of the Soviet Union, these huge monuments are now considered works of art. The oldest is the Anchor and Cannon erected in 1913 to commemorate the victory of Russian forces over the invading Ottomans in 1829. The huge arc of the Feat for Life commemorates the work of the nurses and doctors who saved the lives of hundreds of thousands of the wounded in the Second World War. Many monuments were erected in the period between the awarding of the games and the event itself and probably the most impressive of these is the Golden Fleece, erected to symbolise the link between the Olympics in Greece and Sochi. It’s a huge golden sheepskin stretched between two columns and guarded by a fearsome dragon.
Riviera Park is the biggest in Sochi and has a host of attractions including a botanic garden, a theatre, a cinema, restaurants and more. It’s over a century old but like everything else in Sochi was ‘renovated’ in the run up to the Olympics. The part most often visited is called ‘Friendship Alley’ where the trees on either side were planted by celebrities. Dendrarium is the most spectacular though, split into two parts, one on the coast, one on the mountain and linked by cable car, it is a magical place to spend several hours in Sochi simply enjoying nature.
Sochi National Park
This is a huge part of natural Sochi but you must pay an entrance fee to get in to see the sights. Mount Akhun with panoramic views from the tower on its summit looks down over the city. On a clear day you can see Turkey from here. There’s also Eagle Rock where according to mythology, Prometheus was chained. Visit the Yew and Box tree wood where some of the oldest trees on earth are found in untouched splendour. The Vorontsovka Caves are huge and deserve a visit. Stretching for 11km and dropping 240m along their length the caves are spectacular. Finally, visit the tea plantations of Dagomys. It’s the furthest north that tea is grown and your visit will be informative and refreshing – especially after a freshly brewed cuppa!
This is Sochi’s answer to those puzzled by the awarding of the Olympics to a summer city. Stand on the seafront in Sochi looking inland and towering above you are the mountains of the Krasnodar Krai. Icy cold and blanketed in snow in winter, it’s a haven for walkers in the warm summertime offering a refuge from the humidity of the coast. The jewel in the crown here is Krasnodar Polyana the ski resort beloved of Vladimir Putin. In winter it’s a bustling resort full of those wishing to emulate their winter sports heroes and in summer it’s home to hikers and ramblers enjoying pristine forests and isolated walking trails. The most beautiful place to stay here is not Polyana itself but Dombai, considered to be the most beautiful part of Russia.
Head along the coast north of Sochi and you’ll find what comprises the rest of the ‘Riviera’. Forty miles of coastline abounding in isolated beaches in long stretches or in tiny rock coves but this is really for the traveller who doesn’t mind basics. The various small towns and villages that hug the coast are a complete contrast to Sochi. Little if anything has been done to improve them and the transport and public services infrastructure is at best limited and often absent. Hotels are shabby, restaurants lacking in international flavour and few speak anything other than English. This really is for those who want to get away from it all, including most of the conveniences of the modern age.
If Sochi is too brash for you and you want the real Russian Riviera, cross the border just south of Sochi and enter one of the most beautiful parts of the Caucasus.
Formerly part of Georgia until it used Russian support to gain autonomy, Abkhazia is the prettier southern stretch of the Riviera below Sochi. Its main resort is the paired town of Gagra and Pitsunda which can be also be reached by boat from Sochi. There, despite the damage from the bitter civil war, you’ll find charm and beauty as well as hospitable locals.
- New Athos, an Orthodox cathedral which guards the entrance to an amazing cave complex you can tour by an underground train.
- High up in the mountains you’ll come across Lake Ritsa on which you’ll find Stalin’s summer Dacha where upon entry you’ll be led through a series of exhibits deep into the life and psyche of the Russian leader.
- Higher up in the mountains the isolated traditional village of Pshku will be reached where you’ll be able to taste and buy local specialities such as cured meat and honey.
- Additionally tourists can enjoy amazing food, white water rafting, skydiving and hunting whilst staying in Abkhazia.