Surreal Sochi a wonderland with complex past

The “Russian Riviera” will host Australia’s final group stage clash against Peru. But beneath Sochi’s glitz and glamour is a troubled history, old and new.

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View of Sochi's Fisht Stadium Source: AAP

The warm summer sun beats down on pebbly beaches.

Children play in the gentle waters of the Black Sea.

Each summer Sochi is an idyllic setting for thousands of Russians who descend on this resort town.

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“This is a very popular destination for Russians of all ages,” explains Denis, who comes from Moscow each June and July to sell fairy floss on the seaside promenade to tourists

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This year, their vacations have been interrupted.ust a few hundred metres from the sea, the imposing Fisht Stadium rises from the ground.

Its sleek white lines – designed to mirror the snow-capped peaks of the nearby Caucasus mountains – blend into the sky.

The stadium hosts Australia’s encounter with Peru on Tuesday (12am Wednesday AEST), in addition to several other clashes during the 2018 World Cup.

It was just one aspect of an extravagant infrastructure splurge for the 2014 Winter Olympics.

An estimated $60 billion was spent on the Games, making it the most expensive in history; substantial portions are alleged to have gone into corrupt pockets.

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The government constructed an entirely new city around the Olympic Park, over 30 kilometres from Sochi itself.

The Winter Olympics was intended to be a demonstration of Russia’s international status – to show that “Russia is a player”.

“It was an incredible spectacle,” recalls Emma, a young local who has lived near to what is now the Olympic Park all her life.

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 But the Games were instead overshadowed by the annexation of Crimea soon afterwards, and the doping scandal that later clouded Russia’s medal success.

Emma is unmoved by suggestions that the money could have been better spent.

Sochi’s turbulent past stretches back further than the Winter Olympics.

Over 150 years ago, this region was home to the Circassians – a distinct ethnicity with links to the mountain people of the nearby Caucasus.

The Caucasus War saw Russia exert control over the southern fringe of its vast empire.

During the 1850s and 1860s, over half a million Circassians are believed to have been killed during military operations, and an even greater number displaced.

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Some suggest it was the first genocide of the modern era.

More than a century later, the region was again witness to ethnically-motivated violence.

In the early 1990s, a conflagration sparked between Abkhazia and Georgia, the former having been an autonomous part of the latter for much of the Soviet era.

Abkhazia established de facto independence but to this day remains unrecognised by much of the outside world.

Its borders begin just kilometres from Fisht Stadium.

This troubled history seems a world away on Sochi’s beaches and cafes.

It was initially feared the Olympic Park would become a white elephant (as in Athens or Rio de Janeiro) – and the venue feels disconcerting empty on non-match days.

But the combination of sea, nature and nearby mountains has driven substantial tourist number to the area.

“Following the Winter Olympics, the area has become very popular with both Russian holidaymakers and foreigners,” says Emma.

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She jokes that, despite not being much of an international traveller herself, she has been able to experience the world in Sochi via its many visitors.

The city has even earned the nickname Sochifornia, a commonly used hashtag on Instagram.

Good coffee shops, artsy bars and adventure sports have turned this once-serene holiday destination – known as the Soviet Riviera before 1991 – into a buzzing place.

Sochi’s glitzy present and troubled past blur at La Punto, a restaurant within the Olympic Park.

The trendy dining rooms and World Cup paraphernalia do little to distinguish it from the any other drinking spot in the city.

But La Punto sits on the site that once housed the 2014 Winter Olympics anti-doping laboratory, the facility which infamously manipulated test results as part of a systematic campaign of state-sponsored doping.

The only acknowledgement to the building’s dark history comes cryptically via the cocktail list.

B Sample — tequila, sambuca and Tabasco – a nod to supplementary urine samples.

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Meldonium, an absinthe concoction named after the stimulant that saw Maria Sharapova banned from tennis.

“The internet really loved that drink,” jokes waitress Nastya, who is cheering for Spain.

La Punto’s fusion of the past and present garnered web fame last week, and Meldonium has sold out.

A timely reminder in this surreal wonderland that scandal sells.

In Sochi? Don’t miss

  • Georgian food is ubiquitous across Russia at the moment, and Black Sea is a great place to sample delicious fare from the Caucasus. Che? Kharcho! is one of the better options in Sochi proper, while there are also numerous good options closer to the stadium.
  • Khudozhestvennyy on Kurortnyy Prospekt is delectable cocktail bar in a former art salon, while Australians will feel right at home at Surf Coffee.
  • For the intrepid, the border with Abkhazia is barely five kilometres from Fisht Stadium. Hoping to attract visitors, the post-conflict zone has introduced a visa free regime during the World Cup. The Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade advises against all travel to Abkhazia.



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5 min read
Published 26 June 2018 at 12:42pm
By Kieran Pender in Sochi