Beautiful Belarus

I have to admit, we arrived in Minsk a little travel fatigued. It was our 26th country on this trip, and we’ve been traveling for over a year. But as Chris and I spent more time in Minsk, the city really began to grow on us and we kept discovering more fun areas to explore. Since hosting the 2019 European Games, the country has rushed to modernize, including a free visa for most nationalities (if you arrive by air to Minsk). If you take your time and get to know it, Belarus might surprise you.

Minsk

We spent nine days in Minsk, which is a huge sprawling city. Nearly everything in Minsk was built after World War II, as it was almost completely destroyed. In fact, some stories even suggest that Stalin purposefully allowed Minsk’s destruction, in order to re-build it as a huge “premium Soviet city” on the road to Moscow. In any event, for fans of Stalin Empire architecture, this city is a gold mine.

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The massive Minsk gates

We took the free walking tour, which met at City Hall, and explored the area of town that includes Gorky Park and the National Ballet And Opera Theater (in fact, the building was meant to be the base for the largest Lenin statue in the world).

National Theater

On another day, we explored the Kastrychnitskaya Street area, near the train station. The area used to be industrial factories, but now pubs, cafes, food trucks, art spaces, and huge murals are transforming this block into a creative space. The week we were visiting coincided with a 2 week initiative of Brazilian artists visiting to create several new murals. Plus lots of delicious food stops along the way!

A mural in progress

For just .65 Belorussian Rubles (30 US cents), you can hop on any of the stylish metro stops and travel across the city. We took a metro from Lenin Station (huge hammer and sickle of course) up to the National Library. It’s a huge, modern glass building housing ten million items, and for just $2 you can take an elevator up to the 23rd observation platform for a view of the whole city.

National Library of Belarus

Probably the most interesting part of Minsk is Independence Avenue, also called Prospect Niezalieznasci. 15 kilometers long, eight lanes, and flanked on both sides by giant Soviet brutalist buildings, it’s supposedly the longest such street in the world. I’m not sure about that, but I can say that walking along the various full block-long buildings such as the Central Post Office, the GUM department store, the old KGB building, the State Circus, and the History Museum can really make a citizen feel small (which was exactly the intent of Stalinist architecture). Small cogs in a huge state wheel.

Old KGB building

Vitebsk

We took a train to visit Vitebsk, a city in northeastern Belarus, close to the Russian border. We spent three days there and…. well, we had a hard time filling those three days with things to see. We visited the Marc Chagall Museum (he lived most of his life there), and we had Mexican food. Twice. Lots of churches. We found a Soviet-style canteen (what we’d call a cafeteria), which had delicious draniki (potato pancakes served with sour cream or sometimes mushroom sauce). We took some naps.

Cathedral of Holy Assumption Belarus Vitebsk
Cathedral of Holy Assumption Vitebsk

Mir Castle

From Minsk, we also took a day trip to Mir castle, one of the four UNESCO world heritage sites in Belarus. It’s a 16th century Polish Gothic Castle, once owned by the Radziwill family. Only 70 km away from Minsk, it’s an easy bus trip (6 Belarussian rubles, buses at 8:40 am, 9:40 am, 11:50, and 2 pm). Entry to the castle is 4 rubles ($2).

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Mir Castle

From Mir, we headed back to Minsk. Our “must-see” list complete, we spent the last couple of days just roaming around, gazing up at immense buildings and admiring the ornate interiors, while peeking behind and between buildings to find interesting paintings, mosaics, and statues.

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Chris in Minsk

Deah in Minsk

Use my Google map to find just a few of the fun things to see around Minsk.

Uniquely Ukraine

Ukraine is fairly new to the tourism scene, and is less-traveled by western tourists. But there’s still a lot to do in this sprawling country, and in fact, some of the things to do here are so uniquely Ukrainian that they can’t really be done anywhere else! Read on to discover some of the adventures Chris and I had during our two weeks in Ukraine.

Hit the beach:

For centuries people from northern climes have flocked to the Black Sea near Odessa to “take the waters” of the sunny south. There are busy party beaches within walking and tram distance of Odessa’s downtown, such as Arkadia and Ibiza. If you prefer a quieter beach scene for your holiday, take the commuter train heading south and visit any of the beach towns the train passes through. We spent three lovely days at Zatoka, about 50 km from Odessa, and loved the relaxed atmosphere there.

There’s nothing like a cold beer on a hot beach

Explore the catacombs under Odessa:

The city of Odessa was built with blocks of limestone mined from tunnels near the city in the 19th century. In later years, these same tunnels were used as an extensive network of bomb shelters and command centers in case of a Cold War attack. Now, visitors can visit the Museum of Catacombs to learn about the 2000 km of tunnels, or take a tour through the “wild” catacombs themselves. We went with Leonid and had a great time exploring the creepy but cool underground. Don’t sign up if you are claustrophobic or afraid of the dark!

Welcome to Odessa Underground!

Free Walking Tour

Of course, nearly every major city in Europe offers free walking tours now, but there’s only one in Odessa! We walked the city with Svetlana for two hours, taking in sights such as the Potemkin Steps, the Odessa Opera House, the “Flat” House, and more. It’s a great way to orient yourself to a new city, plus you learn a bit about the history of the place and get tips on local bars and restaurants. These guides live on the tips they earn, so please tip them according to how much you enjoyed the tour and the time they put into it.

The Odessa Opera House

Odessa City History Museum

This was our favorite museum in Odessa. It’s situated in a beautiful 19th century historical mansion, and details the history of Odessa from early Greek fishing village, up through the Cossacks, the Russians, and World War II. We visited on a Friday, so the dates/times in Google maps are wrong (it said they are closed). The museum costs just 30 Hrievnas (just over $1). It’s located just off the lovely City Garden off Derybasivska Street (the main pedestrian street in town).

The decree from Catherine the Great to build the city of Odessa

Chernobyl Exclusionary Zone Tour:

Most people over the age of 35 remember the events of April 1986, when news emerged that the nuclear reactor at Chernobyl in Ukraine was severely damaged and had spewed radioactive gases that reached all the way to Scandinavia in just a few days. The area was promptly evacuated and until 2011, only workers involved in the on-going clean up effort could visit inside the Exclusionary Zone. Tours began running a few years ago, and now, with a new 1.5 billion Euro cover over nuclear reactor number 4, visitors can do a one- or two-day tour to the the Zone. Since the new HBO miniseries debuted in May 2019, Chernobyl has seen a 40% increase in tourism. For visitors who want to learn more about the disaster but don’t have the time or funds to visit the site, there is also a Chernobyl Disaster Museum in Kiev.

Chernobyl Reactor no.4, now covered by a super-dome
The abandoned amusement park at Pripyat, the town that housed the workers of Chernobyl

Street Art and Craft Beer

Not only do we love drinking local beers at small breweries, but we also love looking at amazing street art that pops up in cities. On our walking tour of Kiev, we passed by several large-scale murals and wanted to find more information on them. We were super happy to find this blog post from “What Kate and Kris Did” that not only detailed the art murals, but planned a route around Kiev that encompassed several beer stops along the way! A win-win situation for us. Be sure to check out their other posts on Ukraine as well.

“Rebirth”. Tiny Chris, big mural.

Enjoy Ukrainian Food

We love to eat, and trying out some local delicacies is always high on our list when we visit a new place. You definitely cannot leave Ukraine without tasting some beef stroganoff (created in Odessa), salo (sliced pork fat served with garlic, herbs, and black bread), and of course borscht (beet soup with beef chunks). Some other favorites of ours that we tried were okroshko (cold yogurt soup with egg, ham, cucumber, and onion), caviar, and kvas, a non-alcoholic malt beverage served ice-cold on hot days. A really fun place to try some Ukrainian specialties in Kiev is Ostannya Barykada (The Last Barricade)- a secret, underground restaurant that will give you a short tour and explanation of the 2014 revolution which took place in the square just above the restaurant. You need a password to enter- hit me up on Twitter or Instagram and I’ll tell you what the password is!

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Salo, a delicious pork snack
You can give the password in Ukrainian or English at this (literally) underground restaurant

Study a Modern Revolution

Maybe when you think of revolutions, you think of one’s in the past like the French Revolution or the American Revolution. Well, in this part of the world, revolution is a daily occurrence, with some Ukrainians still fighting their big brother neighboring country Russia for portions of their land, such as Crimea. In late 2013, a revolution erupted on the Maidan, or main square, in Kiev. Over the next several months, partisans fought for Ukraine’s freedoms and to drive repressive forces out of the city. To learn more about the “Revolution of Dignity”, you can join a short walking tour, daily at 10:30 am, or visit the Complex of Heroes at Independence Square.

Of course, there’s so much more to Ukraine than just Kiev and Odessa, but our time was limited and we found these two cities to be fascinating. We hope to get back to Ukraine one day and explore the east and the west parts of the country as well.

Have you visited? What was your favorite part? Let us know in the comments below.

From Moldova to Transnistria (a country that doesn’t exist)

Chris and I took a bus that wound through the vast sunflower fields and bumpy roads of eastern Romania. We crossed the border with relative ease (15 minutes on each side), and arrived in Chişinău, the capital city of Moldova. We rented a spacious “apartment-hotel” there, unpacked our bags, and spent a few days getting to know the area.

Moldova is not a very large country, and it has no access to the Black Sea. Once part of the Principality of Moldavia, later part of the Russian Empire under the name of Bessarabia, the town was a staging ground for a war between the Ottoman and Russian empires. Later they joined the Kingdom of Romania, but were annexed to the Soviet Union in 1945. With the dissolution of the USSR in 1991, Moldova achieved independence.

Chişinău

We spent a few days in the capital city, Chişinău (pronounced “Key-she-no”). It’s a very flat, walkable city, with a small lake and recreation area on one side, and a long main boulevard of monuments and public buildings. We stopped by the Ionika Hostel for a great map of the city (check out their very cool rooms). A number of the buildings in Chişinău were built by Russian architect Alexander Bernardazzi, over a period of 25 years from 1850-1875 (he later moved to Odessa and constructed many of the buildings there). It’s not hard to spot the design similarities in Bernardazzi’s work in Chişinău , or the white limestone marble he used from nearby quarries.

Museum of Natural History
Cathedral of Christ’s Nativity
Water Tower, designed by Bernardazzi
Abandoned Soviet Circus

Milestii Mici

As it turns out, those limestone quarries near Chişinău make excellent wine cellars, and now two of the largest cellars in the world run tours of their vast caves. You can visit Cricova– where Putin celebrated his 50th birthday- or Milestii Mici– the largest wine cellar in the world, certified by Guinness in 2007. There’s over 60 smaller wineries in Moldova to visit as well if you get out of the capital city area.

Deah at the fountain in front of Milesti Mici

We hired a taxi with our Yandex taxi app to take us the 15 km to Milesti Mici (100 MDL), and did a one hour tour and tasting. You need your own vehicle to drive through the tunnels, or you can use the taxi you arrived in (310 MDL/ $20 for the tour; 150 MDL for the taxi). A tour guide rides with you and explains the various streets underground (all named for different wines), and you get out of the car a few times to look at specific points of interest.

Chris, inside Milestii Mici

The cellars remain a constant 12 degrees Celsius all year round, and MM’s holds 65 million liters of wine, in bottles, oak barrels, and stainless steel tanks. They have 200 km of tunnels, with 55 km currently in use. Altogether, their wine cellar is the size of Monaco, and includes a secret room that sheltered 50,000 bottles in the years that Gorbachev prohibited alcohol. After the tour, you can do a tasting, which includes 3 jugs of wine, some meat-and-cheese snacks, and live music. We were glad we had the taxi for the ride home after tasting the white wine and the dessert wine, and finishing off the jug of red wine!

The map of Milestii Mici tunnels
Music, food, and wine

Transnistria

In 1992, there was a brief military conflict in the breakaway region of Transnistria. Since then, it’s been ruled by a joint control commission of Russia, Moldova, and Transnistria. No United Nations countries recognize it as a country, although the breakaway entities of Abkhazia, South Ossetia, and Nagorno-Karabakh do. Transnistria doesn’t actually call their “nation” by that name- it’s the name of the region- they call it “Pridnestrovian Moldavian Republic”. They have their own passports, visa, and currency.

The Transnistrian flag

Anyway, whether you consider it the “country that doesn’t exist”, a nation, an autonomous region, or just part of Moldova, we went for a visit to its capitol, Tiraspol. It’s a one hour ride on a mashrutka bus, with a very brief stop at their border for a free visa. We had a hotel reserved for two nights, but they stamped us in for two weeks.

It’s Putin Time

We explored the city with Anton, a local tour guide who offers both a one-hour (tip-based) free walking tour, or a six-hour extended tour to a few places nearby. Tiraspol is full of Brutalism-style architecture, a curving river, and leafy parks. Once a thriving factory region for the Soviet nations, many of the factories are now closed, leave behind an empty, abandoned atmosphere. However, people do still live here! Our guide said that renting an apartment in one of the blocks of Soviet flats costs just $100 a month. Some people call Transnistria “the land that time forgot”, but to be honest, I thought it looks like so many other small towns across the former Soviet nations (or anywhere, really, that once thrived and now does not). With tourism, the Internet, and a growing economy, I predict this area will be joining the “modern age” sooner rather than later.

Back in the Land of Lenin
Abandoned Soviet playgrounds always feel creepy!

Train station mural

From Transnistria, we head to Ukraine. Off to see what adventure we can find near the Black Sea!

Roaming through Romania and Hungary

castle fortress Brasov Romania

I visited these two countries waaaay back in 1985, when the Texas Girls Choir was invited to a “Goodwill Ambassador” tour of the USSR and a few surrounding countries. I was only ten years old, and one of my only enduring memories was of visiting Dracula’s castle in the cold, snowy, winter month of January. Now we are here in high summer, nearly 35 years later, with a lot of changes in the region!

From small towns to big cities, the scenery is beautiful here

Budapest

From Slovakia, we took a train to Budapest, and spent a few days there. We stayed in District 7, also known as the Jewish Quarter , site of the 2nd largest Jewish synagogue in the world. That area is filled with cafes, pubs, and “ruin bars”, which are combo indoor/outdoor spaces filled with a whole hodgepodge of items- supposedly a remnant of bombings in World War II (although I suspect some of those bars are not anywhere near that old). Still- fun places to hang out and have a drink, especially Simpla Kert.

Just sittin’ in a bath tub… at a bar

Budapest itself is a splendid city to walk around in and explore, with a helpful tram and subway system assisting. We walked along the Danube River at dusk and watched the lights come on at the massive Parliament building, checked out the beautiful Matthias Church, and spent some time in the City Park, home of one of the city’s oldest thermal baths.

Budapest Parliament Building
St Matthias Church
One of the “micro-statues” you can find around Budapest

Gyor and Pannonhalma Monastery

A dear friend of ours was visiting his hometown in western Hungary, and invited us for a visit. We hopped on a train and 90 minutes later were in Gyor. Adam showed us around his town, situated on the banks of two rivers, and took us to the Pannonhalma Monastery. It was established 1,000 years ago, the first in the country, and has one of the most beautiful libraries I’ve been in. Below the monastery, acres of lavender are grown and distilled into oil, producing the most delicious scent all over the area.

Gyor, Hungary
Fields of Lavender at Pannonhalma
Just a small part of Pannonhalma’s amazing library

Lake Balaton

Adam drove us to Lake Balaton, stopping at two ancient castles along the way- defenses against the Mongols and the Ottomans. Lake Balaton is the largest lake in Hungary, and the second biggest in Central Europe. We stayed in the town of Keszthely, just one of a dozen small towns along the lake. We went hiking, ate langos (fried dough slathered in sour cream and cheddar cheese), and swam in the lake. There was a wine festival that weekend, and a reggae/rock concert that night. We enjoyed experiencing the more personal side of Hungary.

Keszthely, along the shore of Lake Balaton

Timisoara

From Balaton, we took two very comfortable and on-time trains to get to Timisoara, a town in western Romania. We stayed at an atmospheric, wooden hotel and did a walking tour of their Old Town. They were having a jazz festival while we were there, so it was nice to wander around to the various stages to catch different bands playing as we took in the 18th century buildings.

Jazz Fest!
A bit of rain brings out the colorful side of Timisoara

Sibiu

The trains in Romania are inexplicably slow, so we took a bus to Sibiu, a small town near the center of Romania. They have a beautiful walking center in the historic part of their town, which features several large, old churches, fortification walls, and the “bridge of lies”!

The “Bridge of Lies” will supposedly collapse if you tell a lie while walking across it

Brasov

From there we took a bus ride (in which we were the only riders for three hours!) to Brasov, a town in the heart of Transylvania. This is probably the most beautiful part of Romania, with miles and miles of forests, the Carpathian Mountains, and dozens of castles dotting the countryside. We learned about the convoluted history of the area (Romans, Huns, Bulgarians; Hungarians, Ottomans, Hapsburgs; Romania, then Hungary, then back to Romania). Just ten miles from Brasov is the famous Bran Castle, the literary setting of Dracula, although in actuality the castle had very little to do with Vlad the Impaler, son of Vlad Dracul. Still, the scenery is beautiful, and it’s an easy day trip to visit both Bran Castle and Rasnov Fortress, also nearby.

Bran Castle

While in Transylvania, we tried some of Romania’s gustatorial delicacies, including papanasi (fried dough with sour cream and cherry jam sauce), and sarmale (cabbage leaves filled with meat, rice, and spices), served with manaliga (polenta served with sour cream)…. always accompanied by a frosty Timisoarana beer.

Complacent George is ready for some papanasi

Sarmale with manaliga

Today we head to Moldova, one of Europe’s least visited countries, to see what adventures we can get up to there! And in exactly one month, it’s back to the US for us.

Checking out Czech Republic and Slovakia

Main Square pointy church towers Prague Czech Slovakia

After five weeks apart, Chris and I reunited in Czech Republic to continue our year abroad. We picked Prague for our city to meet in due to its easy train and plane connections.

Prague

We spent a fun three days exploring the city and eating Czech cuisine and drinking beer. We found Prague to be hugely crowded and with good reason: beautiful gothic and baroque architecture, a rich and textured history, and a vibrant old town city center. From reading a few articles, and going on a walking tour, we enjoyed learning some of the weird and funny stories of Prague through the ages, such as why there is a human arm hanging in one of the churches, and the popularity of “defenestration” in Prague’s history.

Our Lady Before Tyne Church
Astronomical Clock
Kafka Statue

Kromêrîž

After having visited both Vienna and Prague back to back, I was ready to get out of town to a smaller place and enjoy some peace and quiet and nature. We took a train to the town of Kromêrîž, population 20,000, site of an archbishop’s palace and huge French garden, along the Moravia River. One of the nights we were there we went to an open-air acoustic guitar concert on the town square, which was perfect. We walked in the gardens and admired the peacocks during the day. A brewery next to our hotel featured their own delightful beer as well as sausages, cheese, and beer cheesecake. We were glad we chose to visit the town.

Town Square
Proud Peacock

Bratislava

We took the train to Bratislava and stayed in an apartment just outside of the main walking area- and I have to say, it is my favorite place we’ve stayed in a while. It felt like being at home, with a terrace outside and a large living room. Best of all, it was next door to the Slovak Pub, which served the best of Slovakia’s national dishes: cabbage soup with sausage and cream, and bryndzovè halušky, which is a gnocchi-like dumpling with sheep’s cheese and crispy bacon.

Chris calls it “Commie Mac and Cheese”, I just call it delicious

In Bratislava, we took a Communism tour and an Old Town walking tour. We also hiked up to the radio/tv tour outside of town for a great view- the highest point in Bratislava!

Bratislava Castle
Bratislava
The art nouveau Blue Church

 

Bratislava
Old Town and the “UFO” bridge
Chris at the KGB Pub

Bojnice

With a record heat-wave in Central Europe, we left Bratislava and headed into the mountainous central part of the country. We arrived in Bojnice, site of a beautiful old castle and the country’s oldest zoo. With a quiet town promenade, plenty of cafes and taverns, an escape room, and a thermal spa, I think this town is on the rise for vacationers (Lonely Planet named the Tatras mountains in Slovakia the number one tourist destination for 2019, so be ready to see a lot more of Slovakia in articles and blogs!).

Bojnice, Slovakia
Enjoying a walk around the castle at dusk

 

Bojnice Slovakia
The small town of Bojnice

And now, we head to Hungary and Romania! Any travel advice for us?