With a free day in Vilnius, we took the opportunity to head to Belarus and its lesser-known capital city, Minsk. Belarus is one of the least known countries in Europe, far off the normal tourist track, which is part of its charm and appeal.
The drive from Vilnius to Minsk is a very comfortable 3 hours on good roads, with the border crossing only taking 15 minutes. It was all very easy and the border guards were very friendly and happy to see us tourists entering their picturesque country. The scenery from the highway was of rolling green hills, small hamlets, farms and lots of forested areas.
Minsk, with its population of just over 2 million people, is best known for its Soviet architecture, grand buildings, public squares and broad avenues. We spent the best part of the day driving around taking photos, stopping here and there and just enjoying the comfortable feel of this interesting city.
Our first stop in Minsk was outside the new modern library, which is a modern architectural masterpiece. Built in 2016, the library is 22 floors tall (over 72 metres) and is a real statement. In a city of Soviet buildings the contrast is truly magical.
We continued into the city centre to the mammoth Komarovskiy Markets, one of the most original and best-preserved Soviet-style markets to be found in Eastern Europe and Russia. It’s very authentic and is mainly frequented by locals buying local products and goods.
It’s housed in an enormous building (like an oversized aeroplane hangar) and is home to hundreds of stalls. We spent the best part of an hour walking through the market, exploring and tasting as we went. The market is organised into food types – whole sections catering to meats, others to fruit, and others to sweets and baked goods. Local stall holders were extremely friendly and went out of their way to give us free samples of their produce. Imagine forest berries sold by the kilo, meats and fish so fresh it still seemed alive and cakes to make your mouth water. Very fresh and very tasty!
Other places we visited during our day in Minsk included the Victory Square built to celebrate the liberation of Belarus – the middle of the square houses an immense granite monument.
Our next stop was the twin churches of ‘Memorial Church of All Saints’ and ‘Trinity Church’. Built next to each other, they could not be more different. The newer modern ‘Memorial Church of All Saints’ is a colossal white and gold church while the older ‘Trinity Church’ is a small wooden structure. The contrast in styles is stunning – a photographer’s dream.
For lunch we decided to eat in the “Panorama” restaurant on top of the Hotel Belarus (about 25 floors up) as it gave us spectacular views over the city centre. From our vantage point in the restaurant we had a really good perspective of the city’s layout and its vastness in all directions. As expected, the meal was full of fresh produce and the finest Minsk had to offer.
As we said goodbye to Minsk and headed back to its border with Lithuania we took a short detour and journeyed deep into the woods that make up large parts of Belarus. We stopped at a small farm in the forest to try some local honey – wow it was tasty! Enjoying fresh bread, honey and a warm cup of tea with the farmer and his wife was a real highlight of the day.
The forests of Belarus around Minsk are full of history as they were home to many people hiding from the German’s in the war. The Daniel Craig movie, ‘Defiance’, was a true story about a band of 1,200 Jews that took refuge in the forest and used it to stage attacks against the Nazis. If you have not seen this movie, make sure you do. As we drove through the forest, my mind was full of admiration for these brave people and what they went through during those tough years.
Nothing is nicer than experiencing something for the first time and this is exactly what we got in Minsk. It’s a very unique and special place, very different to neighbouring Baltic countries and Poland. Belarus is well worth visiting.