Gozo, Island of Wonders. Pt 1

I was so excited to visit Gozo, it’s the second largest island in Malta and is known for it’s more rural lifestyle and scenic hills. We flew in to Malta airport, and easily found the bus that would take us all the way to the ferry on the North coast.

It took us around 2 hours to get there, the scenery was amazing, and the route travels all along the super pretty coast.Once at the ferry terminal it was an easy 30 minutes to cross over to Gozo and it only cost 5E, we celebrated with a can of Cisk, the local Maltese beer.

Leaving the ferry terminal on the other side at Mgarr, we were swarmed by taxi drivers, and the taxis here cost a lot, I think we were quoted about 25euro for a 10 minute journey.

After a quick google I figured out the bus route, and next thing we knew we were in Nadur, our home for the next 5 days. I had found a cute little room with a kitchenette in an old farmhouse called In-Nuffara guest house.

It was nice with a lovely breakfast included every morning but the rooms wasn’t serviced well and it got very damp in the day time. The room wasn’t ready when we arrived so we left our bags and went to explore the local town.

It was ssssooooo pretty! The limestone really gives the buildings a beautiful honey hue, walking up we found the main square, with an amazing church dominating the area. This seemed the liveliest place in a very quiet town, Gozo is very laid back, quiet and peaceful.

After wandering around most of the town, we stopped at the square and got a very cheap beer, I think it was just over a euro! I was very happy with this pricing. It was lovely enjoying the sunshine sat out on the square, we hadn’t eaten much through the day and the lady we were staying with had recommended a bakery called Mekren.

We stopped at a supermarket and picked up the essentials such as wine, cheese and beer and grabbed a pizza from the bakery. The best thing about the apartment was the view from just across the road. There’s a gorgeous terrace overlooking half of Gozo, so we sat with our legs dangling over the wall eating our pizza.

It was still a lovely warm evening so we walked over to Ta’Kenuna Tower, originally built by the British in 1848 as a telegram tower, it is now used as a lighthouse. The views here were stunning, I love the Maltese countryside, all hilltop towns and fields.

We spent the rest of the evening drinking tasty red wine on the terrace watching the sunset, before retiring to our room to snack on cheese and bread. Malta is famous for it’s sheep cheese, particularly ones studded with peppercorns.

The next day we got up early, breakfast was continental with lovely fresh bread delivered to our door, homemade jam and cheese. We were going to rent bikes, the owner had said she’d sort some for us but in the end we were happy she didn’t. It’s a really hilly island and in the heat we think it would get a little annoying after a while.

So off we went to walk around the island, we walked down to Ramla bay a beach that’s covered in red sand, but we were in adventure mode, not beach mode so we climbed up the cliffs on the left hand side to explore an abandoned mansion. There are caves on the right hand side of the beach to explore too.

There’s meant to be some caves up past the mansion too, but they were closed when we walked past, there was a cool natural platform to look out over the bay from though. From here it took us around 45 minutes to walk down into Xaghra, the next town. There are buses that are usually every hour to take you between each town, but we enjoy the walking.

Xaghra is home to Ggantija, one of the world’s oldest monuments, much older than the pyramids! They were built during the Neolithic period and are over 5500 years old. It was pretty amazing that they’re still standing and the buildings themselves were really impressive, it’s a UNESCO world heritage site and there’s a small museum where you can learn a little more.

There’s an old windmill nearby which, although not a must see place was fun to look around and cheap to go in. You can climb up to the top and enjoy the views, and each room has a little info about what life in the 1700s was like in Gozo. We stopped at the square for a slice of cake and a beer while we planned our next move.

Craig wanted to check out St John Baptist Church across the valley in Xewkija, unfortunately we had just missed the bus, so we decided to walk over again, it took just under an hour and we passed some lovely golden corn fields, an interesting cemetery before we got to the church.

It’s one of the largest buildings on the island and it dominates the skyline, the inside was really beautiful with marble floors and gorgeous paintings. You can go right up to the rooftop and even climb the steps up to the bell tower. I got to the top and marvelled at how far I could see, and even the view of the church was wonderful.

After so much walking we were finally ready for beach time, so we jumped on a bus from Xewkija which took us all the way to Ramla bay! We got some tasty orange juice and found a spot on the beach. I had been carrying a little picnic around in a cooler, we demolished the cheese and bread we’d brought.

After a couple of beers and a dip in the beautifully clear but cold waters (it warms up later in the Summer, we visited in May) it was time to leave before the sun set, I got an amazing ice cream from one of the little shops that line the path from the beach. The queue for the bus was quite big but we were one of the first stops, I just imagine in Summer it could be pretty crazy.

Our night was spent in a little bar watching the football, with cheap tasty pizza and even cheaper tasty beer! The people working there were so friendly, making sure the right football was on and moving people if they stood in our way!

We couldn’t wait to explore more of Gozo, and even after two days we were already enamoured with the whole place.

Tromso and the Northern Lights

I chose to visit Tromsø as I’d heard that there was an almost 100% chance of seeing the Northern Lights! It was a bit of a birthday treat to myself and I was also travelling around Norway a little bit. I arrived from Oslo by plane. The flight was incredible going over the fjords and snow capped mountains.

Tromso is located in Norway up in the Arctic circle, it has the worlds northernmost university, brewery and cathedral. It’s famous as a bit of a party town due to the large student numbers it has. For two months in the summer, there are 24 hours of daylight, and for two months in winter there is so sun, but there is some light in the day, called the blue twilight.

The main airport is located on the opposite side of the island to the main little town, it was a gloriously sunny day when I landed, and I decided to walk over the hills to Tromso rather than get a bus, as I had the whole afternoon to wander. Using google maps to track my way, at first I regretted my decision a little as I walked through residential areas, but soon I was walking through beautiful countryside.

I stopped for a break to enjoy the stunning views, it was the beginning of April and the snow was still really deep, covering the picnic benches that I could spot. There were even people barbequing up there which was really cool.

I started my descent into the town and was greeted by even better views, going across the water to the hills and mountains in the distance. I was staying at the Tromso Activities Hostel which was cute and friendly enough but for the price you’d expect a little more, but Norway is an expensive place.

I dropped my stuff off as usual, and headed out to wander the streets and get a good bearing, I had found a little burger place called Burgr near the hostel so I went there first for a beer and something to eat. It was a little cheaper than other places in Norway and the veggie option was delicious, I loved the retro gaming decor too.

From here I just wandered down Havnegata street, stopping off to look at the quirky shops and admire the reflections at the marina. I ended up near the Tromso Cathedral which is a cute little church in a pleasant park. I walked back down along Gronnegata, the lovely wooden buildings are so nice and I stopped to pick up some snacks and food to cook back at the hostel.

Knowing I was going to be up half the night, I had a nice evening nap, getting up at around 8pm to prepare. I put on about 6 layers of clothing and 4 paris of socks inside my big boots. I had hat, scarf, gloves, and gopro, I was ready to face the cold! I was doing this on a relative budget so instead of going on a tour, I walked down to the Folkeparken on the southern tip of the island which took about 45 minutes to walk there along the road.

I arrived there and wasn’t alone! There were two other groups with fires sat around chatting, so I found a spot a little way from them and parked up. It was freezing cold but the walk had kept me warm, I had my headphones on and just sat and waited….It reached 11pm and I noticed something in the sky, at first I dismissed it as clouds and my fantasizing.

As I watched this white smear slowly spread across the sky I realised it was happening, I was fulfilling a lifelong bucketlist moment! I was so happy I jumped onto the picnic table I was sat on and started dancing around, I must have looked like a lunatic.

I watched these white smears dance around the sky then disappear, I started thinking was that it? It wasn’t like the pictures I had seen at all, so I sat there until about 1:30am, wondering when I would call it a night and go home. Suddenly the white smears returned!

Turning to greens, swirling and spreading above me. It was the most wonderful theatre production I have ever seen, as it was totally performed by nature itself. This time they lasted for a good 45 minutes, leaving me satisfied and ready to head back, by this point my little toes were freezing!

I slept in the next day and then did some sightseeing around the town, there’s really not much to do or see in Tromso apart from tours out to the countryside. I visited the polar museum which was okay for an hour or so, and crossed the Tromsobrua bridge to take a look at the viking-esque Tromsoysund Menighetshus, the Arctic cathedral.

I decided to hike up to the top of Fjellheisen, a mountain on the mainland. You can also take a cable car up there which I took on the way down. The walk up wasn’t too taxing and the incredible scenery at the top was worth it.

You can enjoy the views from nearby the cable car, but I hiked up to the Pa Toppen, this was pretty difficult in the deep snow but once up there I felt like I was in a completely different world of ice and snow.

I took a little picnic up there with me, so I had my late lunch, sat there and just watched the world go by. It was a great way to relax and enjoy the peacefulness. On the way back I stopped at the Polaria, an arctic aquarium but I wasn’t a fan it was small and a the seal show was sad. You can take a look at an old arctic ship next door called the MS Polstjerna which was cool.

That night I was back on the northern light chase, this time I headed up into the hills to Prestvannet, a big lake that freezes over in Winter. This was another recommended dark spot and it was brilliant! The lights came again, this time a little earlier and lasted for a couple of hours, even as I walked back down into the town you could still see them shimmering up above.

The next day I just hiked around the island, there are lots of ski tracks you can follow, I even saw a seal out in the water. The walks are beautiful through the forests and along the water’s edge with little huts and beaches along the way. So many people are out skiing or barbequing it feels like such a relaxed place. I was off to Bergen next, satisfied that I had witnessed something truly magical.

What to do in Helsinki, Finland.

HELSINKI

Helsinki is the capital of Finland, it’s the world’s coldest capital with an average yearly temperature that doesn’t go past 0°c! The tap water comes from mountain springs and is such high quality that it’s exported to other countries! It arrives via the longest water tunnel in the world, the päijänne tunnel. Central Helsinki has heated sidewalks to keep them clear from snow in winter!

I was super excited to visit in January, I loved the idea of wandering through the snow in mainland Europe’s most Northern capital City. Only beaten by Reykjavik in Iceland. The tram and ferry system was so good when I was there, it meant that staying a little out of the City centre was much easier than I thought it might be. My top cost saving tip is for Helsinki is to eat at RAX, an all you can eat buffet restaurant that was sooo tasty and only 11E!!

What to do in Helsinki

Check out the amazing architecture

There are some incredible feats of architecture in Helsinki, Temppeliaukion church is built directly into a rock face and the skylight lets in amazing natural sunlight, the acoustics are so good that it’s also used as a concert venue.

It would be such a cool venue, the outside was covered with snow so I couldn’t get a good idea of how it looks but the inside was fabulous. I even found a sled nearby and had a little toboggan session!

Uspenski cathedral is near the sky wheel and Allas sauna, you can’t miss it up on it’s small hill. It’s free to enter, built in 1862 and was designed by a russian architect. The red brick and golden spires are beautiful.

A major landmark of the City is the neoclassical Helsinki Cathedral, this was completed in 1852 and dominates senate square where it’s located.

It’s plan is based on a Greek cross which makes it symmetrical in all directions. Senate Square and it’s surrounding area is the oldest part of Helsinki and you can find the Government Palace and Main building of Helsinki University here. There are also some lovely little streets running off from it to explore.

The train station is also a sublime and impressive piece of architecture, and railway square had ice rinks and fun winter stuff when I visited. The streets surrounding it are full of restaurants shops and bars. If you want something a little more modern, head up Finlandia hall and National opera and ballet house.

The Kallion Kirkko with it’s imposing tower is worth a visit if you’re in the Kallio area, it’s one of the more bohemian places in Helsinki with some cool alternative bars and not far from where I was staying.

Apparently you can see the Estonian coastline from the tower of the church. The walk from Kallio into Helsinki centre across the Pitkasilta bridge was really pretty.

Try out the traditional sauna

Saunas were invented in Finland and are a huge part of life and culture here. One of the first texts regarding sauna was written in 1112, they have a saying that they believe that you should act the same in a sauna as in church. Saunas are supposed to have many health benefits such as soothing tired muscles, relieves tension and stress and helps condition the heart amongst many others.

So I checked out a couple of saunas in Helsinki, my absolute favourite was the Allas sea pool, it’s located on Katajanokka island which is pretty nice to walk around, you can do a full circuit along the coast and there are some nice restaurants around that area too. It cost 14E for sauna and access to the sea pool at Allas, and it was such an amazing experience.

There are mixed, male, and female sauna, so you heat up, sweat it out, then head outside to the sea pool. In January it was 3°c! I jumped in and immediately lost my breath, it was so cold! There’s always a lifeguard to watch out for any problems so don’t be too scared to try it. I loved it so much I went for a repeat experience. There was also a nicely heated outdoor pool which was nice with the snow falling down around me as I swam.

Loyly was the other sauna I visited, it’s on the other side of the bay to Allas, in the Munkisaari district. I walked there in a huge snowstorm, even my beard froze! It was pretty exciting though, and I had about 8 layers on.

I did a 2 hour sauna that cost 19E and this included towels and shower products. This was a little more classy than Allas but instead of a sea pool you can just jump directly into the sea! It was really rough because of the blizzard so I opted not to try it for fear of being washed away, but I think it would be amazing in Summer.

There is also the infamous Burger King sauna in Helsinki, I didn’t visit it but you can book out the whole sauna with 48″ TV, playstation 4 and obviously access to Burger Kings full menu. Definitely an interesting choice of venue!

Visit the fortress of Suomenlinna

This UNESCO heritage site was built in the 18th century when Finland was part of Sweden to protect it from Russian advances, it’s built over 8 islands just 4km away from Helsinki City Centre. You take a short ferry ride to get there, when I visited in January the boat ploughed through the frozen sea which was cool. The ferry departs just opposite the presidential palace and is pretty frequent.

There’s a wonderful old pink gatehouse which has tourist information next to it, and once through this gate you can wander to your hearts content. In 1808 the Swedish ceded the fortress to Russia, and the following year Finland came under Russian rule, it stayed like that until 1917 when Finland declared independence.

Wrap up warm if you’re going in Winter, it was beautiful with the snow and frost, I visited a couple of the museums on the island including the Suomenlinna museum and the war museum to get a better understanding of Finnish history. Be sure to check opening times for all the main sights as some are seasonal.

As I wandered I passed a cool old submarine that was built in 1933, unfortunately the museum inside was closed when I visited. I continued on to the southernmost point of the islands, and found loads of cool fortifications with artillery pointing out to sea.

The fortress here was amazing, you can walk along the tops of the walls, through some spooky dark corridors and explore the King’s Gate. This was built in the 1700s and the strairs lead out to the water which has amazing views over the archipelago.

You can easily spend a full day exploring here, the 4 main islands are pretty big. There’s still a minimum security labor colony on Suomenlinna whose inmates volunteer to maintain the fortifications and reconstruction! Another fun fact is that George Martin, writer of Game of Thrones wrote a short story about Suomelinna in school!

Immerse yourself in Culture

The birthplace of the Moomins, Death Metal and sauna, the location of lapland and Father Christmas, Finland has a rich history, learn more about it at the National Museum of Finland, it had so many cool interactive exhibits on show, and the building is really pretty. Make sure you check out the stain glassed windows.

The Finnish Museum of Natural History is okay but there was nothing really here that I haven’t seen in other natural history museums around the world. Helsinki computer game museum is definitely only worth it if you’re in the nearby vicinity and really into computer games, but the view from the top of the shopping centre is pretty awesome.

For a real taste of Finland head to Market Square and the Old Market Hall, serving people since the late 1800s. You can find all sorts of traditional food and items here, plus souvenirs. There are a few nice little restaurants that you can sit in. The building itself is really pretty too.

Just wander and explore

It sounds a little morbid but the cemetary on the West side of Helsinki was pretty cool, a little further North is Sibeliusken park which has the impressive Sibelius monument and coastal views. Kaivopuisto park was also fun mainly because the snow was so deep!

I also really liked being able to see out across the bay at all the islands and the sea ice was amazing! I really felt like I was far north with all the snow.

Take a day trip to Tallinn

Take the star ferry over to Estonia for a cheeky extra country while visiting Finland, read all about what to do in Tallinn here. It takes around 2 hours one way on the ferry, with beautiful views over the gulf of Finland. Costs vary from 20E one way to 50E.

Helsinki is such a lovely City, loads of architecture to look at, the sauna is so amazing especially in the colder months, and I didn’t realise how much culture Finland had!

A Winter Wonderland in Tallinn.

Tallinn had always been high on my list of places to visit. Somehow I had made it to the other Baltic nations of Latvia and Lithuania first, mainly because they were both easier to get to.

It’s is the capital of Estonia, it’s located on the North coast directly across the gulf of Finland from Helsinki. It has a rich history, and was occupied between 1940-1991 by the Soviet Union, Nazi Germany and then the Soviet Union again!

52% of the country is covered in forest, and it has one of the lowest populations in Europe at 1.325million.

To reach Estonia we took a flight to Riga and then on to Tallinn from there. It was actually pretty easy and fun because we met up with our friend Amy in Riga airport. It was January so we were hoping for snow and we weren’t disappointed.

We arrived quite late and took a taxi to our cute apartment located right by the old walls of the City. I used Booking.com and we used daily apartments for 7 of us. It was a beautiful space and great location. After a quick change we headed out for dinner.

We ate at a traditional Estonian place where I tried Elk for the first time! It was pretty good and we had a couple of local beers to wash it down, after another beer or two at a nearby pub we walked through the winter wonderland that was the town square with a huge Christmas tree in the center and everything was covered in snow. There’s a big Irish bar situated here and we took the opportunity to try Vana Tallinn, the Cities own personal liquer!

The next day we got up and headed out to explore properly. It’s such a pretty place and the whole old town is UNESCO heritage, we wandered along the old town walls and through a lovely big park at Tower’s square. We stopped at some cute shops along the way and emerged into the town square again.

The town hall is so cute, it was completed in 1404 and is the oldest in the Baltic/Scandinavian region. I loved all the Gothic and Hanseatic architecture, it feels like you’ve gone back in time hundreds of years.

We walked down Viru Tanav which is pretty touristy but not overly busy. It ends at Viru gate, two big towers guarding the way in and out. For €3 you can climb the walls and explore, the views from here of the tiled rooftops covered in snow was amazing.

Tallinn is a great place to wander the little streets and get lost, and that’s just what we did. It felt like a really safe place too. We somehow ended up back in the main square and stopped at another traditional restaurant for lunch, it was pretty expensive so do some research before you go.

Once we were all filled up we decided to head up Toompea hill. It’s a large tableland piece of limestone that sits right in the middle of the City. It’s believed to be the resting place of King Kalev, an important figure in Estonian culture and folklore. Now it holds Toompea castle and the awesome Alexander Nevsky Cathedral, it also houses the Estonian Parliament.

It’s a fun walk up the hill and not too taxing, and once you’re at the top the Cathedral takes centre stage, big and imposing it feels like it sits right in the middle of the hill. It was starting to get dark already due to the time of year and the temperature dropped a bit, luckily we found someone selling mulled wine which was delicious.

There are some gorgeous buildings here, but the main event for me was thge Kohtuotsa viewing platform. This looks out over the whole of the old town, and as night fell twinkling lights began to appear in front of us and it began to snow. It was an amazing spectacle to witness.

We followed a different path down into the town and passed Kiek De Kok which we’d be heading to tomorrow, and freedom square. Freedom square is a big open space which has the cross of liberty as part of Estonia’s memorial to the war of independence.

After a lot of sightseeing we stopped at a bar we noticed along the way, it was called Labor Baar and was totally science themed, you could order test tube shots and cocktails in science beakers and the whole placed was decked out to the max. We stopped to have some food and then walked up to a fun bar that was completely dedicated to Depeche Mode.

After a few beers we realised we didn’t know as many songs as we thought, so off we went to Satumaa karaoke bar! It was a lot of fun and everyone was pretty crazy there, we sang a few songs and somehow managed to wander back to our apartment feeling pretty tipsy.

48 hours in Kiev, Day 1.

Ukraine

Kiev is the capital of Ukraine, the 2nd largest country in Europe behind Russia. Located in Eastern Europe, it shares a border with Russia, Belarus, Romania and Poland. I wanted to visit Ukraine so I could enter the Chernobyl exclusion zone, and Kiev is the best place to do this from. I had also found cheap flights from Ryanair, unfortunately they cancelled these so I had to re-book with British Airways. There are some no go areas of Ukraine at the moment due to the annexation of Crimea by the Russians, so check the UK government website for up to date advice.

Kiev

It was founded in the 5th century, has a world heritage site amongst it’s many Orthodox churches, the world’s deepest underground railway line and it is where Stalin, Churchill and Roosevelt met to discuss them organisation of post WWII Europe! Unfortunately and much to my dismay the chicken kiev wasn’t invented here! Communist symbols and street names were outlawed here in 2015 to attempt to move away from Russia and the Soviet Union.

Top Sights of Kiev

I arrived late into Kiev and took the sky bus found in front of terminal D and B to the main station. This took almost an hour, I didn’t see much as it was already dark by the time I got there. There is now a train that runs twice an hour and only takes 40 minutes to the City. I stayed at irisHotel right by the station for a couple of nights, then changed to the Fire Inn for the last two nights. Both were cheap, comfy and clean, the Fire Inn was in an old fire station which was pretty cool.

I started my tour of Kiev by heading to the Ukrainian State Museum of the Great Patriotic War. I had just visited one in Belarus and it was so interesting seeing how the two nations portrayed the war so differently, especially how they perceived Russia/The Soviets.

It’s another really interesting museum even if you don’t have much interest in history or WWII. The most impressive part of the museum is outside where you can view the Motherland Monument.

Standing at 62 metres tall it dominates the skyline above the museum. It was finished in 1981 and has been exempt from the decommunisation law because of it’s WWII significance. It looks like something out of a sci-fi film and it’s one of the grandest statues I’ve ever seen.

There’s also a monument to the UN, the founders of Kiev and a load of cool tanks and a nice park area around the museum. You can walk straight from here past a few cafes and shops to the next big sight, the Pechersk Lavra.

A monastery with a huge cave complex underneath it with several saints and religious figures reported to be buried there, it began in 1051 and the complex now consists of several pretty orthodox churches and you can visit the catacombs for a small fee. You aren’t allowed to take photos in the catacombs but are free to wander around the rest of it and take as many pics as you like. It’s definitely one of the best things to do here.

There are a couple of museums and art galleries nearby but I didn’t visit them, instead heading to the Holodomor Genocide museum, here you can learn more about the famine caused by Stalinist policies such as collectivisation in the early 1930s that killed an estimated 7.5 million Ukrainians.

It’s a harrowing tale, especially the propaganda used such as spreading tales that the peasants were hoarding food for themselves instead of giving to the wider collective of the USSR. Just along from here is a memorial to the Unknown Soldier.

Next up was the Mariyinsky Palace, completed in 1752 it’s the official residence of the president of Ukraine in Kiev and is joined to the parliament of Ukraine. It was built in the baroque style and the first royal figure to stay here was Catherine the Great! It was badly damaged in WWII and has had a couple of major restorations since then.

It’s a beautiful building and the adjacent park is lovely to wander around too. You can check out the old Dynamo Kiev stadium before walking over the park bridge and enjoy amazing views over the river Dnipro and to the East of Kiev.

I followed the walkway past the Museum of Water and stopped for a picture with a big bronze frog, you throw a coin in it’s mouth for good luck.

It was starting to get a bit dark and walking through the parks was so nice as they were all lit up, and if you follow on from the frog you get to the Friendship of Nations Arch.

Another throwback to Soviet rule it was completed in 1982 to commemorate the 60th anniversary of the USSR and 1500th anniversary of Kiev. It’s a huge 50m diameter rainbow shaped arch made of titanium, with a bronze statue of russian and ukrainian workers underneath.

During eurovision it was lit up in rainbow colours and renamed the arch of diversity however after 3 weeks it went back to normal. It was supposed to be removed and replaced with a memorial to soldiers fighting russian rebels in the East of the country, but it still stands as far as I’m aware!

I was starving now as I had only had a cute little hotdog from a place in one of the subway stations, it was delicious but I needed something more substantial. After a quick google I headed to Veterano Pizzeria, I liked the name and I adore pizza!

The decor was so cool inside, with army memorabilia on the walls and table tops made from bullets. The food was really good too and I had a couple of beers to go alongside the pizza and cheesecake.

I spent the rest of the evening wandering down Khreschatyk St, a huge avenue runnning through central Kiev, it was stunning!

All the buildings were lit up and it was almost like Vienna in it’s grandiosity. So far Kiev was nothing like I was expecting, and I was super impressed. I stopped at Independance Square, where there was a huge mural of chains saying ‘freedom is our religion’, an I love Kiev sign and some cute statues.

I had walked so much today in the cold but I had enjoyed every moment. I would have missed a lot of things that I found by mistake if I had taken the underground or taxis/buses. I also thought it was amazing that half of Kiev seemed to be out, drinking coffee from little huts on the pavement all wrapped up. It was very European. On my way back to the hotel I passed this stunning building called Volodymyr’s Cathedral, I couldn’t wait to explore the rest of Kiev!

48 Hours in Minsk.

Entry to Belarus

Belarus is the forgotten child of Europe, more closely linked with Russia than any other nation, it’s only recently changed the rules for entry. When I visited I had just started applying for the visa, but stopped after they allowed 30 days entry through Minsk airport.

I flew through Vilnius in Lithuania as I couldn’t find any direct flights from the UK to Minsk, and my plan was to take a train to the Ukrainian City of Lviv. Unfortunately I didn’t read the fine print, which stated you had to leave through Minsk airport!

After a 3 hour train journey to the border, I was taken off the train and given a stern telling off and questioned by Belarusian border guards, made to sleep in an abandoned train overnight and shipped back to Minsk where I had to book a flight out to Kiev. I was lucky that one of the guards seemed to feel sorry for me, and came and got me in the morning before giving me instructions on how to get back to Minsk.

Belarus

While this was all a big hassle and meant I missed out on visiting Lviv it was certainly an adventure! I also really enjoyed my time in Minsk, it was such a different place to anywhere I had ever been before and I found it quite charming.

Located as far East in Europe as you can get before hitting Russia. Belarus shares a border with Poland and Ukraine and is the 13th largest country in Europe. 40% of it’s area is forested, making it one of the greenest countries in Europe. I had 48 hours to explore Minsk, the capital. A City that has reportedly been destroyed and rebuilt 8 times!

Minsk

I was visiting in November so it was pretty cold, but i was hoping for some snow to add to the beauty of the place. I arrived mid-afternoon and took a bus from the airport to the City centre which was around 45 minutes.

I decided to walk in the cold evening air to my hotel and enjoy some sights.I was staying at the Yubileiny Hotel which was near to a few of the things I wanted to see. It was very soviet, much like a lot of the City and a little old fashioned, but it was cheap, comfy and staff were very friendly.

My Top Sights

Number one on my list was the Museum of the Great Patriotic War otherwise known as WWII. We get a lot of Western history around the war, but I always fin dit interesting to see what happened in other parts of Europe and the World and the fact that they call it a completely different name intrigued me. So this was the first sight I wanted to look at. It’s also hard to miss, located on a hill in a huge green slice of land called Victory Park.

It’s amazing architecturally looking very modern but also with a hint of soviet in there. I had a wander around the park and then found an amazing statue of a soldier and his wife. It really spoke to me and I thought it was beautiful.

The museum itself is so interesting, loads of good information and everything had English alongside the Belarusian. The final memorial hall is also a must see, towering above you it’s a truly stunning place.

The next place on my itinerary was Minsk Old Town on Trinity Hill. I followed the river South for about 1km and had great views across to the cute traditional houses. Don’t forget to stop at the small island in front and check out the awe inspiring Sons of the Fatherland monument and the crying angel statue.

The old town has a few traditional shops and the cobbled street and pastel houses are nice to see. This area was actually built in the 1980s to show visitors a small slice of old Minsk as over 80% of the City was destroyed in WWII.

Crossing the river takes you over to more of the old town, with a cool statue of citizens using measuring scales, with a beautiful church in the background with it’s distinctive Eastern orthodox architecture.

In fact Minsk seemed to have hundreds of amazing statues dotted across the City. You can also find the Palace of the Republic here with it’s dominating architecture and the Palace of Culture.

I continued my journey down Praspiekt Niezalieznasci to the Belarusian State Circus, another grand old soviet building, you can come here to watch some interesting acts. Though I’m not sure what the animal welfare situation is like so I chose not to go to a show. There are a couple of funny statues just outside too, and Janki Kupaly Park is just across the road. I love how every park has to have some sort of statue mounted in it.

I decided to check out Gorky Park as well, which was just a little further up the road and across the river. There are so many green spaces in the City it’s brilliant, this one is home to an old fashioned ferris wheel and the planetarium.

It was a cold day and suddenly little snowflakes started falling as I walked through the park. It was beautiful so I sat for a moment to enjoy the scenery.

I also realised that Lee Harvey Oswald, the man who assasinated John F Kennedy had lived right around the corner from here, so I had to go check it out. I walked around the apartment block but couldn’t really find or see any evidence that he lived there but it’s a cool slice of history hidden away here.

I stopped at the National Art Museum to check out a exhibition on Lenin, the former head of Soviet russia and a revolutionary. This was interesting and apparently there are over 400 Lenin statues in Belarus alone. I love the soviet imagery, it’s so grand and imposing. The City really started to come alive as the sun went down and I headed back out into the streets.

I walked back towards the old town and stopped off at the State Opera house, I tried to buy a ticket but unfortunately the show for that night had sold out so get there early to buy your tickets.

I watched the sunset behind the little houses of the old town and walked back towards Praspiekt Niezalieznasci and Oktoberpl station, nearby is a little pyramid which shows the true centre of Minsk that all roads in Belarus lead to called Kilometre zero.

I walked straight down the street, passing lots of restaurants and shops to see the statue of the Archangel Michael, and a monument to the victims of nuclear war. Further down however was the main reason I wanted to walk all this way.

The statue of Lenin surrounded by these huge domineering communist era buildings. It was all very imposing and I visited in the day time too so I could get the contrast.

My last stop were the Gates of Minsk these resemble two castle towers. I had read that it was impressive at night and it certainly was, the towers are 11 storeys high and the clock weighs 300 kilos! They were built in 1953 at the height of soviet imperialism. I thought it was ironic that there is now a Mcdonald right next to it.

The Statues and monuments in Minsk are really cool, because of my border debacle I had to come back to Minsk and felt like I had seen a lot. So after a quick google I found this website http://tobelarus.com/minsk/64-sculptures.html and decided to do my own little tour. It was really fun and walking around I got to see a lot more of the City and the bas-reliefs are really impressive the best one can be found on Niamiha St.

I really enjoyed Minsk, I hope with the new tourist visas more people opt to come and explore this underrated City.