Sunny Sochi turns into World Cup playground
By TALES AZZONI and TIM BOOTH
SOCHI, Russia (AP) Warm weather, beaches, amusement parks.
It's not exactly what Australian fan Adam McKinley expected to find when he decided to make the trip to Russia for the World Cup.
But that's exactly what he got in Sochi, the city introduced to the world as a winter destination during the Olympics four years ago, with its coastal location on the Black Sea and its majestic snow-capped peaks a short distance away.
"Whenever I think of Russia, I picture something like cold Siberia. I picture, like, real cold stuff," McKinley said. "I've been blown away by this. We even went for a swim and it was lovely. It was just nice and warm. We've been pleasantly surprised."
Sochi wasn't so cold during the Olympics, either, with temperatures frequently climbing into the mid-50s Fahrenheit (12-13 degrees Celsius) in the Olympic Park. The chillier mountains are roughly an hour's drive away.
But in the summer, the snow is replaced by sun, lots of it, as Russia's seaside playground explodes into a scene more akin to Southern California or Miami Beach than Siberia.
"The moment we saw Peru was going to play in Sochi, we wanted to come here," said Peru supporter Luis Medina, one of the thousands of World Cup fans who have come to the city. "We knew this was going to be the place to be."
Even the teams based in Sochi were taking full advantage of the region's attractions. Brazil was feeling right at home, enjoying the warm temperatures and a private beach at the team's hotel in possibly the closest setting to what it had back home before traveling to Russia.
"We are having lunch and breakfast with a view of the sea. That's a plus for us," goalkeeper Alisson said shortly after Brazil arrived.
The Brazilians fought hard to secure Sochi as their base. The Austrian federation initially picked the five-star hotel where Brazil is staying, but luckily for the Brazilians, Austria did not end up qualifying for the World Cup.
Germany stayed in Sochi during the Confederations Cup last year, but this time it chose a different location in part because it said it couldn't secure a proper private training field. After the opening loss to Mexico, some local media questioned whether the decision not to return to Sochi played a part in the team's disappointing performance.
Poland also is based in Sochi. On a day off, the team visited the city's dolphin park, one of the most famous in the region.
The micro-district of Adler, where the Olympic Park sits and the World Cup matches are played, is a hub of activities catering to tourists of all ages and tastes.
Many gather at the rock-covered beach by Fisht Stadium, which is hosting six World Cup matches, including one in the round of 16 and another in the quarterfinals.
But if sunbathing isn't high on the agenda, there is plenty more to do.
Sochi Park, known as the Russian Disneyland, is walking distance from the stadium. Based on local fairy tales, it's the country's first modern theme park - and one of the biggest.
It was mostly empty during the Olympics, but four years later it has been popular among World Cup fans. Officials estimate the tournament has added about 2,000 people a day to the park, which annually receives 1 million visitors.
"It's a shame we can't stay longer and enjoy more of the park because we have to go to the game," Panama supporter Nathalie Nielsen Atencio said.
The park includes a "roller-coaster" restaurant, with orders sliding down to customers on metal tracks. It's believed to be the only restaurant of its type in Russia, and one of nine in the world.
Also near the park is the Sochi Autodrom, which hosts Formula One races but is open to people wanting guided tours and even a chance - for a price - to drive the circuit.
"There are so many things to do in Sochi," said Alexey Titov, who is in charge of the company that organizes the Russian Grand Prix and operates the track. "It has developed greatly in the past four years since the Olympics have gone. You can see it has changed massively. This place went from a swamp in 2008 to a thriving park with restaurants, food, activities, things to do."
By the track there's also a go-karting circuit, and the remaining Olympic venues offer indoor sports like tennis, skating and hockey.
Sochi's downtown is some 20 miles (30 kilometers) away from the Olympic park, but activities there also revolve around the waterfront, including a lengthy promenade of storefronts, souvenir stands and water-related activities connecting the heart of the city with the seaport where the Fan Fest is taking place.
Beach clubs playing a mix of pop hits from Europe and the United States are mixed with more family-oriented places to enjoy the sun, like waterparks with slides and splash-pads on the shore of the Black Sea.
The train line connecting Adler and Sochi runs mostly along the shore and is filled with small pockets of land teeming with beachgoers.
All those waterfront activities don't include the resorts of the Krasnaya Polyana mountain cluster 30 miles (50 kilometers) inland, where the alpine events of the Winter Olympics were held. They offer a summer attraction for those not as interested in the beach.
Martin Fasth was visiting from Sweden for the World Cup and was impressed with all the options.
"We kind of expected something better than Sweden," he said, "but not something this nice."
More AP World Cup coverage: https://apnews.com/tag/WorldCup
Updated June 25, 2018