At the end of October I travelled to Vilnius and Minsk in search of new landmarks and new adventures. The preparations for the trip involved booking the flights and accommodation well in advance in order to obtain the required documents for the tourist visa; obtaining a stamped receipt from the accommodation provider in Minsk; printing off the details of my annual travel insurance cover, having a new photograph taken for the visa; downloading the visa application from the Belarus Government website; completing the visa request and making the trip to Kensington High Street to buy the visa.
My first visa attempt was rejected because I did not have the right accommodation confirmation document. I took another look at the email from the hosts and found an attachment I had missed. On the second visit my €60 fee was accepted and I was told to return after a week to collect my passport and visa. The Belarus visa office was a source of some maps and tourist information which turned out to be pretty handy as I never located a tourist information office on my trip. Take note the Government of Belarus!
I believe in always taking the cheapest and most interesting route to any destination so this trip was no exception. I did not really need an excuse to visit Vilnius as it is a nice city so I booked overnight accommodation for both the arrival and departure flights. On my previous visit in 2007 I had flown into Kaunus Airport and made a day trip to Vilnius from there. Mindful of the fact that on my last trip to Lithuania my bank decided to block my debit card making it difficult to obtain cash for a few hours I uploaded currency onto to a Revolut card. This is a preloaded cash card which can be used across Europe and reduces the need to carry bundles of different currencies. Since my first visit Lithuania had entered the Eurozone so I could make use of some leftover currency from my trip to Riga.
Vilnius is a rather simple place to travel around in. From the airport front passengers walk over the zebra crossing, go around the bus station and allong a covered walkway to the train station. There is no evidence of a train station until you go down the lift or stairs and land on the only platform. It takes seven minutes from the airport to the city and passengers barely have time to admire the view. The train station leads to bus – rail interchange which is a huge circular bus and trolleybus stop. The stop just at the bottom of the station steps is for the city. It is possible to buy tickest on the bus by putting a coin or two into the metal tray on the driver’s door. The driver flips the tray on their side to get the money and deposit a ticket. The more money the more tickets. There is usually a stamping machine near the door.
It was a cold wet day in Vilnius but the city was still inviting. Since my last visit lots of coffee shops and pizzeries seem to have sprung up and a few shops have closed down. Hesburger has a couple of shops in the centre and they do a mean wrap with fries. My companion did not recommend the soya wrap, unfortunately. The Mexican meal came to €3.95 which is cheap by London prices. We also came across a craft beer pub-brewery not dissimilar to the ones springing up across the rest of Europe. We divided into the Rimi foodstore on the main street for a selection of local beers and cakes to take to our B & B. In the evening we had pizza and beer at Jurgis ir Drakonas on Pylimo street. Huge pizza and unfiltered beer were a pleasant end to an afternoon in the rain.
It was extremely hard to finish up breakfast in the warm cosy kitchen of the boarding house where we had spent the night. Was there time for one more pancake? Or more coffee? It had been raining solidly all night and I had woken several times to the sound of raining lashing against my window. Each time I had left my bed and looked at the slightly illuminated courtyard in the hope that the rain might be going away. Instead the intensity of the lashes increased and it was clear that this was a proper storm.
Our host called a cab and so we climbed from the warm basement kitchen up to the ground floor landing. We pulled on boots and outdoor clothing, gathered up our luggage and bade our host farewell.
The driver took us through the waterlogged streets to the bus-rail interchange and we were about the begin the second leg of our journey. We half-walked and half-ran through the departure hall towards the coach heading for Minsk. It was a sad wet morning and not the best of conditions for a three and a half hour trip to the unknown.
There is nothing really interesting about travelling along a motorway sat in a coach seat while the wind and rain lash the outer windows. We sped past trees, mini forests, dirt tracks, farmhouses, squat concrete buildings, road signs and painted cottages. We stopped at the border and had our passports and visas examined with an intensity that should shame UK Border Patrol. Our bags and persons were patted down and investigated. We wandered through duty free and acquired some gifts. We negotiated the exchange of Euros into Belarus Roubles. We drank coffee from a machine and were eventually dropped off at a concrete cave in Minsk.
We were approached by taxi drivers but needed to organise train tickets for our return to Vilnius so we declined their offers of transport. In a no-man’s land between the bus station and the street we found a plan of the local transport hub and were grateful for some words in English. Following the sign we made our way up the street to the shiny building we had noted on our way in. The entrance to the metro-rail interchange is a big open space populated by bewildered travellers, escalators and destination boards. We looked around and it was not clear where we were meant to go. Up the escalators? To the left? No. That was a café. To the right?
There seemed to be something happening in there.The ticket booking office is a triumph of order and beaurocracy over customer service. There were some machines by the windows which I had a play with but could not work out what they were for. There were no signs over the kiosks to indicate internal or external travel. Where to go? My companion accosted a startled employee and flung a barrage of English at her. Following the onslaught the woman picked up a telephone on her counter and dialled a number. When the handset was thrust at her my companion was able to explain that we wanted two single tickets to Vilnius departing three days hence and early in the morning. With some gesturing and the return of the handset, card tickets were purchased. A bargain at around €20. A gesture of thanks, I donated some small change to a board alter collector box guarded by a nun at the entrance to the metro.
Burdened as we were with our luggage and lack of command of the local language we hopped in a taxi and waved the addresses of our rental apartments at the driver. We were so grateful to be out of the pouring rain that we did not negotiate the fare. We were later to find out that this was a mistake. The driver took us though the centre and what I now know to be Independence Avenue, past the monument to the Great Patriotic War and into the housing estate where we were to be based for three days.
There really does not appear to be a means of prettying up panel housing units. Maybe it is the meanness of the building materials or the utilitarian nature of their design but they are depressing places to live in. This particular one had a set of concrete steps in the badly lit entrance, leading to a series of metal panels, two corridors going left and right and then a staircase to the first floor. There was no attempt at decor other than cream paint which was probably older than me. The mini-suites of apartments were sealed from the stairwell by thick metal doors which could only be breached by two locks. Inside, there was a small hallway and cupboards built above the doors. The apartment I had rented was functional but bare and clearly unloved. I like minimalism and am not overfond of decoration but there was no lightness of touch to the apartment. All the furniture, except the humongous television set, came straight out of the communist era. I found it a depressing place to be.
The housing estate proved to be, on futher investigation, a souless dreary place. The squat concrete supermarket selling the barest of essentials failed to lift the spirits. It sold an excellent freshly baked pizza and nice fresh produce but it was no Rimi. Three days of surviving on Greek style yogurt, rye bread, butter and cheese beckoned me. I bought a packet of coffee and some tubs of milk to wash the meagre food offerings down with. I am a simple soul and this fare was more than sufficient but I did wonder what would happen to my physique if I had to survive like that for more than a few days.
The horrendous rain and wind kept us confined to the housing estate for the first day. On the second day, the weather showed some improvement and we ventured out. I do not have a built-in sat nav and so get easily lost and confused with the result that my companion and I met up after breakfast, did some exploring of our neighbourhood and found ourself on a street. We explored a shoe shop where we discovered some lovely items but they seemed a little pricey. Moving down towards the river we found a department store which seemed to sell everything except food. When we emerged we looked over the river and saw the start of the Trinity Suburb. We were now able to do some proper tourist-type sightseeing.
Trinity Surburb, or Trinity Hill, is a small area of preserved buildings which managed to avoid being razed to the ground by the Nazis and Soviets. There are a few streets of buildings which would not disgrace any central European city. Particularly lovely is the concert hall with the faux stained glass windows. Unfortunately, the drizzle started up and we moved swiftly onwards in search of more sights. Not for away we came across October Square which contains a little monument to make the spot from which Belarus’s road lead out and some impressive flag poles. There was some kind of Former Soviet Bloc event going on – ice hockey perhaps – hence a great number of flags and banner were flying in the square. We mossied on down to the State Circus and a lovely little park taking in a small grocery shop for some chocolate and a café bar where I ate some kind of dried flat bread with stringy cheese. This meal was not exactly a culinary highlight. The beer was alright, though. From there we ended up in a suburb and discovered a bakery. We eventually made it out of the suburb and across the river. It tooks some scrabbling around to locate our residential area and we required coffee and cakes to get over the whole experience.
Having failed miserably to locate the McDonald’s and KFC on the map due to the dark and poor orientation skills we had to settle for what we could find in the supermarket. My two previous trips to this supermarket had convinced me that Belarus has a long way to go in terms of repackaged meals. Since I was not sure what equipment my kitchen had I decided to go simple. Dinner was some strange tortellini from the frozen food cabinet topped with ketchup. It was reasonably gross. Luckily I had also bought black bread, cream cheese and ground coffee. I knew I would survive.
The next day the housing estate was enveloped in fog and I had great fun taking photos of the emerging buildings from the kitchen window. We tried to find the statue remembering Nazi genocide but failed miserably. I blame the faulty internal sat nav. However, I managed to communicate with a road sweeper and was directed to the Museum of the Great Patriotic War and it’s gigantic memorial. I have seen many a Communist Era monument in my time but that has to be the biggest one yet. It was huge. World War Two was a huge event so a huge monument was required. Minsk was also declared a “Hero City” so the heroes were correctly celebrated.
From there we hopped on a bus and found ourselves at the Gum Department store. I do love a bit of Art Deco and Gum has it in bucket loads. Two things stood out: the gracefully ornate central staircase and the tiny little dining room tucked away at the top of the building. If you go there do look carefully at the decor as it is really interestingly done. I am not a lover of Russian fashion so I purchased only some lovely handwoven linen tea towels for presents.
The best meal of the trip, by far, was from the dining room and consisted of beetroot salad, beef and potatoes in a gravy and a sweet bread roll. It was also incredibly cheap. Everyone there was very helpful and we were able to pay using a debit card (handy when you are low on cash). When I go back again this little eating place is top of my list for a visit.
I was given enough energy to tackle the post office decorated envelope section, the Red Church, Independence Square and then the Metro. The manager of the post office shop was extremely helpful and managed to explain what the different types of decorated envelopes were. I am a big collector of these so I was delighted to add to my stock. I also bought some New Year cards for my collection. Belarus Postal Service has also produced a Postcrossing stamp, which I think is very sporting of them. I first became interesting in visiting Minsk thanks to a Postcrossing card landing on my doorstep. So happy days.
On the final morning I did manage to see the Nazi Genocide statue, briefly. If I had looked behind me while I was talking to the street cleaner I would have seen it a day earlier. A pre-booked taxi failed to show so my companion and I went to the nearest hotel and ordered one from there. A few minutes later we were dropped off at the railway station. Our journey ended when the doors of our extremely modern international train closed and moved off swiftly towards Vilnius with the sun rising above the city of Minsk.
I am very disappointed that I did not get to see more of the city but late October was not the best time to go. Places I have not seen are the national library, Victory Square, Gorky Park, St Elizabeth Convent, the House Museum of the First Congress of the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party, the museums and art galleries. They are all on my list for a return trip.
My overall impression of Minsk was that it was an interesting place which did not shy away from its history but was also looking forward to the future. The statues were impressive as were the neo-classical buildings of the Stalin era. The highlights of the trip were the small things such as a brief conversation with a woman out walking her dog and the kindness of a customer in a small café who translated a menu for us. There were many adventures – not least trying to find a way out of the housing estate and understanding the language. At one point my companion and I wandered into a small shop without knowing exactly what it was. I bought some local chocolate as I felt I had to get something. It was wonderful.
Downsides of the trip (apart from the weather) was the lack of information when we were wandering round in any language. It really would have been nice to have found a tourist information office and to have found some trips or advice on using the buses.
I left Minsk on a fast train wanting to return and see more and that for me is always a good thing. In fact, I have already booked stays in Minsk and Brest for 2017.