Another land have I loved long.
No seas or mountains to adorn it,
But there I learned of grief and mourning
And there it was my soul grew strong”
-Part of “MY NATIVE LAND” by Natallia Arsenneva
Minsk may not feature high on any beauty awards with 80% of the city destroyed in World War II; Minsk was blessed or rather cursed with a Soviet makeover.
The soviets also did my spare many a church or other buildings deemed incompatible but as cities go, Minsk does have some beautiful spots and despite the grey thick fog which wrapped the city there are parts of beauty in its architecture, wide streets. However it was the people I met that were special. However my trip got off to a fairly disastrous start. My flight from London with Belavia airlines was severely delayed.
I had a transfer arranged and was told the driver understood English. However he did not understand a word, in fact one could argue he could not even understand Russian as my friend from CS Dasha asked him (what I had been trying to do) to drop me at the station on route to the hostel I was going to register at, So I could meet her and Yauheni. However that failed. My new rucksack strap broke (which Olya kindly fixed for me) and it took some convincing of the inept driver to take me to the station. Meeting Yahueni and Dasha was great and despite the start of my trip being a calamity, the meeting was to set the tone of my trip. We ate at a nice restaurant, conveniently situated opposite the KGB Building drove me around at Minsk at night and explained many interesting antedotes. Such as the infamous National library, which several Belarusians have pointed out was funded involuntary by the government taking tax from its citizen’s account. The resulting structure hasn’t won the appreciation of Belarusians. Even if the library is now a bonafide tourist attraction.
«PHOTO WARNING »
Minsk like some soviet cities is camera-shy or rather camera-unfriendly. Buildings like the KGB building are not OK to photograph and as the Bradt guide says if caught by the militia you may have explaining to do. However it is (relatively) easy to take pictures here. The monument of Felix Dzerzhinsky , founder of Cheka, the hated KGB predecessor can be photographed. The Presidential Palace is certainly off limits and taking photographs will only get you in trouble..
The one good thing about seeing Minsk at night is the luminance of the buildings this more than makes up for the ugly soviet facade with make up as so to speak.
Yauheni and Dasha then drove me to my lovely host Olya. At the time her kind sister Yulia was also staying there. As in Russia there are many apartments that essentially shared by several people. All of whom (unless they share) have their own room but share the kitchen and bathroom. This can lead to tension when guests come as some people are not so pragmatic but seek to extract financial concessions or in my case cause problems for the inviting host.
Despite all this I had a great time speaking with Olya and Yulia. The next day they went to Mogilev (where I was heading later in my trip). I was to meet a kind shop worker Tanya, who spoke English well. Something not so common in Belarus.
Minsk will be hosting the World Ice Hockey Championships but one has to question how ready it is for it structurally or linguistically.
However I did meet friendly and helpful people. If the tourists do too Minsk will be enjoyable as it was for me.
Olya returned from Mogilev that night and took me to see the performance of her kind friend Anna. Who with along the others is skilled at Tribal dancing. However this is not a traditional Belarusian dance but an American dance. We arrived late to see it all.
Afterwards Olya took me to Nemiga, which is arguably Minsk’s most attractive part. Some old buildings grace part of the town as well as the Orthodox Cathedral of the Holy Spirit, and a town hall. However we walked more on the side close to the Island of Tears structure. An impressive memorial built to commemorate the soldiers who died in the Soviet Afghan campaign. A structure with statues of women presumably mothers crying, the structure looks beautiful day or night and saw it both
I also met Olya’s friend Paul, and ate more traditional Belarusian food. The next day with Olya I met Anna and Alexi who drove us to the Belarusian Cultural village. A place of old Minsk relocated. I really struggled with the ice despite wearing boots when Belarusians like Olya moved effortlessly along.
The next morning I went by marshutka to Polatsk and Olya was due to go to Poland but her schedule did not run entirely to plan and I was happy that we were able to meet again in Minsk On my return to Minsk (from Mogilev) I stayed by my second host in Minsk Marina.
Also very kind and with a great sense of humour, I was to have another kind host.
On my second day in the morning I set off for the St Elisabeth monastery (actually convent) . Marina apparently joked with her friends that I had run off to the monastery because of her! Of course, it was not the case. Despite the brief map on the website that locates it near to Academiya station it was nowhere near but extremely by foot. It took me two buses and a lot of walking literally to reach it. In the store were kind people but non-English speaking. The day before I had enjoyed meeting with marina and saw the National library as well as several places such as Victory Square and Ground Zero. Minsk s full of war monuments like any Soviet influenced city and of Lenin himself. Like the cities in Belarus, you can fund the curious and antithesis of Orthodox Churches and Soviet ‘heroes’ such as Lenin. In the evening met Vikoria also from CS in Independence square where another statue of Lenin and a red (Catholic) Church reside. We had a very enjoyable time walking a lot through Minsk at night and eating at another Belarusian restaurant. Belarusian food is nice but sometimes heavy and calorific. Dishes such as a hot pot of meat, potatoes, cheese etc should be expected. That aside the food is nice.
I met Marina’s kind friends, and later met Olya again that evening. Returning to Nemiga before finding a place famous for its pies. Something to try in Minsk. I have often been asked why Belarus and is there anything to see but it was reluctantly I left this city back for London.