Four days in Europe’s “Last Dictatorship” and second least visited European capital (the first is Chișinău).
About a year ago Belarus introduced 5-day Visa-free travel for persons from 80 or so countries, the U.S. being one of them, so when Tony mentioned over breakfast one morning that he had a work trip to Minsk in May I set down my coffee cup, went outside, and collected all of the loose coins from my wagon’s cup holders and bought a ticket to Belarus. I purchased my flight on the Belavia side of matters; and though the flight was code-shared with, and operated by Austrian, it was a fraction of Austrian’s cost and I would still accrue Austrian miles. More rubles for souvenirs! This little city break was already off to a grand start.
The hop from Vienna to Minsk was but an hour and change, over what mostly begins as Poland’s fields and then merges into the forested, and still flat, lands of Belarus. The futuristic and gorgeous Minsk Airport was a sci-fi sight to behold upon landing. Inside, perhaps MSQ could add a few more directional signs beyond “Transfer to Russian Federation,” and perhaps there were too many guys with guns wandering about for my tastes, but the airport was a breeze to get through. No fewer than 10 Passport Control Officers were stationed and ready at “The Territory of Checkpoint,” with booths ready for 10 more.
And clearly my Officer had been practicing her friendly and welcoming tone!
PCO., after examining my passport with a magnifying glass, “Why do you come to Belarus?”
Me. “To visit Minsk.”
PCO. “Are you going to Russia?” (No.)
PCO. “Do you have Medical Insurance?”
Me, handing the PCO our insurance card with Tony’s name on it (sometimes the lack of identity as a Trailing Spouse has its down sides.) Tony, meanwhile, had thrown me under the bus by going through another Immigration line with a less inquisitive officer and was safely on The Other Side, smirking.
PCO, studying, and studying, and studying, and studying…then returning the card and saying, “You have no insurance.” while pointing to the booth where I ponied up the €4 (€1 per day) for a pretty folder of paper that I would never use in the event I had an emergency medical need while in Minsk. But when in Rome…
Though I had requested an airport transfer through the Hotel Minsk, where we would be staying, I never received confirmation (more on that to follow), and instead reserved a transfer online through the airport’s official drivers. The transfer was confirmed, as per the email I received.
The baggage arrived in good order; the brand new Bankomat spit out several hundred Rubles for us; and we followed signs to “Sektor 3-4” to find “The Taxi Dispatcher.”
Curbside at Sektor 3-4 was a man in jeans and a leather jacket, sporting a gold necklace and shades. And wearing a made-from-craft-store-supplies “Taxi Dispatcher” lanyard. But it was laminated, so we knew he was official. We approached and I handed him the paper. Despite there being a line of “Airport Taxi” vehicles in front of him, he said, “I call taxi. You wait.” Tony and I gave one another the, “We’re about to be scammed” look. Just as I motioned that we would take one of the official-looking Airport Taxis, a car pulls up with a made-from-craft-store-supplies sign that read, “Taxi” affixed to the side. But the driver’s lanyard was laminated, so we knew he, too, was official.
As we were driving off Tony whispered to me, “I don’t see a meter,” and began to casually peer into the front of the vehicle when he spied a black box with a rapidly moving counter—the meter, we presumed, except that we had only exited the airport and it read something like 674. The airport sits about 35 km outside of Minsk, so past forested areas and landscape that resembled the Microsoft Windows background we motored, the little counter doing its thing.
Thirty minutes later we crossed the “MIHCK” sign in all of its Socialist glory, the 9 May celebration banner still fluttering across. Crossing the ring road into the heart of the city grand buildings appeared before us, one after another after another; similarly the mysterious counter continued rolling, number after number. Minsk’s post-war construction was not, “Go Big or Go Home.” It was all, “Go Big or Go Bigger.” A Socialist-Realist architecture fan’s dream.
Moments later we arrived at what could have been The Grand Budapest Hotel, Minsk and the counter stopped: 8419. Our driver pushed a button on the mysterious black box and a receipt was printed: 84 BYN (€35), an amount not out of line with what I had read. Travel advice: Trust the Laminated Lanyard. 😂
Mssr. Gustav opened the hotel door and welcomed us. The building was constructed in the “Stalin Classicism” style in 1959, reflecting “a visiting card not only of the capital of Belarus, but of the whole republic.” Luxe chandeliers and warm wood; creamy marble floors and comfortable leather furniture inside…along with a Harley Davidson biker group from Slovakia and an odd couple from Orlando queueing to check in. While waiting we searched the lobby for Wes Anderson.
Soon it was our turn to check in; or rather, Tony’s turn. In spite of assurances from the Belarus team that I had been added to the reservation, the hotel staff was politely expressing concern that because my last name is different (and Eastern European), and that I was not on the reservation for the same number of nights (Tony remained two extra days) that I was, perhaps, not his “wife” (wink, wink). After the matter was resolved it took every restraint not to burst out in laughter over the hotel mistaking me for a different kind of guest. This may also explain why they did not respond to my airport transfer request.
Our room design did not look a day over, say, 1989, though everything appeared new; but the bathroom had entered the 21st century in the big and marbled way, with a luscious large and well-lit vanity and a huge corner soaking tub. Bonus points for the view from our living room being the Minsk Central Post, with Corinthian columns, the hammer and sickle, and the stars. It took a lot of people to read everyone’s mail back in the day, I guess.
Guide books for this memorial to Soviet Communism are out there, but owing to obligations at home I could not venture beyond Minsk and really didn’t want another book gathering dust on the shelf just for one city, so it was Dr. Google I consulted when planning this itinerary. In Your Pocket offered its usual wit and wisdom (online, but not on their App); a rather thoughtful blogging-couple had constructed a self-guided walking tour of Minsk’s highlights that would more than fill the remaining 4 hours of our afternoon; and together with other bits and bobs I constructed a plan. We freshened up and prepared to head out, stopping at the front desk to request a city map. Though entirely in Cyrillic, there were at least pictures to help us.
Belarus is outside of the EU, so our iPhones were limited unless we wanted to purchase a SIM card. That was not practical for Tony, as he would be in meetings for the remainder of his stay. On the Asia trip I dropped my iPhone and cracked its face; and since we are a couple of months away from the upgrade window, it made little sense to pay to have my phone unlocked. So, we went old-school with paper maps and printed notes.
Mssr. Gustav opened the door as we set forth to explore Minsk…