Belarus 2019

Belarus Day 1 – Bournemouth to Minsk

7th October 2019

I Love Minsk
I Love Minsk

It’s time for a little trip. We usually go away in October and in recent years have been to Mexico, Cuba, Israel, Greece and Turkey – all places which delay the inevitability of having to deal with the cold, damp British Autumn. This year, as the old man attempts to notch up 100 countries and our destinations become more obscure, we are heading for Belarus. The weather forecast is for minus 3 degrees and snow.

Dinner Belavia Style
Dinner Belavia Style

We’re flying with Belavia Belarusian Airline, which isn’t bad, apart from the in flight meal – chicken sausages which taste as bad as they look. We arrive in Minsk on time, immigration and baggage reclaim is quick and we are soon in a taxi into town.

Hotel Minsk
Hotel Minsk

We are staying at the Hotel Minsk, the hotel of choice back in the day; built in 1959 in Stalinist classical style. It’s a bit jaded but clean and friendly and festooned with old photos – it’s like staying in a museum.

Hotel Minsk
Hotel Minsk

It’s already dark (and cold) by the time we check in, so we don’t venture far. We planned to go in search of a bar but discover that the hotel is built on top of an underground shopping centre, which is useful. So we buy some beer and return to the hotel. Further exploration of Minsk can wait until daylight.

Minsk at Night
Minsk at Night

Belarus Day 2 – Minsk

8th October 2019

Minsk

I had worried that with temperatures below zero, I would get cold in Minsk, so last week I purchased the world’s thickest (well, Primark’s thickest) pyjamas. But the Hotel Minsk isn’t skimping on the heating – last night was like one long hot flush.

Holy Spirit Cathedral
Holy Spirit Cathedral

We get up and set off for some sightseeing – first stop Svabody Square and the Holy Spirit Cathedral. One of the first things you notice about Belarus – jaywalking is not a thing. You stand and wait for the light to go green, even if this means waiting for hours when there isn’t a car in sight. Then, when the light finally does go green, still nobody moves. This is either because they’ve been there for so long they’ve forgotten where they’ve going, or because they’ve frozen to the spot and can no longer move.

Bolshoi Theatre
Bolshoi Theatre

We start by heading to the old town. There aren’t many buildings of age in Minsk – the city was pretty much destroyed during WW2 and rebuilt according to Stalin’s taste in the 1950s. We pass some interesting buildings; the Bolshoi Theatre, the Island of Sorrow (an Afghan War Memorial).

Island of Sorrow
Island of Sorrow

My absolute favourite – a KFC with a spectacularly carved communist façade – ironic juxtaposition at its finest.

KFC Minsk
KFC Minsk

I stop to take a photo of an old Russian Fiat. I ask a Belarusian man if he will take a photo of me, but my phone has died (the old man has wandered off as old men do). Undeterred, the Belarusian takes a photo on his own phone and promises to email it to me, which is very kind.

Russian Fiat
Russian Fiat

Our ultimate destination today is Hero City and the Museum of the Great Patriotic War, which documents World War II from a Belarusian perspective. It’s a fascinating place with plenty of original artefacts. It tells the story not only of the war in general, but with more personal stories – like a tank crewed by 3 Belarusian brothers who were all killed together.

Hero City
Hero City

You follow the exhibits up several floors until you reach a huge glass dome at the top; The Dome of Victory is designed to replicate the dome of Reichstag and remembers the almost 3 million Belarusians (a third of the population) who died during the war.

Museum of the Great Patriotic War

Outside is another memorial; Heroes Square – with a statue of the Mother Motherland.

Motherland Statue
Motherland Statue

We walk back to the hotel for a rest (so far today we have covered 13 miles).

White Birds
White Birds

In the evening we go for dinner in a nearby restaurant – Gostinyy Dvor. The food is OK; the old man has borsch, potato pancakes and beer and I have mushrooms in cream, potato pancakes and wine. The restaurant is completely empty. We wonder vaguely why there are neither locals nor other tourists there. The bill arrives – it’s a lot more than expected. I have drunk 2 glasses of wine and been charged for 8 wines. When I query it, the waiter points out that the price on the menu is per 50 ml and he put 200 ml in each glass. The old man, being very British, tops this chicanery up with a good tip and spends the the rest of the evening telling anyone who’ll listen that his wife just drank 8 glasses of wine.

'4 wines' at Gostinyy Dvor
‘4 wines’ at Gostinyy Dvor

Belarus Day 3 – Minsk

9th October 2019

One of the many things I love about the EU is its stance on smoking; throughout half a continent it is unacceptable to smoke in public. To remind yourself of how good this is, travel to the other half of Europe which smells like a 1980s British pub carpet. The non-smoking Hotel Minsk is one such location – there is so much smoke oozing through the ventilation system that you need breathing apparatus to go for a pee.

The morning is filled with complicated simple things. First, I want to find a supermarket and buy a bottle of Diet Coke. According to Google Maps, the nearest supermarket is 43 feet away, but it refuses to give directions. At first, I think this must mean that it’s in the underground shopping centre, but a full search of all 3 levels proves unsuccessful. An overground search is equally unsuccessful. I’m about to give up, when I finally spot the supermarket. It’s inside the hotel.

Lenin Monument
Lenin Monument

Once I have my shopping, all I have to do is return to my room via the main hotel door. This is large and heavy and opens outwards. There is a doorman, but he’s buggered if he’s going to leave the warmth of the hotel. So when you approach, he swings the door open and you have to try and get through before it closes. Go too soon and you crash into his shoulder. Leave it too late and you get your foot crushed by the door. I have managed both of these so far. To my relief, the doorman is engaged in conversation and doesn’t see me coming. I manage a pain free personal door opening and return to the room to see if the old man has finally surfaced.

Looking for a supermarket…

Today, we are taking a walk along Independence Avenue; the wide Stalinist boulevard (obviously during Stalin’s time it wasn’t called Independence Avenue) which runs the length of the city and contains most of Minsk’s main buildings.

City Gates
City Gates

We start at the bottom at Independence Square and work our way up. We detour slightly to visit Dynamo Minsk stadium – a strange building which looks like someone dropped a spaceship on top of an amphitheatre.

Dinamo Stadium
Dinamo Stadium

Next, the Belarusian National Arts Museum. It’s not the best art I’ve ever seen. To be honest, it reminds me of the art display put on at school each summer ready for the GCSE examiner – and not all those kids passed!

National Arts Museum
National Arts Museum

I lose interest in continuing up Independence Avenue and return to the hotel for a break. I’m all Minsked out, which is good as tomorrow we pick up a hire car and travel further afield.

We round off our visit with one last dinner at a nearby restaurant called Trinity – the trinity bring Belarusian, Jewish and Tartar. The old man surpasses himself with a trinity of his own and orders 3 courses; a meat platter, soup and potato pancakes. I opt for for just potato pancakes. I love the Belarusian potato pancakes; patties of grated potato and onion, fried and served with onions and sour cream. Just as we’re tucking into ours, the lady at the next table decides to change her baby’s nappy. At the table. Then her food comes and she starts eating. She hasn’t washed her her hands and the dirty nappy is still sitting on the chair. As my kids would say – minging.

Potato Pancakes at Trinity
Potato Pancakes at Trinity

Belarus Day 4 – Mir Castle

10th October 2019

Old men need a lot of sleep. You can get a lot done between normal getting up time and old man getting up time. Today I go for a run. Inside, in the gym – the weather outside is hideous. Which is a shame as we had planned to spend the day visiting castles. The gym is not well used. It takes me a while to locate the ‘on’ switch for the treadmill. I start running at a reasonable (for me) pace but the machine has other ideas. Every 2 minutes, the speed and gradient increase dramatically and I have to try to adjust the controls before I get spat off the back. It’s all very stressful. After 4 km, I admit defeat and leave.

Mir
Mir

Once I have done my run and we have collected our hire car (a very lengthy administrative process) we drive out of Minsk in the pouring rain towards Mir.

Mir Castle
Mir Castle

Mir castle was built in the 15th Century and has had a colourful history; more recently it was a field hospital during WW1 and a Jewish Ghetto during WW2.

Mir Castle
Mir Castle

The castle has the steepest steps I’ve ever encountered. Following the visit route is a cross between tourism and mountaineering. And deviation from the route is not an option; it is heavily guarded by scary Belarusian ladies. At one point, we miss an exhibit and the old man tries to go back. The scary Belarusian lady throws herself in front of him. There will be no going back on her watch.

Mir Castle
Mir Castle

After a very energetic castle visit (I’m regretting this morning’s run now) and a more sedate tour of the grounds, we decide one castle a day is sufficient and set off for tonight’s accommodation.

Mir Castle
Mir Castle

We stop en route, parking on the hard shoulder and climbing the bank of the motorway to take a photo of an enormous steel bison on the hillside. All totally legal, I’m sure.

Bison Sculpture
Bison Sculpture

Tonight we are staying in a hotel just off the Minsk-Brest highway called Gostiny Dvor Neckachevo. I saw it recommended by another blogger and it doesn’t disappoint. I think we’re staying in the converted stables of an old coach house.

Gostiny Dvor Neckachevo
Gostiny Dvor Neckachevo

We round the evening off with dinner at the hotel restaurant – proof you can have too much of a good thing. I order a large potato pancake. It’s enormous and basically a huge blob of soggy, gloopy starch. After a 3 day streak, my penchant for potato pancakes is at an end.

Potato Pancake
Potato Pancake

Belarus Day 5 – Belovezhskaya Pushcha National Park

11th October 2019

Rural Belarus
Rural Belarus

After a bad night’s sleep (a combination of the potato pancakes and sleeping next to the main railway line from Moscow to Europe, with freight trains thundering by every few minutes) we get up and go for breakfast. Surprise, surprise it’s potato pancakes. Add some jam – call it breakfast. I google potato consumption and am not surprised to see that Belarus has the highest per capita consumption in the world.

Breakfast Potato Pancakes
Breakfast Potato Pancakes

After breakfast we set off for Belazkaya Plushcha National Park. It’s only 80 miles, but Google Maps takes us on an interesting cross country route which involves less tarmac than is ideal, but enables us to see plenty of rural Belarus.

Driving through Belarus
Driving through Belarus

We reach the park around midday. Outside of Minsk, very few people speak English, but I get by with my few words of Russian combined with plenty of mime. The old man gets very embarrassed when I go into mime mode.

Belazkaya Plushcha National Park
Belazkaya Plushcha National Park

Cars aren’t allowed inside the National Park, so we park up and walk to the hotel, check into our room and hire some bikes. Security, reception and bike hire – that’s three mime conversations successfully concluded.

Cycling in Belazkaya Plushcha National Park
Cycling in Belazkaya Plushcha National Park

I have been on a bike twice in the past 30 years, so today is a bit daunting. Especially when I realise that the hire bikes are very basic and don’t actually have any brakes. The bike hire lady sees my fear, disappears inside and returns with two very nice mountain bikes.

Bison
Bison

We start our tour at the animal cages. The park is the only place in Europe when bison roam free. We don’t fancy our chances of spotting them naturally. At least in the cages we get to see some.

Cycling in Belazkaya Plushcha National Park
Cycling in Belazkaya Plushcha National Park

Then we cycle in a 11 mile loop through the forest. We have to stop short of Santa’s grotto (yes, the real Santa lives in the forest in Belarus) because the old man is diabetic and his blood sugars have dropped. So, we return to the restaurant to refuel with potato pancakes.

Potato Pancakes

In the afternoon, we go for a walk in the forest. The amount of wildlife we’ve seen on our visit is zero, but the trees are very pretty in their autumnal colours and we do find a tree trunk with a knot which (allegedly) resembles a bison.

Tree which looks like a bison
Tree which looks like a bison

Belarus Day 6 – Brest

12th October 2019

We get up early and go for a run in the forest. The park isn’t open to day trippers yet, so I have the road to myself (the old man runs separately because apparently I’m too slow) apart from being passed by a bus containing Santa and his helpers heading to the grotto to start work.

Belazkaya Plushcha National Park
Belazkaya Plushcha National Park

This morning, I actually spot a wild bison, much to my excitement a baby runs across the road in front of me! Unfortunately it’s way too quick for me to fish my camera out of my pocket…

Running in Belazkaya Plushcha National Park
Running in Belazkaya Plushcha National Park

It’s 9.30 by the time we go for breakfast. It’s a set menu, including pancakes (obviously) but the man at the next table goes off piste and orders a beer.

Potato Pancakes
Potato Pancakes

We check out and drive south to Brest; first stop is Brest Fortress. I love a bit of Soviet sculpture and it doesn’t get much better than here. In 1941, Soviet troops held out against the advancing Germans for a month. The site is now a memorial, which you enter through a huge Communist star.

Entering Brest Fortress
Entering Brest Fortress

Pride of place is an enormous carved soldier’s head entitled ‘Courage’.

Courage
Courage

But my favourite is a sculpture of a soldier despatched from the beseiged fortress to collect water from the moat, entitled ‘Thirst’.

Thirst
Thirst

There are two museums charting the history the war; first, The Defence of Brest Fortress Museum, which tells the story of the fortress itself.

The Defence of Brest Fortress Museum
The Defence of Brest Fortress Museum

Next, The Museum of War, Territory and Peace, which has more general content. These are both quite interesting, but there is a lack of English signage and an excess of scary lady attendants. The only English is a summary of the room’s contents on a sign in each doorway. In order to read it, you must stand in the doorway, thus blocking entry/exit to the room and suffering the wrath of the scary ladies.

Museum of War, Territory and Peace
Museum of War, Territory and Peace

We continue to our hotel in Brest; Vesta. The room is enormous; it has a separate living room and two bathrooms.

Vesta Hotel
Vesta Hotel

It’s a warm day and I try in vain to find a shop selling cold drinks. Here, one does not waste precious fridge space on water or soft drinks. Fridges are purely for beer and vodka. According to Google, Belarus has the highest per capita alcohol consumption in the world.

Brest
Brest

In the evening, we walk along Gogol Street (Gogol was a writer and the street in lined with sculptures based on his characters) to the pedestrian Sovetskaya Street.

Gogol Street
Gogol Street

We are heading for a restaurant recommended on Trip Advisor. Unfortunately, we stop one door too soon and accidentally end up in a pizzeria with no English menu. We opt for the ‘Belarusian pizza’, with no idea what this entails. It turns out to be a pizza base, topped with tomato, cheese and ham topped with another pizza base. Who would do such a thing?

Belarusian Pizza
Belarusian Pizza

After a veritable bread overdose, washed down with beer, of course, we take a walk to the river to enjoy the sunset.

Mukhavets River
Mukhavets River

En route, we encounter the lamplighter lighting the street’s gas lamps. It’s quite an attraction; a large group follows him from lamp to lamp and even wait outside the bar when he stops for a quick beer. On the way back, we spot him again, relighting the many lamps which have gone out whilst he was in the pub!

Lamplighter
Lamplighter

Back at the hotel, we spend the rest of the evening listening (involuntarily) to a very loud Belarusian folk concert taking place next door. Every time the music stops, we hope it’s over but it’s just a the band taking a cigarette break. According to Google, Belarus has the third highest consumption of cigarettes in the world.

Belarusian Beer
Belarusian Beer

Belarus Day 7 – Brest to Minsk

13th October 2019

Our time in Belarus is almost over. It’s time to head towards the airport. We check out of our Soviet era hotel with one last journey in the terrifyingly jolty lift.

Driving to Minsk

The drive to Minsk is basically 240 miles along one long, straight, flat road through mile after mile of flat fields with occasional flat woodlands. It’s so dull I find myself longing for hills.

Driving to Minsk

After three hours, we break the journey at Nesvizh Castle, a picturesque 16th Century castle surrounded by a moat.

Nesvizh Castle
Nesvizh Castle

Inside is a museum charting the castle’s history. The floors are a mixture of polished wood, marble, tiles and silk rugs which all need to be negotiated whilst wearing plastic bags on your feet. Health & safety isn’t really a thing in Belarus.

Nesvizh Castle
Nesvizh Castle

Afterwards, we continue on the long, straight road to Minsk. The tedium is broken firstly by trying to buy petrol through the medium of mime, and secondly by failing to slow down through a village, thus triggering a speed camera. Who knew the old man could drive fast enough to get a speeding ticket?

Driving to Minsk

Tonight’s accommodation is a motorway truck stop near the airport; Syty Putnik Hotel. We have stayed in some dire hotels which looked OK in the photos. This place looks dire in the photos, so we check in with trepidation. It’s actually not too bad, even if the last time I saw anything quite like it was in a Gdansk museum replica of an 1970s dock worker’s house. But it’s clean and comfortable.

Syty Putnik Hotel
Syty Putnik Hotel

My relief is short lived when we go downstairs for food. I order a hash brown stuffed with mushrooms and onions. It’s literally the worse thing I’ve ever tasted; it’s a rather alarming shade of grey and has the taste and consistency of a doormat soaked in chip fat. Bring on Ukraine…

Hash Brown
Hash Brown

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