Last weekend we went to visit a friend in Minsk, Belarus. Most people we have mentioned this to asked about the visa process, expecting that it would be difficult – actually, it only takes 5 days to issue the visa, at least for the embassy in Berlin, and they were kind enough to do it more quickly for us when we submitted our application a bit too late as we weren’t aware that the embassy is not open on Wednesdays. The visa requirements are also not complicated for a short visit, the main things you need are to fill in the form, have proof of health/travel insurance (in case of emergency), a photo, and the address where you will be staying. The fee for European and UK passports is 60 euros.
We flew to Vilnius
in Lithuania, did a bit of sightseeing there, and then took a train to Minsk (a journey about 2.5 hours). The trains had big seats and aisles and were comfortable, apparently they are fairly new trains. Some people take day trips from Minsk to go shopping in Lithuania. The countryside on the train ride from Vilnius to Minsk was pretty similar to the countryside in Brandenburg, fairly flat with just a few small undulations, farms and villages. My friend’s husband picked us up at Minsk main station and drove us to their home which is outside of Minsk in the countryside. Their family built their house with the help of friends and other people, completely out of wood. Outside they even have a sauna, also built by friends and family! Sauna is quite traditional in Belarus, similar to in Finland – when I visited a Finnish friend she also had a sauna in her house and had a similar house made of wood. I really like that style of house, and when you live in a country with freezing temperatures in winter it must be great to have a home sauna to warm your bones. Outside the house they had a garden with a big vegetable patch, fruit trees, and a greenhouse. My friend’s grandfather was always hard at work in the garden or in the kitchen cooking, and many dishes included his fresh, home-grown vegetables. When we arrived he had prepared us pancakes for dinner, served with a salad of green leaves and sour cream, and a liver paté. Their pancakes are thicker ones, not thin like crepes, and make a good meal with either sweet or savoury toppings. Our friends mentioned that for some reason eating out in Minsk is very expensive, and the portions are small. The idea of paying these prices for a meal always horrifies her grandfather, who says that he rather can cook something for her. After dinner we chatted and caught up over some South African wine that my friend’s husband had bought for our visit, a nice touch!
In the morning we had pancakes again for breakfast, but this time topped with a delicious fresh cottage cheese from the market, jam made from blackcurrants from the garden, and sour cream (they have delicious sour cream there, and eat it with everything!). I wish I had taken a photo of the pancakes, but I was too busy enjoying them! Our friends take their baby for several walks a day in the countryside for fresh air and sunshine, so we joined for the morning walk. Our walk took us through the neighbourhood, past fields of dandelions, and to a lake with a view of Minsk.
View of Minsk over the lake
After that we headed to the city itself for some sightseeing. We drove to the closest metro stop, then took the metro into town. It’s an interesting system where you buy plastic tokens and then put those into a slot at the electronic barrier – if you don’t put one in and try to walk through apparently some bars pop out and hit you in the legs! Some of the metro stations themselves are worth seeing, with big columns, some of marble, some with decorations. The station names are written in the cyrillic alphabet, but they give them numbers e.g. 113, so even if you can’t remember the cyrillic word it should be ok. I’d like to learn the cyrillic alphabet – it’s made up of a mix of Roman letters, Greek letters and some letters from the Glagolithic alpahbet, which was used for sounds found in Slavic languages that did not occur in the Greek language. If you learn how some of them are pronounced, after a while you start to recognize them.
Our friend took us for a walk down the main street, Independence avenue, where there are lots of big buildings in the Soviet style. We could recognize this style from Karl Marx Allee and other streets in (former east) Berlin. She took us inside the post office as it had a nice architectural style, and they had some really nice postcards there with illustrations by Vasil Sharangovich based on a famous poem by Yakub Kolas, “New Land”, about Belarus after World War II, as well as some postcards showing many kinds of mushrooms, which are enthusiastically gathered in the forests of Belarus the same way they are in Germany and other parts of Europe. They also had some nice stamps for stamp collectors.
1105km to Berlin
One of the good things about Minsk is that the streets are very clean, and so are the public bathrooms. We saw other interesting buildings on the main street, including the KGB building. Somehow MacDonalds has also come to Minsk and there is one on the main street. They also have some shops selling souvenirs, for example items crafted out of straw, such as dolls, and traditional clothes, linens and pottery. There was also a sweet and chocolate shop selling, among other things, what we call in South Africa “pick ‘n mix” chocolates, where you can choose different kinds that you want and pay by the kilogram (I love these, since my grandfather used to always give my sister and I a bag for Christmas, although they had different kinds in South Africa). The queue was long though, so we went on to a kind of a cafe in a very grand building where we ordered some different snacks to share for lunch – the prices were good and there was a nice variety. We also tried birch juice since it sounded really interesting! It was a sweet, clear drink.
Variety of snacks at good prices
After lunch we continued our walk. Everywhere around the city were signs for Victory Day (9 May, when Germany surrendered) and the 70th anniversary of the surrender. (In some countries the end of the war is celebrated on the 8 May, but in Moscow time the surrender was after midnight, and so on the 9th May). The Soviet Union played a huge role in the defeat of the Nazi Germans, and so it is celebrated as a victory, but as some people mentioned, it might be more appropriate to call it a Memorial day, since so many people died and suffered in the war, and war is something that should not be glorified, in case people forget the horrible realities of it.
As part of our walk we went past some nice parks. There are quite a few nice green areas in Minsk, and flowers, like tulips, planted throughout the city. In one of the parks was a theatre/concert hall where our friend told us that very good ballets are performed. To my excitement the park was also full of red squirrels! People feed them, and so they run up to you if you hold out your hands (though they are smart enough that they run away if they see your hands are empty). In South Africa we only have grey squirrels, apparently all the red squirrels are somehow out competed by the grey ones, since the introduction of grey squirrels usually leads to a decline in the number of red squirrels. The ones in Minsk were a darker red than the two I’d seen previously in Germany and a bit smaller. But the ones I saw in Germany disappeared so quickly that maybe I just didn’t get a good look at them. The first one I saw looked huge and to me it looked like a cartoon character, with its little red face and long ears.
Ballet and opera house
Park with squirrels
We continued our walk through Minsk, seeing some churches, the riverside and the rebuilt old town area – newly built, but on the spot where the old town was located. A huge part of Minsk was destroyed during World War II – the country is located in between Germany and Russia and unfortunately got it from both sides.
After our walk we went back home for some potato pancakes with sour cream and then, the family had started up the sauna. In Belarus they mostly have same-sex saunas rather than the mixed sex saunas they have in Germany and Austria. So my friend and I went first, while J went later with my friend’s husband and father. Part of the sauna experience included being beaten with a bunch of birch leaves, apparently good for your skin. Afterwards we joined up again and had an interesting conversation about the similarities in Czech, Belarusian, Russian, Polish, Slovakian and Slovenian (all languages in the Slavic family). Some words are very similar and others different. Czech seems to be closer to Belarusian than to Russian.
The next day we took another trip into town. We headed to the new library, a modern, polygon shaped building. From the viewing platform you can get a view of the Minsk suburbs around. We could see a lot of construction, so Minsk seems to be a developing city. Our friends complained that some people start building projects to get money, then disappear with half of the money, leaving the building unfinished, or that some buildings were not needed. Apparently a lot of hotels were built for the hockey championships, which are now not used that much as they are expensive and the tourism industry is not that big. Maybe the tourism industry will develop more in future – the countryside is lovely so people might like to do cycling tours, and the city itself is nice to spend some time in. One area that definitely needs developing is restaurants though, i.e. to have more (and cheaper) restaurants in the centre, because most of the ones we looked at were full. I did find some restaurants listed here : http://www.minsktravelguide.com/belarus/restaurants-in-minsk.shtml
and here: http://34mag.net/post/minsk/
. Although the prices of the restaurants in the second link seem to be expensive.
After taking a look at the views from the library building, we had some borscht and a coffee at the library restaurant, then continued on to visit a market called Komarovskij rynok. The market was huge, with an outdoor section and an indoor section. A wide variety of fruits and vegetables were being sold outside, as well as dried fruit and nuts, fish and flowers. The vegetables were often so nicely stacked in pyramids that it was really tempting to buy them. Our friend said that she once sold apples at the market when they had a surplus from the trees at home. This year their extra apples were pressed into fresh apple juice. Inside the market hall they were selling many kinds of meats, cheeses, breads, cakes and chocolates. The ladies selling the goods were very persuasive, offering us a taste-test of their wares. We bought some of the pick ‘n mix chocolates – as I’ve previously mentioned, I love those.
After that it was time to head back for the meal that our friend’s husband had prepared of grilled meat and salad with flat bread. Afterwards we went for another walk in the woods, followed by a trip into town to visit a museum called Museum of the Belarusian Cinema History. It was museum night so they had a special exhibition. Unfortuntately it was all in either Belarusian or Russian, but it was still interesting. If the museums had some translations for their exhibits it would be nice, since it would be interesting to learn more about Belarus history and culture. However, we only visited this one museum, so maybe other museums do have translations.There was short video and an exhibit about alcoholism in Belarus, and then an exhibition on some of the cultural snacks in Belarus: they gave us a local spirit, a tea and some cheeses. They mentioned that there is a cultural village in the Minsk region called the Museum of Folk Crafts and Technologies, where you can watch people make various products. For example, some of the exhibits are the beekeeper’s house, the mill-owner house, a farm, pottery shop, moonshine vodka bar and so on. That sounds interesting for a visit.
After the museum, we walked around for a bit looking for a place to have a drink, but everywhere around seemed to be full. As we had to get up fairly early the next day to catch our train back to Vilnius, we decided to call it a night and headed home.
For more to do in Minsk, check out this English city guide:
Here are a few more pictures!