Getting to know the neighbours – Belarus

Jay Martin heads east of the border to check out the charms of Minsk and Brest.

Occasionally our strange foreign ways do perplex our Polish neighbours. Like when we mentioned that we were going to Belarus for a long weekend. They looked at us from the corner of one eye. ‘We are not going there’, they said.

Which did sum up the general response we got from Poles, other foreigners, and even the Belarusian Embassy, on hearing we were heading for a minibreak in Belarus. Which alone would have made it worth doing. But it turns out that Belarus is also a pretty cool place to visit.

Our first impressions of Minsk were that it’s what Warsaw might have looked like, had those who designed Plac Konstitucii had had their wicked way with a whole urban planning department. The main street, Independence Boulevard (running from Lenin Square to Victory Place – where else but Belarus) is lined on either side with impressive old Soviet buildings including the KGB headquarters, Presidential Palace, Palace of Culture (yep, they’ve got one of those too) and Museum of the Great Patriotic War. (Well worth the three dollars entry, even though we didn’t understand a word). There are also a few great old department stores around, where we took the opportunity to stock up on USSR hipflasks and posters of the Belarusian President – which always make great presents for the folks back home. I was more or less expecting this.

But the city is also full of open air cafes serving up beer and ice-cream to young couples texting each other while puffing on designer Davidoff cigarettes. I commented to my travelling companion – more than once – that I never expected it to be so groovy. Like when we found the Rakovski Brovar, a cool little micro-brewery boasting some more than adequate Belarusian food, and some very drinkable ‘live beer’. We came for a drink and stayed for dinner. There didn’t seem to be a good enough reason to leave.

Belarus is not a particular travel bargain – you’re way off the tourist trail here. Our mid-range double room at the Belarus Hotel cost just north of US$100 a night – which adds up to a cool 280,000 Belarusian Roubles. But the view from the restaurant on the 22nd floor was worth every one of them. It made for a great place from which to gaze out over the city at sunset. And ponder the fact that Belarus may be the only country where a standard pour of either wine or vodka is the same (50 mls).

From Minsk we headed to Brest, just across the border from Poland. The highlight of a trip to Brest (other than the disproportionately funny jokes about the town’s name) is the Brest Fortress, which is a monument to, well, Soviet monument building more than anything. But it marks the site of one particular standoff between some very brave Belarusians and some Nazi invaders, and is really worth seeing – particularly if you like guns, tanks, and stuff that blows up. And who doesn’t, really. It’s all located in a very large outdoor setting that you can easily spend a few hours wandering around. And given that it’s just a few hours by train from Warsaw, it makes for an easy (not to mention unusual) weekend get away. All the text is in Russian, but you can get the general idea from the pictures. If you’re really keen on the detail, it would be worth reading up on before hand.

In Brest we stayed at the Vesta hotel, which was well located and adequate. It also turned out that it provided free condoms – or at least I think they were free. Were they like the shampoo, where you can take as many as you need, or the minibar, where you’re supposed to declare how many you used?

We went the whole way by train, on the way getting a cute little Orient Express-esque sleeper compartment – complete with lace curtains on the windows, cherry-red velvet interior, super-comfy pillows and even a little wash basin. On the way back we had the entire train carriage to ourselves. (Did I mention Belarus isn’t exactly overrun with tourists?) The English-speaking staff at the customer service centre at Warsaw’s Central Station can set you up with tickets. You’ll need to investigate visa regulations for your passport, which comes as a bit of a shock after the luxury of visa-less Schengen travel. A Russian menu reader is also a good investment unless you’re really adventurous.

But it’s worth it for any number of reasons, not least of which is how cool the stories sound when you get back. I suspect this is mainly why my travelling partner decided to go to the casino and put $10 in a slot machine. So he could truthfully tell the grandchildren about the time he blew 20 grand in a Belarusian night club.

Just as well the condoms are free.

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