Minsk — exploring Belarus’ capital


The Afghanistan Memorial.

—by Carol Coverly, South Yarmouth, MA

Mid-August seemed like a good time of year to visit friends in Minsk. The weather was perfect during our 5-day stay in 2005.

Lufthansa was the only commercial airline with a daily flight into Minsk International Airport. The terminal, a half hour’s drive from the capital city, was undergoing renovations, which hopefully will make Minsk a more welcoming international destination.

Entry requirements

My husband and I were met by three young women who had stayed in our home during the summers of 2002 and 2003. Since it is not possible for university students to get summer jobs in Belarus, many travel to other countries for employment and a cultural experience.

Nineteenth-century bakery at Dudutki.

For this visit, we felt the need to have one of them available to interpret for us, as English is not widely spoken there. We also wanted to meet their families.

We did have some difficulty obtaining an entry visa. We had understood that a letter from the hotel that took our reservation and our passport would suffice, but, since our travel agent used a Russian agent and did not go through a Belarusian agency, it was not approved.

One of our friends was able to get an “invitation” (a formal document obtained through their visa/passport department), which then allowed us to get the visa through the Consulate General of Belarus in New York (phone 212/682-5392 or visit www.belarusconsul.org).

Fellow American passengers told us that the Travisa Visa Service in Washington, D.C. (phone 202/463-6166 or visit www.travisa.com), obtained speedy visas for them ($100).

At the airport, we were required to buy health insurance for the five days we would be in Belarus ($3 each).

Minsk

We were pleasantly surprised at the beauty of Minsk. Rolling hills covered by stands of birch trees preceded the city limits, where we noticed many new highrise buildings dominating the landscape. They provide apartment living, retail stores and offices.

Horse-cart ride at Dudutki.

This modern city, rebuilt following the devastation of the Second World War, is marked by wide avenues, pedestrian walkways and green parks. The Svislach River meanders through the city, providing the people of Minsk with many places to enjoy scenic rest areas, fishing and small boats.

It is easy to get around the city, either through the bus system or through its immaculate and cheap metro (just being either a student or senior gets you reduced rates). However, signs were only in Russian.

We stayed at the recommended Hotel Planeta (Masherov Ave. #31; visit www.hotelplaneta.by), which offered excellent accommodations. We opted for two suites (bedroom plus sitting room for $144) on the same floor so we could also accommodate our friends. Standard rooms run $57-$88, including breakfast for one and all taxes. (With much negotiation, we finally made an agreement with the reception desk to pay for all additional breakfasts at the end of our stay.)

Walking was a pleasure in the downtown area near our hotel, where an underground crossway made it easy to avoid busy streets.

After an overview of the city, we stopped at Petchki-Lavochki (Independence Ave. 22; phone 017 2277879), a restaurant that specializes in Belarusian food. Most in our group enjoyed potato pancakes, but I enjoyed soup and salad. The cost for seven people was $50.

Out and about

Statue of a crying angel at the Afghanistan Memorial.

That evening we walked to the sports center on Masherov Avenue, where we had the opportunity to see a young man we had met play in a championship hockey match. We enjoyed not only the game but the entertainment as well.

At every pause in play, cheerleaders danced to American songs, such as “We Will Rock You.” The arena was beautiful and spotless, and the music added much to the well-played game.

Sports in Belarus, especially hockey, are well supported, perhaps due to the fact that the president has his own team. Tickets are only $1. (Tickets to the ballet, in season, are also very reasonably priced.)

The following day, we walked to the artfully constructed Afghanistan Memorial, located in a garden by the river. At one of the shops nearby, we stopped to admire the exhibition of an excellent artist, Dmitri Kustano-vich, who was being sponsored by the State Museum of the History of Theater and Music Culture (Starovi-lenskaya Str. 14), and, ultimately, we bought two of his paintings.

Dudutki and Khatyn

We also took a day trip to the Dudutki Museum of Belarusian Crafts & Antiques (phone 017 2510076), consisting of a small village that re-creates 18th- and 19th-century trades, including a blacksmith and pottery and woodworking shops. At several of the stops, we were given traditional food and drink.

We finished our tour by horse cart, which took us to the huge grinding windmill. The cost for entry into the museum, including the ride and visit to the windmill, is $15 for adults ($8 children).

This outdoor museum is located about a 45-minute drive from central Minsk. It can also be reached by tour bus from the Minsk Bus Station No. 2

North of Minsk (50 kilometers on the M3) in the Logoisk region, one finds a very impressive memorial called Khatyn (www.khatyn.by), dedicated to the 149 villagers who were burned alive during the Nazi occupation. It was an unforgettable walk in silence, interspersed by occasional tolling bells.

City sights

Before we left we took the metro to see Minsk State Linguistic University, which provided a free 5-year program to two of our student friends. One is currently working as a teacher of English and German to complete the two years of government work that are required as retribution for her university education.

This was followed by a visit to the Victory Square monument, dedicated to all who fought in WWII. The monument stands tall over the city and is used frequently as a backdrop for wedding pictures.

The people of Minsk love their parks, and Gorky Park is no exception. A very large Ferris wheel at the park slowly positioned me over the city. It was a fitting ending to a visit to a very beautiful place.