With no preconceptions and only 10 days in total on our visa Mogilev seemed a logical choice on the way to St. Petersburg, Russia. Arriving quite late on Christmas Eve we had no idea how to get to the centre of town and our apartment, some 3kms from the train station so we walked it (bus #2 will get you there).
Smack bang in the middle of town our apartment is sufficient for a couple of nights and the biggest bonus? The free washing machine! After a rapid check-in it’s down to the supermarket to pick up some ingredients to celebrate Christmas P-I-M-P style. Caviar and champagne yo! At USD$2 a bottle and even less for the caviar we’re high rolling on a backpacking budget. Merry Christmas indeed.
Returning to the station the following day to check for a train to Vitebsk (there’s none) we push pass the provodnitsas (surly female train attendants with all their jackets and attitudes) to ring the bell on the platform to ensure luck on our journey through the rest of Belarus. No luck with the trains we search and search for the elusive bus station. Finally finding it we discover that in Belarus as well as Russia you can’t buy bus tickets the day before you travel. So after four hours we head home ticketless. Well best head back to the apartment for some more Christmas champagne shall we? Be rude not too.
With the Belarus Constitution guaranteeing freedom of religion the Catholic west tend to celebrate Christmas on December 25th with the Orthodox east celebrating theirs on the 7th January. We were hoping for some sort of festivites but Christmas day was a non-event in Mogilev, though the Star Square had a small gathering during the day, mostly for the children, and unlike the Western world where places like London are super quiet on Christmas Day the streets here were full of families shopping and wandering around. Star Square is also the home of the ‘Stargazer’, a bronze statue of a person gazing into the heavens along with 12 seats arranged in a semi-circle to represent the Zodiac. Hold his finger and make a wish, supposedly it’s meant to come true. Just don’t wish for a safe trip, you can ring the bell for that.
A few champagne bottles later our time is up in Mogilev so we spend our last morning walking the pedestrian Leninskaya Street down to Soviet Square. We’re surprised there’s not more focus on the Old Town area where the pretty facades give way to empty ground floor buildings that if occupied by a few restaurants, cafes or bars could transform the area greatly.
Soviet Square is typical of most big open areas in Soviet cities that in this instance is empty save a few church goers passing through. With the Town Hall at one end, the monument for Fighters of the Soviet Union at the other it’s hemmed in by the mighty Dnieper River. At the end of the square there’s Gorky Park (seems that to be a town of note you must have a Gorky Park) with the Church of the Holy Royal Martyrs and Confessors of the 20th Century and a flea market taking place on the streets below.
Catching the 1pm minibus to Vitebsk we watch an elderly man being all ganster as he swigs champagne straight from the bottle throughout the trip. Arriving in town after dark (again) we walk the three kilometres to our accommodation (again) and experience our first real instance of ‘Soviet Logic’. Turns out it seems completely logical not to individually number apartment buildings but to give a whole block the same numbers and just affix a number to the end. Not just that, but scatter the same number randomly around an estate. Ridiculous!
After we sat outside building #34 for an hour in subzero temperatures waiting for our hosts, the hotel down the road were friendly enough to let Sarah use the WiFi to contact them. Matt stayed behind with out bags and was promptly accosted by a group of policemen. They ended up being sweet once they found out he was Australian with a wife somewhere ‘over there’ trying to get us inside our apartment.
Finally working out we were meant to be at #34-1 (obviously on the opposite side of the estate from #34…) our host meets Sarah at the hotel, picks up Matt and shows us to the right apartment. We’ve once again scored a great deal via Booking.com and even though it was USD$25 a night we had the entire apartment to ourselves (hostels don’t exists in this part of Belarus). The only issue was the stupid address situation. Nothing a good night sleep can’t fix.
With only two days in town and it being the Christmas period we head straight for the train station to purchase tickets for St. Petersburg for the following night. Passing the Great Patriotic War Memorial (WWII) funnily enough we find a large square with an eternal flame that’s mostly empty (standard). Busting for the toilet we find some in the weirdest shopping mall in the world, the pyramid structure that is Marco City. Set out with the ever so logical Soviet planning we walk around the interior maze in circles for a good 10 minutes before we get to relieve our bladders.
Across the road the Summer Amphitheatre holds summer festivals and concerts and is the most pleasing of modern architecture in the city. Beyond this there’s the main cluster of the Old Towns sights. At the lower part of the hill is the Church of the Resurrection which was blown up in 1936 during the Soviets struggle with religion. Restored in 2009 its golden cupolas glisten in the midday sun.
Next door is the Town Hall, the city’s symbol of freedom, standing unchanged since the late 16th Century. Following the River Vitba through the Old Town the Pushkinskiy Bridge, the bridge of love where couples lock their eternal love to the banisters and throw the key into the river, which gives an impressive view of the next two religious sites. The Monastery of the Holy Spirit isn’t much to look at though the crowning jewel of the city is the Holy Assumption Cathedral a top the Dvina River. Built on Assumption Hill, originally a pagan site, this location has been a place of worship for thousands of years.
Church, church, church, blah blah blah. So we saw a couple of others with the Church of the Annunciation on the river being the most worshiped place of Vitebsk and a reconstruction of a 10th century wooden Russian Orthodox Church next door. Across the bridge the Yakub Kolas Drama Theatre is acclaimed to be one of the best in Belarus if you’re into that kind of thing.
All the walking around made us hungry though with it being a Sunday you can guess that not much is open. Wanting some hearty food to warm the bellies we find the Vasiliki Restaurant does the trick. The wooden cottage style interior and friendly service lead to a great meal of mushroom soups, one creamy the other plain.
Kindly given a late afternoon check out we make our way to the station waiting room at around 4pm to wait for our 10pm train where an old bearded man who hadn’t washed in weeks sat feverishly reciting from his bible out loud for all to hear.
Only managing to acquire a ten day visa we finished our time in Belarus feeling that we’d been rushed through the country a little as there’s so many other places to visit. As with other ex-soviet countries most of the train links run in and out of the capital which in turn eats into traveling days if you take a different route, therefore travelling through from Poland to Russia our route seemed to be the most logical. We like Belarus. Though now our time’s up and we must move on to our New Year’s destination, St. Petersburg, Russia.
Click on any of the images above for more pics of Belarus on our Flickr Page. Thanks for reading.
Tips for Mogilev and Vitebsk
- Mogilev, skip it.
- Catching the bus from Mogilev tickets can only be bought 30 minutes before departure. We turned up an hour before just in case they opened the seats earlier, which they did.
- Sometimes you get allocated seats, others not, and sometimes they’ll oversell and people will have to stand. Get there early.
- If there’s no buses you can take a marshutka or shared minivan/taxi.
- Hostels are rare or non-existent in these parts of Belarus so we used Booking.com instead. You may pay a little more but most of the time you’ll get an entire apartment. Also try couchsurfing.com, the Belorussians are very hospitable!
- Click here to read about crossing the border from Vitebsk to St. Petersburg on the overnight train.
- A good website for sights and general information on Vitebsk http://vitebskcity.by/articles.php?idmenu=1&idrub=1&lang=en
- Getting around is quiet easy in Vitebsk. There is an extensive public transport system and most of the bus stops will have a map showing the routes.