Text and photos by Lyubov Zolotova
A thousand kilometres from Moscow sounds like a somewhat long way to go to enjoy one’s dacha. Yet, the journey is worth every minute if that dacha is situated in one of the most beautiful natural reserves in Russia. My husband happens to own a piece of land in a village situated on the bank of the grand Volga river, a part where it widens so much it is known as the Zhigulevsk sea, or Жигулевское море. This is where the river also takes a peculiar curve, and the area within and around the curve is known as Samara’s Bend (Самарская Лука). Samara’s Bend is a national park, with stunningly beautiful landscapes and pristine nature. It’s got some of the famous resorts and, unsurprisingly, has long been fancied by Russia’s top government officials. In fact, a resort known as Volga’s Cliff, or Волжский Утес, hosted a two-day Russia-EU summit in 2007, welcoming some of the top European leaders like Angela Merkel and Nikolas Sarkozy. This summer, thanks to the lockdown, we have had a chance enjoy a much longer stay and explore the fascinating area, its nature, landmarks and even local art.
It doesn’t take an expert to tell you that the beauty of nature here is exceptional. Yet, it helps to know why the landforms in Samarskaya Luka are so special. The Zhiguli mountains that form local landscapes are of tectonic origin (the only such mountains in the Russian Plain). The cliffs are largely composed of soft limestone and zoogenic rock, so their shapes are very elaborate and never stay the same, as the rock gradually disintegrates. These ever-changing cliffs, along with the relict trees and the beauty of the Volga river create that distinctive, one-of-a-kind scenery.
Some of the mountains and cliffs have their own names and special significance, among them the famous Molodetskiy mound, Dev’ya gora (Maiden mountain), Verblyud (Camel mountain), and Visly Kamen’ (Hanging Rock), each surrounded by tales and legends. They are popular trekking destinations offering breathtaking views, as well as a chance to explore their many hollows and caves. A lot of local floral species are endemic to the area. It is a place that has long caught the attention of Russian painters, and Shiryaevo, a village situated in Samarskaya Luka, is where, reputedly, Ilya Repin created his best known Barge Haulers on the Volgapainting.
The best way to explore this unique nature is by water, or course, and this calls for a holiday cruiser with a powerful engine. For want of something better, we resorted to moving about with an inflatable boat. We started off at Berezovka village and rowed for over an hour along the left bank of the Volga river to get to the more remote and picturesque spots. We passed a couple of resort hotels and saw a few fishermen on the way catching silvery pike perch. Our destination, a secluded creek with high overhanging cliffs and a vast space of shiny, still water, was breath-taking. We stayed there for several hours, making shashlyk and flying our drone.
It took us another hour and a half to get back – our friend’s boat got slightly deflated on the way, so we had to make an emergency stop to inflate it. The rubber boat ride was well worth it, but truth be told, it only offered a glimpse of the local country, and you really should consider getting a powerboat to make the most of your stay here.
The village people: ‘Dachniki,’ homestead farmers and garden lovers
For the most part, the people here live very humbly. A large majority of village dwellings are still tiny, old-fashionedizba, or log cabins. While they may look very ‘cute’ and authentic, they are far from comfortable, with small windows, low ceilings and often no basic amenities like running water or heating. A lot of villages have few permanent residents due to lack of jobs. However, because of the rare beauty of nature and proximity to the Volga river, some villages have turned into a kind of seasonal resorts. Berezovka, the village where we have our dacha, is a good case in point. While this is a large settlement, it is home to only a handful of residents, and these are mostly senior country folk and homestead farmers; most house owners only come here to spend their summer vacations. The houses are a mixture of traditional log cabins – some old and shabby and some nicely redecorated – and a few solid brick cottages.
Most dachniki keep lovely orchards and flower gardens, many go a step further and grow their own food, ranging from potatoes, carrots and cucumbers to melons, pumpkins and even grapes. With rich soil and very hot summers, the crops are generous. Even our much neglected garden, though mostly a weed jungle, still boasts patches of pretty flowers and a thicket of raspberry and dog rose bushes, while its greater part is colonized by a dense wild cherry forest.
But some gardeners are truly committed, and their gardens are a wonder. I was particularly dazzled by one such garden of Eden. It impressed me so much I had to meet the owner. This turned out to be a sweet, hospitable lady in her late 60s, Nina Estigneyeva, who gladly welcomed me and my husband to her home and showed us around.
Her garden was enormous. It was a bounty of flowers, fruit trees and berries. We spent about an hour walking around, talking to the hostess and tasting things here and there. The garden welcomes you with a wonderful flowery mix of roses, lilies and daisies, and ornamental shrubs like jasmine, dog rose and hortensia. As you make your way deeper into the garden, you find a surprising variety of food growing. There is a richness of berries, from strawberries, raspberries and currant (black, red and white) to sea-buckthorn and barberries. Shady fruit trees are scattered around, and these bear plums, apricots, wild cherries, apples, and pears. Further down you find vegetable beds, and, again, the variety is stunning. There are potatoes, carrots, beet, onions, garlic, dill, lettuce, cucumbers, horseradish, cabbage, pumpkins, eggplants… the list continues. Surprisingly, there are lots of grapevines which bear grapes in the fall.
Naturally, the two big questions I had to ask Nina were: how much time she needs to maintain this beauty, and what she does with all the crops! Needless to say, it is a full-time commitment. To keep it all going, she gets up at half past six, and, after quick breakfast and some personal time, gets out in the garden to work until lunch; a little rest and duty calls again till late evening. Processing the fruits of her labour is also time-consuming: she cans vegetables, makes lots of different berry jams (chokeberry jam is particularly yummy!), dries apples, and makes house wine with the grapes. She also gives out lots of stuff to her neighbours.
And no, she’s no professional horticulturist, just a regular пенсионер (retiree). She has learned the sophisticated art of gardening through reading books, picking things up on Instagram and her own trial and error. In fact, this is something many Russians do – they used to depend on their veggie gardens for survival, so it is no surprise that growing food is still a major thing in the Russian country. Most dachniki (especially in the villages beyond Moscow region) have their own fruit and vegetable gardens and spend a large amount of their time maintaining it. Yet, this lady’s dedication was impressive. To me, the power to create such a thing of beauty is nothing short of a miracle. It was sad to find out that Nina is thinking of selling her place, as she no longer feels strong enough to keep it going.
Samara: Exploring local art
A few years ago, I came across some impressive paintings by an artist from Samara, Nikolai Lukashuk and had long wanted to come meet him at his studio and perhaps acquire a painting or two. Now that we were taking a longer holiday at the dacha, and the town of Samara was a mere 230 km away, I thought this was the perfect chance to kill two birds with one stone, that is, enjoy the long-awaited artistic experience and explore the picturesque Samara.
So off we went one lovely morning. It turned out to be a long and tiring drive, partly because of road works on the way, but it was well worth it: we spent nearly three hours chatting with the painter and looking at his work. Nikolai came across as a quiet, self-effacing man in his late 50s. He welcomed us to his studio and showed us around. He is lucky enough to have access to this wonderful space, situated on the top floor of a residential building. The studio is bright and airy, with high ceilings and very large windows. It used to be common practice in Soviet Russia to provide painters and sculptors with specially equipped art studios. Times have changed and, as Nikolai puts it, capitalism is ‘harsh and ruthless’, but this practice has survived in some provincial towns. He studied to be a graphic designer but at some point chose to focus entirely on oil painting. He works every day and estimates to have completed around 5,000 paintings. His life partner, Polina Goretskaya, also a painter, is in charge or promoting and selling his work, which allows him to concentrate fully on his art.
Most of his works are urban and rural landscapes. I strongly connect with some of his paintings as they speak the simple beauty and charm of provincial Russia, most often the cozy, atmospheric nooks of old Samara, and the rural idyll of the nearby villages. Nikolay says he often paints his hometown, which he knows like the back of his hand and empathizes and interprets through his paintings. His colours are clear, shiny, and full of life. Although, in fairness, I much prefer his older works to recent ones, somehow they have more energy and character. It is very subjective, though.
It’s touching that he has so much love for his hometown, especially some of its parts that still have character and old-time atmosphere, now disappearing fast. He deeply regrets that the city is now being rebuilt and has no affection for much of the modern architecture, which lacks taste and a cosy feel.
It is gratifying to know that his work finds its admirers and, despite the difficult times (not getting easier with the covid-related economic downturn), he still manages to stay afloat selling his art. To show my appreciation of his work, I bought a small painting, a riverscape depicting the quivering, lustrous Volga on a summer evening – a memento of this fascinating and enriching experience.
We had just enough time to walk around the old town before heading back home, only to realise we must come back one day and explore it further. Samara is actually a big city with vast industrial zones and sprawling suburban areas. But its historical centre is charming: a mix of noble estates, quaint merchants’ mansions of late 19th century, and adorable wooden houses. And, the city centre stretches along a lengthy Volga embankment with lovely sandy beaches, so if at some point you have enough of sightseeing and shopping you can just crash on the beach and go for a swim – the perfect way to relax after a busy day!
If by any chance you wish to explore Samarskaya Luka and the town of Samara, I’d be happy to share some tips about traveling and sightseeing around this fascinating place, so feel free to contact me via Russia Knowledge or my Facebook page.