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.
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.
Now that we’re back from our Baltic ramble, I’ll be catching up on Wanderwiles. We were just too busy and too much on the move for me to want to spend much time live-blogging. – Tamara
Our second day trip out of Vilnius was to Kaunas, the second largest town in Lithuania. It’s an easy 1h 15m drive on the E85, a well-maintained highway between the two cities. The main attraction for me was the Ninth Fort, one of a chain of a Lithuanian defensive forts that had been commandeered by both Soviets and Nazis over the years. The Nazis used it as a prison and deportation camp as well as a site of execution. There’s an enormous memorial there (see above) to the more than 30,000 victims of fascism who died there as well as a museum. At least 10,000 Jews were taken from Kaunas by the Nazis and executed there in what became known as the Kaunas Massacre.
The weather wasn’t looking too good, but we decided to go for it anyway. Despite some rain on the drive over, our luck was good and we got sunshine when we most needed it at our outdoor explore of the Ninth Fort.
The mammoth memorial is visible from the highway. Be advised that Google Maps directed us directly to the memorial (rather than the museum) and the road in that direction spans a pretty intense, but short, stretch of serious potholes. There is a small parking lot at the end of that road which is located perfectly for visiting the memorial and walking directly to the fort. Tickets are required for access to the fort’s interior, though, and those need to be purchased at the museum . [€3 for adults; €1.5 for students and seniors; children under 6 are free. There are also guided tours available for an additional fee.] Access to the memorial and the exterior portions of the fort and its extensive grounds is free.
After the Ninth Fort, we headed to Kaunas’ Old Town for lunch and a little explore. The weather quickly changed on us and we waited out a sudden snow/hail flurry in a parking space before walking to Avilys, a restaurant and brewery on the main street of Old Town that we’d read about. Avilys boasts vaulted brick ceiling and walls, copper beer tuns and a varied menu. It’s a cosy restaurant and we enjoyed excellent food and good beer brewed on site. Arriving late on a weekday, we had the place to ourselves for lunch until another party arrived mid-way through. Brewery tours are available. Avilys is located at Vilniaus g. 34, Kaunas 44287, and is open 7 days a week from noon. +370 655 02626
By the time we finished lunch, the sun was out again. We wandered down the main street, stopping to visit the Kaunas Cathedral Basilica before heading to the main square.
Old Town Kaunas is charmingly restored with many shops, cafés and restaurants. It’s definitely worth the stop and offers a restorative break after the grimness of the Ninth Fort which is only a 15 minute drive away. Pay for street parking permits at meters scattered around Old Town.
One of Lithuania’s most famous and picturesque sites, Trakai Castle, lies an easy 40-minute drive from Vilnius. Like most historic sites in Lithuania, the castle has been rebuilt. The restoration was well-executed and visitors are free to wander throughout most of the castle where museum displays tell the story of the castle and preserve artifacts relating to its history.
Trakai was once a major power hub, but the city dwindled to a small town and island castle fell into ruins. Old paintings in the museum show the castle ruins looking like a romanticists fantasy. Wars and economics halted the reconstruction many times, but it’s now complete and worth the visit.
The town around the castle is charming with pastel-painted wooden houses. Stalls and shops line the lake front around the foot bridge that leads to the castle island. In warm weather, row boats and paddle boats are available to rent and there’s a larger tour boat that goes out to the island.
We had lunch in a pretty Italian restaurant with big picture windows facing the lake and castle. In warmer weather, we’d have enjoyed the outdoor seating.
Entry to the castle and museum is €3 per adult. Pay for parking on the street around the castle using the meters. Insert coins and put the timed ticket on your dashboard where it is visible through the windshield. Parking is vigorously enforced and the fine is €80 so be warned. In off season, we had no problem finding convenient parking, but I’ve read it can be trickier in the summer high season.
Highways around Vilnius are in good condition and well-marked and GPS worked perfectly for us.
I wrote this live-time in Vilnius, but wanting to focus on our current travels and a shortage of Internet time have me posting later:
We launched our Baltic adventure with a Belgium Airlines flight from Brussels to Vilnius. We cruised through the classic train-station-like Vilnius Airport, picked up our Addcar rental (far and away the best rent car deal I found in the Baltics) and–with only a short walk with luggage in the rain to our car–we were off. Things got a little snarled after that when none of my email servers would let me send or receive the emails I needed to make contact with our AirBnB hostess’ mother. We parked behind the pharmacy she’d used as a landmark in a typical Eastern European graffiti-covered alley/parking area while I messaged our hostess, Ruta, who was vacationing in Paris to let her know I couldn’t reach her mother. Meanwhile, David wandered around asking random strangers until he actually found a co-worker of Ruta’s mom and we finally got things moving. (If only Ruta had said her mother worked in the pharmacy, there’d have been no problem at all!) In minutes, we were settled into our lovely apartment. From that moment on, things flowed smoothly. We love Vilnius!
Our apartment is just off Gedimino prospekt, a wide, elegant avenue lined with baroque buildings filled with high-end shops, cafes, restaurants and more, it’s the Champs Elysees of Vilnius. A few blocks down, Gedimino ends at the spectacular Vilnius Cathedral.
The newly-restored Grand Dukes’ Palace Museum nestles right behind the cathedral. The museum preserves archaeological ruins of the palace under glass walkways at its lowest levels.
Higher floors house collections of armor and artifacts and recreate period state rooms.
The palace tower offers views of Vilnius and the castle tower and three crosses on the hill above the city.
Old Vilnius stretches its cobblestoned streets north of the cathedral. We loved just wandering the surprisingly large Old Town. Crazily capricious spring weather had us ducking in and out of cafes and churches as sudden rain or snow descended in the midst of a sunny day!
The most grim museum of Vilnius is the Museum of Genocide Victims, more commonly known as “The KGB Museum.” The museum occupies the former KGB headquarters just off Gedimino prospekt.
In addition to exhibits and photographs memorializing victims and resistance, restored cells and an execution chamber offer a glimpse into the terrifying world of a KGB prisoner.
Two cells with sloped floors designed to be filled with freezing water and a single stool-sized raised disk in the center. Prisoners in nothing but underwear were forced to stand on the stool or in ankle-deep icy water for up to 5 days. They could not sleep or they would fall into the water.
I found a chilling video in the execution chamber hard to watch as prisoner after prisoner was sentenced then dragged into the room, shot in the head, and their body shoved out an opening in one wall into a waiting truck.
Vilnius has overtaken Budapest as Europe’s most affordable capital and we found prices to be very reasonable everywhere we went. We tried classic Lithuanian food at the schmaltzy but fun Bernelių Užeiga very near our apartment on our first night, enjoying hearty food, beer and a local music duo.
On other evenings, we ventured out for higher-end fare at Bistro 18 and stylish The Town on Gedimino prospekt.
David, of course, had to check out a local beer bar and we enjoyed our visit to Alaus Biblioteka a/k/a “the Beer Library.” It’s a unique venue with a good selection of beers from all over the world although we were disappointed to find they did not know much about the Lithuanian “kaimiskas” farm beer that we were particularly interested in trying. They had one beer on tap we were told was a kaimiskas, but we found it to be unremarkable and nothing like the beer we finally got to try a week later when we drove back into northern Lithuania from Latvia.
Alaus Biblioteka uses old library tables and chairs is a cosy place to drink beer, but we found veggie potato chips (cold and like chips straight from a Terra bag back home; fine from a bag, but not restaurant-level) and a shepherd’s pie to be underwhelming.
All in all, we loved Vilnius itself and it offers some really worthwhile and easy daytrips as well. More on those later.
Keukenhof in the Netherlands is world-famous for its spectacular display of spring flowers, the undisputed queen of which is Holland’s iconic tulip. The park is only open eight weeks from mid-March through mid-May for the spring flowering season. It is the showcase for the Dutch floricultural sector with an emphasis on bulbs. Each year, 7 million flower bulbs are hand-planted in Keukenhof. The season kicks off with daffodils, crocuses and hyacinth. The tulips are usually not in full bloom until mid-April.
David and I felt extra-lucky to be in Antwerp, Belgium, this year from March 12-April 21. This put us in the neighborhood at peak flowering time. (Keukenhof is only 1h45m drive from Antwerp, a very short distance by our Texan standards.) This gave us the luxury of monitoring the bloom reports and weather and timing our trip to avoid holiday and weekend crowds. Easter is this weekend and it’s one of the busiest times at Keukenhof. We read nightmare stories about the traffic jams around Keukenhof and especially at Easter so wanted to avoid that at all costs. On the other hand, we leave Antwerp for Lithuania next Friday, so we were running out of time. Giving the tulips maximum bloom time while avoiding the Easter holiday and taking advantage of the best weather forecast for our remaining time narrowed things down to yesterday for us.
Even though we planned our visit for a Thursday, we decided we’d be best served by getting to the park right as it opened at 8am. (We were missing the Easter weekend bank holiday, but were still during the 2-week spring school holiday here so we worried about the potential for crowds.) That meant we pulled away from our Antwerp house just after 6am and ate breakfast on the road. It turned out to be a brilliant strategy and well worth a little lost sleep. Other than some traffic around Rotterdam, we made good time and were one of the first to arrive at Keukenhof, being directed to park only a few cars from the main entrance with a vast field of open parking spaces left behind us. By the time we left just after noon, cars stretched to the limits of that field and a solid line of cars and buses was streaming in.
We’d pre-purchased tickets, a printed guide and our parking ticket online via the Keukenhof website. The tickets would have let us skip any lines, but there were none at such an early hour and we were able to wander the park with only a few other people for over an hour, the only sounds being birds singing and the occasional airplane overhead en route to or from Schiphol Airport. [A video is posted on Wanderwiles’ Facebook page.]
The only downside to arriving so early was that the sun was still relatively low in the sky and it was a chilly 49F. It was partly cloudy, too; a far cry from last Sunday’s bluebird skies and high in the low 70’s. Oh well, such are the vagaries of spring and it was still a beautiful day.
Keukenhof park occupies a stunning 79 acres of impeccably designed and maintained flower beds and other flowering displays, art and greenhouses. We entered via the main entrance on the south side of the park and wandered north and a little west before visiting the huge greenhouse and the center and continuing on to a working windmill on the eastern edge of the park. Arriving there around 9:15am, we booked an open boat cruise for 10:30 on the canals that cut through the flower fields adjoining the park. The cost was €6 each for a 45 minute boat ride, including an audio guide available in four languages. It turned out to be a good move to book the boat early as people were continuously streaming into the park and I’m not sure we’d have been able to get a seat if we waited much longer.
With time to spare, we explored more of the park, taking time for hot tea and a snack in one of the several cafes scattered around the park. There are several buffet-style cafes and restaurants in the park offering tasty dishes at not unreasonable prices. There are also ample immaculate and very modern toilets. The park claims to have free wi-fi throughout, but we were never able to reach any website, receive email, etc. despite our phones showing as connected.
In addition to the spectacular outdoor flower beds, Keukenhof greenhouses showcased vast beds of tulips in one, orchids and art made from orchids in another, and yet another displaying artistic creations made from roses and other flowers. Five hundred flower growers present creations of cut and potted flowers in over twenty flower shows.
By the time we got back to the windmill for our canal boat ride, the crowds were noticeably larger. The canal boats are low, open vessels with a single row along each side and 4 seats in the middle. Each seat has 4 audio jacks, each marked with a flag so you can choose your language. Two boats leave at a time and we arrived in time to be at the front of one line so had unobstructed views from the bow. Of course, that also meant an unobstructed and chilly breeze, but we were happy to pay that price…especially since the breeze smelled richly of flowers, particularly hyacinth.
Ultra-quiet electric engines power the boats so we glided silently through the colorful fields watching farmers gathering bushels of flowers or operating heavy spraying machinery. Beautiful and fascinating and so exotic compared to the farm fields back home!
When we stepped off the boat, we were stunned at the size of the crowd that now swarmed around the windmill. A long line waited to enter the windmill…where we’d wandered in easily earlier in the morning. Mobs of people crowded around flower beds and food vendors where there’d been no one. Photos of the flower beds free of fellow visitors would be almost impossible now. We were so glad we’d gotten that early start!
Wanting to retain the benefits of being ahead of the crowd, we decided to eat an early lunch; besides, an early start meant we were already hungry. It turned out to be another good move as we were able to breeze through choosing our lunch and get a table by a window. By the time we’d finished eating, people were scrambling to stake out a table.
We visited the last of the pavilions we’d yet to explore in the far southwest corner of the park. As everywhere else, the flower beds were spectacular, but the pavilion itself held no more than a gift shop, café and toilets so we didn’t linger long. Feeling we’d covered the entire park pretty thoroughly, we made our exit around 12:30pm, a little under 4.5 hours since we’d arrived.
With plenty of time before we had to get our rent car back to Antwerp Centraal at 6pm, we took a back road to admire more tulip fields then stopped off to stroll the charming town of Delft, famous for its blue and white pottery.
Find more details on the Keukenhof website. Tickets to Keukenhof are available here and can be purchased separately or as combi-tickets that include bus transportation from Amsterdam’s Schiphol Airport, Leiden, or Haarlem. I’ve read that buses can be full on weekends and holidays, and traffic jams are routine so allow for travel delays however you decide to travel. I can’t emphasize enough the benefits of getting an early start if you want to enjoy the beauty of the park minus the crowds. Online tickets are good for a single day only, but you don’t have to specify the date when you purchase them. Tickets are also available at the park. The basic entry fee is €16 for adults ; €8 for children 4-11. Credit cards are accepted throughout the park. The park offers luggage storage.
Of course, actual bloom times for the various flowers depends upon the weather. Tulipsinholland.com claims to do a weekly flower update starting in March (and apparently has in the past), but they are way behind this year and haven’t posted anything since March 7. They did, however, send me an update via email this past Tuesday so were current in that format. You can register for their email updates on their website.
We booked a rent car this week for a daytrip from Antwerp to see the tulip fields and gardens of Keukenhof in the Netherlands. We’ve rented cars several times now in Antwerp that we pick up at Antwerp’s gorgeous Centraal train station. There are several rental companies there: Avis, Hertz, Budget and Europcar. Avis and Budget share a small office as do Hertz and Europcar. I think we’ve used all four companies now, but Avis seems to offer the best deal for short rentals. It also presents a classic rent car anomaly that I thought was worth pointing out.
Often different rental car locations for the same company within the same city will offer wildly different prices for the same car and rental dates. Sometimes this is the result of extra fees charged for airport, train or bus station locations. Sometimes fees are higher for a mid-city pick-up at a downtown office or hotel. It just depends. (Also, it’s nearly always more expensive to pick up and drop off at a different location, even if those locations are within the same city.) So, once you’ve narrowed your rent car search down to the best-priced company, there’s still some checking to be done if you want to snag the best deal. Sadly, comparing the different total prices creates extra work for the travel planner, but it also creates opportunities to save a lot of money.
Avis in Antwerp offers one of the clearest examples of the quirks of the car rental industry: In Antwerp, Avis’ web site offers two choices at “Antwerpen Central Railway Station.” (Known locally as Antwerpen Centraal, this is the main train station in Antwerp, and the most likely place to rent a car since it’s not only central to Antwerp itself, but also the terminus of frequent and direct trains that run from underneath the international airport in Brussels, a mere 30 minutes away.) The address given for both rental locations is identical. The only difference is a two-letter code at the end of each. But, when you click on these links and check the prices, you’ll find that the final price (including all taxes and fees) for second choice (“TW9”) is much cheaper for the identical car, dates, extras, everything. The reason is that the first option (“AN2”) is considered at the train station so you’re charged $70.76 extra for station fees, while the second option (“TW9”) is simply considered as downtown, so you’re only charged $5.13. For the identical rental from the identical counter in the identical office. Go figure.
I usually find that the Avis quoted car price is cheaper for the AN2 train station rental (sometimes much cheaper–a ploy that could easily lead the unwary to choose an ultimately more expensive rental). But, when the $65 difference is factored in ON A SHORT RENTAL, the TW9 becomes the much cheaper deal. (In the above example, the TW9 rental is 40%+ cheaper than the identical rental using the AN2 code. For us this week, I think it was an even bigger discrepancy. And, other companies were wanting 2-2.5x what we paid for our car for similar vehicles!) For longer rentals, the pricing advantage can actually switch back to the AN2 train station rental if the base price is really low, although not by much since the train station fee is not a straight per day fee while the $5.13 fee is. Oh joy, more work for the travel planner.
On our most recent rental, I mentioned this anomaly to the agent checking us out and he confirmed. He then informed me that the “airport” location for Avis in Antwerp is also really at the train station. Avis just taxis customers in from the small local airport which is only about 10 minutes away. Cars have never been available from the airport when I’ve checked, so I don’t have any personal knowledge of those prices, but would expect them to be higher.
I do also check other online travel services, rent car search engines and the like. Sometimes they offer better deals, but surprisingly often I find a better deal direct with the rental company. Also, when booking via a third party I have been hit with unforeseen location fees by the actual rental car company. There’s usually some small print about that being a possibility, so when it’s impossible to check in advance, I sometimes go with the guaranteed final price from the rental company itself. With regards to Avis in Antwerp, they’ve been cheaper when booked directly than via an online travel company like economycarrentals.com, Priceline, etc. Finally, I always use cards that give miles or points for car rentals, check for discount and bonus codes, and check to see if I can use Topcashback for a little extra cash rebate. Most car rental companies and several major travel search companies are on Topcashback.