Saturday, May 18, 2013

Minsk the Capital of Belarus in One Word: GO!

Saturday, May 18, 2013
I returned from my week in Minsk, Belarus, and I have been very busy lately putting everything online in my native language. I had a most amazing time there and I have many good impressions to share, so finally this is a version in English, as concise as possible but as detailed as possible. I have already blogged about getting a visa to Minsk, so I  will not dwell on that any longer, I suggest you check this out with your local authorities. Visa for Lithuanians is waved in many countries, so having a visa glued in one's passport for me is pretty exotic.

To begin with, Belarus, Ukraine, Kaliningrad Oblast, part of Russia, Poland and Lithuania used to make one unit, one country: the Commonwealth of Kingdom of Poland and Great Duchy of Lithuania. In the XVIIIth century political crisis (after the direct bloodline king Sigismund Augustus died having survived three wives but childless, we had an era of elected kings) led to Commonwealth of the two countries to be divided by our neighbours at the time: Austria, Prussia and Russia. Part of Lithuania with capital Vilnius came to belong to Russia for about 200 years. Lithuania proclaimed independence in 1918, after the WWI. During WWII we had two waves of occupation: twice by Germany and Russia. After WWII we came to be part of Soviet Union. Thing is, WWII is considered as the Great Patriotic War in some parts of Europe and they think they came to liberate us from Germany. During WWII thanks to both occupations Lithuania lost every fourth citizen, in total 1 million 100 thousand people. More than 300,000 people were exiled to Siberia or imprisoned by the Soviet government, the one that "liberated" us. Why am I bringing this up here? Because my time in Minsk coincided with May holidays in Minsk and they celebrate Victory Day of theirs, which meant the beginning of occupation to us.

Minsk was decorated in banners and flags.

Victory column. "Nation's deed is immortal" say the two buildings.

However, I don't wish to make a political statement in this post. I have written what I have written to shed some light on why the way of life in Minsk is so different from what I am used to. WWII left the city in ruins, and this is the reason their Old Town didn't survive, and after the war the city was rebuilt in the Stalinist style, earning it the title of "Hero City" along with other 11 cities in the former Soviet Union. The earliest reference to Minsk goes back to 1067, so there used to be historical buildings for sure.

A trademark of Minsk: Boy and a Swan (L. Bernini).
Minsk started the season right when I came- the fountains were on, the flowers were being planted, cafes started pavement tables...The atmosphere was amazing and the weather was good.

Road is life. I think that's the motto of any travel blogger out there. 
I bought a ten-day pass for all public transportation in Minsk: trolleybuses, trams, buses and metro. It cost me 50.000 BYR ( that only makes 5 EUR). Yes, I know, some prices are crazy for the value you get, I pay twice as much for twice less in Vilnius (we only have two means of transport). I used the metro extensively -it's fast, reliable, clean. Rush hours to be avoided, though, because there are so many people. Any chance you know some Russian and own and Android phone? You can download an application for Minsk public transport to your phone for free. I suggest you buy a pass instead of having to fork out 1700 BYR no change needed preferably (0.15 EUR) every time you board a bus or enter a metro station. I also suggest using Bus 100 because it runs past all the main sights.

In memoriam to victims of Minsk blast 2011.
Many of the points of interest are lined along the main street, the Independence Avenue. I suggest you download a free In Your Pocket Minsk guide and make your own itinerary. The team of the guide seem to have done a great job and it's going to be your main source of information because the majority of tourist information about Minks is simply not on the Internet, would you believe? I had sweated enough to work with the maps and transport schemes and failed miserably. Please also bear in mind that it's very difficult to buy tourist material in English in Minsk, so you'd better stock it from wherever you can. There is only one tourist information center in Minsk at the moment of me writing this post and it is located near the metro stop "Nemiha". This place is in the center but it doesn't work at weekends. There is no such service neither in the coach station nor in the railway station, beats me why. I stocked my maps for it during ITB Berlin.

In Minsk, you should also see the library, the botanical gardens, and the complex of church buildings for St. Elizabeth.

The national library in Minsk was completed in 2006 and currently holds 14 million printed materials. There is an observation deck from which you can see the panorama of the city. It's quite disappointing because it's walled with a glass that makes it difficult to take good photos and enjoy the view. The cafe one floor below the observation deck is small and doesn't offer such good views as they advertise. But it's worth seeing anyway, being #46 in the Top 50 of Strangest Buildings.

National library, Minsk. 
The botanical gardens in Minsk have two entrances, one for the staff and one as their main entrance. But don't worry, both of them sell admittance tickets. I suggest you go through the main entrance because there's also a funfair ground nearby in case flora bores your significant other. It's a big place and it was supposed to be beautiful but the selection of flowers of my time visiting was quite disappointing. The season was for tulips and they only had about 10 beds of them, while in Vilnius we are used to having several hundreds of kinds of them. Also, winter garden charges an extra entrance fee.

Tulips in bloom. 
The Orthodox church and convent in the name of Martyr Great Duchess Elizabeth is located out of central Minsk but it seems to be a great place to explore. You can read about it more in the In Your Pocket guide I have already mentioned above. Buses 18, 26, 68, 68b, 105, 131 go past "Novinki"stop you need to get off. Expect about 30 min bus ride. Ladies might want to bring a shawl or a scarf to cover their heads. Before going you might also want to check out more of the life of the saint.

Inner courtyard. 
When you feel like having a break from the modern city life, you have two very good options: an ethnographic open air museum in Dudutki and an organized tour to Mir and Nesvizh castles.

Dudutki ethnographic museum is 1,5 hour bus ride out of Minsk. You need Bus 323 that leaves from Minsk Vostochny (Minsk Western) bus station, not to be confused with the metro station of this name. You can buy your ticket from the driver, one-way fare at the time of my going there bus 13,000 BYR (1,20 EUR). Yes, I can only repeat myself, some prices are crazy. The museum will set you back 70,000 BYR, though (6. 50 EUR). The bus stops right in front of the main entrance, get off when you see a wooden church on your left. Please bear in mind that at the moment of my writing this some of  the bus departures on their website in English are wrong, the 9.40 bus leaves at the weekends only, for regular days there's an 8.40 one, the return time most convenient would be 14.20, which leaves you with plenty of time to explore the grounds. Make it a point to visit the moonshine house, the mini zoo, the stables, and have lunch in the cafe (do try the borscht and potato pancakes). There's an ATM by the ticket office but wi-fi will most likely not work.

Church in Dudutki.

The mini zoo star.

I rode it!
Craftsmen demonstrate their skills. This one is for washing hands.
Another alternative, a day trip to see the two of three UNESCO sights in Belarus, Mir castle and Nesvizh palace, is also a must. The tricky thing is that though both sights are only 30 km apart, there seems to be no public transportation between them. They can be both accessed from Minsk by buses but that would make two day trips. Also, it was my fourth day in Minsk and I did feel the need to relax and be pampered. In addition to that, I will repeat that Belarus really needs to work on more exposure on the Internet in English about their tourism opportunities. No matter how deep I dug, I couldn't google up any company that offered this tour, so I inquired at ITB Berlin and the girls at the Belarus stand wrote down a website for me. I booked this tour at the price of 400,000 BYR ( 36 EUR). This price included a bus ride with a guide, entrance fees and photo permits to all the sights, guided tours of the two places (1,5 hour each), and lunch (three courses). I am very satisfied with this tour. The tour company is called Viapol and I really recommend it. Going with a guide is useful because you get to know different things from history of the places and everything is taken care of (well, except for the weather, it did rain on that day).

Mir castle.
Nesvizh palace. 
To conclude your stay, why don't you see a performance at the National opera and ballet theater? It's worth going if only to see the interior everybody who has seen it is raving about. You can use this rare opportunity in the country where English hasn't still arrived and buy your ticket online.

Finally, a few more tips to round up.

Money. Unless you are coming from Vilnius, I doubt you will be able to exchange your currency into BYR in your home town. There are ATM machines and banks in Minsk to do that. I suggest you ask for small bills because change is a pain in the neck. I mean, if your toilet fee is 750 BYR and you  expect the lady in the box to have change from 20.000 BYR, you are willing your bladder AND also those in the line behind you.

Food. Good, delicious, staple, affordable. Cafes stock all kinds of cakes and coffees, salads and drinks. You can get food that ranges from sushi to pizza. The main problem is waiting. 20 min for the waitress to notice you, 10 minutes to get your menu, 45 min for the salad, 1,5 hour for the main hot dish if the place is busy, and they will forget your coffee. Expect to pay extra for every small thing. I was honestly shocked to find my wasabi and ginger charged on the bill when I ordered sushi, I kind of thought they were constituent part to the dish. Silly me.

Arrival. I'm not sure about the airport, but if you arrive by coach or train, you are in the center already. Bus 100 goes past, so hop on to get further ahead or take the metro (stop "Plochad Lenina"). There's something about paying extra for your luggage in case you aren't travelling light (I was, so I didn't pay).

Accommodation.  "Not wonderful yet,"- said Miranda Priestly and we all know what she meant by saying that. Hotels in Minsk are expensive. Expect 70 USD per night in a single room. There have appeared several hostels recently (none existed like two years ago, so that's a winning), all listed on Hostelworld. I stayed in Hotel Sport. You can find my review of them on Hostels were booked way before I got to doing my own booking months before my departure because of May holidays.

Wi-fi. If you want to do a lot of social media while in Minsk, you might want to rethink your destination. It's almost impossible to get a decent signal and the cafes that sport the logo on the door do it for the sporting fun. There's a paid option by Beltelecom. I was only able to get a good signal in a place called "Golden Cafe".

Souvenirs. Linen clothes, linen tablecloths, hay ornaments, jewellery boxes decorated with ornaments from hay, chocolate sweets, figures of household spirit domovoj.

Overall, I had a fantastic time: my accommodation turned out to be much better than expected, the food was the kind that I like, the transport was ultimate, the sights were impressive, the people were kind and extra polite. I highly recommend Minsk as a destination to explore.

Feel free to leave a comment or ask a question. Thank you for reading me.

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