Jumping on the day train to the Belorussian capital the sun is beaming in through the window of our compartment and it’s a short jaunt from Brest that has us in Minsk.
Making our way through the easily navigable metro system we easily find the way to Hostel Trinity (who helped us acquire our visas) located in the heart of town adjacent to the water. The lovely reception girl gets us out of the rain and into our tiny double room and having been issued a visa for only ten days there’s not a minute to lose as a few minutes later we traipse back out into the rain.
Minsk, being under a super Soviet style regime, is a bustling city with more than its fair share of arts, sights, cafes, culture and nightlife. It took all of an afternoon to fall for her charms, both endearing and frustrating. With just over 48 hours up our sleeves we decided to logically break the city down into sections. The rest of the afternoon we headed out to the furthest point from the hostel, the Church of Saints Simon and Helena on Independence Square. A superb red brick building with round leadlight windows it was designed by Polish architects in the early 1900’s and named for financer Edward Woyniłłowicz‘s two deceased children. With the short winter days bringing fading light we headed underground through a surprisingly glitzy sub-terrain shopping mall.
Giving up on shooting any more photos we immediately head uptown to the only Soviet style kitchen we could find, Lidoo (at metro Plošča Jakuba Kolasa). The place is homely with a small brook running through the middle and a charming wooden décor. The food is also top notch, cheap and on display for the less fluent Russian speakers to point and choose.
With not much else on the agenda for the evening we hit the nearest craft beer bar aptly named Craft House. Walking down the stairs to the basement bar, the favoured style in this part of the world, we make eye contact with one of the other patrons who gives us a nod and a smile. As we take our seats and opt for a couple of Russian IPAs the friendly local comes to say hello and he and his mate are soon invited to join us as we venture into conversation over all and nothing. Serge and Atom (A-tom) are Minsk locals and fellow craft beer lover like us two. Needless to say we got along just fine.
After a couple of beers our new friends want to take us for some local moonshine style flavoured vodkas. Descending the steps to the nearby metro station our friends engage in a conversation with the station guards before laughing and turning to us. Seems after only a couple of beers us two Aussies are smiling too much to be allowed on the metro. Yes you read right. We were refused entry to the Minsk metro for smiling. Taxi it is then.
Traipsing through a rain sodden Kastryčnickaja Square we weave through the old town to the Attic Bar, an architecural triumph in the attic of a newly rebuilt house. Although it’s dark outside the precipitous perch in the old town gives a great view over Trinity Hill and beyond. Cocktails with untranslatable ingredients are mixed by a friendly barman who whips us up a Christmas themed concoction. Parting ways that night we knew we’d made some solid friends.
Shaking off last nights unplanned (is it ever planned?) shenanigans we’re up to change hostels as dorm beds at VIVA Hostel are cheaper and it’s closer to the train station we need to leave from. A late breakfast of traditional draniki, potato pancakes, from the Stary Gorod Café around the corner from Trinity Hostel gives us the much needed boost to face the challenge of backpacks and metro.
In the metro on the way to our new digs a pretty little local hesitantly looks at us a few times before plucking up the courage to come over and proclaim
‘Do you speak English? Welcome to Belarus!’
Such a nice thing to say and a confirmation that the Belorussian people want you to come and visit and be a part of their lives.
Viva is a short walk from the main Minsk train station and again we receive a warm welcome. The hostel is busy with people from all origins though the lack of a decent kitchen leaves us fussy eater wanting. Not letting our eight years under the moaning London influence get the better of us we decide to eat every meal at Lido and so the search for a morning coffee takes hold. Navigating through the somewhat confusing main train station to purchase tickets for the ride out we exit on the central side opposite the sentry City Gates. Security don’t take kindly to photos in these parts but we managed to get one shot off before being told to stop.
Through an entrance way on Vulica Kirava 11 below a flashing Kafe sign you’ll find a little coffee shop with an eccentric international collection of odds and ends, our favourite being the still packaged doll figurines adorning the bar. Known as ‘The Coffee House’ the owners special Bedouin brew (which he told us contains secret ingredient marijuana) is that renowned that a pair of Iranians allegedly offered him €,3000 Euros. Without a word of English spoken during our fleeting visit we’re presented with one of the mementos from the wall as a souvenir, mostly down to the fact that we’re ‘exotic’ Australians.
A metro ride later and we’re in the up and coming (read hipster and beards) area around Kastrychnitskaya street. Here you can visit the Minsk Kristall vodka factory’s outlet with cheap booze in all sorts of strange vessels including a machine gun. The murals along the street are a treat and there’s places to sip you’re hipster coffee while you talk hipster smack. Then you can get drunk at the handful of bars and keep talking hipster crap.
Heading back to the old town for some food we pass along the still sodden Kastryčnickaja Square up to Grambinus Pub. Local big name beers and exports compliment a traditional menu that’s not for the calorie or meat conscious. Kicking back in the cavernous basement with Manchester City football (get in son) on the television two plates soon have us drooling.
Widely referred to as the “patron saint of beer”, King Gambrinus is a folklore hero in Western Europe. Here, in spacious surrounds, you can enjoy the best selection of (non craft) beers that Minsk has to offer. The location is amazing, the kitchen is great and the staff are knowledgeable.
Matt’s gone for national Belorussian cuisine of potato patties stuffed with turkey liver, onions and mushrooms with a drizzling of sour cream which leaves him wanting more. Sarah’s Vereshchaka is a dish known from the middle of the eighteenth century which was served at the court of King Augustus III of Stanislaus Poniatowski . Consisting of buckweek pancakes and white sausage boiled in beer it’s topped with onions and bacon and is absolutely delicious. If this is not your thing they also serve up the typical western pub grub (boring). The food is cooked from scratch so sometimes take time. Ours arrives and barely lands on the table before we’re asking for the bill.
From here you’re right in the middle of the old town with the Town Hall, Concert Hall and Holy Trinity Church overlooking Freedom Square all within the immediate vicinity. As we moved around for a better vantage point of the Holy Trinity a crazed man approaches us spewing out something in Belorussian whilst holding a camera phone right in Matt’s face. Realising we don’t speak the language he duly switches to English proclaiming
‘I am from the Belorussian People’s Front. Do you like Belarus?’
Thinking quick and not wanting to be lead down the wrong path of questioning and perhaps become a YouTube celebrity for all the wrong reasons the obvious answers is
‘Yes, it’s great.’
‘What do you think of our president?’ he asks next.
Swerving around this one is a no brainer.
as we quickly disengage with the guy and make tracks out of there.
On the Svislach River the Island of Tears was opened in 1993 as a memorial to the ‘Sons of the Motherland who died beyond its borders’. A tastefully discrete monument in comparison to the usual colossal structures typical of Soviet recognition.
A city of sculptures is Minsk. Everywhere you turn there’s a bronze statue. there are hundreds of them though for the most amusing head to the National Circus where the statues are a favourite of the local children. Walking through Gorky Park the stationary Ferris Wheel towers over the naked trees as we weave through the gate to Victory Square and the eternal flame housed beneath it. Just beyond the square is the ‘Y’ Café and Gallery a place for to take a load off the feet after a hard days sightseeing with a shop full of independent artists creations.
That evening instead of going to the bar to hang out with locals we opted to behave ourselves whilst getting some culture. Having not been to the opera before and with tickets in Minsk super cheap ($7.50 USD for two midrange tickets) we raid our backpacks for our best travel attire and head out to see Tosca, an Italian love story of course! With tickets so cheap you can even grab a glass of champagne and still have a night out for well under USD$20. Having been to the ballet, theatre, and now the opera we rate this as the least entertaining of the lot. Still it’s not a bad way to stay sober.
Packing a tripod for the night the opera cloakroom thought we were some sort of secret spy duo when we checked it in and although we are this was for a different mission. The National Library has to be one of the most uniquely thoughtout pieces of architecture and were still unsure if it’s good or not. Either way you lean towards the rhombicuboctahedron shape it makes for some impressive night photography.
Day three and it’s time to leave Minsk though not before catching up with new friend Serge. Manufactura Coffee in the centre is a great place to meet up over real coffee with stringed lights put to good use to create a cozy environment. Serge takes us to the other old town area of north of vulica Ramanaŭskaja Slabada which also survived the war. Not much goes on here though a tour with a local is a great way to get a different perspective on a place.
You know a restaurant is good when the locals frequent it. Visiting Grambrinus for the second time in as many days Serge is adamant that we try more of the traditional Belorussian food and again Grambrinus does not disappoint. This time we opted for the ‘bigos’, a famous dish from the times of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania. Sauerkraut, smoked and fresh meat products, prunes and raisins are prepared the original way requiring terpeniya- stewing over low heat for three days. Served with pancakes and fried onions with chanterelle mushrooms it’s hand down the best meal Matt had in Belarus. Sarah’s choice of the drakini (potato cakes) with mushrooms and a fried egg was also a deliciously hearty choice (though bigos is where it’s at).
Heading back to the Nyamiha metro we pause while Serge explains the meaning behind the 53 bronze roses we’d passed several times. They’re dedicated to the 53 victims of a stampede that occurred in 1999 when a sudden thunderstorm hit a nearby beer festival causing 2,500 people to run for shelter in the small subway. We say our ‘see you later’s’ to a new lasting friendship and make for the train station for our departure to spend Christmas in Mogilev.
Click here for a link to our Googlemap with the above sights, bars and other information pinned.
For more great pics of Belarus click any of the above images to be taken to our Flickr Page. Thanks for reading.
Tips for Minsk
- Don’t smile on the metro. Refer to above.
- It’s a great city so spend some time to explore. If a local invites to show you around take up the opportunity as you’ll most likely get to see and eat things you would otherwise miss.
- Hunt out traditional food, it’s homely and filling.
- Get out and take some night photos. The Soviets know how to use lighting very effectively, you won’t regret it.
- Train travel is cheap. We usually buy our overnight train tickets in advance to ensure we get the same compartment or a top and bottom bed in Plastkat.
- You can also use Bla Bla Car for cheap rides.
- A bed in a 10-bed dorm at Viva Hostel costs USD$10 while a 6-bed dorm at Trinity costs USD$12.50. The kitchen is better equipped at Trinity and consists of just a kettle and microwave in Viva.
- Some good websites on sculptures and monuments http://www.comtourist.com/travel/minsk/minsk-monuments/ http://tobelarus.com/tourism-in-belarus/belarus-sightseeing/64-sculptures.html http://en.ctv.by/en/1447237170-new-cute-bronze-sculptures-you-shouldnt-miss-in-minsk