Part 1 of the journey: Belarus
Belarus was always high on the Comtourist list of countries we hoped to visit one day. So we knew our planned trip to the Ukraine in the summer of 2006 was and excellent opportunity to stay in Minsk for a couple of day’s. The main problem was our limited time of three weeks plus the additional expenses that a visit to Belarus would imply. Our wish to visit Belarus prevailed however so we decided to go one way or the other. Belarus has strict Visa procedure similar to Russia, so a visit has to be planned well in advance. An invitation from a hotel or tourist organization is required to obtain a visa. The visa is only valid for the day’s covered by the invitation so it is not very easy to travel around the country without booking hotels first. We decided to stay in Minsk for three day’s and from there take a train to Kiev. We really would have liked to stay in Brest as well but chose to go there an other time. We booked the Belarus hotel for three night and flew to Minsk on august the 16th 2006. Minsk turned out to be a great city well worth to spend a view days. Read the Comtourist city guide about Minsk tourism, Stalinist architecture and it’s many Soviet monuments. You will find more about the country on the Belarus Country profile.
Planning: Flying airBaltic
The home base of Comtourist is the Dutch capital of Amsterdam. Our preferred way to travel to Belarus would have been a direct flight from Amsterdam to Minsk with a Belavia Tu-154. Russian aircraft are disallowed on the Amsterdam airport however so this would never happen. We decided to go for the cheapest flight on the market and started doing or research on the internet. AirBaltic came out as the winner of our price comparison. The Riga based budget airline offers the best one way rates from Western Europe to former USSR countries. We booked a flight from Brussels to Minsk and the return flight from Odessa to Brussels. There is always a stop in Riga with airBaltic flight’s but this inconvenience is outweigh by the low cost of the flight. And there are worse places to wait for a connecting flight than Riga anyway.
Day 1: Arrival in Minsk
Arrival on Minsk airport
Landing on an airport of a reclusive communist country is an adventure that Comtourist is all about. Not many things have not changed since the Soviet Union ceased to exist in Belarus. Our experience at Minsk airport could not topple our 2004 arrival at Pyongyang Airport in North Korea but did not disappoint at all. We saw loads of Soviet era aircraft like Il-76, Tu-154 and An-24 when we taxied from the runway to the terminal. Minsk 2 airport, built in 1982 is very much a Soviet style airport with typical communist architecture from the nineteen eighties. We were told not to take photo’s by a security guard almost directly when we entered the terminal. We could not resist filming and shooting photo’s however when we were waiting for passport control. This resulted in our second clash with the state authorities as we were now warned by a security officer in civilian clothes that had been watching us for a while already. The border and customs procedures went very smoothly however and we wee now in Belarus. Minsk 2 airport is located 42km from the capital, we decided to take the bus to town, that runs every half our. We passed the Mound of glory, a monument dedicated to the Belarusian’s that died during World War 2 on our way to the capital.
Places to stay: The Belarus Hotel
Our preference for old school Soviet hotels resulted in our choice for Hotel Belarus. The Belarus is state owned and exploited by the national travel company Beltourist. The general rule in ex Soviet Union countries is that the hotels named after the country (Belarus), capital (Minsk) or Moscow are the favourites. Hotel Belarus with 22 floors turned out to be an excellent choice, most of the rooms have not been renovated yet and the swimming pool with social realist fresco’s is truly magnificent. A bonus is the great location of the Hotel near the Svisloch river. During summer time are the river banks the most popular place for the locals to hang out. Cheap beer is sold in tents and boat restaurants serve food. The river banks near the hotel are an excellent place to relax near the hotel after a day of site seeing in Minsk. After checking in we had some beers on the river bank and try to find a good restaurant. After some looking around did we decide to eat at 0,5 u Ratushi at Ulitsa Gertsena witch tuned out to be a good choice. The menu is a mix of international and local food. We decided to take some Manchanka (potato pancakes) and kletsky (potato dumplings stuffed with meat). After dinner we moved to the bar and the place really started to come alive. The place was now packed and a band played some pretty good music. We did have to pay 10 Euro for the band when we paid the bill at the end of the evening!
Day 2 Minsk: Walking Frantsisk Skorina Avenue
Minsk’s main attraction is the famous classical Stalinist architecture in the city centre. The capital of Belarus was totally destroyed by the Germans in Word War 2 and rebuild as a communist showpiece by the Soviets after the war. The centre point of these highlight of communist architecture can all be found around Frantsisk Skorina Avenue. Mink’s 5km long main street starts at Independence square (Ploshchad Nezavisimosti) and ends in the Vostok district. Halfway are October Square (Oktyabrskaya Ploshchad), Victory square (Pobedy Ploshchad) and Yakub Kolas Square. We decided to spend our first day in Minsk by walking Frantsisk Skorina Avenue and see what we would find on our way.
Pobedy Ploshchad (Independence square) is a good point to start a tour over Frantsisk Skorina Avenue (Prospekt Nezavisimosti). Highlight on the square are the City Council, Belarus State University and House of Parliament with a Lenin statue in front. This large map of the centre of Minsk shows the most important part of Frantsisk Skorina Avenue.
Start of Skorina Avenue
Frantsisk Skorina Avenue starts at the south site of Independence square. Every building on this part of the street is a masterpiece of socialist architecture. Highlights at the beginning of Minsk main street are the Post Office where we bought some stamps and the chique Hotel Minsk. Next up was the KGB headquarters very prominent placed on the main Avenue. Opposite the KGB building is a bust of Felix Dzerzhinsky, the founder of the KGB, taken down in Moscow but still standing in Belarus. We passed the famous GUM state warehouse where we would do some shopping later. The entrance of Oktoberskaya Metro station is beautiful decorated with a classic social realist fresco. Here the first part of Frantsisk Skorina Avenue ends at October Square.
October square is the next part of Frantsisk Skorina Avenue. At the west site we have a look at monumental House of Government, the Trade Unions Palace of Culture and the Museum of the Great Patriotic War that we would visit later. At the other site of the road we walk up to the House of Officers (former Red Army House) a classic Soviet building with a cross marking the entrance. A familiar monument seen in many communist countries made of the first T-34 to enter the city in 1943, placed on a sloping pedestal flanks the officers house. Near the house of officers and T-34 monument we saw an other classic Soviet government building. We had some problems making photographs of the building because there were trees in front of it. We tried to get a good picture from all angles until a soldier walked out of the building to reprimand us. We had to delete al photo’s we took and our names were noted. This building turned out to be the Residence of the President of Belarus, fortunately we did manage to keep some photo’s, find one on the Minsk architecture page.
Victory square ends the central part of Frantsisk Skorina Avenue. In the middle of the square stands the Victory column, a monument commemorating the Soviet victory over the Nazi’s in the great patriotic war. A subway takes us to the centre of the square with the column, eternal flame and stone’s for the twelve Soviet hero cities. Around the square are some beautiful decorated social realist residential buildings. After we looked around on the square we visited the First congress of the Russian Social Democratic Workers Party Museum. A friendly lady gave us a tour in Russian trough the green wooden barrack. Opposite the museum did we try to find the house where Harvey Lee Oswald (Kennedy’s alleged assassin) lived. The house cannot be visited and there is no sign that shows the house but we did manage to find it.
We concluded our walk over Frantsisk Skorina Avenue by walking from Victory square to the Vostok District a typical Soviet suburb. This is quit a long walk but certainly worth while on this part of Minsk’s main street we saw many interesting things. Main sites are the statue’s of Yakub Kolas and Mikhail Kalinin, October Cinema, Tjum warehouse and the Soviet high-rise buildings of the Vostok district. After walking for a day gassing at Stalinist architecture and monuments we took the metro back to the main part of Frantsisk Skorina Avenue and have dinner at Express Krynista. This Soviet style restaurant is excellent for tourist as you can see all the cheap and tasty food displayed.