A Long Weekend in Minsk
Text Anne Coombes
A long weekend in Minsk
Why not escape the dirty streets of Moscow in favour of a few days in charming Minsk? Pristine parks, cosy cafes and stunning architecture are just an overnight train ride away.
The centre of Minsk is surprisingly beautiful – especially after dark, when cleverly-designed illuminations transform the grand colonnaded facades. The best way to admire this enchanting capital is to don some comfortable shoes and simply walk until you can walk no more. The main promenade route takes you down Independence (Nezavisimosti) Avenue – offering majestic views along its length and passing several impressive squares. Victory Square – marked by its elegant monument and eternal flame – is flanked on all sides by gorgeous buildings movingly proclaiming that ‘heroic deeds are immortal’.
Whatever Moscow has become, Minsk is glaringly its opposite: ridiculously clean, law-abiding and notably devoid of billboard advertising. If Moscow is a racy starlet on her way to fame and fortune, Minsk must be an innocent young milkmaid with her eyes set only on the next barn-dance. You certainly won’t be bored in Belarus’ capital though. There’s plenty to see and do. In fact, you’ll probably love it so much you’ll come back for more.
What to see
Relive a bygone age with a turn down Karl Marx, Lenin and Engels Streets, then take a stroll past the KGB building. Admire bright young things swishing about on the outdoor ice-rink in October Square and take note of 2 Kisleva St – the sometime abode of a young Lee Harvey Oswald. You can continue your promenade by following the River Svislach to the Troitsky Suburb – the ‘old town’ rebuilt in vivid 19th century pastels. The Afghan monument on the tiny Isle of Tears is another sombre reminder of wartime loss. To understand the horrors still recalled by older Minskites, you should pay a visit to the Great Patriotic War Museum (on October Sq). The photos of public hangings and POW camps are enduringly disturbing. Meanwhile, maps set out the Nazi’s target extermination figures.
The Belarusian State Circus building began construction in 1954 – designed to be the most beautiful and the largest in the USSR. It remains an amazing sight – lit gloriously by night and drawing full houses to its 1668-seat ring. The original bronze chandeliers - presented by Moscow’s Light Bulb Works in 1959 – still hang inside. If acrobats and performing animals aren’t your cup of tea, you might enjoy an ice-hockey match or a trip to the Ballet, the Opera or the Philharmonic. Tickets can be had for as little as $4 from the box office located in the underpass next to the flagship McDonalds (on Independence Avenue).
Another ‘must-see’ is the Cathedral of St. Simon and Elena - designed by Warsaw architect Tomash Poyadersky, alongside Vladislav Markoni. It opened in 1910, but, after the October Revolution, housed the BSSR State Polish Theatre and, later, a film studio. It reopened as the Red Church just 15 years ago.
Minsk cannot offer art lovers anything to compare with the inside of the Kremlin or the galleries of St. Petersburg but the Belarusian Art Museum (on Lenin St). has a small local collection of landscapes and portraits from the 17th – 20th century among its largely Russian archives. The paintings of Belarus’ famous Radziwill family are among the most intriguing, and the fine selection of iconography - dating from the 15th century – is worth seeing.
If you have time, step off the main avenue to explore Gorky Park. Its tree-lined pathways are perfect for gentle meandering. You can take a 15-minute ride on the big wheel for bird’s eye views of the city, and then warm up with a hot drink and snack from one of the park’s cafes. The Botanic Gardens and Chelyuskintsev Park – a huge forested area – are the wilder option. You quite forget that you are still in the heart of the capital.
Cafes, restaurants, bars and clubs
U Ratushi (Gertsena St) – behind October Square – is Minsk’s most popular bar; arrive after 7pm and you may not get a table. Its cosy atmosphere and live music draw in the crowds every night of the week. Alternatively, try Rakovski Brovar – a micro-brewery in the old Jewish quarter of town. The rustic ‘hunting lodge’ interior – complete with mounted deer heads – has to be seen to be believed. Staraya Rusla (Ulyanovskaya St) also serves tasty wheat beer and a selection of traditional Belarusian fare (for this, read draniki with sour cream and mushrooms and a selection of hearty soups) - just be ready for their three-piece folk band at full volume. Another great choice is Pechki’s (above October Square metro); their very own caged cockerel calls the hours. Most restaurants nod to European cuisine with pasta and some well-known sauces on the menu. An amusing holiday pastime can be to catalogue the hair-raising translations: foul breasts, paltry meat and boiled brains could be the house specialty. In most places, you can treat yourself to three courses for $25 - but watch out for wine prices, which can be rather shocking.
If contemporary elegance is more your scene, then Singing Fountain (Oktyabrskaya St) fits the bill nicely – especially if you like to listen to jazz. The Italian themed menu never disappoints. Alternatively, pay a visit to the Parisian inspired News Cafe or cosily quaint Granny’s Cafe (Karl Marx St). Both offer excellent evening dining but are just as wonderful for afternoon coffee and cake. Belarusians are particularly fond of creamy sponge concoctions and it’s not difficult to find an attractive option. Opposite the KGB building are stylish Beze and eccentric Cafe London – with miniature models of London landmarks inside and an amazing coffee selection. One of the city’s most well-known spots is trendy Salotki Falvarak on Victory Square. Its desserts revolve attractively inside a glass cabinet; the sticky chocolate and cherry cake is particularly good.
If you are heading out for a night on the town, keep your expectations within reasonable limits. Minsk lacks the sophistication of Moscow and there is a lot less money on show. The upside of this is that you can go out for a boogie without spending an arm and a leg on entrance fees and pricey cocktails. Most clubs charge around $12-15 for a seat at a table and a large Tequila Sunrise can be had for about $10. Zhuravinka Cub (Yanka Kupala St) has cosy booths and a Las Vegas inspired floor show most nights. It’s a popular destination for anyone celebrating a birthday, anniversary or engagement. For a different atmosphere, try Goodwin’s (19 Nezavisimosti St). It’s a favourite with students, who love the 80s nights. Don’t worry about dressing up to the nines – remember that most Minskites don’t have access to the latest fashions. Tight black trousers and a sparkly top are de-rigueur.
Hitting the shops
Nobody travels to Minsk to go shopping. Compared to Moscow, the retail opportunities are laughable. However, you can soak up local flavour at Komarovsky Market (take the metro to Yakub Kolas and follow the crowd). The fruit and veg are so colourful, you won’t be able to resist a punnet of strawberries or a juicy nectarine. Inside, you can admire whole pigs hanging from hooks and marvel at the ‘butcherettes’ working their magic with cleavers. Just outside of town, Zhdanovichi Market offers fur coats and imported leather goods at very reasonable prices. Go there to buy a new jacket and you might find yourself coming away with three! For souvenirs, woven straw dolls and linen tablecloths are traditional; there are plenty of souvenir shops around town but GUM or TSUM (which in no way resemble their Moscow counterparts) are good places to find examples. Their ladies’ clothing departments are also fun for anyone who finds luridly embellished polyester and scratchy lace amusing.
There are one or two things that Belarus does well and one of them is chocolate. Minsk’s most famous sweetie shop is Lakomka (Sweet Tooth). The aroma of chocolate is so strong that it almost knocks you backwards as you open the door. The shop assistants must spend their working lives high on chocolate endorphins. Communarka and Spartak are the leading brands – each widely awarded throughout the CIS. If you share the Belarusians’ fancy for cream cakes, then you’ll enjoy a trip to Karavai – the capital’s most famous bakery (on Victory Sq). It gets so busy on Saturdays you can barely push your way through the door. Canny locals order their gateaux well in advance and then just pop in to collect. Even if you don’t buy anything, it’s worth visiting to admire the ‘show cakes’ on display inside.
Like their Russian pals, Belarusian men do like their vodka – Belarus is actually the world’s fifth largest consumer, which is pretty impressive considering that it has a population of less than ten million. The Brest distilleries’ vodkas (near the Polish border) and Minsk’s Krystal brand sell particularly well and make excellent gifts. These retail for about $2-3 but commemorative editions are sometimes released for rather more (e.g. in bottles shaped like Victory Square). For a genuine Belarusian drinking experience, Samogon is the ‘real McCoy’. It’s a speciality of the Puscha area (near Brest) and easily substitutes for rocket fuel. Home distilled varieties have proven fatal so often that the authorities have mounted a focused campaign to eliminate illegal moon-shining.
Last but not least, we must mention Belarusian Balsam – a foul concoction prescribed for every sort of winter cough and cold. Thick, dark and potent, it should be added to hot water with plenty of honey; much like a tot of whisky, it numbs all pain and makes even the worst bout of flu more bearable. It’s the ultimate winter warmer.
If you want to stay off the ‘hard stuff’, you’ll find that good old Baltica is widely available throughout Minsk. If you fancy something more local, the fruit of Minsk’s two larger breweries is also easily located – Krynitsa and Alevaria. They are cheaper than Baltica, but beer connoisseurs may find they lack depth. An even more sober alternative is Kvass – created by soaking brown bread in water and sugar; it’s only mildly alcoholic and tastes rather like flat beer. For a soft option, try Birch Juice – this refreshing beverage is made from birch sap, gathered each spring.
A little bit of history
Belarus (White Russia) was founded in the 9th century but was subsumed by the Grand Duchy of Lithuania in the 1200s and, later, by the Russian Empire. It briefly proclaimed independence in 1918, falling to the Red Army in 1919. Western Belarus was given to the Poles in 1921 and was then retaken in 1939, to become part of the USSR. Belarus spent 1941-1944 under Nazi occupation, losing 2.2 million people during the war years (just over 25%). Over 9000 villages and towns were razed and around a million buildings were destroyed.
Minsk was bombed so whole-heartedly that barely a stone was left standing. This gave Stalin the perfect opportunity to rebuild the city as his model ‘ideal’. In August 1991, as the Soviet Union broke up, Belarus declared independence. However, since 1995, Minsk has been taking firm steps towards cementing its relationship with Moscow - working towards a Union State.
Where to stay
Minsk’s first five-star hotel, the Europe, (www.hoteleurope.by) has at last opened its doors, its facade modelled on that of the Europe Hotel of a century ago. It is the only Belarusian hotel to boast an open atrium and panoramic glass lifts. No cost has been spared to make it the country’s premier accommodation. It has a luxurious indoor pool, sauna and jacuzzi facilities, a fitness centre and Belarus’ first Toni&Guy salon. You can relax for a while with a masseuse, settle down for the evening in one of the five bars, or sample the fare at the elegant restaurant. Needless to say, there’s also a small night-club on the premises. Its 67 rooms – boasting satellite TV and Internet connections - are tastefully furnished in modern white. Such comfort doesn’t come cheaply of course: basic doubles start from around 400 Euros while those with cash to splash can part with 1150 Euros for the Presidential Suite.
If your budget won’t quite stretch that far, the Hotel Minsk is a good alternative (with doubles for around $200); it’s similarly well located in the centre. The cheapest viable option is the Hotel Belarus (around $100) – its only real selling point is the lively 1000 capacity West World Nightclub on the ground floor.
How to get there
Mid summer is a lovely time of year to visit, being sunny and pleasantly warm, but winter also lends the city its own wistful beauty. It’s easy to take the overnight train from Moscow; the most expensive compartments cost about $300 return for a twin and are worth every dollar. The train brings you conveniently to the very centre of Minsk – a mere 5 minute taxi ride from your hotel. If you prefer to fly, Aeroflot / Belavia have returns for around $250. As the airport is 45km out of town, this necessitates arranging your hotel to send a car for you however. Russian citizens can travel freely across the border but other passport holders need a visa. Visit www.embassybel.ru to find out more.