Saratov by Steve Brown (“A real Russian man”)
The British equivalent to Saratov would be somewhere like Newcastle or Liverpool, not a city that visitors flock to see but where people visit to sample the culture of the people who live there!!. Saratov to me is about sampling real Russian people living real Russian lives and bears no comparison with visitor cities like Moscow and St. Petersburg; this is a city of people caught up in living their lives and making the best of things with what they have. I found a very 1950’s type British scene (in fact I am sure most of the trams and buses I saw are from the 1950’s!!).
Saratov to a Brit is like a trip down memory lane, to a time when it was safe to walk about late at night and streets buzzing with atmosphere with late night bars, cafes and discos serenading you to their doors. Like Liverpool, Saratov has a river running through its heart, the famous Volga; contrary to belief it is not polluted but crystal clear and clean enough for swimming (in fact I went skinny dipping in it off one of the many small central islands!!). Like Liverpool also, there are ferries to take you up or downstream which at night double as bar and dance cruise ships covered in brightly coloured lights blaring out European dance music across the rippling waters.
Your most important task in Saratov is to get to know some local families. You will find yourself very quickly acquiring a taste for vodka, as on every occasion for a toast a bottle of Russia’s finest will be produced and glasses charged with a large shot, which has to be downed in one gulp to ensure you prove to be “a real Russian man”. (I am the proud owner of a glass paperweight which confirms my adoption as one of Saratov’s finest!)
Saratov has many places of interest. One of the best is the park and military museum set high above the city with spectacular views over the town and river. Another park with a lake is in the city; this is full of families enjoying afternoon walks together. Saratov also has a great shopping centre with quite a variety of interesting shops and a small department store, also a very large indoor and outdoor market, all of which provides a great overview of the foods and wines available in this area. One of my hobbies is people watching, and you will be amazed at the high standard of fashion amongst the younger generation: very European influenced, which is in sharp contrast to the more reserved dress code clung to by the older generations. Food in this area is real food, hand prepared from fresh including all meat, poultry, vegetables and fruit; home cooking is still very much the tradition and people look all the healthier for it!!
I hope to return to Saratov and know that when I do a will be given a warm traditional Russian welcome from the families I know there (in fact I felt for quite a while after visiting that I had relatives over there!!). Finally one word of warning, if you are asked to visit a banya (Russian Sauna) with someone, be prepared for a very hot, very steamy and hard to survive experience which, if you do survive (I did and got an award for it !!!), is an adventure you can tell your grandchildren about!!
PS. Making the effort to learn some Russian phrases will greatly endear you to people as not many Europeans make the effort to learn the Russian language. So jump in (with or without clothes!!) and have a go; you will enjoy learning this colourful and expressive language –