Visiting Minsk: Part 1
In mid-October of last year, I found myself in the unlikeliest of European travel destinations; Minsk. The largest and capital city of Belarus, Minsk has a rich history that should be explored more by the travel enthusiast. Unfortunately many people confuse Belarus as a part of Russia, with the obvious USSR links, but Belarus has been independent since 1991 and with that independence, allowed the Belarusian people to express their own cultural identity.
I spent my first full day having a wander around downtown Minsk, just to get a feel for the city itself. One of the things I immediately felt was cold. With less than 300km to the Russian border I should have expected a nip in the air but I was so glad I brought my thick coat. I decided the best to do was to explore on foot. I was staying on the outskirts of the city at my friend’s house, just a half an hour walk into the centre. I spent most of that walk looking at all the billboards and signposts, trying to figure out the Cyrillic texts adorning them. I had spent most of the 3 hour flight from London practicing the alphabet. With the aid of Google Maps, I eventually found the tourist information centre, tucked away off a side street. Minsk is not a true tourist destination but the lady at the Tourist Information gave me a map with a route to follow around the city. The route would take me past most of the places to see in the city centre. So for this blog, I thought I would follow some of the route and go into more details of some of the places in future posts.
I headed first towards the old town and discovered some beautiful buildings, specifically the town hall and ornate Holy Spirit Cathedral. I had never seen an Orthodox Christian church before so I was curious. I went in and explored. Unfortunately, I couldn’t take any photographs but I was impressed by all the lavish gold and silver, covering what felt like every section of the inner building. I later learnt that the cathedral is there due to a miracle. On the eve of the Holy Mother’s feast day in the year 1500, a blessed icon of the Virgin Mary herself appeared in the river, travelling upstream from the Tartar sacked city of Kiev, where it was thrown into the Dnieper. Since the 1500s the Holy Mother has been the emblem of Minsk, with the icon living in the Holy Spirit Cathedral.
During Soviet times, when religion was tightly controlled, the cathedral was used as a prison at one point and also a sports hall. I later learnt that the catholic cathedral across the road was used as a mechanics, which is certainly an interesting use for it.
From here, I followed my route through the old town to October Square, where the architecture certainly changed. This was much more of the brutalist communist style that I was expecting from Minsk. Not much was going on in this vast square, but I still enjoyed taking in the atmosphere. I was heading towards Victory Square which has the Monument of Victory to those soldiers who fought in the Great Patriotic War (the West know this as World War Two). This monument had an eternal flame in front of it and a fantastic group of sculptures encasing the monument.
Directly beneath the monument, in the subway was another sculpture of the flame with the names of those who had died during the war.
Although I found it difficult to read any of the memorial (it being in Cyrillic), I certainly found it poignant. The sculptures really were a fantastic work of art that invoked memories of darker times. I would certainly recommend a visit when in the vicinity of Belarus.
After this, I followed the river Svisloch to the island of tears, but that is a blog for another time.