Following my brother’s wedding 2 weeks ago (reason for our return to France), we leave for a few days to discover his wife’s country: Belarus.
They organize 5 short days of travel for the close family and a few hand-picked friends.
We are thrilled at the idea of this trip, Belarus is a little known country, not much touristic and we certainly wouldn’t have put this Eastern European country on our itinerary without this happy event.
Why 5 days? It was simply the maximum length of visit for French people without having to apply for a visa until very recently. Obtaining a visa for a longer stay being anything but a formality. However, you should know that this has just changed: French people can now come for 30 days without having to apply for a visa. Make the most of it!
Day 1: Arrival and first dinner
We are a delegation of 10 people to meet us at Paris airport. My brother PE and his wife T. have already been there for a few days.
The Belarusian national airline Belavia offers direct flights at very affordable rates. The trip goes well even if the lunch is surprising. Having chosen “chicken” (an almost systematic choice during my flights, I consider it a sure value), I am somewhat disconcerted when I discover a… sausage… that only vaguely tastes like chicken. I didn’t expect much from the Belarusian gastronomy, I reduce my hopes even more.
On the plane, it isn’t necessary to fill out the immigration document because we do not ask for a visa.
Arrived in Minsk, we go through immigration. We are asked for the obligatory insurance certificate (free of charge, just ask Visa or Mastercard depending on the credit card you have).
The immigration police are particularly attentive to passports: they are scrutinized with a magnifying glass, passed under a white light, … it’s the first time I’ve seen that. Our travelling companion V. will even take a good 10 minutes before passing by. Its cover of passport, which is taken off, will indeed cause complementary checks.
After retrieving our luggage, we find PE and T. who welcome us warmly. We withdraw money from the ATM while our friends who do not have an international card change money.
The vending machine does not pose any difficulties, it can be put in English.
With only 5 days left, we didn’t buy a local SIM card and we are happy with our international Drimsim SIM card which works perfectly (10€ per Giga).
It seems however that it is possible to buy one even if I did not see a store at the airport.
However, the Internet is quite easily accessible. At the airport (and in many parts of the city) wifi is available free of charge. You have to indicate your phone number (you can put your French number) to receive a validation code by SMS.
Direction the city center. The initial plan was to take a minibus but none was available. So we leave with several cabs. Some towards a youth hostel, others towards the Hotel Garni (link Booking), option we chose. The trip costs 55 rubles.
After a short rest at the hotel, Anh and I go out for a quick walk to take the pulse of the city and buy some water (tap water isn’t recommended). Our hotel (Hotel Garni, 50€/night, 3 stars) is in the heart of the city and we can see some points of interest. In particular, we pass in front of a catholic church(St. Joseph Church). I hardly entered because some faithful were in full prayer and I did not want to disturb them. However, the interior is beautiful and would have deserved to spend a little more time there.
It is already time to go to dinner, PE and T. take us to a traditional restaurant. This one is nicely decorated and tries to imitate the Soviet atmosphere. Even though the menu is translated into English, T.’s help with ordering is welcome.
As an appetizer, we are treated to an assortment of good things, a little bit like tapas. Some of them are caviar based and it’s really good.
As a main course, I choose a kind of pot au feu with buckwheat.
As a drink we discover the Kompot, a traditional non-alcoholic drink with a whole fruit inside (it isn’t systematic). We accompany it with a jar of 3 liters of beer that will leave very quickly.
Pleasant surprise: everything is very good, I enjoyed myself 🙂
Day 2: Visit Minsk, metro and family dinner
I go out alone in the morning with the idea of having breakfast in a popular place: failure. The place I was advised is closed like… just about everything else. I notice that most of the shops open at 10am. As if to console myself, I pass in front of a big poster promoting Mireille Mathieu, very popular in Eastern Europe.
We take the subway for the first time. This one is finally quite simple to take. There are only 2 lines (+ a 3rd under construction).
The stations are numbered and translated into Latin characters, much easier to find than in Cyrillic.
Inside each wagon, a screen allows to see the number of the next station: very practical.
The most complicated is probably to buy the token that acts as a ticket.
There is no ATM, no English instruction at the counter and the employee speaks only Russian.
We cheated since PE and T. bought the tokens for us but I guess it can be done by indicating with your fingers how many trips you want. One token costs 0.65 rouble.
Go to the library which has an observatory with a panoramic view of the whole city.
When you reach the library level, follow the “Observation deck” arrows.
New failure of the day: we arrive at 10:15 am whereas it opens only at 12 am. We thus take advantage of the good weather and the garden next door. After waiting, we take our tickets (3,5 roubles) and go up to enjoy the view.
It is already lunch time, we go to a Belarusian canteen(Lido: https: //goo.gl/maps/9t6bM5RqvyB2).
There almost all dishes are charged by weight, hence the post-it notes stuck on the plate.
I enjoy a soup with meat and olives. If you want to try to find her, she is called “Solianka”. It’s good and very economical, Anh and I have it for 25 rubles in total.
We continue our visit and pass in front of the very pretty Gorky National Academic Drama Theatre, pass by Independence Square and its large statue of Lenin and in front of Victory Square and its permanent flame which reminds us of the laziness of the unknown soldier of the Arc de Triomphe in Paris.
We then go to Gorky Park from where we will wait for PE and T. who leave to pay a deposit at the restaurant the next day. Reservations for groups aren’t usual there and they want to be sure that we come 🙂 To pass the time, I take the opportunity to take a ride on the Ferris wheel. Nice view and relaxation in perspective.
Finally, we visit the Orthodox church Holy Spirit Cathedral. Women are asked to wear a veil before entering. We arrive in full prayer and discover the fervor of the faithful who sing and kiss statues and paintings.
In the evening, it’s dinner with the family. We are invited by T.’s father at the restaurant. This one (restaurant Dom: https: //goo.gl/maps/uzx3RULo9AT2) is quite chic but delicious.
Anh is reassured to understand that the big vodka shot is “only for men”.
We drink it (almost) all dry to honor our guests. Anh enjoys a beef tartare, I enjoy a duck.
The chocolate fondant for dessert is also delicious.
The end of the meal is marked by the speeches of T.’s father and his uncle. Very moving moment.
T. will achieve the feat of allowing an almost fluid communication between 14 people, half of whom speak French and half Russian.
Day 3 : visit of the castles of Mir and Niasvij then big evening
In the morning, a very comfortable Mercedes minibus is waiting for us in front of the hotel.
About 1h30 drive to reach the Mir Castle built at the end of the 15th century and registered since 2000 in the UNESCO World Heritage. The entrance costs 14 rubles. If the outside is very pretty, the visit of the inside doesn’t bring much.
If you look at the 50 rouble bills, you will see this castle.
We have lunch right next door at Doroga Zamkov (https://goo.gl/maps/TosR81Tp16m). I enjoy a pot with a mixture of meat, potato and fresh cream, really delicious!
After about 30 minutes drive, we drive to Niasvij Castle, built in the 16th century and also a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The outside is also very nice and this time the inside is interesting with many rooms to discover.
Dinner is marked by musical entertainment as an appetizer where guests are more than encouraged to participate in a folk dance.
Small curiosity on the Russian menus. The quantity of each element of the dish is specified as well as its number of calories.
I eat a salmon fillet that is a little overcooked for my taste. The end of the dinner is marked by the digestif offered to us by M. on the occasion of his birthday.
An excellent introduction to the evening that is about to begin. Some misplaced spirits indicate that the party really begins at this time.
The most festive of the group go to the incredible Embargo Bar (https://goo.gl/maps/4V9DnceeEWU2). The place is cosy and looks like an upscale hotel bar. The bartenders, in hypster mode, are in a state of hypstreemy and invent cocktails all the time.
Just tell them what you want (flavor / alcohol / sugar level / …) and they do it. Each cocktail costs 15 rubles. 3 to 4 times cheaper than a cocktail of equivalent level in France.
What happened in this evening will remain in this evening but let’s say it was very good. It seems that we set a very different atmosphere from the standards of the house. We will have the boss’s tour.
The first cocktail was T. and P.E.’s favorite.
For the second one, I ordered a revisited mojito. For the 3rd, a lemon cocktail. I have to admit that I don’t really remember the next ones but according to an official count, I will finish with 7 cocktails on the counter.
Around 3:30 a.m., there begin to be victims, it’s time to retreat. The strong man of this evening is undoubtedly V. but the images will remain secret.
Day 4 : Private sauna
The night was short and waking up was more than difficult. Small mines, headaches, not to mention a few emergency visits to the toilet for some, … What better than a good sauna session to get back on your feet?
However, this session is original: PE and T. have booked an entire house. This one is composed of a large living room with kitchen, a small garden with barbecue and of course a sauna with a small cold water pool.
The place is quite suitable for about 15 people even if not everyone can enter the sauna at the same time. By renting the place for several hours, everyone can enjoy it without limit.
Special feature of saunas in Belarus: these are usually heated with a wood fire fuelled by the owner of the premises outside. This causes a pleasant smell of wood.
Once at the sauna, everyone is very excited and quickly puts on their bathing suits to experience the sauna. They cover their heads with a little elf hat to prevent their hair from drying out. As an accessory, it helps to avoid burning your ears.
The sauna is very hot as I like it, it feels good to sweat and then dive into the cold water. Belarusian tradition obliges: one lies down in turn and one whips oneself with branches of jobs sprinkled with water. That releases a pleasant perfume and makes it possible (it seems) to improve blood circulation.
After a few cycles sauna -> cold water -> hydration -> snacks. The binge of the day before is forgotten, I am in great shape! All that remains is the cold caught in the meantime.
For lunch, we order 14 pizzas, a little more than one per person. It’s impressive like that but there was nothing too much. We end up with a chess game with PE that shows how effective the training sessions with T.’s uncle, the chess champion, were.
We go back home with a shark, it feels good!
We took advantage of the place from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. at the rate of 40 rubles per hour.
The place is located about 15 minutes by car from the center of Minsk and is clearly untraceable if you don’t know it, it isn’t present on Tripadvisor or Google and has no website. I took the business card in picture, you can ask the reception of your hotel to help you to make a reservation if needed.
Otherwise, I took a picture of this ad at the airport but at the time I’m writing these lines, the site isn’t working.
We return to the hotel to rest. I take the opportunity to go to the hairdresser (35 rubles).
For dinner, we return to the canteen that we had already experienced. The choice is more limited in the evening and unfortunately, the delicious soup I wanted to taste again is no longer available. I go back to the traditional potato pancake to be eaten with a generous ration of fresh cream. Delicious.
Day 5: Breakfast and departure
Last morning: we go to Stolle ‘s (https://goo.gl/maps/vNdq2S7SaF52) a stone’s throw from the hotel for a typical breakfast. I take a piece of salty cake made with salmon and another sweet one made with blueberries. It’s good, nothing more.
It is already the end of the stay, those who return to France leave for the airport by cab. We leave one hour later by booking an Uber (35 roubles).
Originality at the airport, we come across a caviar dispenser!
Remember to take the proof of declaration to the police that you handed over to the hotel, otherwise you may have problems leaving. (According to PE, this document is only necessary for stays longer than 5 days).
The stay in Minsk is over, direction Istanbul for 45 days! It’s going to be good to have a new “home”: since the departure of Trans-Sur-Erdre at the end of July, I didn’t stay anywhere more than 15 days.