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.

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. 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.

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).

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.

Chris loves Minsk!
Deah in Minsk

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

https://goo.gl/maps/Wv75Rjjc9bBX7PJq5

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!

Salo, horseradish, Black bread Ukraine food Kiev tour
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!

Switzerland and Austria: the crossroads of Europe

clock tower tall pointy church zurich switzerland

With all the times I’ve visited Europe, I’ve actually never been to Switzerland and Austria. Well, except for airport transfers and one brief rental car mishap. So as I was heading to Prague to meet up with Chris, I decided to go overland through these two beautiful countries. With such multi-faceted cities and ages of history within each, I barely had time to get more than an overview of the places I visited, and make a list of things to see next time I’m there. Here’s my favorites for each.

History lurks behind every corner here in Switzerland

Zurich

It was cool and rainy in Zurich, but not actually raining yet- perfect weather for a walking tour in my one full day in the city. My favorite part of sightseeing Zurich was the overall charm of the city center- 1200 drinkable fountains, cobblestone streets, small shops, community gardens, and the smell of roasting coffee everywhere.

Just one of hundreds of small squares throughout the city

Basel

I headed to Basel specifically to see an old friend, even though it was a bit out of my way (I will always make a detour for a friend!). Happily, I arrived there on the day that Art Basel began, a sort of scavenger hunt for 20 contemporary art pieces scattered throughout the city. It was a great way to spend the day there.

“Study for Stairs for a Theater” by Caitlin Keogh

Bern

The next day, Adam and Anna and I took a train to visit the town of Bern, the capital of Switzerland, although still a very small city. We saw the bears, took selfies with Einstein, and had Raclette for dinner. Best of all, it was a day spent with friends.

In front of St Peter and Paul church

Munich

Okay, so I didn’t actually visit Munich, but my bus from Basel to Salzburg had a transfer in Munich. I hopped to it, and in my two hour layover, I was able to visit the Hof Brau Haus and have a Bavarian beer.

That smile pretty much says it all

Salzburg

I enjoyed seeing Mozart’s birthplace and various scenes from The Sound of Music, but to tell the truth I was feeling pretty run down and fighting a cold. My favorite thing that day? Eating this soft pretzel covered in dark chocolate. That, paired with a Viennese coffee, got me through the morning.

It was a tough choice but chocolate always wins

Linz

Salzburg was crazy crowded because of the Mozart 100 race (who in their right minds want to run 100 km? Up and down three mountains, no less?) so I headed to Linz to seek a little more peace and quiet. It was here, between the beautiful churches and along the Danube River, that I finally learned how to ride a Lime electric scooter. Sight-seeing game changer!

Now I totally want to buy one of these

Vienna

In one of life’s ironies, I booked an AirBnB just 200 meters from the main train station. And then I wound up arriving at the west train station and departing from the international bus terminal. But the good news was that, in addition to seeing the churches, palaces, National Library, and gardens of the city center, my accommodations were just steps away from the Belvedere palace and their beautiful grounds. I enjoyed walking through their gardens each morning and evening I was in Vienna.

I spent a fair amount of time imaging what life would be like living in this palace

With Europe’s amazing travel network, such as Ryan Air (my flight was 19€), hundreds of trains a day, and the ubiquitous FlixBus (Vienna to Prague 14€), there’s an excellent chance of passing through one of these cities again in the near future. From one day to one week, I’d recommend any of these for a visit!

Monaco in One Day

picture frame monaco yachts harbor

Monaco is the second-smallest microstate in Europe, but is still the most densely-populated country in the world- is it possible to visit for just one day and see it all? Of course not. But you can see the highlights, even if you’re on a budget. Here’s how.

The Port of Monaco

Where to Stay

Unfortunately, Monaco does not have very many budget hotels. The Hotel Forum, literally on the border of France and Monaco, has one of the best prices I could find. There are tons of options in the city of Nice- an easy train or bus ride to Monaco gets you there in 35 minutes. I chose the charming Marcellin Hotel in Beau-lieu Sur Mer, halfway between Nice and Monaco, and wished I had more time to explore the seaside town.

Getting There and Around

Most people arrive to Monaco by bus or train from France or Italy. Once in the principality of Monaco, you can ride any bus (including the harbor “bateau bus”) for €2, or get an all-day pass for 5€- a great value. There are five bus lines inside Monaco going to its neighborhoods: Monaco-Ville, Fontvieille, Monte Carlo, and Condamine.

Of course you can also just walk around all day, enjoying the pathways that loop through gardens, old forts, historic staircases, and even along the Formula 1 track. Because Monaco is a rather vertical city, be sure to take advantage of the many elevators and escalators that are free and open to the public.

Taking a “shortcut” through the Japanese Gardens

If you really feel stylish, for about €100 per person, you can arrive by helicopter from Nice airport (this price increases dramatically during Formula 1 and the Cannes Film Festival). From the heliport, a town car will take you to your hotel.

Highlights

A good place to start is the Place d’Armes in Condamine. This is where the SNCF train stops, or if arriving by bus from Nice or one of its quaint suburbs, you can take bus 100 and disembark at this stop. There is a morning market here every day, so grab some fruit and a coffee and get ready to walk.

Changing of the Guard in front of the Prince’s Palace

Across the street from the Place d’Armes is a staircase of long, flat steps- the Ramp Majeure– which will take you up to the Palace Square, the heart of Monaco-Ville. Here you can watch the changing of the guards at 11:55 am every day, and you can visit a few rooms in the Palace if you want (€8). From one side of the Palace Square you can look down upon Port Hercule, usually with a cruise ship in dock and mooring space for up to 500 yachts, as well as the stands from the Formula 1 Grand Prix visible. From the other side of the Square you can overlook Fontvieille Harbor, which can hold 60 vessels that are up to 30 m in length.

Overlooking Fontvieille, created in the 1960s from reclaimed land

Atop “le rocher”, or The Rock, are both the Palais Princier and the Old Town. It’s nice to wander through these cobblestone streets, although the shops are mostly cafes and souvenir stands now. The beautiful Cathedral of Our Lady Immaculate, built in 1875, houses the remains of the princes of Monaco and Princess Grace. Winding through the compact Old Town, at the opposite end of The Rock are the government buildings (Monaco has a Minister of State, rather than a Prime Minister), and the Oceanographic Museum, where you can watch sharks being fed, see models of ships, and view over 4000 species of fish (14€).

Outside the Oceanographic Museum

To leave Monaco-Ville, you can take a bus down to the harbor area, or walk down through the Jardins St Martin. You’ll end up at Fort Antoine, and then you’ll be at sea level. From here you can walk the track of the Grand Prix (or take a bus) and then visit the Brasserie de Monaco for a refreshing Bavarian beer (check out their half-price Happy Hour specials). Directly behind the Brasserie is a supermarket, if you need to pick up any supplies.

Not just drinks: this brewery is 50 meters from the Grand Prix finish line

Of course a visit to Monaco would not be complete without seeing the casinos and the fancy cars. Take the Bateau Boat across the harbor (€2), and then ascend the escalators up towards the Princess Grace Theater. You’re now in Monte Carlo, home of some of the most famous hotels and casinos (and shopping) in the world, as well as the Opera House and the Rainier Auditorium. Be sure to bring your passport (locals aren’t allowed to gamble) and in most cases, expect to follow a list of prohibited items such as shirts, sneakers, cameras, etc depending on the time of day and the establishment. But many of the hotels will let you in the lobby to gaze at the sumptuous interiors, and of course you’ll inevitably see the fanciest of cars parked out front.

The Monte Carlo Casino
I’ll take the one on the left

If you’re an art lover, there’s the Nouveau Musee National de Monaco just below the Monte Carlo casino, which is free every other Sunday, otherwise 6€. The Grimaldi Forum has rotating exhibits, currently one on Salvador Dalí (6€, now through September). The Marlborough Fine Arts Gallery (4 Quai Antonie) also houses some major works by Picasso, Matisse, Chihuly, and more, and is free.

All that should take most of the day! If you have a bit more time, consider taking one of Monaco’s buses to one or more of the following:

The Prince’s Car Collection, which is not actually a museum- it’s literally a private collection of over 100 cars. 6€ for entry, and it is located in the commercial center atop The Carrefour supermarket (also a good place to grab a sandwich and a drink).

The Prince’s Car Collection

The Jardin Exotique (€8) houses thousands of rare plants and has amazing views. It’s a bit far, so take bus number 2.

Visit the beach at Larvotto. There are both public and private sections. The beach can be a bit gravelly in some places and in early June is still quite cold!

Walk the Parcours de Princess Grace. You’ll probably have already encountered bits of this walking path along your day, featuring 25 photographs and descriptions of some of Princess Grace’s activities and her life.

The Fairmont Grand Prix Hairpin Curve

Whether you have a free day in your France or Italy vacation, or a day in port on your cruise, it is possible to see the best of Monaco, so don’t skip it! Do you have a favorite sight in Monaco? If so, tell me in the comments so that I can visit on my next trip!