Hello again! The radio silence is over at last – a month’s worth of exams is finally at an end and I’m free to take advantage of the beautiful Polish summer at last. On the other hand, it perhaps wasn’t as intense as it was long – I’ve definitely been up to much more than just revision since last writing…
Belarus is an ex-Soviet state sandwiched between Poland and Russia. Until February, it was virtually closed to tourists, except for a small part of the Białowieża forest where you could hike across the border from Poland and into the shared national park. Since February, however, there has been a visa-free regime for EU-citizens flying into Minsk airport for stays of up to 5 days. It might not be the first place you would imagine to take a city break, but if I learned anything from a rather spontaneous trip there in the week before my last exam, it’s that the surface impression is certainly not the principal one.
Nina, Rafael and I took our flight straight after my penultimate exam ended. From the very start, it was clear how friendly Belorussians are: whilst practicing some Russian vocabulary (very basic heads, shoulders, knees and toes-style!), as two Russian-speakers sat opposite us overhead our efforts and helped us with pronunciation.
It’s a beautiful city. Although my view might be somewhat biased by the sunshine, it’s amongst the most clean I have ever visited and we were surprised by how modern much of it is (it was heavily damaged during the second world war, but many buildings seem extremely recent and less recent ones are very well-kept). Almost everyone we met seemed quite cheerful (again, weather helps!) and despite the menus often being exclusively in Russian, we managed to east very well for a very, very reasonable price. If anything, I’m now a huge fan of Draniki and urge anyone to give at least one bottle of Советское шампанское a go*.
It was clear of course, that this wasn’t the Europe we were used to. It is in effect, almost if not an authoritarian state, having had the same Government in power since 1994. It retains the death penalty and numerous international organisations condemn its human rights abuses and accuse it of entrenched corruption. In spite of having abandoned its communist past (the shopping galleries are bursting), it’s a very conservative country with little superficial change in its buildings or monuments and even retains the GUM shop with government-controlled prices.
If ever there’s the chance, I’d definitely recommend visiting before the tourist industry is heavily developed. The historical city centre is lively and very used by locals, there is plenty to do in the day form museums to pedalos to just wandering this enormous city; and for a very different evening there are regular and entertaining ballets and operas in the stunning venue of the state ballet and opera (the cheapest seats are maybe only 5 euros).
We spent 3 days there before returning for a final revision push before the last exam, and it was 3 days very well spent!
* – or two, or three…