This past weekend I visited Samara for the first time in twelve years. In the early spring of 2008, I left Samara unimpressed and excited to start a new adventure in Kazan, a city about 150 miles north along the Volga.
This trip to Samara made me realize how little I explored the place back then. Although I lived there for about six months from 2007-2008, I had only visited the city embankment once – and only for a quick stop during the winter. This time I walked nearly the entire span: from the Cathedral of Sophia down the embankment past the city beaches to the Monument of Glory in Slavy Square (I had been there before).
I can’t speak to how nice the beaches were and how developed the boardwalk was back then, but I was impressed this time around – even though it was all under a foot of snow. There are many access points to the beaches, several restaurants, a nicely managed park with benches and monuments and statues, paved paths and dedicated lanes for bikes. Thus, it goes without saying that Samara’s embankment is best visited during the summer – when you can sit on a bench in the shade provided by the cover of trees, enjoy a cool drink or have lunch on a veranda overlooking the great Volga River, or lay on the warm sand and swim in the Volga’s cool refreshing waters.
I also had the opportunity to explore the frozen Volga a bit further downstream in an area known locally as the old embankment – an area near the city’s river port that is not as developed as it is upstream near the city center. There I was able to hop from one enormous piece of floating ice to another and truly felt as if I was on some exotic trip to the far north of Russia.
That sums up my exploration of parts of Samara that were new to me. In 2008, I left Samara unimpressed but have a new opinion of the city now and look forward to someday returning in the summer. During the other half of my two-day trip, I visited the neighborhood where I once lived and walked the streets I once walked. To my surprise, I remembered little beyond where things were located spatially.
I returned to the Park House shopping mall, which I remembered quite well in my mind until I actually walked inside. Suddenly, it was as if I was there for the first time. Not a single thing looked familiar. Eventually, I made it up to the food court on the third floor and found a restaurant that used to be an Asian food restaurant that now serves Italian. The exterior was familiar, but the inside was completely redesigned. I decided to have lunch there and reminiscence about the last time I was there – the very day I left Samara in March of 2008.
Then I put on my earphones and turned on my favorite song from that time period and listened to it over and over as I walked around the neighborhood. I found the Samara Mosque, the little cell phone shop where I met my friend Pavel, and the apartment building where I lived. Across the playground in the courtyard, I noticed the fruit stand where I bought produce was gone, replaced by a few parking spaces. My favorite song still on loop, I crossed the street to Gagarin Park, named in honor of Yuri Gagarin, the first human to go to space. Twelve years ago, I walked through this park on my way to work every day. Yet nothing was familiar to me except that there were cross-country skiers skiing along the perimeter – just as they were twelve years ago.
Then it hit me – all the kids playing and walking around this park weren’t even alive when I last walked those snow-covered paths. Twelve years is indeed a long time. I have done and seen so much in Russia since then. I feel like I visited Samara with a clean slate for new memories and this time I left with a more positive impression of the city. Perhaps its because I never explored Samara back then. Or, perhaps the city has just changed so much over the years. Either way, I liked Samara this time. Now I’ll reconsider my answer when people ask what my least favorite city in Russia is.