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.
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.