Thursday, July 7, 2016

Days 3-5: Minsk, Belarus

I got up at 4:30 AM for a 6:30 flight to Minsk, Belarus via Kiev, Ukraine.  Both flights on Ukraine International Airlines (as were all of the flights on my trip) were on time.

Main lobby of the Chisinau Airport

The area around Minsk

Minsk Airport

The first thing I did when I arrived at the Minsk airport was to try and get some Belarussian rubles from an ATM.  I had checked the previous week, and the exchange rate was about 20,000 rubles to the dollar.  When I got to the ATM, I was given the option of getting 50, 100, or 1000 rubles, which didn't make much sense.  Just to make sure I googled "Belarus ruble" and discovered that about 5 days before I arrived they had revalued the ruble, so it was now worth about 20 rubles to the dollar. To make things more confusing, they were still using the old notes along with new notes, so if I asked for 50 rubles, I could get either an "old" 50,000 ruble note, or a new 50 ruble note.  I asked for 1000 rubles (about $50), and I got the following:

I then had to get to my hotel.  I checked things out and it was a lot cheaper to take a bus to the main rail station and then take a taxi to the hotel than it was to take a taxi all the way from the airport.

Apartments on the outskirts of Minsk

More scenery on the outskirts of Minsk

The Minsk central train station

Map of Minsk, for your guidance

My hotel was the Renaissance Minsk (lower left of the map), and was the best hotel I had on the trip. In addition to being architecturally interesting, it had an indoor pool, sauna, and whirlpool. The only drawback about the hotel was that it was about a mile from the center of the city, meaning a long walk or short taxi ride to get anywhere.

The Renaissance Hotel

View down the boulevard from the hotel
My hotel room

As I explained in the introduction, the days in Moldova were on my own, and for the rest of the time I was to join a tour group for our "Belarus and the Baltics" tour.   I went to the lobby to meet with the tour group and our guide to discuss the upcoming itinerary.  When I got to the lobby, I discovered that I was the only member of the tour group, and I was going to have my own personal guide and driver (in Minsk, at least).

After meeting with the guide, I decided to explore the city, so I took a taxi to the other end of the city center from the hotel, about 2 miles.  I then walked back to the hotel along Independence Avenue.

Minsk was almost completely leveled during World War II, so there is not really an "old town" to speak of.  Most of the buildings in the center of the city are post WWII Soviet architecture, but unlike most buildings in the former Soviet Union, they have been nicely restored.  Even the huge apartment buildings on the outskirts of the city have been renovated or replaced.  Also, the city was clean and graffiti-free.  All in all, it's probably the most pleasant city I have encountered in the former Soviet Union.

The National Circus
Don't know what this building was, but it's very Soviet

Central House of Officers (whatever that is)

Presidential Palace

Cultural Palace

Palace of the Republic, a theater next to the Cultural Palace
Statue of Lenin in Independence (Lenin) Square

Along Independence Avenue

Along the way, I stopped at GUM, the big Soviet department store (there's one in Moscow, too). When I was in Moscow in 1993, the GUM store there was very depressing--mostly empty shelves. This one was a considerable improvement, but not up to U.S. standards.  However there are lots of big malls on the outskirts of town that were much nicer.

The interior of GUM

Interior entrance of GUM

Eventually, I got back to the hotel and was too tired to go back out to eat, so I ate in the hotel restaurant, which was actually very good.  I was not too tired to sample a Belarussian beer.

Friday, July 8

I met my guide, Darya, in the lobby at 9:00 and we started on our tour of Minsk.

Independence Avenue

We drove to the center of town, near the Svislach River.   (Never heard of it?  Neither had I).  This was an area that actually had a few buildings built before World War II.  Our first stop was the Cathedral of Saint Virgin Mary, a Roman Catholic Church which was built in 1710.  This and almost all other churches in Minsk was closed by the Soviets and reopened when Belarus became independent.

Cathedral of Saint Virgin Mary

Inside the church

Next, we walked a block or so to the Holy Spirit Cathedral, the main cathedral of the Belarussian Orthodox Church.  This cathedral dates back to the 17th century.

Holy Spirit Cathedral

Inside the Holy Spirit Cathedral
My guide Darya, with the Holy Spirit Cathedral in the background

In the same plaza as the Holy Spirit Cathedral is the Town Hall.  It was built in the 16th century, but by the late 20th century, it was in a state of ruin.  It was restored in 2003.

Minsk Town hall and Cathedral of Saint Virgin Mary
Photo op in front of Minsk Town Hall
View across the river of a more modern district

Next we drove to Lenin (Independence) Square, where I had been the previous night.  The square was surrounded by several classic Soviet buildings, which were in very good shape.

History faculty of the Belarussian State University. 

Buildings around Lenin Square (one side)

Below the square, under the glass domes in the above pictures is a rather large mall.

The mall under Lenin Square

The mall under Lenin Square

On the other side of the square is the House of Government, with a statue of Lenin in front.

House of Government

Statue of Lenin

After leaving Lenin Square, we drove a couple of miles out of the center city to see the National Library.  There was a lot of general construction in this area.

Belarus National Library

Construction near the National Library

A church near the library

Some post-Soviet housing near the library

A market near the library

From the library, we returned to the center of the city, near the river.

Apartments near the center of the city

Island of Tears in the Svislach River

Island of Tears monument, dedicated to Soviet soldiers in Afghanistan

Since Minsk was mostly destroyed in World War II, the government decided to re-build an area called the Trinity Suburb, across the Svislach.  Although the buildings look like they are from the 16th-18th centuries, they were actually build in the 1990's.

View of Trinity Suburb from the Island of Tears

Across the river from the Trinity Suburb is a more modern area with hotels, office buildings and recreational buildings.

View across the river from the Trinity Suburb
Next to the Trinity Suburb is a huge apartment complex (I think).

Apartment complex (left) and Trinity Suburb (right)
The apartment complex

Another view of the Trinity Suburb

A little farther down the river is the Museum of the Great Patriotic War (World War II).  I would come back to visit it in the afternoon.

Side view of the Museum of the Great Patriotic War

We then drove down the river for about a mile.  The avenue was lined with modern buildings.

Sports Palace

A large mall

Minsk Arena

From there we went to the site of the Minsk Ghetto during World War II.  None of the buildings are left, but there are some monuments near the pit where the Jews were killed.

Ghetto Memorial

Another Ghetto memorial

Monument at the pit where Jews where killed
What the ghetto looks like today

We then traveled about a half a mile to the site of the main Jewish cemetery.  All of the graves are gone, but headstones found in other parts of the city are displayed there.

Headstones at the site of the main Jewish cemetery

Closeup of a headstone
Memorials at the Jewish cemetery
Memorials at the Jewish cemetery

Another memorial at the cemetery

In the tour brochure, we were offered either a free afternoon or an "excursion" to the Museum of the Great Patriotic War (WW II) for $30.  Since I was the only one on the "tour", I asked the guide if the driver could just drop me off at the museum, and I could visit on my own, thus saving about $25.

Front of the Museum of the Great Patriotic War

Closer view of the sculpture in front

I arrived at the museum at about 1:00, having not had lunch.  Fortunately, they had a cafe with table service.  Unfortunately the menu was entirely in Russian:

The menu

I can read Cyrillic phonetically, and could pick up a few words (salad, soup, borscht, cutlet, tomato, rice, macaroni).  With nothing else to guide me, I ordered combination #1, which was salad, borscht, cutlet with tomato, and rice.  Not the best meal I've had, but not that bad for $2.00.

The museum itself was very impressive, with exhibit descriptions in Russian and English.  A big section focused on the atrocities that the Germans committed against the Russians.  Apparently the Germans treated the Jews badly, but you wouldn't know that by touring the museum.

Inside the museum

Near the front entrance to the museum

After leaving the museum, I walked along the river towards the center of the city.  As I have mentioned, the area along the river is very modern and clean.   Even the Soviet buildings looked good.

A Soviet-era hotel

Another sports palace

The huge apartment complex near the Trinity Suburb

Panorama along the river

The Trinity Suburb

A bike race ending along the river

I then walked back to the area in the center of the city that we had visited in the morning.

Holy Spirit Cathedral

Plaza in front of Town Hall

Near the town hall, they are in the process of reconstructing the "old town" that was destroyed in World War II.

Reconstructed "Old Town"

A salute to the famous Belarussian leader

Soviet-era (I assume) artwork above the KFC

I finally made it back to the hotel, and headed out for dinner.  The closest restaurant to the hotel was an American-style steakhouse called Newman, presumably not owned by Jerry Seinfeld's nemesis.   It was an excellent steak, but it came at American prices.  At least I could read the menu.

I then headed back to the hotel, enjoying the fact that the sun didn't set until about 10:00.

Saturday, July 9

Today we took an excursion to a couple of sites outside of Minsk--Mir Castle and Nesvizh Palace.

Leaving Minsk

The first stop was Mir Castle, which is about 100 km southwest of Minsk. It was originally built in the 16th century, and has been in various stages of disrepair and renovation since.

Mir Castle
Inner courtyard

Inner courtyard

The castle was used as a residence as recently as the late 1800's, and is furnished much the way it was at that time.

The castle contained the obligatory food storage area, dungeon, and chapel.

View of the town of Mir from the Castle

Church on the grounds of the Castle

Inside the church

Just to prove I was there

After leaving the castle, we drove through the town of Mir, and got a feel for old (renovated and unrenovated) Belarussian architecture.

In the town of Mir

Seller at the market in the main town square

A house in Mir

Another residence in Mir

A general view of the town

From Mir, we drove about 20 km to the town of Nesvizh and Nesvizh Palace.

On the outskirts of Nesvizh

Corpus Christi Church in Nesvizh

Some houses in Nesvizh

Nesvizh Palace (or Nesvizh Castle) was built beginning in 1584, and until the 20th century was owned by the Radziwill family (one of whom married into the Kennedy family).

Entrance to the palace

Inner courtyard

Enjoying a "Bela Kola" while waiting to get in

Heating stove

After leaving the palace, we stopped at a stand for lunch.  I had a "Chebyrek", which is a small dumpling.

From the palace, we walked back to the main town of Nesvizh.

Path from the palace back to town

Highway P11 goes to Minsk

Another view of the Corpus Christi Church

My driver, guide and vehicle

We drove back through the town of Nesvizh and back to Minsk.

Another church in Nesvizh
Nesvizh town Museum

There were lots of interesting wooden houses in Nesvizh and the surrounding area.

Back in Minsk, we drove down Independence avenue, past Lenin Square to my hotel.

On Independence Avenue

Lenin Square
Panorama of Lenin Square

After we returned to the hotel, my guided touring was done for the day, so I rested up and returned to central Minsk on my own.  This time, I went to the nearest metro stop and took the metro.  As in Russia, the metro stations were monumental.

In a Minsk metro station

On a metro train

I got off the metro a couple of blocks from where we had toured the previous morning, near Town Hall.

Palace of the Republic and Cultural Palace

Cultural Palace

Palace of the Republic

Minsk Town Hall

Town Hall Square

Holy Spirit Cathedral and Holy Spirit Church

After it started getting dark, a symphony orchestra started playing in the town hall square.

Town Hall after dark

I continued to walk around the area, taking pictures.

Holy Spirit Cathedral

Modern Minsk, along the river

Holy Spirit Church

Town Hall Square

Eventually I went into a restaurant (U Ratushy) on Town Hall Square.

Outside area of the restaurant

Band playing inside the restaurant

I got a table in the outside area, ordered a beer, and a couple of guys came by and asked if they could sit at my table.  I was a little suspicious at first, but they turned out to have no evil intentions (that I could discern).  One of them (on the right) was Belarussian, and the other one was German.  We spent the next hour discussing the world situation.

International delegation from Germany and Belarus

Eventually, I decided to sample some National Belarusian Cuisine, specifically the Machanka and Pancakes (sausages made of pork and pork ribs in cream sauce).

Machanka and Pancakes, with free transportation to the cardiac unit

When I was finally able to get up, I walked to the Metro station and returned to my hotel.

On Independence Avenue, on my way back to the Metro