Well, what to say about Belarus? I’m guessing that by reading
this guide you’ve already pretty much made your mind up to
go, as the country doesn’t really attract many casual visitors!
To be fair, it’s not that bad, provided you remember to set
your watch back 20 years when you arrive! I think it’s fair
to say that there is a fair amount of nostalgia for the old days
around these parts!
Remember to check the visa situation well before you go. We secured
our visas in January 2005, five months before our trip, and had
no trouble whatsoever. Some braved it at the airport, but the situation
Minsk 2 airport is a vast, empty communist-era behemoth many miles
from Minsk itself. The going rate in June 2004 was $20-25 for a
trip into town, but this is only an indication. There is a bus,
but it takes a loooonnnnggg time, and sits belching dubious exhaust
fumes until the driver judges it full enough to make it worth his
while. Some flights (from Ukraine and the like) arrive at Minsk
1 – I’ve never been (our flight from Riga came into
2), but it’s actually in the city limits and supposedly much
Other popular ways into the country include train from Warsaw or
Moscow (a daily service actually runs all the way from Brussels)
and busses from Poland and the Baltic countries. We left the country
ourselves by train – a local service between Brest and Terespol
on the Polish side: 18 minutes of pure cold war terror for the bargain
price of 80p a ticket.
The police are everywhere in the country. And yes, they are watching
you. And probably because you are foreign. The KGB was invented
by a Belarussian (Felix Dzerhinsky), a fact the Belarussians are
inanely proud of, and they have been keen to carry on his legacy.
Secret policemen are still a fact of life, and whilst not usually
intimidating to the traveller, the locals may have different view
– under no circumstances should you try and engage the locals
in a “And how mad is the guy who runs this country?”
type discussion. The good news is, unlike other ex-Soviet states
such as Moldova, the police we encountered were friendly, courteous,
and above all, not corrupt enough to extract on the spot bribes
Tourism is not particularly well-developed, however state-run tourist
offices (“Belintourist”) are very helpful and can arrange
most things for a small (i.e. reasonable) commission. The one thing
the Brest branch struggled with was international rail reservations
(Brest-Warsaw on one of the several direct trains), hence our ride
in the cattle carriage.
Minsk is a big, sprawling city with a real sense of poverty and
desolation. It’s not in itself pretty, however the views across
the lake to the Holy Spirit from the front of the monolithic Hotel
Belarus (i.e. not featuring the hotel itself).
This city is big. There is a metro, but it’s not much use
to be honest, and if you can work out the minibus, normal bus and
trolleybus routes then you’re doing very well indeed. You
will end up catching a cab, which is a shame, as the vast majority
of them seem to go out there way to rip off us decadent westerners.
If you know any Russian numbers, try and use them to thrash out
a fare you’re happy to pay before you get in the cab.
There are a wide choice of hotels – even 1,500+ Tartan Army
didn’t put too much of a strain on the city’s beds.
These range from fleapits inhabited by transient workers and traders
near the station through to the alleged international class Hotel
Minsk (in reality, just scraping in as a four star). A number of
Soviet-era three star dinosaurs lurk in easy staggering distance
from the city centre – the iconic landmark of the Hotel Belarus
faces the Planeta and the Yubilyeny across the lake slightly to
the north of the centre. The Belarus is not too bad, although some
of it is badly in need of renovation. It does boast almost a dozen
different drinking and/or dining options, so it’s possible
to go on a pub crawl without even leaving the hotel – something
usually only associated with high-class resort hotels!
All this talk of a city “centre” is a little misleading.
There is no obvious centre, although the junction of Prasp Francyska
Skaryny and Vul Enhelsa makes a pretty good claim for it (perhaps
it’s the McDonalds!). Skaryny is a big, scary motorway sized
boulevard, and links Heroes Square, Oktyabrskaya (October) Square
and Pl Nezalezhnasti near the station, running for around 3 miles.
Other areas to be aware of are Trinity Suburb (the barely reconstructed
and conspicuously empty “old town”), and Rakov, home
to an apartment block sized shopping centre, the country’s
oldest church and an excellent brewpub.
Minsk isn’t really a sightseer’s dream, but there are
a few things to keep you going:
Hero Square – Minsk
is one of a handful of Soviet Hero Cities, a title it takes very
seriously. There are a cluster of hero monuments just to the north
of the Hotel Planeta, but the main action takes place down at
Pl Peramohi, where an huge star-topped column rises from a big
roundabout. The underground passage also forms part of the monument.
Lee Harvey Oswald’s Apartment
Block – the CIA’s biggest patsy lived in Minsk
for a few years, in a corner apartment block (at Kamunistychanaja
Vul 4), but it really just is an apartment block that you can
stand a stare at from the street. It is diagonally opposite…
The wee green house where the
original Communist Party was founded. This now houses a
wee museum, but we never went in. Some neighbourhood, eh?
Museum of the Great Patriotic
War – in the top right corner of Oktyabrskaya Pl
is the jewel in the crown of the country’s museums. Most
things are in Russian/Belorussian, but you’ll still get
the gist of it.
KGB Building –
Large, imposing yellow building on Prasp Francyska Skaryny. You
don’t want to go in here.
River Svislach –
the river/lake that bends in front of the Hotel Belarus and twists
its way past Trinity Suburb is quite picturesque in the summer.
Pedal boats can be hired, and beers can be enjoyed in the summer
beer tents along the banks.
Holy Spirit Cathedral
– The big, white orthodox church at the top of the hill,
looking down on the Svislach is worth looking in on, if you like
that kind of thing. Head under the overpass to your left (as you
look down) and cross the road to find the SS Peter & Paul
Church, which is very old. Before you get there, there’s
a stunning Soviet façade on the first shop after the flyover.
Trinity Suburb –
Minsk’s attempt at an old town is still pretty empty. You’ll
find it hemmed in to a small triangle next to the Svislach River,
between the Hotel Belarus and the Cathedral.
Dinamo Stadium –
home to Dinamo Minsk and the national team, the Soviet-arched
stadium is worth a look. It also plays host to a daily market,
so you can stock up on cheap polyester tracksuits at the same
Mir Castle (out of the
city, on the way to Brest) – an old, well preserved Polish
castle. Not worth a special trip, unless you’re a big fan
of old, well preserved Polish castles.
Now we’re talking. Minsk certainly isn’t short of places
to have a drink. It is conspicuously short of places to get rid
of all the fluid once you’ve drunk it mind! Some bars don’t
have any toilets, some share, and some (like the riverside beer
tents in the summer) rely on Glastonbury style portaloos. You have
Hotel Belarus –
dozens of drinking options, from the outside karaoke tent to the
Billiards Bar on the first floor, via the ground floor posh Pierre
Smirnoff restaurant to the top floor Panorama restaurant/bar/cabaret.
There’s even bars dotted around the upper floors where rooms
would usually be, although we never actually braved these for
a beer. Finally, the piece de resistance is the Westworld Club
– see below for Rich’s review.
Rakowski Brovar –
Very posh, Germanic-style brew-pub set in a suburban backstreet
behind a huge shopping centre/apartment block. Not the easiest
thing to find, but worth it when you get there – it’s
in the suburb of Rakov, which is actually just behind the Hotel
Yubileynaya and very close to the SS Peter & Paul church.
Loads of food, very good beer, and the cream of the country’s
waiting staff. None of this comes cheap (for Minsk), but you’ll
easily forget which country you’re in whilst here.
Shopping Centre open air bar
– A summer arrangement, on the first floor terrace of the
huge apartment/shopping monolith; rows and rows of outside bars,
perfect for getting some fresh air (and exhaust fumes) and watching
the world pass by in their polyester tracksuits. The problem comes
when you need to find a toilet – they’re downstairs
and to the far left.
Heart Café –
walking between Rakov and Skaryny on vul Kamsamolskaya will take
you past this camp little café.
Air Grip – a popular
pizzeria/café, sharing a roof (and a set of toilets) with
a cinema on vul Kamsamolskaya. Very busy.
Stary Mensk – On
Skaryny itself, this small bar was bigged up in the Lonely Planet
as having an excellent terrace from which to spy on the KGB monolith
over the road and a cosy interior plastered with olde worlde pictures
of Minsk. What they didn’t say is that it’s the size
of a newspaper kiosk (the beer fridge doesn’t even fit inside!),
which inexplicably, has no toilets whatsoever. Anywhere. Your
best bet is either the Hotel Minsk (500 yards one way) or the
next nearest bar (500 yards the other way). Coupled with the torrential
downpour getting spray under the plastic tent of the street terrace,
it’s fair to say this place was a disappointment!
Patio – best restaurant
we found, further up Skaryny and opposite the second-best (McDonalds).
Patio does pizzas, steaks and salads, and also manages a decent
wine and beer list. Expensive for Minsk, but believe me, you won’t
Banana Café –
in the heart of Trinity Suburb, opposite the back door of Stary
Goard (below). It’s fair to say this is one of the most
incongruous pubs I’ve ever been in. A genuine Arabic hookah
café (owned by a genuine Arab, replete in flowing white
robes), with a handful of low tables surrounded by cushioned seats,
Heineken on draught and Amazonian beauties swaying to the ethnic
beats. Let Rich take up the story (he was in on a different night):
“Just minutes after I arrived (and without any prior warning)
a beautiful Middle Eastern belly dancer came spinning out of a
side door and performed for the clapping masses… All 16
of them! Do you find sultry Middle Eastern women attractive? Worth
a visit if you time it right.”
Minsky Brovar –
Halfway down vul Kisjaleva to the north-west of the centre, just
when you given up hope of finding a large industrial brewery in
a leafy residential street, is the Alivarya Brewery (the red and
yellow insignia can be seen all over town). The Minsky Brovar
is one of the two brewery taps, and by far the nicest (my favourite
bar in the whole town, I’d say). Thick wooden tables and
an olde worlde atmosphere are complimented by good food and an
excellent unfiltered beer (ask for “nyefiltra piva”)
that I didn’t find anywhere else. Also has nice toilets.
Shame it closes at 10pm, however right around the corner is…
Alivarya Brewery pub
– the second brewery tap is a more utilitarian affair. Strip
lit, with trestle tables (and bizarrely, the only non-smoking
section we found in the city), it knocks out Alivarya bottled
beer to an audience of willing and eager local jakies. Go in here,
by all means, but do it with your eyes open!
Stary Gorad –
on the southern edge of Trinity Suburb, this popular restaurant/bar
seemed nice, but we didn’t stay too long. Has a back terrace
overlooking the Banana Bar.
Café Mistral –
on a street leading from Skaryny to the stadium, this downstairs
bar is pleasant enough, if a little empty during the day. Has
it’s own toilets, which is always a bonus!
Grunwald – more
of a posh restaurant than a bar, they were happy enough to serve
us beer as it was the middle of the day. Popular with the local
mafia molls, by the looks of it. On Karla Marxa, which runs parallel
Traktir Na Marxa –
just along from Grunwald, this is the more down-to-earth drinkers
option. Nothing special, but worth a visit if walking past.
riverside bar on the edge of Trinity. Two large covered riverside
terrace areas as well as an interior we never ventured into. Like
something out of a fast show sketch, we were entertained by a
genuine Peruvian pan-pipe band whilst drinking here.
And in a new feature, here is our resident creature of the night's
view on all things down and dirty...
Alcatraz - Located in
the basement of the Trade Union’s Culture Palace (next to
the Museum of the Great Patriotic War). Small but quirky due to
the cell doors on the seating booths and entertaining thanks to
the group of local girls who invited me into their cell to engage
in the national obsession of downing shots of vodka. Proceedings
were then interrupted when the music was stopped, the dance floor
was cleared and a compere appeared to host a few rounds of ‘Mr
and Mrs’ before introducing four lads who danced in their
vests, cut-off baggy jeans and big trainers and who seemed to
believe that they were the New Kids on the Block. If nature is
calling (or if you simply can’t stand the idea of having
to watch such shite!) for Gods sake don’t attempt to head
for the gents by walking along the edge of the dance floor during
their routine for this causes a security alert on a truly epic
scale with staff moving swiftly to ensure you return to your seat.
Once the ‘New Kids’ have finished, the compere returns
to the fold and toilet visits are again permitted. On my return
I was immediately led up to the dance floor by one of my newfound
friends and my reward for merely walking to the centre of the
room was a free cocktail! After having to sit through the ‘New
Kids’ things were later evened up when some lassie danced
around a chrome pole with her puppies out.
Bronx - Had it on my
list before I got to Belarus and then had it recommended to me
as a ‘disco’ by my hotel reception. My advice…
If you’re ever in Minsk again, don’t bother. Although
it is very refined and very nicely done out, Bronx is little more
than a pool and billiard bar. Umpteen tables, two bars and overlooking
the tables, a large balcony-type second floor that on another
night may or may not be the location of the elusive disco I was
Madison Club - A nightclub
(and bowling alley) with a reputation for being one of the finest
in Minsk. Décor wise, an odd fusion of Zebra Crossing clashing
with the tones of Timmy Mallet! Despite that, worth a visit -
although I’d recommend you do so only on a Friday or Saturday
night as it was a bit quiet when I was there on the Thursday.
Not far from the city centre but opt for a taxi over walking it.
Nightstar - Décor
aside, not too dissimilar to Madison Club in my opinion but whereas
Madison is away from the city centre, Nightstar is located just
a stone’s throw behind the Hotel Minsk. Try to pay your
entrance fee at the tiny kiosk windows outside (I say try because
the sullen cow on the other side didn’t want to take my
money and slammed the window in my face before the bouncer intervened
and got me in). To be honest, my memories of the rest of the night
are a little vague after being invited over to a table by seven
locals (3 couples and a fat burd) and what was to become our mutual
friend, a bottle of vodka. Nothing particularly special about
the place but of what I do recall, a decent enough club and worth
a visit if you’re in town. *Warning: The door staff insisted
that I leave my camera in the cloakroom safe. Don’t do what
I did and walk out without it.
Reactor - Allegedly a
former boxing club, the raised, square dance floor in the middle
of the room attempts to recreate a ring (minus the ropes). Pay
at the door, go through the metal detector and when faced with
the very young crowd, you could be mistaken for thinking you had
stumbled into a youth club. You can’t help but laugh at
the number of kids wearing sunglasses, strutting their stuff and
throwing their shapes in front of the panoramic mirrors either
side of the room – and the lads were worse than the lassies!
WestWorld - You all know
about this one don’t you!?!?! WestWorld is somewhere that
I didn’t truly appreciate at the time but right now, whilst
I’m still in my post-tartan-army-away-trip depression, I’m
longing to return to Minsk – If only for one chance, just
one chance to visit WestWorld again.
X-Ray - There are those
who have and those who do not and those who have come to X-Ray.
Slick, cool, slightly pretentious and a place for the beautiful
people. A bit of thought has gone into the design of the stylish
interior, although it’s a rather small space. However, for
the summer months a temporary structure is erected in order that
you can enjoy those hot nights outside with another bar, more
seating and more room to dance. By far the most expensive place
I visited at BR8000 - BR11000 (£2 - £3) for a Heineken
Export (no local or Russian beers available).
There are two things that prevent Brest from just being another
bleak garrison town on the edge of the erstwhile Soviet Empire:
the stunning Brest Fortress (Brestkaya Krepast) and the castle-like
railway station, a major crossing point from Europe en route to
The train station is a loose collection of marble-like halls, complete
with a full passport, customs and duty free hall for those heading
across to Poland. Most of the Warsaw-Moscow trains (including a
daily train all the way from Brussels! Did you know it's possible
to travel all the way from London Waterloo to Moscow with only one
change of train?) pass through, and I've heard this described as
a pretty efficient transfer point, with airport style shopping and
no crowds. On the other hand, we splashed out 60p each to travel
cattle class on the 18-minute shuttle with all the local smugglers
(including the train staff!) that runs into Terespol on the Polish
side of the border, where only the front door of the front carriage
actually reaches the platform and the machine guin-toting guards
make sure no-one tries to jump the queue! Don't let any of this
faze you - it's all character building stuff. Just make sure you
allow plenty of time!
The fortress is almost certainly what you're here for. The heroic
defence against the advancing Nazis elevated Brest to Hero City
status (alongside Belarus), and the fortress is now a memorial to
this resistance. The huge star-shaped entrance is pretty breathtaking.
The large man-shaped rock and tower are also awe-inspiring, and
the museum is well worth a look, even if almost everything is in
Russian. We walked to the fortress in around 25 minutes (past an
open-air train museum that was unfortunately closed), but opted
to come back by bus. Allow a good couple of hours to wander about.
Downtown Brest is pretty uninspiring. The main street is littered
with small bars and restaurants, and there is a Papa Joes pizzeria/nightclub/bowling
alley that was empty when we were in there (6pm on a Saturday night).
I was also full of a summer cold at the time, so we didn't stay
out late to see if the locals painted the town red of a weekend
evening (or simply left it in a state of dirty grey). Not a place
to go out of your way for (unless you're a real Eastern Front history
buff), but well worth a stopover if passing through.