I’ve been planning to cancel my Amex Platinum card for a while and I won’t renew it next year. Even with its (limited) $200 travel credit, the $450 annual fee just isn’t worth it to me any more since Amex lost Admiral’s Club membership as a perk. Its other perks are mostly either duplicative of perks on other premium cards I have or just not very useful or valuable to me. (I will miss Centurion Club, though!) And, after this year, the annual fee is going up to $550. The question has been what to do with the Membership Rewards points I’ve accrued.
MR do not transfer to American Airlines AAdvantage, my most frequently used airline. Membership Rewards points do transfer to American partner British Airways, though. Since 2015 until recently, however, the transfer rate from MR points to British Airways Avios has been abysmal: 250MR to 200 Avios. Last week, Amex restored the old 1:1 ratio. But now, only until September 17, 2017, Amex is offering a 250 MR to 350 Avios transfer rate, a whopping increase. I use Avios a lot to get reduced-rate short-haul flights on partner American Airlines. Avios are also good for short-haul flights in Europe and I can share Avios between British Airways and Iberia Airlines making them even more useful. Anyway, I intend to take advantage of this offer and thought I’d give a heads-up.
The drive NNW from Valga toward Tallinn took us through woods and farmland dotted with traditional wooden houses.
The highlight of the drive was a stop at pretty Viljandi, a popular Estonian tourist town that prides itself on preserving Estonian traditions. Considered a center of culture and folk history, Viljandi hosts popular outdoor concerts in the summer in the ruins of Viljandi Castle on the banks of a deep blue lake. Water sports are popular on the lake as well and the small town is surrounded by parks and green areas.
There were no concerts or swimming on the crisp spring day we were there, but we still enjoyed wandering the ruins and admiring the gorgeous scenery. We crossed a pedestrian suspension bridge to continue our ramble on through yet another park and the modern Ugala open-air concert/theater venue.
The preserved Old Town is small, easily walkable and picturesque. We found plenty of cute restaurants and cafés in addition to a the Estonian Traditional Music Centre, a puppet theater, art center, museum and more. There’s an old brick water tower you can climb for the view for €2/adult, €1/child. The Tourist Information Centre offers free parking and free maps within eyesight of “Jaani Kirik,” the church shown in the top photo. Viljandi is a place to relax and take in the atmosphere rather than visit major sites.
We opted for lunch at stylish Kohvik Fellin on a corner across from the Tourist Information Centre. The food was excellent, if pricier than elsewhere in rural Estonia, something we found true of Viljandi in general. We liked the bread at Kohvik Fellin so much we convinced them to sell us a loaf, something they apparently don’t ordinarily do. We paid a pretty exorbitant €6, but the dense sweet bread provided several breakfasts and we did love the way our waitress wrapped it for us!
The Viljandi Tourist Information Centre is open M-F 10am-5pm and Sat.-Sun. 10am-3pm. English speakers there are happy to offer advice on sights and dining. Parking is free (and conveniently located to sights) in the lot in front of the tourist center. Email at email@example.com or phone (+372) 433 0442.
Leaving Birzai, Lithuania, we soon crossed the border again into the Latvian town of Skaistkalne and instantly came across our first surprise roadtrip treat when we spotted a lovely old church on a hill just overlooking the main road. This is exactly why we love exploring the roads less traveled and the freedom of a car. Winding our way up the steep drive, we passed a woman working on the church flowerbeds, but she paid us no heed and we wandered into the empty church on our own. We were blown away by the baroque interior and magnificent altar of the church which a sign proclaimed to be the tallest in Latvia. It turns out this church, Skaistkalnes baznīca–dating to the late 1600’s–is one of the largest churches in rural Latvia and the second most popular pilgrimage site. I left payment at the honor-system counter for a wooden rosary for my Catholic nephew, in green, his favorite color. What a lovely chance stop!
Continuing on our rural cross-country, we passed plowed fields (and lots of storks) before stopping for lunch in an eclectic little roadside eatery about 45km past Skaistkalne. Its sign named it only “Krodzinš” which basically means “inn,” so not much help there.
The sole waitress spoke no English, nor did anyone else in the place, but we got by with the aid of Google translate and a few words of German although Russian would have been a lot more helpful. Things were made extra-easy by the fact that a large portion of the menu wasn’t actually available. Oh well, we enjoyed what they had.
My one sight-seeing goal for the day was Turaida Castle and the Turaida Museum Reserve in a forested national park northeast of Riga. We arrived in early afternoon to find ample parking in the nearest lot in front of a big restaurant and just across the street from the entrance to the castle and open air museum. We paid €1.50 to a lady watching the lot. Although it was off season and the restaurant was closed, a market of open stalls across the road was open and bustling.
Turaida Castle, like so much in this part of the world is largely rebuilt. The work was well-executed and the castle, surrounding buildings, and period-costumed docents give a glimpse of a bygone world. A adjacent sculpture park offers another scenic stroll. Adult entrance fee for the castle, outbuildings and sculpture park was €3 each. This is the winter fee and goes up to €5 in the summer peak season.
Pine trees dominated the terrain around Turaida and beyond as we continued on our northeastern path. Logging trucks lumbered along the roads, piled high and slowing down our progress.
Still, we made decent time and rolled into the Estonian college town of Valga by early evening. Once again, my TravSIM data SIM card transferred seamlessly as we crossed the border from Latvia into Estonia, so I was able to do a little quick hotel research and (for €68 euros including breakfast) book online what reviews promised to be the nicest hotel in town. Hotel Metsis is a distinguished small mansion of a building which sits across the street from a city park. The hotel lobby and restaurant are literally overflowing with an incredible collection of taxidermied animals. If this bothers you, you’ll want to avoid the place. We just found it quirky if a touch on the macabre side. I grew up in a Texas hunting family and am plenty familiar with domestic and foreign hunting trophies, but Hotel Metsis took things in a direction and to an extent I’ve never seen.
We enjoyed a very good dinner at the Hotel Metsis restaurant for €58 including a bottle of Chilean wine.
The main street in front of the hotel was nearly devoid of cars and the town had a sleepy feel. We explored the park across the way and found only a few other people there. Walking into the residential neighborhood on the other side of the hotel we came across some some people playing ball in a small lakeside park. It was a quiet place, though, and we slept well that night in our pretty, comfortable room under the slanted roof of the hotel.
Our included breakfast the next morning was served in the same restaurant as dinner and was good and ample, even if the various dead animals lurking over the buffet were a little off-putting.
We got up bright and early to head out to the Riga Airport to pick up the Addcar rental car I’d reserved for eleven days. We were excited about the chance to get away from touristy Riga and the freedom to explore the Baltics on our own that only a car could offer.
Our first destination was Rundale Palace, a Versailles-like palace in the south of Latvia near the town of Bauska. I planned to head on from there to spend the night in Birzai, Lithuania, the “capital” of a special beer region in the north of Lithuania. Since we planned to drive back across Latvia to Estonia after visiting northern Lithuania, I navigated us to the westernmost route suggested by Google Maps so we could take a more easterly route when we headed north again and not have to retrace our path.
A short time out of Riga, we found ourselves driving through green fields, farms and small villages. The road was excellent and uncrowded. Our first detour was to check out the old windmill pictured in the top photo above. Not far from the town of Jelgava, we detoured again at Eleja where the ruins of an old plantation manor beckoned.
A multi-lingual sign provided photos of the old manor building and informed us that the Russian Army had burned down 18 of the plantation buildings, including the main house, leaving only the steward’s house and a servant’s house. It’s a familiar story of pillage and destruction that we found repeated all over the Baltics and Belarus. The ruins at Eleja aren’t a major site, but they are part of a bigger picture that we would have missed without a car and the time to wander and stop.
A short distance beyond the Eleja ruins, we reached our first major destination of the day: Rundale Palace (Rundāles Pils). Rundale Palace is one of two opulent palaces built by the dukes of Courland, an independent duchy that once occupied a portion of modern day Latvia, but no longer exists. As with so many of the sites in the Baltics, it was heavily damaged by wars, but was restored. The extensive restoration spanned the years from 1972-2014 and was finally completed in 2015. The results are the impressive Rundale Palace and Museum.
Before starting our visit to the museum, our stomachs demanded food. We enjoyed a traditional lunch (and beer, of course) at Bālta Māja, a rustic restaurant situated between the parking lot and the palace entrance. Our friendly waitress spoke enough English to get us by. At €5+ for lunch and €2 for beer, prices were very reasonable.
Pleasantly full, we continued the short walk from Bālta Māja to the palace museum.
With prices starting at €4 for adults, the Rundale Palace and Museum is a bargain. We had the option of the €4 “short route” or the slightly more expensive €4.80 (€6 in high season) “long route.” We opted for the long route and were glad we did since that added living quarters to the state rooms which comprise the short route.
After exploring the palace, we headed outside to visit the extensive formal gardens. They promise to be spectacular in bloom, but were austere this early in the season. There’s an oriental “folly,” an open-air theater, gazebos and more.
With plenty of time left in the day, we retrieved the car and set out for Lithuania. Driving through Bauska and onto the A7, we were at the border in half an hour. Northern Lithuania is very rural and our main reason for going to the area was to try kaimiskas, a unique style of beer brewed only in that region. In making kaimiskas, the wort is never boiled and that’s just plain weird. We desperately wanted to try it. The town of Birzai claims title to the beer capital of Lithuania, so I booked us a hotel room there with plans to try a large brewery with a tasting room and restaurant in town. En route, though, we hoped to find some of that elusive local beer to try.
Having read about lots of small farm brewers with no discernible address, I decided we should try a larger outfit, Butautu Manor Brewery, located in a country manor house used as a party venue and also housing a small brewpub. I tried emailing with them about tasting, but never got a response. Knowing it was a gamble, we decided to chance a drive to the brewery anyway.
Just across the Lithuanian border, GPS steered us off the A7 highway and onto a dirt farm road. We probably should have turned around right then but the lure of rare beer pulled us on. The road degenerated with every turn until we found ourselves in flat, open fields. With only a mile or two to our destination, we came upon a wide, muddy patch in the road. Not wanting to concede defeat, David got out to test whether we could drive into the field and around the mud and water. I’ve done my share of rural driving and was shaking my head. If we stuck the rent car there, it was a long, long way to help and good luck finding someone out here who spoke English. Even David the Beer Lover had to admit we were thwarted. Making about a 15-point turn, we head back the long, winding, muddy way back to the highway.
But wait! Back on the highway, GPS found a re-route that wasn’t as far as I feared and we were back off. In less than thirty minutes we arrived at Butautu only to find the manor house and restaurant beer pub closed. Aargh. Oh well, it was pretty and we got to see more storks. So, we headed on to our nearby destination for the night, Birzai.
About 20-25 minutes later, we pulled into Hotel Tyla just outside the town of Birzai and overlooking a scenic lake and inland. Fishermen in small john boats were just pulling in across the street when we arrived. The area and Hotel Tyla were set up for outdoor sports and recreation, but things were slow this time of year. We loved the quiet and the smell of the clean, fresh air. At around $55/night for a bedroom with balcony overlooking the inlet and including breakfast and free parking, we were happy. (Using Topcashback, we had another 4% rebate coming, too. Small change on this one-night stay, but Topcashback rebates add up to hundreds of dollars for me on travel and other purchases.)
After checking in and dropping off our luggage, we headed back into Birzai to visit the Alaus Kelias restaurant and brewery. They’d been great about responding to my emails, so I knew we wouldn’t be disappointed. We were surprised, though, at the pleasantly upscale restaurant and the extensive beer tasting on offer. There’s also a free small museum of the brewery upstairs.
Despite the menu describing an 8-beer tasting, their special-made beer platter is set up for and provided 9 beers to taste. A written tasting guide was all in Lithuanian, but Google Translate helped us get the gist of things. The so-called “mini” tasting also came with a plate of assorted snacks.
And, finally, we got to try a kaimiskas. No, we weren’t in a little farmhouse, but it was kaimiskas nonetheless, unboiled wort and all. It was like no beer we’d tried before: apricot yellow and so cloudy as to be completely opaque; tangy and low in carbonation, it tasted predominantly of fresh straw. I wouldn’t want to drink it all the time, but it was interesting and certainly not bad. I’m glad we got the chance to try it.
Practical stuff re Addcar: I researched lots of rental options and found Addcar to offer the best value in the Baltics with unlimited miles. It also had good reviews for its Baltics operations. We used Addcar both for a 4-day rental in Vilnius (€68) and this 11-day rental from Riga (€180 rental+€15 cross-Baltic-border fee = €195 total). We were happy with Addcar both times and had absolutely no problems with the vehicles or the service. They did take a €450 security deposit charge on our credit card which they promptly refunded upon return of the car. The Addcar location at the Riga airport is just off-site, so requires a free shuttle. Since I didn’t have active phone service and was having some issues making the local call necessary to summon the shuttle van, I paid the Tourist Info office in the airport a small fee to make the call for me. In minutes, a van arrived to take us the short distance to the rental office and lot.
Taking the Airport Bus to Old Town: We arrived in Riga via a 1-hour Belavia flight from Minsk, Belarus. There are two terminals at the Riga Airport and if you arrive, as we did, at the one with no Tourist Info office, walk out the main door and turn right to reach the main terminal. Inside this second terminal you’ll find the Tourist Info office. With the main terminal to your back, walk across the parking lot and in the far right corner, you’ll find the bus stop where Bus 22 and Minibus 222 provide cheap, efficient service to Old Town, the Riga Bus Station, covered markets, etc. Tickets are cheaper (€1.15) via a machine at the stand, but a 222 Minibus arrived just as we walked up and we paid the still-cheap €2 fare to the driver and were on our way. The bus was crowded to the point of standing room only and you’re on your own as far as getting your luggage on and off. It’s about a 30 minute ride to Old Town. [If you prefer a taxi, I read but can’t confirm that they are a fixed €14 and require the purchase of a voucher at the airport.] Read more about bus tickets and other public transportation here.
Although the driver spoke little English, he tried to help people search for their stops. Our AirBnB host (a quick substitute after our original hostess canceled) had told me to get off at “Griezinieku station,” but little else. With no bus stop signs in sight, I was lucky when a fellow passenger offered that we were at that very stop, which wasn’t any sort of station. Anyway, for anyone wanting to take Bus 22 or Minibus 222 from the airport to Old Town, get off at the first stop just over the river bridge. (The bus turns right after crossing the bridge.) Walk back in the direction of the bridge and you’ll find a pedestrian underpass to Old Town that crosses under the wide, multi-lane boulevard that separates Old Town from the Daugava River. There’s currently construction going on, but it is open. It’s a very short walk (less than 5 minutes) from the bus stop to Old Town. Using Google Maps, we were at our apartment in no time. When it came time to pick up a rent car at the airport, we took the same pedestrian underpass, just popping up in the middle of the boulevard instead of walking all the way back to the riverside stop.
Old Town: Riga has a pretty, but small Old Town. Both a cruise ship port-of-call and a budget airline destination, it’s become very touristy with lots of souvenir shops, cafés, bars and restaurants. It caters to a younger, drinking crowd, too, and it’s common for bars to be open until 4am or even 6am! I pity the locals who live near the noisy, drunken throngs and pounding music. Cigarette butts and trash are frequently scattered across the sidewalks near bars. Choose your lodging location carefully.
The entrance to our AirBnB apartment was next door to such a dive-y bar, but fortunately faced an interior courtyard. With a fan for white noise, we didn’t have a problem sleeping, but certain neighbors must have. On the bright side, two doors down was a cavernous beer bar and restaurant, Folkklubs ALA, that topped David’s list of places to try local beer. We enjoyed a hearty and reasonably-priced meal of local fare there, too.
Prices have risen with the tourist trade, but we found the Latvian War Museum which encompasses the 14th century Powder Tower in the far NW corner of Old Town to be both surprisingly good and surprisingly free.
We had rain on our first day in Riga, so headed to the famous covered market which is housed in four huge, side-by-side hangars (visible in the top photo of this blog post). This turned out to be one of our favorite stops. Products vary from building to building: produce, pickled goods, meat and cheese, fish, clothing and jewelry, etc. We bought honey and propolis, sausage, jerky and dark sausage bread. Vendors were friendly and quick to offer samples.
Beer!: The biggest hit at the market with our beer-loving selves was the Labietis craft beer bar set up near a main entrance (the one facing Old Town) to the produce hall. This bar is a small outpost of their much larger bar across town. We enjoyed visiting with the knowledgeable young woman serving beer that day and the other patrons who’d settled into the seating provided behind the bar. The beers were interesting and based on local ingredients. A particularly unusual brew was a “braggot” (a Welsh term for a honey brewed beverage related to mead) which they claim dates back to bronze age brewing techniques and ingredients. It’s a hazy golden drink with a small white head and fine bubbles. Its nose and taste is spicy with honey and meadow flowers. Sweet red berries and slight caramel round out the taste. We liked Labietis so much we made a point of a return visit when we came back to Riga some weeks later.
Back in Old Town on another day, we tried local beers at Beer House No. 1, which boasts 70 beers on tap, both local and international. They’ve got a wide selection of Belgian beers, but having just spent 6 weeks in Belgium, we weren’t interested in that. I tried a Mežpils Saules EILS, a deep gold ale with a strong aroma and taste of butterscotch, rich, but with something crisper than expected that cuts through at the end. It was unusual, but I liked it at first. As it warmed, though, it developed a fake butterscotch taste that really put me off. I found myself unable/unwilling to finish it.
Beyond Old Town: A short walk from Old Town Riga took us to the golden-domed Nativity of Christ Cathedral, a local icon. Just behind it across a small park sits the Latvian National Museum of Art. Walking from the cathedral past the museum a couple of blocks, we arrived at the famous Art Nouveau district of Riga. It’s a pleasant place to stroll, but it didn’t hold our attention for too long. For those more interested, the Riga Art Nouveau Museum is a long block further on.
Beautiful Ballet in a gorgeous Opera House: Some months before our arrival in Riga, I’d bought two of the few remaining tickets online to “On the Blue Danube,” a ballet I’d never heard of based on Johann Strauss music. The ballet turned out to be the true highlight of our stay in Riga. The Latvian National Opera House is a gorgeous gem of a venue and the ballet was spectacular. Mikhail Baryshnikov began dancing in his hometown of Riga and the tradition of fine ballet lives on with the Latvian National Ballet. In addition, the costuming was beautiful, mixing ballgowns and a formal menswear on waltzing, supporting dancers with classic ballet costumes on the ballet dancers in their midst…and all of this to Strauss music. Wonderful!
At €10 each, our box seats were a steal even though they were not front row. (See view from our seats above.) By the time we got to Riga, the performance was sold out for the coming 4 months, so book early if you’re interested. A pretty café offers drinks, hors d’oeuvres and desserts.
Flying Belavia, the national airline of Belarus, means arriving at the airport two hours before your flight. They’re firm about that no matter how short the flight. We arrived two-and-a-half hours early at the Minsk International Airport and found all Belavia desks closed, but sure enough, promptly two hours before our flight, a Belavia agent arrived and opened a counter. A line quickly formed. Since we were first in line, we were checked in and sans checked luggage in no time. With time to spare, we passed through security and headed upstairs to the Minsk Airport Business Lounge to which we have access via our Priority Pass Select cards (perks of both Chase Sapphire Reserve and AmEx Platinum).
We found an intriguing lounge, empty save for a single agent early on a Friday afternoon. Two massage chairs sat on an expanse of artificial turf spread just beyond two large, canopied daybeds of the kind you might expect to find in the beach area of a resort. Lounge chairs lined the faux lawn. Metal walls in this area and sleek lines on furniture and counters throughout give the lounge a futuristic look. I planted myself in one of the massage chairs for a goodly portion of our stay, but David thought they were too rough and opted for a lounge chair.
A buffet was set out in another wing of the L-shaped lounge just beyond the check in counter. Food tended toward local dishes, of cafeteria quality: sausage, fried meat and vegetables, soup, breakfast cereals and sweets. OK, but not great. Complementary coffee, soft drinks and water were also provided.
Free alcohol was limited to two kinds of Bobrov (a mass-produced Heineken beer) and local wine. Upgraded beer and wine were kept in a separate refrigerator near the check-in counter and cost extra. There were magazines and newspapers, but none in English.
We couldn’t access the free wi-fi with the directions provided on various signs because we had no way to receive the text message used to send a PIN code. The nice lady at the front counter solved the problem with access codes provided on scratch-off cards kept behind the front counter.
The Business Lounge was spotless, stylish and a good place to wait on a flight, if not exactly lavish. Just outside the Business Lounge, small 24-hour sleeping cubicles are available for rent. The Business Lounge is open 24-hours/day.
When we decided to add a few weeks in the Baltics at the end of our Antwerp stay, I started pondering Internet service. The Baltic countries are small, and we had plans to drive back and forth across borders and to cross borders in some fairly rural places. That kind of trip doesn’t lend itself to making a quick stop in a phone store to buy a local SIM card, something I often do when traveling. I also didn’t want to have to buy–and change every time we crossed a border–3 SIM cards, one each for Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia. (I’d already decided we could do without for the relatively short time we’d be in Belarus.)
When I’m home in the U.S., my cell provider is AT&T, a necessary evil because of its superior coverage where I spend most of my time. But, AT&T is horrible for international travel and I would never consider using its exorbitant international data “plans.” There are more and more international plans these days, but most didn’t suit my needs. However, my research finally led me to Travsim, a German-based company offering multi-country SIM cards at interesting prices and with a decent active period. After exploring their options, I settled on their DATA SIM card for Baltic States (Estonia, Latvia & Lithuania). They offered data SIM cards from 3-12G, lasting 30-60 days, and a 12G, 30 day data-and-international-calls card. I chose a card offering “3 GB – fast mobile internet with a speed of up to 7,2 Mbit/s for 60 days for +$21.44.” I wasn’t interested in getting phone service since we seldom need to make calls locally and can always use Internet calling if we do. We use WhatsApp and Internet calling for texts and calls home, too.
Travsim offers free international shipping and expedited shipping for a fee. The estimated shipping time to the U.S. is 3-5 days (to cities), but I opted to wait and have it sent to us in Belgium. Mailed from Germany, the SIM card arrived 2 days after I placed my order.
The “Baltic” data SIM card I ordered turned out to include data service in many countries. In addition to Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia, the card covered: Belgium, Bulgaria, Denmark, Germany, Finland, France, Gibraltar, Greece, Hong Kong, Indonesia, Iceland, Isle of Man, Israel, Italy, Channel Islands, Croatia, Litchenstein, Luxembourg, Macau, Malta, Netherlands, Norway, Poland, Portugal, Ireland, Romania, Sweden, Switzerland, Slovakia, Slovenia, Spain, Sri Lanka, Czech Republic, Hungary, United States, United Kingdom, Cyprus (EU Member state). Wow! The card also came with a UK phone number at which I could apparently receive calls although I never had occasion to try that out.
All I had to do to activate the card was install it in my phone and reboot. Since Belgium was included, I was able to try out the card a couple of days before we left Antwerp and found it working fine. When we landed in Vilnius, it instantly connected as well. I was able to email our AirBnB hostess from the airport to schedule our key hand-off. [Unfortunately, this is the only point at which I had any troubles with this SIM card and I have some doubts that the problem had anything at all to do with the SIM card: I was unable to email or receive emails from our hostess’ mother’s Lithuania email account which caused some hassles as I had to contact our hostess who was in Paris via WhatsApp and AirBnB so that she could relay info to her mother who was waiting on us with the key. All other emails went through fine. I have had a similar problem in Asia and elsewhere when using other SIM cards. My email servers seem to block certain local emails. If anyone knows what this is about, I’d love to know.] The Travsim card also worked fine during our London layover when we flew home from Brussels.
Despite the one glitch in Vilnius, the Travsim SIM card worked seamlessly as we drove across the Baltic borders. The only active step I ever had to take was to reboot when we returned from Belarus, a country not covered by Travsim.
I loved that our Travsim had a 60-day active period. So often, tourist SIM cards last only 7-15 days and I’ve had times when the time limit is just short of what I need. I’d much rather have way too much time than not enough. I still had plenty of data left at the end of my 3-weeks use. At $21.44, I was happy with the price, too. I’m sure local SIM cards are available at much cheaper prices, but given the logistics of our trip and the strong likelihood of language issues, Travsim was the way to go. Given that they offer SIM cards covering many countries on five continents, I’ll definitely keep them in mind for future travels.
Note: Unfortunately, Travsim does not allow hotspotting.
Intrigued by the castles of Nesvizh and Mir, I arranged a private driver to take us to both sites on a one-day tour from Minsk. Although we were perfectly comfortable renting a car and tooling around Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia on our own, we had some reservations about doing the same in Belarus. My main concerns had to do with language issues on signs and during any potential encounters with traffic police. Parking at popular sites was also a concern as was finding a gas station and decyphering the pumps. It seemed easiest and most relaxing to just let someone else do the driving. This turned out to be more than true when the day of our tour arrived and it was pouring raining. Much of the sights we wanted to see were indoors, so we weren’t so bothered by that, but it was a real pleasure to relax into the back seat and let our driver, Alexei, deal with the rain and Minsk traffic as we headed out of town.
Our first stop was Nesvizh (also “Niasviž” and “Нясвіж”), about an hour and half drive southwest of Minsk. Alexei parked near the Nesvizh Church of Corpus Christi to allow us to visit the church before heading on to our main destination, Nesvizh Palace. Built at the end of the 16th century, the Church of Corpus Christi was the first baroque style church in what was then the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth.
The church was unexpectedly beautiful inside with elaborate trompe l’oeil painting on its vaulted ceiling and soaring dome. We had the church to ourselves on this rainy day save for one old woman sitting behind a small counter selling religious metals and trinkets. Alexei negotiated with her a moment before she waved us on.
We paid a small fee to access the crypt beneath the church where generations of the powerful Radziwill family are interred. Simple lead coffins occupy the many vaulted rooms of the catacombs.
Leaving the church, Alexei very helpfully lead us to the ticket building located just inside the castle grounds to the right beyond a few souvenir stalls. It wasn’t clearly marked (at least not to us English speakers) and it would have been very frustrating to walk the not-insubstantial distance to the actual castle only to be turned away. Once we had our tickets in hand, Alexei returned to the car to wait for us and we were on our own. [We had the option to book a guide for an additional $80, but chose to forego that option. Details are at the end of this blog post. We were really glad we’d made that choice as Alexei provided all we needed or wanted. English-language signs and our own Internet research more than adequately informed us and we prefer more time to ourselves.]
The walk to the palace took us across a bridge spanning a lovely lake and grounds. Thankfully, the rain had given way to a drizzle, but it still wasn’t exactly strolling weather. On a sunny day, the park surrounding the palace would be a great place to wander. Another bridge across the moat surrounding the castle gave entry to the palace courtyard. [We had to present tickets at this point. If we’d been without them, we’d either have had to go back to the ticket building or go around the palace to another entrance.]
Although sometimes referred to as “Nesvizh Castle,” this former Radziwill residence is very much more a palace than a castle. Construction of the palace began in 1583 and it is considered one of the most significant architectural monuments in Belarus. The architectural and cultural complex at Nesvizh was placed under control of a museum-reserve in 2001, it was named a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2005, and restoration and reconstruction were finally completed in 2012.
Entering the palace on the far side of the courtyard, we left our coats and umbrellas at a coat check before being directed to don paper shoe covers before we entered the main portion of the palace. Although tours are available, we enjoyed simply following the designated route through the palace’s many renovated rooms. English information was provided on signs in each room.
Although we’d run past lunch by the time we finished touring Nesvizh Palace, we decided to skip a snack at a small café on the grounds and hold out for a restaurant which Alexei recommended at our final destination, Mir Castle. Mir Castle is an easy 35 minute drive from Nesvizh Palace.
Although hardly primitive, Mir Castle is much more in the style of a true fortified castle. Like the palace at Nesvizh (and nearly all historical sites in the region), Mir Castle has been heavily restored. The castle houses museum-style displays of artifacts along with re-created residential and ceremonial rooms. Before getting to all that, though, our stomachs demanded lunch. Alexei parked in front of the castle, then again walked with us to help with purchasing tickets then led us to the restaurant located in the vaulted cellar of the castle before leaving us to our own devices.
The Mir Castle restaurant (“Knyazhsky Yard”) provided a lovely haven from the cold drizzle outside. An extensive leather-bound menu offered traditional food with main courses ranging from 14-28 rubles ($7.50-$15). Lidskoe dark “Velvet” beer set us back 4 rubles ($2.14) a pint. David’s grilled chicken and vegetables and my draniki (potato pancakes with chicken) were hearty and good. Service, as nearly always in Belarus, was slow but friendly. We finished things off with a traditional shot of vodka because, well, why not? We had a driver…and it turns out that wandering a castle while mildly fortified ourselves is fun!
Like Nesvizh Palace, Mir Castle offered some museum-like displays of clothing, weapons and such, but the main attraction for us was the structure itself. Construction on the castle began near the end of the 16th century and although it was in use for a century, it was abandoned for nearly the same length of time and damaged in battle before being sold out of the Radziwill family and restored in the early 1900’s. The castle currently contains both restored living and formal areas from more recent times as well as remnants of its past as a medieval fortification. It was named a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2000.
After exploring the castle, we crossed the cobblestone courtyard to climb one of the five towers surrounding the castle for views of the town of Mir and the surrounding countryside.
Alexei was waiting in front of the castle when we left. After a full day, it was a happy luxury to settle into the back seat and leave the driving to him. We were tired and a little sleepy–no doubt aided by our vodka dessert–and dozed a good portion of the way back to Minsk. What a great end to the day!
I booked our driver through Minsk Tours a/k/a Guide in Minsk a site run by Andrei Burdenkov. He got great reviews on TripAdvisor and elsewhere and showed up a lot during my research of Minsk and Belarus. Andrei was quick to respond to my questions by email and WhatsApp and had no problem when I declined his guide services and opted for a driver only. Andrei arranged for Alexei to be our driver. Alexei turned out to speak excellent English and offer all that we wanted for the day. Andrei’s site offers several other tours and services for tourists in Minsk.
We spent $100 on our driver for the day. A guide in addition to the driver would have been another $80. [As requested, we paid in U.S. dollars in cash at the end of our tour day.] I’d wondered if it might be a little awkward with the driver if he was not supposed to talk to us about things we saw, etc., but Alexei was happy to answer our questions, and as I described above, very helpful with getting us started at our destinations. We were very pleased with the arrangement and, for us, it was much better than having a guide with us all the time. In the end, we spent 7 hours with Alexei. Although $100 is a lot in Belarus, I think it turned out to be a good deal. For a little over $14/hour, we got friendly doorstep service, no hassles, an immaculate and comfortable car (which included fuel). We had no worries about getting lost, navigating Cyrillic signs, traffic police or parking. We paid our own entry fees, which we would have done with a guide as well.
While there are buses to Nesvizh and Mir, everything I’ve found makes that sound like a less-than-easy option and a nearly impossible way to see both sites in one day. The bus also apparently takes 3 hours to get to Nesvizh, about twice what it took us.
Find practical information on the Mir Castle website. Entry fees for the castle are 12 rubles ($6.40) for adults and 6 rubles ($3.20) for students, with an extra ruble added to each during July weekends. The Belarus government’s tourism site also offers more information on Mir Castle.
Minsk exceeded my expectations and I’m so happy the new 5-day visa waiver lured us into adding it to our Baltic itinerary. I expected the typical sterile and imposing grandeur of a Soviet-styled city and some language issues, and we got those, but we also found friendly people with a welcoming attitude and a large, intriguing city with plenty to keep us interested. Restaurants were also better and more varied than anticipated, although service was almost always very slow. A renovated old quarter, multi-lingual maps of local attractions scattered around tourist areas of the city, and multiple building projects indicate economic growth and an impressive push to increase tourism and resurrect local history. We also found wonderfully cheap prices not yet inflated by an anticipated influx of budget flights from the West now that the visa waiver is in effect.
Reconstruction is a given for most historic sites in Minsk due to the overwhelming devastation of the city by war. As with the Baltic countries we visited, there’s something very touching about the desire to recreate a heritage by rebuilding historic sites destroyed by war and invasion.
Russian is the predominant language and although there is a lot of Belarusian as well, two separate young men lamented to us that Belarusian is a “dying language.” There weren’t a lot of English-speakers, but there were some to be found, especially among younger Belarusians at tourist-likely spots: museums, restaurants, etc. People seemed genuinely enthused and intrigued that we’d come all the way from America. I saw none of the stern-old-ladies-scolding-about-everything that is a prominent memory of traveling in Russia. (Of course, I wasn’t traveling with children this time and they were prime targets for preemptive haranguing even when only standing quietly.) Churches were lovingly tended by women in kerchiefs who carefully brushed wax drippings from the base of prayer candles and polished every reachable surface. Covered heads for women and modest dress for all are expected when visiting churches.
I was excited about our AirBnB apartment in Minsk and it turned out to be a great choice. Our host, Alexey, was terrific (even buying our opera tickets for me when I couldn’t get my American credit cards to work online). The apartment is located right on Victory Square (also known in English as “Victory Circus” or “Victory Circle”), a large traffic oval surrounding the Victory Monument, a tribute to Soviet and Belarusian soldiers who died liberating Belarus from Nazis in the “Great Patriotic War” as that front of World War II is known locally. Of course, there’s some dispute as to how much “liberating” the Soviets did since Belarus was subsumed into the U.S.S.R., but that’s the narrative of the monument.
Our apartment was in a rather grand Soviet-era building two doors down from where the KGB housed Lee Harvey Oswald when he lived there. The apartment itself was a fun, spacious remodel that mixed stylish new with preserved Soviet-era features. At $45/night including all taxes and fees, it was a great deal. [If you’re not yet a member of AirBnB, please use my referral link to join; you’ll get a $40 off your first booking and I’ll get $20.]
Independence Avenue extends in two directions from Victory Square. At 15 km long, it’s one of the longest city thoroughfares in Europe. It’s a grand, wide avenue lined by large, imposing buildings.
Although we had a subway mere yards from our front door, we never ended up using it. We found it easy enough to walk where we wanted to go, although distances may be a bit much for some. The subway system in Minsk is limited, too, to two intersecting lines with stops rather far apart. Given the shortage of English, and our shortage of Russian or Belarusian, buses seemed a bit intimidating. Minsk is a large city, but the sites of interest to most visitors are not so far-flung. (Although, given more time and better weather, I’d have liked to have visited the outdoor heritage museum which would have required a ride to the end of a subway line followed by a bus ride.) For us on this trip, it was just easier to walk.
Arriving in the morning on our 30-minute Belavia flight from Vilnius, we made the most of our first day in Minsk. After lunch at a chic restaurant on Victory Square, Berezka (“Бярозка”), we headed to the pretty nearby parks to walk along the lake to the national opera house. (See top photo.) I’d purchased tickets for a performance a couple of nights later and wanted to scope it out.
From there, it is a short walk to the small restored 19th century Trinity Suburb filled with shops, cafés and bars. Just beyond is the Island of Tears, a man-made island that’s home to memorials to Soviet soldiers who died in their Afghanistan war.
Wanting to try traditional Belarusian cuisine, we opted one night for Kuchmeister ((Ресторан белорусской и литвинской кухни “Кухмiстр”), a kitchy grandma’s living room kind of place with a somewhat disconcerting view through lace curtains of a tank across the street. The service was very slow (as nearly everywhere in Belarus), but friendly, and the food was cheap and good. We followed it up with traditional cranberry vodka shots.
We really enjoyed the hours we spent at the Great Patriotic War Museum. It was interesting to see the local perspective on World War II. Seeing history from other viewpoints is one of the things I most enjoy about travel; it’s often eye-opening and thought-provoking.
The Great Patriotic War Museum is an enormous, futuristic building. It’s 11 gigantic metal “rays” represent the 1100 days that Minsk was under occupation. The building and its location are rich in symbolism set out in detail on the Belarusian government’s webpage about the museum. [More practical details are available on the official museum site, but you’ll want to use Google Translate unless you read Russian. Entrance is 8 Belarusian rubles ($4.30)/adult and 4 rubles ($2.15)/student. Children 7 and under are free.] An estimated 1/3 of the population of Belarus was killed during the war, a staggering 3 million lives.
WWII is portrayed at the Great Patriotic War Museum as a war of independence fought by Soviet soldiers and Belarusian resistance fighters as partners. There’s a large collection of military hardware: tanks, planes, guns, etc.
Despite some high-tech displays, I was surprised to find life-size dioramas of scenes from the war to be particularly effective. Very realistic mannequins are blended into painted backdrops interspersed with 3-dimensional elements and actual artifacts.
The top floor of the museum is the Hall of Victory representing a glass dome of the Reichstag Building where Soviet soldiers placed a Victory Banner in 1945.
I can’t wrap this up blog installment without mentioning our opera experience at the National Academic Bolshoi Opera and Ballet Theatre. With our AirBnB host’s help, I’d bought two ridiculously cheap tickets (around $9 apiece for front-row seats) for an opera I’d never heard of, “Viva la Mamma!” Research showed me a couple of photos that looked to be of rehearsals and an explanation that this Italian comedy was popular in Eastern Europe, translated into Russian. I was careful to verify the opera was actually at the National Academic Bolshoi Opera and Ballet Theatre as I wanted to be in the grand old opera house, not some minor theater. (I always look for opera and ballet opportunities when planning travel in Eastern Europe as tickets are usually much cheaper than in the West–sometimes not much more than the cost of a tour of the building–and the opera houses are often jewel-like works of art themselves. While it’s sometimes possible to buy walk-up tickets, it’s far better to book in advance to get the best seats and avoid sell-outs.) On the night of the opera, we arrived with the other patrons and bought drinks in the opera café while we waited for the doors to the seating to open. We were a little surprised that ushers weren’t seating anyone yet, but were assured they’d open the door at the appropriate time. It seemed odd that there was only one door on our floor, but we didn’t think too much about it.
When the lights finally flashed and the door opened to what we assumed to be the hallway leading to further floor- and box-seating area doors, we were stunned to walk into a room the size of a large classroom. Chairs were lined up in rows, and a mid-sized orchestra was set up in a front corner. We took our seats, disappointed, but curious and waited to see what would happen.
In short order, we found ourselves the delighted audience to what seemed like a private opera, performed just for us. The main action took place directly in front of us. I’ve never had opera sung three feet from my chair, where I could literally feel the breath of a singer and experience the power of their voice. We couldn’t stop smiling throughout the performance. The opera was funny and charming, the singers truly talented. It was fantastic! At the first break, we sneaked into a box seat overlooking the beautiful main hall so got to see it after all. We enjoyed watching stage hands ready the grand stage for some future performance until a nice lady gently shooed us out. We were the only foreigners at the cosy performance and despite language issues, we were welcomed warmly.
The rest of the opera flew by. The zany plot involved an opera within an opera. The title character is a domineering stage mother (the written-for-baritone part played by a man in drag) who wanted her daughter, the understudy, to be given a solo aria. When the production loses its financing, Mamma comes through with the cash…and gets her wish. Much of the action took place just in front of us. I had to toe papers back into the performers’ reach when one character threw them down as part of the show and several drifted under my seat.
We had a wonderful time, but as David laughingly said, we must have looked like some bemused Candid Camera dupes when we first walked into that room. I have no idea where ticket buyers were informed that the opera was in a small performance room (the online seating chart looked like the main hall), but no one else seemed surprised. The website had some English, but it was far from perfect. Oh well, Viva la Mamma!
Next up, a great day trip from Minsk to Nesvizh and Mir.
It’s a fairly long ride in from the airport (35+ minutes, depending on traffic) and despite reading about a taxi kiosk at the airport offering 30 ruble ($16.30) transfers, I opted to pay more (€30) for a well-reviewed, English-speaking private driver, Sergey, who would meet us at Arrivals. I was concerned that directions to our AirBnB apartment (as opposed to a well-known hotel) might be a linguistic challenge with a regular taxi driver and we also needed to call our AirBnB host and Sergey was happy to do that since we didn’t have a working SIM card during our time in Belarus. Sergey was very nice; his English was functional, but limited, and his car was spotless. At the airport, I did see the taxi kiosk and found that they spoke good English there. They probably would have been able to give directions to the apartment to a taxi driver for us. Oh well, less than $20 extra for peace of mind and a hassle-free experience wasn’t a big deal.
When Alexey heard what we’d paid, he arranged for a return taxi for 38 rubles ($20.43, a touch more than a taxi from the airport for requested pick-up service, similar to what I’d expect at home) and his housekeeper saw us off, making sure we were clear with the driver on price and destination.
Just this year, Belarus enacted a waiver of their visa requirement for certain travelers. Now, travelers from 80 countries (including the USA, UK, EU, Canada & Australia) can stay up to five days in Belarus without having to get a visa. There are some catches, though: The visa waiver only applies to travelers arriving and departing from Minsk International Airport (MSQ) and the waiver does not apply to flights originating or ending in Russia or territories controlled by the Russian Federation.
When I read about the new waiver, I knew we had to detour to Belarus sometime during our Baltic explore. A call to British Airways confirmed we could move back our originally-scheduled departure from Brussels so we were good to go. (I actually got a refund from BA since taxes and fees were substantially lower for the identical flight on a later day. That’s only happened to me once before when changing an award booking on BA, but I like it!) The cheapest routes and most logical routes to Minsk for us entailed flights on Belavia, the Belarusian Airline. We flew from Vilnius, Lithuania, 30 minutes to Minsk and then from Minsk to Riga, Latvia, a 1-hour flight.
Belavia has an excellent on-time record. They’re a basic airline; everything costs extra, including water, but they’re efficient and friendly. Check-in is a firm 2-hours before boarding. Planes are relatively small on the flights we took, so expect to walk onto the tarmac to a bus then be shuttled to outdoor boarding. Overhead bins are small, so a small carry-on like my trusty Travelon* is in order, ideally one that will fit under the seat. Carry-on was not weighed, but checked luggage was and the limit is 20 kg, less than a standard US flight allowance.
[*I love my Travelon carry-on so much I have two variations, one even smaller than the other and perfect for when I’m taking the netbook and not the bigger (15″) laptop. A strap on the back lets me attach it to the handle of my 360-wheel checked luggage so maneuvering even a heavy load is easy. David liked my system so much he bought the same thing in black rather than my nifty eggplant purple.]
The waiver system worked very simply and smoothly. We filled out the landing card required of arriving visitors and simply indicated our departure date which was within the 5-day limit.
We still had to get the mandatory local insurance so joined the rush to queue up at the counter just inside the terminal entrance to the left. The insurance is very cheap and they accept dollars and euros (at an equal exchange rate), rubles and credit cards. The cost for a 1-2 day stay is $2 (or €2)/ person, for 3-4 days it’s $4 (or €4)/person, 5-6 days is $6 (or €6)/person. We showed our passports, paid the fee and were handed an insurance policy. Standing in line took more time than getting the policy.
With policy in hand, we then headed to passport control. The wait at passport control was longer than at the insurance desk because each passport is very thoroughly examined with a lighted viewing glass. I’ve never seen anything quite like it. Several people were asked to step aside and at least one was sent back to the insurance desk to talk to some officials. It seemed that everyone got through; it was just slow although not that many people were queued up.
When I did get to an official, I showed her my passport, insurance and boarding card. She asked me if we had a visa. I said “no,” then she verified that we were leaving within the 5-day limit and all was well. (The only “verification” was a simple question. I wasn’t required to show my return ticket as I was in China when using a visa waiver there.) She asked the purpose of our visit and when I said I was curious about Belarus, she smiled and asked “Tourism?” I nodded and she stamped me into the country. (David went through the same methodical process. There’s no stepping up as a couple traveling together, only individuals, one-at-a-time.)
We went through the same methodical inspection of our passports when we left Belarus, but there was absolutely no problem. The visa waiver system works smoothly. We heard several Belarusians mention that there’s hope the waiver will be extended to 10-days. They recognize the potential for increased tourism and are looking forward to it.
I’ll write more on our stay in Minsk and our daytrip to Nesvizh and Mir, but am enjoying our travels rather than blogging right now. We thoroughly enjoyed our stay and saw tourist areas being expanded and renovated in addition to an apparent general construction boom in Minsk. Departure from Belarus was as hassle-free as arrival. With cheap airlines bound to start pouring in, go sooner rather than later. I worry that the Ryanair/drunken-stag-party crowd will do to Minsk what it’s done to other Eastern European cities.