Minsk in late summer

Let’s get one thing out of the way first. Minsk is not for everyone. It is, very likely, not for most. But for some visitors, it’s a terribly interesting place. And Minsk in late summer, with just a hint of autumn in the air, is a very pleasant place to spend some time.

Why is Minsk not for everyone? Hassle, mostly. Your average tourist doesn’t want to put that much effort into researching his or her travels ahead of time. Shelling out for visas in advance and encountering red tape along the way are not part of this agenda, which is about ticking various boxes without risking time or energy en route: beach, monument, drinking, history, shopping. But for others (the generally intrepid; aficionados of all things post-Soviet; hearty pork dinner lovers; and anyone with a more geopolitically-driven interest in contemporary European life) Minsk is an enthralling place to visit.

Minsk has many appeals. It’s inarguably interesting to contemplate the old Soviet apparatus in any number of ways. Walk, for example, into a Metro station to witness an enormous hammer and sickle statue next to a screen of Rihanna sauntering down a street in Jamaica in her “Man Down” video. Most people waiting for their trains keep to themselves or talk quietly. Rihanna may provide the soundtrack but nobody appears to be particularly interested in paying attention.

There’s a lot of triumphant architecture as well. There are broad avenues like Nyezhavisymosty Avenue, which a Belarusian-born friend of a friend urged me to follow from the National Library to Victory Square. (And I did. Great idea.) There is the National Library itself, once described by a fellow Gadling writer as the Death Star of libraries. There is the Architecture Faculty at Belarusian National Technical University (see above), a beautiful example of Soviet modernism that dates to 1983. Throughout, there is a calm and quiet in Minsk. Traffic is modest and the wide sidewalks along these avenues are often quite empty.

It’s well and good that there are such triumphant modern buildings to contemplate. For a city essentially destroyed during the Second World War, Minsk is not a place for steeping in physical history. That said, there is one centrally-located 17th-century church that should be visited, the Cathedral of St. Peter and St. Paul, which dates to 1611. The most concentrated central spot for taking in the past is a recreation. Created in the 1980s, the neighborhood of Traiyetskoye (Trinity) serves as Minsk’s Old Town. It’s pleasant and worth a stroll, though to my mind Minsk’s excitement lies in its modernity.And Minsk is cheap. Really, really cheap, at least once you’ve gotten your hotel bill paid. A ride on the quiet and clean Metro costs 17 cents. When it came time for a souvenir run, the big department stores GUM and TSUM delivered. Hyperactive local department stores both, the former is beautifully appointed and was buzzing with back-to-school energy two weeks ago. The inventory for sale was largely, possibly entirely, manufactured in Belarus. True bargains were everywhere. I bought folklorish placemats (under $10 for four), notebooks (several varieties, starting at six cents [!] a pop); a striped tank-top ($2.20); and a lily-of-the-valley-scented bar of soap (36 cents). My souvenirs topped out at around $14, which is about two-fifths of the price of a candle at a posh home furnishings shop in London.

For the record, hotels aren’t exactly murder on the wallet. My travel companion wanted air-conditioning, which seemed unnecessary in advance but turned out to be very good to have. We paid $118 per night for our air-conditioned room at the upscale Hotel Yubilenaya through Belintourist, a rate that included breakfast. Hotel Yubilenaya was decent in every way, and its clientele was provocatively broad: local tourists, a Belarusian sports team (tennis?), some Iranian engineers on holiday, one of whom interrupted his Facebooking marathon to discuss the beauty of Belarusian ladies with my travel companion, and a big group of South African doctors and their spouses.

Minsk is a fascinating place. It has an immediate familiarity to anyone who spent time on the eastern side of the Iron Curtain prior to the break-up of the Soviet Union. Yet despite bolts of familiarity, it remains deeply enigmatic to visitors, no doubt exponentially so for those, like me, who do not speak Russian. I’d return to Minsk on assignment in a heartbeat, though on a future visit to Belarus I’d want to include Grodno and Pripyatsky National Park on my itinerary as well.

Anyone traveling to Belarus should purchase the excellent Bradt guide to Belarus, the second edition of which was published in February. Nigel Roberts, the guide’s author, writes with a palpable affection for the people and customs of Belarus.