Belarus Day 1 – Bournemouth to Minsk
7th October 2019
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.
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.
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.
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.
Belarus Day 2 – Minsk
8th October 2019
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.
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.
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).
My absolute favourite – a KFC with a spectacularly carved communist façade – ironic juxtaposition at its finest.
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.
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.
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.
Outside is another memorial; Heroes Square – with a statue of the Mother Motherland.
We walk back to the hotel for a rest (so far today we have covered 13 miles).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Belarus Day 5 – Belovezhskaya Pushcha National Park
11th October 2019
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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…
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.
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.
Pride of place is an enormous carved soldier’s head entitled ‘Courage’.
But my favourite is a sculpture of a soldier despatched from the beseiged fortress to collect water from the moat, entitled ‘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.
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.
We continue to our hotel in Brest; Vesta. The room is enormous; it has a separate living room and two bathrooms.
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.
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.
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?
After a veritable bread overdose, washed down with beer, of course, we take a walk to the river to enjoy the sunset.
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!
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.
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.
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.
After three hours, we break the journey at Nesvizh Castle, a picturesque 16th Century castle surrounded by a moat.
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.
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?
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.
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…