By Robbie Blakeley, Contributing Reporter
RIO DE JANEIRO, BRAZIL – The Rio Times this week heads to Natal, capital city of Rio Grande do Norte, to continue its twelve-point tour of Brazilian cities set to play host for thousands of football fans during the 2014 FIFA World Cup.
Tucked away on Brazil’s North-East coast, Natal has not always been a traditional holiday spot for visitors, and it is only with the building boom some twenty years ago that more people from outside have started to really get to know it.
The city offers a considerably more diverse range of attractions than some of its fellow hosts, and its famed Festa Junina is always in full swing during the second half of June. Dressing up in peasant costumes, a substantial amount of drinking and a vast array of fireworks carries on for fifteen days, and will help to divert some attention away from all things soccer related and give visitors a true flavor of the area.
As well as the festival, the Natal Aquarium and Historic Center are worth visiting to learn more about the city’s birth and the rich variety of sea life living off the coast. And of course, being situated on the sea means the beach is never far away. The Ponta Negra is the city’s most popular sunbathing spot, with several bars, restaurants and hotels recently built close by as Natal’s tourism industry continues to increase.
Natal is home to three soccer teams, América de Natal, ABC and Alecrim, but not one has graced the first division of the Brasilerão, and the biggest claim to fame any of them has had came on February 4th, 1968, when Brazil legend Garrincha played a friendly for Alecrim in the twilight of his career.
In January 2011 construction will begin on the brand new Arena das Dunas stadium. Populous architects, the firm behind the project, have planned a 45,000 capacity stadium, complete with shopping center, offices, hotels and an artificial lake to surround the stadium.
As with all sites in the North-East, factors other than soccer have had to be taken into consideration. There have been major concerns many of the stadiums will be left unused after the World Cup with no major teams to step in, and as a result the sites are expanded to include more tourist attractions than simply sport. The construction is scheduled to be finished in 2012, and will cost in the region of R$300 million.
As well as the new stadium, a new airport is also under construction. The São Gonçalo do Amarante, which will be completed by the end of this year, will become the largest airport in Latin America, and will control the highest amount of air traffic in Brazil’s North-East.
Once inside the city, travel by bus is the easiest and cheapest option. Tickets cost just R$0,40 and due to the city’s relatively sparse population, they never get overcrowded the way public transport in Rio and São Paulo can at rush hour.
To help when the sudden influx of soccer fans begin to arrive, however, a light rail network similar to those used in the USA is also being built, and will be ready in time for the 2013 Confederations Cup. All in all, the signs are positive for Natal’s preparations for hosting sport’s biggest prize.