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Published: October 15th 2017
Well, not entirely visa-free, you still need a visa/permit thing, but it takes 2-minutes to get online and costs 5 euros rather than £90 plus a visit to an embassy like a proper visa. One way in is to fly in and out of Minsk and get a 5-day visa on arrival but seeing as Easyjet, Ryanair and the other budget airlines do not fly to Minsk then this option would still be pricey.
The online and overland option was introduced in 2017 as an experiment with tourism; and it may well discontinue at the end of the year so you’d better get a move on! The visas last 5-days and allow you to visit certain areas adjacent to the Polish border. One is Belovezhskaya Pushcha National Park, the Belarusian portion of the UNESCO recognised primeval forest conjoined with Białowieża National Park in Poland. The other is the city of Hrodna (or Grodno) further to the north. You also need to get a special insurance, though this is similarly cheap and quick to obtain online. Belovezhskaya Pushcha National Park
We were in the east of Poland anyway (see previous blog) and were enjoying
Some geezer called Lenin
In Grodno's imaginatively named "Lenin Square"
a few days in and around the lovely Białowieża. The border crossing to the Belarusian side of the national park is a few kilometres from the village and is only crossable by foot or by bicycle. Given that it’s a fair distance from anywhere on the Belarusian side, we, like everyone else, were crossing by bike; in this case hired for the day from Białowieża village. The border posts are big and shiny new log cabins. The Polish side spoke only Polish and were friendly but didn’t like the look of my passport. It’s been pretty well used and the gold writing and British coat of arms on the front long since wore away (as did my previous two passports but other nationalities don’t seem to have this problem?). I thought the fact that almost every page is crammed full of stamps and visas for some quite obscure countries would have made it more legitimate but this seemed to further their suspicions. Apparently, according to Magdalena who’s Polish and was translating their discussions, they let me through because I’m from the EU so why would I be trying to enter Belarus on a fake passport!? The Belarusian side was a
Orthodox Church in Kameniuky
This village is at the entrance to Belovezhskaya Pushcha National Park and is the limit of the visa-free zone. Signs on all the side streets in the village warn you not to take a step further.
different prospect. An unsmiling young lad in military uniform opened the barrier between the countries and we were then met by someone looking extremely serious in one of those giant military caps that seemed so popular in Soviet times and live on only in Belarus and North Korea. This bloke spoke only Russian through a scowl. A quick glance at our passports, visas and insurance documents and he revealed that one of us had spelt their own name wrong on the visa form (wasn’t me). At this point I thought our Belarus trip would be over before it had begun. He shouted a private, handed over the papers and we were instructed to wait in the road (extremely usefully, Magdalena knows a bit of Russian). After a tense 10-minute wait we were called back, given our passports and, surprisingly, in we were! Well, we were after first passing another unsmiling young lad in military uniform who opened the next barrier for us. Just as we thought we were free, we were stopped again at a little hut, but this time by a smiling young lady in a little dress who worked for the Belarus tourist board. She seemed genuinely excited
Belovezhskaya Pushcha National Park
This was my usual view as Magdalena sped off ahead.
that we were there to have a look at Belarus and offered us maps and information about what to see (but only in Russian or Polish).
The cycle paths are all tarmacked and are generally raised up above the boggy forest hence offer nice views into the thick woodland. I’ll tell you a bit more about the forest in case you didn’t read my last blog on the Polish portion. It’s the last fragment of Europe’s primeval forest, has been a national park since 1932 and was inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage list in 1979. The forest contains European bison, the largest land animal on the continent, as well as wolves, moose, lynx and deer. There are inaccessible preserved zones but much of the rest is crisscrossed with cycle paths.
We saw few people on the ride until we got to Kameniuky. This village is a main gateway to the park and consequently sees a lot of Belarusian day-trippers. For us it was more interesting to leave the national park here and see some real Belarus. However, you are only permitted to go a few hundred metres down the main street and even the side streets have
Make your mind up!
The apartment in Grodno was a confusing delight with its furry glittery wallpaper.
signs warning you not to cross out of the visa-free zone. We found a nice little café and realised why nobody was sitting outside when we were plagued by wasps. Thus, we had to sit inside and shiver below the freezing air-con. Here we first realised that Belarus is pretty cheap when we got a lot of change for pancakes and beers.
There are more people wandering around the Kameniuky area, mostly for the sort of zoo. There are several, admittedly pretty large, compounds with the forest’s native animals. We weren’t that impressed having seen wild bison the day before in Poland and the caged bears made me sad.
In total, we cycled 60 km but it didn’t seem it as we just pootled along enjoying being the forest. We saw none of the big wild beasts that the park is famous for but the trees, birds and butterflies were lovely. We crossed the border back to Poland in the early evening satisfied with our trip. The paths in Belovezhskaya Pushcha are generally flattish and only once did we go astray coming face to face with an armed guard and electrified gate thus hurriedly retraced our route. Turns
St Francis Xavier Cathedral, Grodno
Sovetskaya Square in the foreground was occupied by a market full of school uniforms and stationery where unwilling children were getting dragged around.
out the president, and Europe’s last remaining dictator, has a house in this national park and we may have just found it! Hrodna/Grodno
A couple of days later we were on our way to Belarus for a second time. To get to Hrodna, again you need the online visa-free permit thing and the particular insurance, then you are allowed to enter at two different border crossings from Poland or two from Lithuania. Notably, you may only cross by bus, boat, bicycle or car, if you want to cross by train you need a proper tourist visa. We took a bus from Białystok in Poland; at least we did when we found the bus stop. We had bought a ticket online but the station is under construction and despite arriving with plenty of time we were consistently directed to the wrong place and missed the bus. When we eventually found the right stop we waited for two more buses but both were full; the buses actually being minibuses that only seat about 14. It was a frustrating two hours before we convinced a bus driver to let us on. Remember I was with someone
Polish so if on my own I would never have found the bus stop nor wangled my way on a bus.
The border crossing was very busy. The queue of stationary cars stretched at least a kilometre but fortunately our minibus just bypassed them all straight to the front of the queue. Polish immigration was passed very quickly but then we arrived at the customs window. Turns out lots of Belarusians buy things in Poland to take home and wish to claim the tax back at the border. We had arrived just after a packed double-decker coach from Warsaw, consequently, we had to wait about 2-hours until it was our turn. It was intriguing the things that people had bought in Poland to take to over the border. Flat screen TVs and iPhones were understandable if the latest versions are not available in Belarus but suitcases full of shampoo, washing powder or nappies? It’s pretty sad if these are the things in short supply. A woman on our minibus was bringing a curtain rail, which she had to remove then re-thread carefully along the overhead shelf at each customs point. The Belarus side of the border post was much
View over the Neman River, Grodno
The spiky building on the hill is the Drama Theatre. the New Castle and Old Castle are on the horizon towards the left. I haven't been able to figure out what the burnt factory looking building ever was.
quicker till they got to me. Again, my passport wasn’t approved of and I was asked multiple times where I was born but as I don’t speak Russian I had to find someone to assist. It transpired that the official had been speaking English just in an impenetrable accent. They let me in eventually. I don’t have this problem in airports; I suppose not a lot of British passports come through this way or airport immigration staff are more used to knackered and random-visa-filled passports.
After all the hanging around it was only another 15-minutes to Hrodno. It took another 15-minutes to find the office where we were to pick up our apartment keys. The girl was lovely and very carefully explained all the highlights of Hrodno, gave us maps and gave us the chance to order a breakfast to be delivered to the apartment. This turned out to be a good idea as the breakfast was pretty good and the following day when we hadn’t ordered anything we struggled to find something in the many nearby supermarkets; no fresh fruit, no appealing meats or cheeses, and no fresh bread or pastries.
We had two nights in Hrodno
so one full day and two bits of days. That was probably enough. We went in quite a few of the churches and the museum inside the Old Castle. Only the first room has labelling in English and the collection is bizarre. The old communist propaganda posters were good, the hundreds of stuffed animals were not. There are nice parks to wander in, nice views of the river, and there is the pleasant pedestrianised Soviet Street where all the cafes and restaurants are.
One issue was finding Belarusian food. Hrodno sees quite a few tourists but they are mostly Belarusian thus the restaurants serve up pizza, burgers and kebabs as I suppose that’s what Belarusians want when on holiday for a change. We only found one place serving Belarusian cuisine and ended up eating there both nights as we tried in vain to find an alternative on the second night. But the food was very good. Clay pots filed with crispy pork and potato dumplings with various sauces. And the beer is very good. I hadn’t heard of Lidskoe before, but I’ll be seeking it out in future.
One thing to bear in mind, Belarus, and Hrodno in
particular, are supposed to be promoting themselves as tourist destinations, yet we didn’t come across a menu or some piece of information in a tourist sight, that wasn’t entirely written in Cyrillic. Fortunately, Magdalena can read it sufficiently and knows enough Russian that we got by. For me, the fact that no English was spoken anywhere made this a more interesting destination, even though I was quite reliant on Magdalena to order, buy and organise everything.
Now the bit of inspiration to make you visit. Apart from accommodation which we booked and paid for online, but only cost £48 for a lovely apartment for two nights, we had: two breakfasts; a lunch that included caviar (when in Rome…); two dinners, one of which included three main courses because we were hungry; museum entry, and; a bottle of Belarus’s best vodka, called Bulbash that was number 1 in the 2016 World Vodka Awards. All that cost the two us just £40; and remember the pound is pretty weak at the moment.
To conclude, the two Belarus trips were most satisfying. It’s Europe, but sufficiently different to be a bit thrilling. Especially when you see statues of
Sovetskaya (Soviet) Street, Grodno
Here is where you'll find restaurants, bars and cafes. Unfortunately, we could only find one that sold Belorussian cuisine. Most of the tourists here are from elsewhere in Belarus so must desire the more common pizza, burgers or kebabs.
Lenin and some horrendous fashions that you thought disappeared in Soviet times; think leopard print and white stilettos, that sort of thing. The people were much smilier than during our Latvia visit in February (perhaps because Latvia in February is miserably cold) and the local food is great, if you can find it. The online visa-free visa thing is easy and cheap to obtain thus Hrodno and Belovezhskaya Pushcha National Park are easy and cheap options to get a taste of Belarus. So, I’d recommend it. But only if you happen to be in Eastern Poland already.
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