23 Apr Minsk, Belarus
Over the past few years Belarus has been encouraging visitors by extending visa-free tourist travel from five days to thirty. It posed an opportunity for Mr Munch and I to explore a country with Soviet history and experience a culture relatively closed off to the world. In some ways it felt like going back in time – multicultural it isn’t and I did get lots of inquisitive looks. However for the most part people are friendly, English is wide spoken and you will find lots to enjoy in Minsk. The capital city has a feeling of breadth due to its wonderful parks and forests. If you have an international driving license head West in a car to ancient Bialowieza Forest where you can find wild European bison. Here are some other places to stop off at on your trip.
The contemporary food scene in Minsk is having a moment. Whether the focus is on local produce, bringing home cooking to a fine dining setting or merging it with influences from further afield there’s something for everyone. Prices are extraordinarily reasonable. Generally speaking portion sizes are smaller than we’re used to, I don’t know if that’s a cultural quirk or if it’s an attempt to look more high end. Don’t let this put you off as you can order more and it still cost you half the price of a meal back home! You’ll find English translations on most menus. Check out my in depth posts on wonderful restaurants Simple and Svobody 4 as well as adding these names to your list:
Restaurant Dom has trendy cosy down to a tee. The show stopping plant wall leads up to a dimly lit room lined with bold floral prints. We perused the menu and settled into plump armchairs. Local Belarusian touches dot the page – barley porridge with roast beef and mushrooms, draniki (potato pancakes) and tartars. I was keen to try another duck dish to compare with others I’d eaten during the week so chose the breast with celery cream and spiced pear. This was delicious but with literally two pieces of duck totalling half a duck breast this did not a main meal make. Mr Munch had more to get stuck into with wonderfully soft beef tongue atop mashed potatoes, porcini mushrooms, pickled turnip and demiglace sauce. Fantastic dish, savoury and umami. I love the presentation of paper thin translucent turnip rounds layered over the beef and potatoes. Desserts were chocolate lava cake (yum) and honey cake with sea buckthorn and coconut. Tropical, sweet and sour.
Mai Thai For the past four years Mai Thai has been treating customers to Thai street food. It’s ideal for a casual lunch – ignore the weird art of a creepy ape holding a naked lady. Their yellow chicken curry with bamboo shoots was great, as was the stir fried minced beef with holy basil. I like a lot of rice with my curry so one small bowlful wasn’t enough. That being said its flavour did win me over. Chilli lovers will want extra hot sauce. Their homemade passionfruit lemonade is a must-have.
Pena Dney has the most fun cocktail list. The Cocodil as it suggests has coconut syrup, a hint of absinth for colour and dried dill decorating half the glass rim. Good for those who like sour herby flavours. Other intriguingly named drinks include the sweet Secret Rose, Suspect Fine, Strong Enough and No Name Cocktail. Lamb chops with wild rice and blue cheese sounds weird but actually worked, cheese giving richness and seasoning to the rice akin to risotto. My duck with spiced apples and cherries was pretty classic. The added crumble and sour cream wasn’t necessary, swaying it into dessert territory. To my taste the food has a heavy hand to it but there are definitely good elements and of course we only had two dishes from a large menu. Pena Dney was the most expensive restaurant we ate at and in my opinion it was overpriced particularly when compared to similar restaurants. The architecture is cool, like being in a wine vault. I’d definitely return for drinks and nibbles ?
Khinkalnya Whenever I spot a good looking Georgian restaurant it’s hard to resist its lure. Khinkalnya is a five minute walk from President Hotel, the other side of the Palace of the Republic concert hall. Complete with cute cartoons of how to eat your khinkali (juicy spiced meat dumplings) this has a wholesome family atmosphere. Looking at the online menu is making my mouth water, it looks so good! We shared a number of dishes including said dumplings, aubergine with walnut paste, vegetable ajapsandali (similar to ratatouille) and ojahuri – cubes of succulent pork with potatoes, peppers, tomatoes seasoned with garlic and parsley. Simply divine.
Gan Bei (Galleria Minsk) This shopping centre has a number of interesting restaurants and cafes on the upper floor. I often get sushi cravings so Gan Bei was the perfect solution. Salmon sashimi don and a set of six spicy salmon maki made for a tasty lunch. The spicy salmon wasn’t spicy, catering for a more conservative palette. Mr Munch went for a hot dish instead. His pork ramen had nice slices of char siu, boiled egg and seaweed. The soup was in the style of Japanese soy ramen which tend to be less rich than other varieties. I enjoyed trying sea buckthorn tea – such a vibrant orange, like a month’s worth of vitamin C in one hit. As well as sea buckthorn, fresh pieces of orange and apple were added into the teapot making it sweet and sour. Refreshing and mouth watering at the same time. I wish I could find some sea buckthorn to use in tea – if anyone knows where I can get some please let me know!
Belarusian National Arts Museum houses the largest collection of Belarusian and foreign art in the country. A real treasure trove. On display are diplomatic gifts from India, China, South Korea and Japan. Cue a stunning wood/mother of pearl elephant, lacquer boxes the size of parmesan wheels and beautifully intricate kimonos. Round the corner are Picasso vases, broad paint strokes depicting owls, bulls and of course the dove. This is all easy to miss as the entrance to the newer building is in a nondescript corner of one of the galleries – check those doors! The museum has wonderful nature paintings by Belarusian artists including Ivan Shishkin. I collect art gallery postcards to use as bookmarks and realised Shishkin’s 1886 painting of Peter the Great’s oak grove in a similar photographic style to Robert Zünd’s Buchenwald of the same year. The latter is found at the Kunstmuseum Luzern. It’s amazing to look at them side by side even in postcard form! You could easily imagine walking into the picture for a stroll in the woods.
Belarusian State Museum of the History of the Great Patriotic War This museum may have a longer title than a fancy skin cream but it is worth getting your head around. The struggles of the Belarusian people to overcome fascism are laid out in great detail. It is rich in photographs, letters, personal items and all the materials that come with war. We saw a number of violins looking worse for wear but hopefully imparted comfort to people at the time. Two moments really affected me. First was the map of Belarus not only pin pointing the numerous concentration camps but also showing the estimated number of deaths at each one. Of course I’m aware of the history but seeing the hard figures and the camps seemingly covering the country is humbling to say the least. Next to this was a display describing what I believe was the Nazi’s first public hanging in Minsk. Twelve people, half of which were from one family who led a group helping people escape. The museum shows this in such an emotionally powerful way. Back at the hotel I heard something on tv about new missiles being tested somewhere and it made me feel sick. Anyway, this museum is great and the architecture is spectacular too. The memorial at its heart is a light filled space with colourful stained glass and names of the dead in gold. Believe it or not it is a good place to take kids, we saw many families and a school trip enjoying themselves while hopefully learning a thing or two.
Metro – Similar to our metro experience in Uzbekistan and Kiev, Minsk has wonderful Art Deco details on their metro platforms. From the bold bronze station names to decorative tiles there’s lots to look at. It’s also the best way to get around rather than taxis as our data didn’t work, this is a Vodafone Bermuda triangle. This is no bad thing – Mr Munch and I enjoy using maps and our brains every now and then. A single journey is 23p. Enjoy it while you can!
Forest walks Look at a map of Minsk and you’ll see that parks, forests and woods are in plentiful supply. Some are within walking distance or a short taxi journey away. We got dropped off at Lesopark in the East of the city. The trees are beautiful, bird song your sole accompaniment. I’ve never heard woodpeckers so loudly before! As you venture deeper you’ll find a mini rail road, used to ferry families to and from Caliuskincau Park. It was completely abandoned the day we went, great for some cool photographs. What a joy to be able to escape the city so easily and find an area of peace and quiet. We walked through Caliuskincau Park to get the metro home. Great way to spend a few hours. This encourages me to go further afield next time, take a packed lunch and make a proper day of it ??
Kamarouski Rynak Central Minsk’s market heaven. Hundreds of stalls run by women who manage to look both disapproving and friendly at the same time. If you understand Russian you could get yourself a whole load of free samples as you walk round. They have everything you would need on your weekly shop as well as exciting breads, biscuits and a ton of dried fish. I love seeing the community banter as people return to their favourite vendors. The way food is presented here is fantastic – 8 foot high slopes of fruit and veg, precarious towers of sugared biscuits and honey.
Green Hypermarket An absolute must if you want to bring Belarusian produce home. I managed to find a precious jar of pine cone jam which now sits pride of place in my fridge. Vac packed hams were a great purchase too – the chorizo style had a wonderful sharp paprika taste. I’ve noticed Belarusians prefer a thicker cut of ham, something with more bite as opposed to melt on the tongue like Parma ham. We also found Alyonka chocolate from one of the largest chocolate companies in Belarus, Kommunarka. Apparently most post-Soviet Russian speaking countries have their own type of Alyonka chocolate – milk chocolate with a butterscotch taste to it. While you’re in the area you won’t fail to notice the National Library of Belarus with its (wait for it) rhombicuboctahedron shape. It’s worth a trip to the roof for a city overview. Signs point out places of interest such as the longest straight road in Belarus, huge murals and the like.
President Hotel – I don’t only like this hotel because they give you double helpings of pillow chocolates everyday. The room was large, comfortable and clean with decent temperature adjusters so you neither freeze nor overheat. Sounds simple but so often isn’t the case! Equally important is a strong shower, good lighting and lots of fluffy towels. Tick, tick, tick. It’s a grand hotel with marble floors, glittering chandeliers, even art and luxury perfume shops downstairs. Most conveniently there is a money exchange bureau making it easy to change money at short notice (see below).
The President Hotel has hosted big names – Russian and US astronauts, NASA researchers, diplomats from all over the world and most importantly 90s boy band sensation Blue. We spotted men in dark suits and sunglasses by the entrance listening to headpieces, perhaps members of the KGB keeping watch for the security of important guests. You can walk past the KGB’s headquarters in town, a building meant to intimidate if ever there was one. If the cars outside are anything to go by, diplomats from Latvia, Russia, Estonia and Ukraine were there during our short stay. The glamour of it all!
Flights with Belavia run between Gatwick South and Minsk. The journey is three hours with a three hour time difference. I think London to Belarus must be the shortest journey with the biggest time difference. From Minsk Airport to the city centre is 30-40 minutes. We booked a taxi in advance from Minsk Airport to President Hotel with Booking.com. This is great as the payment is done online so you don’t have to worry about changing money straight away.
Currently you cannot exchange Belarusian Rubles in the UK so you will need to do that upon arrival. On your return journey I’d work out how much the taxi is to the airport (ours was 50 BYN) so that you don’t have too much cash left over in duty free. Shopping at the airport is pretty terrible unless all you require is alcohol. They are missing a trick by not showcasing local Belarusian products or even more simply, restaurants and cafes. Minsk airport’s only restaurant is Burger King and it’s much more expensive than in the UK. Belavia’s plane meal is generous for a three hour flight. Bread, cheese, a selection of hams, pickles and salad make up the savouries and you get a chocolate marshmallow tea cake for afters.
This is by no means an exhaustive list but hopefully it gives you a feel for Minsk and encourages you to look into it for your next short break. It has been lovely writing this post in a time when we are staying close to home. Take a look at my instagram for more #minnsmunchtime goings on and give this post a like if you enjoyed it! Until next time,