Where is it?
In quite a picturesque place, really, and very convenient for that matter. Samara is located on the right on the curve of the Volga River, “Mother of Russia” where it widens and the view is so spectacular that it seems as if one is looking at an inland sea rather than a river. The Volga meanders an incredible 3,690 km (2,290 miles) before it reaches the Caspian Sea. The natural beauty of the Zhiguly mountains nearby, a famed resting place of area residents, boasts a huge network of caves to interest spelunkers and tourists alike.
Samara is a major river port and cruises up north to Moscow and down south to Astrakhan are highly recommended as you'll truly appreciate the saying the Volga is a source of the historical and cultural development of Russia itself.
The population of Samara is approximately one and a half million and if the surrounding environs are included, approximately three million.
Is it really cold down there?
Well, it is quite difficult to answer this question. The local people are accustomed to real heat waves up to 35 degrees Celsius (around 90 Fahrenheit) in the shadow in summer but as the summer comes to its close rains and temperature drops should be expected. In mid-September there is the "Indian summer" - a spell of very warm and sunny weather. Autumn in general is quite uncomfortable as it is usually wet and chilly.
In early December we expect the snow not only to fall but also to settle and it normally stays till March. Thus your Christmas (two of them if you wish - Western and Russian, on January, 7) will be a truly traditional one. The Russian people enjoy all sorts of different winter activities: cross country and mountain skiing are practiced by all age groups, from school children to elderly persons, skating is enjoyed by no professionals and tobogganing is too great a fun to resist for everybody.
The first days of March witness a very traditional Russian outdoor fest - similar to Mardi Gras with horse riding and indulging pan cakes. And of course the walks on the ice across the Volga - not as extreme as it sounds, the river freezes and the ice layer is rarely thinner than 10 inches and that's suffice to hold a car. The temperature during the winter months is hardly predictable. Last winter it stayed below -20C (-10 Fahrenheit) for a month, the year before it never dropped below -3C (25 Fahrenheit).
In spring the snow melts and everything revives - people feel like starting one's life anew. Women seem to be competing in some beauty contest. Probably that's what made one of Russia's outstanding film directors say that the most beautiful girls are in Samara. Other cities can disagree, naturally.
In early March the city enjoys quite a special event: the Volga "moves on", that is the ice on the river breaks apart and the huge masses of it rush down to the Caspian Sea. In April and May, when new grass and tree leaves appear the outdoor season begins: people go to all sorts of picnics, the most favoured place for which is the countryside right across the Volga and the most favoured food is shashliki (barbecue).
Summer in Samara.
For a good three months, the sky gives its beautiful blue to Samara, rarely hidden behind clouds. The temperature hovers above 30 degrees Celsius, so the city residents look for a place to cool a bit. Naturally, it happens to be the Volga that attracts crowds of holiday-makers and just people in their free time.
Before you actually reach the Volga, you first encounter its “embankment”, a 5 km long quay divided into three parts. Each part has its own character. The first part is small and quiet; usually frequented by local residents. The third part is the longest part; favored more by families. The second part is the most popular and thus the most crowded part. Permanent, summer and makeshift cafes, food stands and games or attractions, hundreds of them, line this part. Traditional Russian foods, as well as foods from neighboring countries such as shaurma (a burrito) and shashlik (shishkabob) can be found every few meters. Thousands of people enjoying themselves, regardless of the day, is an even bigger attraction. Scantily clad women and men showing their chests; with every intention and wish to meet each other, stroll along the sidewalks, trying to see…and be seen. At night, it turns into a huge outdoor nightclub. A different kind of music blasts from every second cafe. Even more people than during the day, are out to simply have fun.
Once you get past the quay, you encounter the beach. It isn’t a white sand beach, but beautiful all the same. Thousands of people out to get tanned (some wanting the “all over tan”). Beach volleyball, badminton and football played by friends and strangers alike. Moving closer to the water reveals a scene that could only be compared to Waikiki Beach. Definitely a place to sit and admire.
When you finally reach the Volga, you find a cool, refreshing break from the heat. A strong current pushing you slowly downstream, only being bumped by waves when the occasional ship passes by.
Everyone is well aware of the stereotypical Russian winter – which isn’t a stereotype at all. But I guarantee Samara’s summer is a place you never thought could exist outside a tropical island.
Young people spend their free time all summer long outside in the festive atmosphere of the embankment flirting, playing beach volleyball and enjoying the sun and water.
The greatest resort attraction in Samara is a new aqua park Victoria, where you will be able to enjoy breath-taking rides. The park is a closed facility and is open all year through in any weather.
If you are a nightclub-goer, you'll find it interesting to compare Russian way of relaxing at night to that you are accustomed to. But be ready: it takes quite a lot of time and effort to see all Samara clubs - they are numerous and new ones are emerging regularly.
The cities architecture is an entertainment itself: old historic buildings in the centre and modern places such as nightclubs, banks, the Circus and fashionable apartment buildings are interspersed, creating a jumble of styles that could only be found in Russia.
Speaking of history, one of the greatest sights in Samara is Stalin’s Bunker, a secret structure built in only several months but amazingly well planned and organized 30m under an old school as a shelter for the possible relocation of the Soviet government. It contains everything necessary to lead a normal life and command the country in full seclusion and safety. It has become open to the general public only recently and tourist visiting Samara always line in queues to observe it, it’s a living piece of Russian and Communist history.
If you are an art-lover, you may find it worthwhile to examine the numerous exhibitions and art galleries as well as the Art Museum of Samara, where the works of respected Russian artists are displayed. Modern live performances at the philharmonic theatre, drama theatre, circus, opera house, ballet and annual summer guitar festival (Grushin Festival) in the nearby countryside attract spectators and musicians from all over the globe.
The skiing resort gets more and more popular with the locals. While traditionally Samara citizens have always been very fond of cross country skiing, mountain skiing and snow boarding find new fans every day.
Prices and Exchange Rates.
The exchange rate for the Russian Rubles to the US Dollar has fluctuated around 29-30 Rubles to 1 Dollar since August 2002. This has created an environment where visitors to Russia can thoroughly enjoy themselves without giving a second thought to financial restraints. With roughly US $10, one can have a quality meal; be it Russian or International cuisine. for comparison, a hamburger at a local McDonalds is 1 dollar. At indoor and outdoor markets, one can find all sorts of both international foods and those traditionally Russian, such as spicecakes (cinnamon cookies with sugar ice coat). Food supplies in general are fresh and natural, preservatives and genetically modified products being uncommon. And of course you may be surprised by deals like beer for less than Coca-Cola worth.
History of Samara Samara’s history is a long and rich one, even its name has at least three versions of its source. According to the first the name Samara comes from the Greek word Samar (a merchant) and Rha (an ancient name for the Volga). Another version says that the city took its name from the river Samara that flows into the Volga near the city. Finally, Samara means a steppe river in the languages of the nomadic tribes that inhibited the Trans-Volga steppes in much earlier times.
Really it is difficult to trace what the city got its name from, because it is just so very ancient: nameless settlements on the Samarskaya Luka had been mentioned in Russian chronicles as early as in 1361. Samara’s story actually begins in the middle of the16th century, when the Russians began to construct fortresses on the Volga to reinforce the eastern state frontier of those days. The fortress of Samara was built in 1568 by the order Tsar Fyodor Ioannovich. It was specially placed on the Great Trade Route along the Volga where a lot of caravans would pass. In 1600 a custom office was opened in Samara. With the emergence of the fortress which withstood numerous sieges, the actual Russian frontier moved farther to the east. The Volga at last became a safe route to travel. Gradually the necessity of a fortress fell away completely and in 1688 Samara became an ordinary town which witnessed both the traffic of merchants’ caravans and the spreading of peasant unrest, common for Russia of that time. Historic data say the citizens took rather an active part in the major people’s movements and gave a cordial welcome to at least two legendary leaders of rebels, Stepan Razin and Yemelyan Pugachev.
Having a large and active population, Samara was elevated to a major city of an uyezd (“district” in Russian) in 1781 and a new stage of the development of the city began with the foundation of the Samara Region in 1851. Thanks to the efforts of Samara’s governors (especially K. Grott, a stern but honest and conscientious man of German origin) the first library, the Philharmonic Society, the Theological Seminary, women’s schools and other educational institutions were founded in Samara later to evolve into literally dozens of institutions of all levels of education which give Samara a right to be called a students’ city.
Samara has had to compete with many Russian formidable cities for its share of trade and status and it was chosen instead of Kazan as the major railway junction for Eurasian travel (Europe, the Caucasus and Central Asia). Thus, Samara is ideally suited for those who wish to travel to distant and exotic destinations via the Trans-Siberian or Trans-Caucasus railroads. A new railway station is currently under construction to accommodate the increased traffic in passengers and cargo. It is going to be one of the biggest in Europe. The entrepreneurial spirit of this region has allowed Samara not only to survive but to thrive. Samara was formerly a “closed city” primarily due to the number of industrial enterprises engaged in defense projects (the “Buran” spacecraft, rocket/missile components and Tupolev aircraft to mention a few). The city still enjoys a reputation for talent and intellect as evidenced by the rapid growth of small businesses and commercial ventures.
During the communist era the city was renamed Kuibishev (in honour of a former Bolshevik revolutionary). While the city experienced many changes during the communist era (a monument to tsar Alexander II was replaced with a monument of Lenin), the city has preserved many unique and historical landmarks dating back to pre-Revolutionary Russia. Samara has an historical centre featuring noteworthy architectural wonders in a variety of styles including pre-Revolutionary, neoclassic, modernist, etc.