The driving in Belarus has a level of passive-aggressiveness that I have only ever witnessed before in Russia. The traffic is kept flowing by the mega 6-lane highways around Minsk, and drivers on these roads can expect to be tailgated at crazy distances and undertaken and overtaken at the same time no matter what speed someone is driving at.
The roads are repaired as a patchwork but they aren’t too bad, the toughest bit about driving is possibly trying to spot the speed limit signs between the hundreds of other road signs. Speed limits tend to be 60km/h in built up areas, 90km/h on regional roads and 110km/h on highways. But having been driving around I’ve noticed that the speed limit in built up areas in particular fluctuates so frequently that you’ve really got to be on the ball as it can be anywhere between 40 and 60 km/h.
Outside of Minsk, you would not believe the quantity and variety of farm traffic on the road, absolutely crazy. I had never seen a two-lane road entirely taken up by a combine harvester before – we both had to move off the road onto the gravel to allow me to pass.
I wouldn’t particularly recommend hiring a car in Belarus unless you particularly want to experience the madness. You can reach Nesvizh and Mir castles on a day trip for €35 and the car costs more to hire per day than that. The Minsk-Brest train takes between 3:30-4:30 hours so it’s not too slow and usually costs around £15.
I arrived fairly late on to have a look around the castle and it was really nicely done, a very good exhibition of all the different rooms of the castle with all their fancy furnishings. I know that this shouldn’t be funny, but possibly my favourite part of it all was how desperate all 22 women working there were to shut up shop and go home early. I was their last guest and they were closing up their rooms after I went through and it just made me chuckle. They even closed some of the rooms early and I wasn’t keeping them late!! The place shuts at 7 and this was 6:30!
My favourite things were the family tree, the room of gold, and the grimly fascinating room absolutely full of hunting trophies including bears, moose and dozens of capercaillie.
I snapped a photo of the hoard of women leaving as I finished wandering around ready to check into my hotel for the night. Yeah, that’s right, hotel! Palace Hotel in fact… But don’t be fooled, it’s actually not got any atmosphere and for $35 including breakfast maybe it was an overspend rather than a treat. Nevertheless, I enjoyed being able to roam the castle grounds after closing time.
I had dinner at a place just outside the front entrance to the castle and it was terribly disappointing. The staff were rushing despite it not being busy or near closing time and my salad came out rather pathetically small and then I was served a single tiny pork chop as my main course. On a plate. That’s all. I had to say that the menu had said it came with vegetables and the waitress hurried off and came back apologising with terrible plate of hastily chopped salad. I was still ravenous so I ordered pancakes filled with mushrooms, and that was pretty decent.
I went for a lovely stroll around the grounds after dinner to enjoy the ambience and to keep myself out of my boxy room.
Breakfast was at the Getman restaurant in the castle. It was pretty nice and had three courses plus coffee. I had porridge to start, then an interesting take on a cooked breakfast – mini frankfurters with a slice of cheese, a fried egg, bread and some salad, all covered with dill and chives (I am a big fan of dill, so thumbs up to three meals a day with dill). Then to round it off I was served an interesting cake covered with soured cream – an interesting partnership.
I hit the road and arrived as Mir Castle opened so I got to wander around without too much company. It was great!! Very different to Nesvizh, Mir is all about the castle building itself. I paid 12 BLN for entry plus another 3 for an audioguide, £5.75 in total and really enjoyed exploring right up into the top of two towers on the original winding staircases as steep as ladders and looking at the original defensive design of the tower.
If you are in Belarus, definitely visit Mir Castle, possibly shell out an extra few Rubles for the audioguide, it tells you the history of the castle in more detail than the information boards, most of which are in English.
Over lunchtime I drove for another few hours to Brest, the city of fortresses, officially a Hero City of the Soviet Union in WWII.
On my drive into the city I was absolutely gobsmacked by the most amazing cathedral I have seen in years. In English it’s called the Church of the Resurrection and it is utterly spectacular with gold and silver domes rising above the street and visible for miles as you approach the city. The weather doesn’t have to be nice for this place to be stunning.
I drove to Brest Fort and ditched the car near a cafe. I wasn’t sure where the information point was or what the opening hours were so I just got in as quickly as I could. It seems that it might be an open area that you can visit whenever and there are quite a few museums which you can pay to visit.
The heavens opened while I was walking around and there was a huge thunderstorm which was very atmospheric. It was very fitting really; the booming sounded like cannons and tanks.
I was exploring in the wood as I had seen a tank symbol on my map which means military installment. I found it after climbing through a swarm of mosquitoes sheltering from the rain. It was an overgrown bunker!
I visited the museum called Berestye near the bunker to escape the rain. It is an archaeological site of a 13th Century wooden settlement that was luckily preserved four metres underground, lost in the woodland for centuries. The place even had wooden pavements! It cost 2.67 Rubles to go in, sadly my Russian is not good enough to enquire why the random price.
I found a map and I could see that the bunker I found was a pill-box in one of the inner bastions of the fortress.
I did lots more exploring around the fortress and went a little off-road to find an area that is actually currently being renovated and will be great when it’s done – a large subterranean network of rooms.
Just before I left, I decided to check out the huge monument at the entrance. It’s pretty imposing and more complicated up close than it looks from afar.
I hopped back in the car on a mission to check out as many of the other nearby forts as possible (there are an unbelievable number). My first choice was absolutely the best. Without question, visit Fort V if you can. It’s mad.
I still can’t believe that the dude at the gate (it’s one of the few renovated ones) took 2 BLN from me and then just let me loose in there. My only tip – take a torch!!!! I only had the flashlight on my phone as the other one was in the car and my, oh my! There are so many tunnels to explore and lots of them go deep underground into the hill and round corners, down stairs and into the pitch black. It’s quite an experience. You would never get this in the UK because it’s just so adventurous! I can’t believe how many of the tunnels are connected and you can just loose yourself following the tiny speck of light that your torch throws into the blackness. There are also some observation towers and you can climb up and down the metal rungs sticking out of concrete to get up to the seat.
When I was there I started to hear real tank fire and gunshots. I don’t know what was going on and it was close but not too close so I just carried on and pretended it was part of the show! It was difficult not to let adrenaline get the best of me at times, walking around the fort alone in the dark. There weren’t any other tourists there so I could just hear my footsteps on the wet, gritty earth of the tunnels and it would echo ahead and behind and a few times I just thought of scenes from Resident Evil and hoped I wasn’t going to have a hologram pop up in front of me or somebody jump out to the side. If that doesn’t sound like fun then just don’t go alone! It’ll be fun.
Next stop was a fort on the map that I suspected was harder to find. In fact, a residential area has sprung up around it and all the garden fences blocked it off. I caught a view from a strange derelict area of tarmac though.
The next fort was crazy. I ditched the car by the side of the road when MAPS.ME started giving me crazy directions followed by the silent treatment. Walking along a thin track I could see a concrete structure peeking from the undergrowth but I continued to follow the track up and around a hill which upon closer inspection was another fort. This one I walked all over the roof of but couldn’t spot an entrance. It wasn’t renovated and I was a bit too chicken to drop down to see if I could find a window to climb through. I settled with walking to the end and down a steep slope to look at one other concrete structure that has begun to list badly to one side. I walked back, grabbed a couple of ripe apples growing within reach of the fort and then hit the trail again, probably covered in ticks and definitely covered in mosquito bites.
I visited two other forts and one was too overgrown for shorts (and too hot for trousers…) and the other one wasn’t very interesting except that it has been incorporated into a nice running and cycling track through the woods but there’s not really much to see (upon my inspection which wasn’t hugely thorough). I hadn’t actually found a place to stay for the night so I was just winging it to head for what looked like a hostel according to my app. If there had been an easily locatable tourist information then I would have gone there but no luck.
Turns out it wasn’t a hostel or wasn’t open but I managed to get a decent enough WiFi signal to find and book somewhere on Hostelworld.
Hostel Brest Central is a nice place really close to the centre of the city and the pedestrianised area which is great. It’s also close to the bus and railway stations. I would happily have spent 3 nights here but sadly I’ve only got one.
I showered and changed super quick, met a lovely young Russian girl staying in the dorm with her mum and then I went out for a walk and to get dinner.
Brest city centre is nice; the buildings aren’t overwhelmingly grand but there are lot of cool sculptures, particularly down Gogalya Street, known as Lantern Alley. That is another place that is worth a wander, evening or early morning would be best so you can see the sculptures better without the sun glaring.
Even some of the roundabouts have funny artwork, like giant conkers.
I stopped off at some restaurants to check out the menus and I made up my mind that I would treat myself tonight. And eventually I decided to have dinner spread across two restaurants.
First I had a glass of Malbec and an Asian duck salad at the covered terrace of Korova, which is quite a nice place with a good atmosphere. The bill was 21.5 BLN, £8.20.
I then wandered further up Savetskaya pedestrianised street towards Prospect Masherava as the sun was setting and this is the time that the Lamplighter comes out with his ladder to light every lamp on this tiny street by hand. To check what time he will be out in the evening you’ve got to check the clock on the corner of Masherava and Savetskaya.
For second dinner I went to Times Cafe which had very nice looking food and cocktails for a reasonable price. I ordered a seasonal special offer blueberry and goats cheese salad to start (7.50 BLN) and pappardelle with duck ragu (11 BLN, £4.20). The duck was fabulous!! Easily my favourite meal in Belarus which is exciting. I had a couple of really nice gin cocktails too for 8 BLN, £3 each. All in all, a good evening and I’m glad I drove to Brest.
For my last morning in Brest I decided to pressure-test the cafes! It’s hard to find places that open before 10 but there are a couple of cafes. I decided to try LaKave first and it was ok. Nothing special and no fancy coffies. I had Draniki (hash browns) for breakfast. Then I went to K’Lab Coffee. It’s definitely the coolest coffee shop in town and it’s a bit more pricey but it’s not bad. It is open from 07:30am until 11pm and has a nice outdoor seating area. If you pick up a city map then you can get a 10% discount which is handy for my mocha habit as it’s expensive in Belarus. Normal price 5.50 BLN (£2.20). They serve decent filled croissants cheaply as well for a much better breakfast than LaKave. My third stop was Paragraph, and it must be doing well because it has recently opened a second branch at the other end of the main street. Coffees here are up to 4.80 BLN, same price as a new looking place called Sonnet (COHET).
I went to the museum of confiscated art and it was excellent! I’m not sure why but I got free entry and I was the only person there. The range of artworks that had been confiscated as it was being smuggled out of Belarus.
I was prepping myself for a non-stop 4 hour drive back to Minsk (so all the caffeine was totally acceptable!). I also found a bubble tea place called Bubble Boom and it was great! The cup only set me back 4 BLN and it was absolutely full (usually they are packed out with ice cubes). I had green tea with kiwi syrup, cherry popping bubbles and strawberry jelly. Couldn’t be happier with it. The bubble selection is quite limited compared to usual but they had flavours I love.
I also visited some souvenir shops and walked down the rest of Lantern Alley this morning before my epic drive back to Minsk. The traffic was as mad as before.
A few hours to relax and see more of Minsk before my night train to Kiev. Left Luggage facilities at the Minsk Central Railway Station cost 1.25 BLN per bag – super handy.