Belarus was the last country in Europe (both eastern and western) that I had not visited. Getting there would not be easy: the visa requirements in addition to the “how to get there” appeared overwhelming. After looking at ground transport through Poland or Lithuania and air from Ukraine or Russia I discovered that their national airline, Belavia, flies from more countries. When I found a very reasonable fare to Berlin I knew this trip could become a reality. However, there was still the issue of a visa. Most countries who are encouraging tourism will offer some sort of waiver or online application, not so Belarus.
The restrictions to get a visa for this country will probably deter anyone who is not insistent. Thankfully, from a review on Trip Advisor I found an independent guide who was willing to help me through the process in return for me hiring him to take me on tours to UNESCO and other important sites close by Minsk.
Some buildings are forbidden to photograph and it is considered rude and an invasion of privacy to take photos with locals in them unless special permission is granted. Imagine this might be the case everywhere but my guide made it a point and reminded me often.
The weather was colder than I had expected but the sun was out and that apparently is an anomaly in Minsk. Andrei, my guide, arranged for me to stay in a couple of different apartments instead of a hotel, both in the city center. One of them was a home and the owner graciously gave advice about the best Spanish wine shop and lent me his jacket before he turned over the keys and left! The dark stairway was not indicative of the beautiful space overlooking Oktyabrskaya (central) Square.
I enjoyed wandering through the city, shopping for groceries, people watching and eating one of the best meals ever at a little spot called the News Cafe. Andrei took me on a couple of tours to see some of the most important monuments and some beautiful castles and villages and we always stopped for delicious and hearty soups!
Before my visit all I really knew about Belarus is that the tennis player Victoria Azarenka was born there, that it were a former member of the USSR and on the doomed pathway to Russia during World War II.
The almost total devastation of the country is memorialized by the Khatyn complex located outside of Minsk at the site of a village that was destroyed in 1943 and many of the inhabitants killed (75 were children under the age of 16). It is heart wrenching. This memorial is dedicated to all Belarussian citizens who were killed during what they call the Great Patriotic War of 1941-1945. More than 2 million people died!
The Mound of Glory is a memorial complex honoring Soviet soldiers who fought during World War II. The creation and artistic expression of these memorials is astounding.
We also visited two different castles, both belonging to the Radziwill family at one time or another. They were ancestors of the husband of Jackie Kennedy’s sister. The last picture is the oldest surviving town hall in all of Belarus in the ancient village of Nesvizh.
It was a constant history lesson with Andrei showing an amazing memory for facts in addition to his fun and somewhat cynical comments.