Monday, June 3, 2013

June 2 2013: Samara antiquity

The boat was surprisingly accommodating of our strange dietary restrictions, especially considering (1) it seems they never or rarely ever encountered this before and (2) we told them after the boat had already launched. For the pescetarian, every dish of every meal was based on fish: fish soup, fish salad, fish pirozhki, fish sticks, fried fish fillet, fish fish. There was so much fish, I was longing for just a plain salad. You would say I was up to my gills in fish! For the vegans, they provided a plate of fried vegetables (raw would have been preferred), bread, and a pear. They tried - but failed - to understand that salad can't have mayo dressing, porridge can't have milk - but at least they tried. Olga had the best options as they didn't know what to do with her and brought her food every time they brought one of our alternative dishes.

Transportation hub: On a boat in a lock on the Volga
River with a cargo train and highway overhead

King and Queen of the world!

Kostya discovered that the boat was built in East Germany in 1957, so my estimate of 50+ years was right on. It seems to still have all of the original furnishings, making it retro and quaint. There was a constant narration (in Russian) with sights to see on and along the river. Anybody who has visited Russia and rode in a Soviet-produced car (Lada, Volga, Zhiguli) already knows the names of several Volga towns, named after the locations of the automobile factories.

Little Volga River towns!!

Boyan entertainment
provided on the cruise ship :)

Volga is the longest river in Europe, so it's not surprising that our boat passed through a series of locks and dams to adjust for elevation and to create hydroelectric power. Passing through a lock is a neat experience, watching the water subside as you feel yourself sinking. They ship crew made many announcements in no uncertain terms that taking photographs of the locks is a prelude to terrorism. Blurg.

Soyuz rocket on display in Samara
(the capsules are made by hand here)

Four generations of architecture / construction

The Volga boat companies don't offer one-way trips, so unless we want to spend valuable days returning by boat and train to St Petersburg, we had to purchase a round-trip ticket and "decide to not return" to the boat after a few hours of Samara sightseeing. Once we got off the boat, rode the bus towards our hotel, we encountered a super friendly college freshman who was very curious who we are and what we're doing. It seems there are not many tourists of any kind who pass through town - especially so far from the ship port - and he wanted to see why we had come, were we in fact tourists, and what he could do to help. He didn't ask for anything in return, and seemed to have no agenda or ulterior motive. He was not the first and not the last person we encountered on this Volga trip to ask if we were indeed tourists. It seemed they may have never seen one before - and wanted to know if everything they had heard about tourists is true. We've been learning as much about them as they are of us.

Inside the active synagogue

The Old Synagogue under major repair

The architecture of Samara unique with its wooden second floor houses built on top of brick ground floors. Decrepit 150-year-old wooden shacks are literally sandwiched between super-new glass/steel office towers and Soviet Stalin-era cubic apartment buildings. Olga and Kostya's grandfather was born in Samara before moving to St Petersburg for university. We went looking for the house he grew up in, based on a vague and somewhat conflicting description from Olga's father. We may have found it, or at least several houses that might be it. We're returning back to St Petersburg with photos for her dad to look at and try to recognize.

Beautiful old building seems to have become an urban garden

Russkaya Okhota is... inoffensive

What we did find was the synagogues: the grand old one currently under major renovation, and the smaller one were we tried to meet the Rabbi (he was busy with Sunday School students). We were entertained (distracted, actually) with stories about the Rabbi's 11 children - the Bar Mitzvah of an older one, the hair cutting ceremony of a younger one - while he slipped out (not realizing we were there?) Knowing how Samarans are fascinated by tourists, I'm sure he would've loved to have met us!

Beautiful 10pm sunset along the Volga

New drinking buddy!

There wasn't enough time to make it to a brewpub, but We did get a chance to try a Samaran beer: Russkaya Okhota at Beerloga (Bear's Den). Russians associate bears with beer - not because the English spelling is so similar - but maybe because the word for bear (medved) and the word for honeybeer (med) are so similar. Bears, Honey, and Beer share a common history in etymology. The beer was light, not much flavor, easily drinkable and inoffensive. It could pair well with lemon or banana, or maybe banana bread pudding.

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