August 27

Here are St Petersburg-Tallinn-Riga-Vilnius-Minsk. Take note of Belarus's position in the mix - landlocked, flat, and lands that has been occupied by all its neighbors.

St Petersburg, Russia
Tallinn, Estonia
Riga, Latvia
Vilnius, Lithuania
Minsk, Belarus
Kiruna, Sweden..Lapland, above the Arctic Circle
Umea, Sweden..and travels along the High Coast
Eslov/Malmo, Sweden
Copenhagen, Denmark for my flight home
Getting in to Belarus was complicated by their visa rules. If a US passport holder is going to stay more than 30 days you have to have a visa and these are time consuming to get and costly too.

If a US passport holder is going to stay less than 30 days you can fly into the International Airport in Minsk and not have to get a visa. If you are coming in any other way then you do need a visa.

So to avoid the visa acquisition process I took a 25 minute flight from Vilnius to Minsk. It was less expense than getting a visa and cut out having to send my passport to yet another embassy as I had to do to visit St Petersburg.

Also as a side note, for a US passport holder to travel directly between Belarus and Russia you must have visas for both Belarus and Russia and you must arrive and depart from Minsk International Airport.
All according to Wikipedia, it's politics-wise about the exact opposite of Estonia here. Check it out if you don't remember Estonia because it's super-interesting, to me anyway:

"Alexander Lukashenko has served as the country's first (and only) president since 1994. Belarus has been labeled "Europe's last dictatorship" by some Western journalists, on account of Lukashenko's self-described authoritarian style of government .. and according to many countries and organizations, political opposition has been violently suppressed."
"Belarus's Democracy Index rating is the lowest in Europe, the country is labelled as "not free" by Freedom House, as "repressed" in the Index of Economic Freedom, and is rated as by far the worst country for press freedom in Europe in the 2013�14 Press Freedom Index published by Reporters Without Borders, which ranks Belarus 157th out of 180 nations."

Uncomfortable reading!

I'm staying in a small enclave of an Old Town mostly occupied by churches, City Hall, and a few hotels and restaurants.

Notice on the middle left..
..more of Minsk which was devastated in WWII and rebuilt during Soviet times.

More most discomforting words from wiki:

"Lukashenko announced a new law in 2014 that will prohibit kolkhoz (=farm) workers, around 9% of the total work force, from leaving their jobs at will � a change of job and living location will require permission from governors. The law was compared with serfdom by Lukashenko himself. Similar regulations were introduced for the forestry industry in 2012."

UPDATE: The tour guide said this was hooey, she said farm workers are absolutely free to leave at will. I tried to find it on Wikipedia View History but I lost patience.
It does feel like the most foreign country I've visited in a long time.

I must not be worried about Minsk though since I'm writing all this and I've signed into a dozen open internet connections already.
The City Hall (rebuilt in 2003) facing, across the street, the Cathedral of Saint Virgin Mary.
I got turned around, stopped in here, and they gave me a guide book. It was very sweet.
I haven't used public transportation for a while so I decided to meet a walking tour by getting to know the Metro system.

It's pretty simple.
I do enjoy a good Metro station.
The system began in Soviet times, 1977, and we can see the design ethos in the stations.
Here's another one.
Yakub Kolas Square (Yakuba Kolasa Square), in 1956 named in honor of the folk poet and one of the founders of the classic Belarusian literature - Yakub Kolas and in 1972 they installed the monument. The bird and medallion is from somewhere else.

From the tour website: "Would you love to go off the beaten track and dive into the vibrant underground culture of the city? Then it’s high time to experience Minsk as a true local and join this tour, where you will get to know:

❋The history of Minsk’s street art & graffiti scene,
❋The Belarusian youth lifestyle,
❋What Brazil and Belarus have in common.

"We will visit a local market, explore «Osmolovka» — an old cozy township hidden in greenery in the center of Minsk, and visit abandoned factories that have become the latest hipster hangouts."
The idea, according to the guide, was to show that Minsk was a vibrant, modern, European city and no longer the Soviet city as it has been known. I was not convinced.

This is the Soviet era market, Minskiy Komarovskiy Market, still busy and regularly used by the local people.

The building is memorable, according to the guide, because there are no pillars holding up that roof.
The start of the alternative part of the tour. Some food trucks and a performance venue.
"Street art in Minsk. It is quite a new thing because it only started in 2014 when the first international street art festival Vulica Brazil took place.

"The organizer of the festivals for three consecutive years has been the embassy of Brazil in Minsk. During this time, artists have come up with impressive pieces of street art for different parts of Minsk, largely accumulated on Oktjabrskaja (Kastrinickaja) street."
"A mural of Imai Yusk, reflecting a mystic Brazilian-Japanese sensitivity."
"There’s the black and white one by Brazilian artist Speto, a beautiful bird by L7M from Brazil and a mural in the manner of fantasy surrealism by Belarussian artist Bazinato."
There are many other murals but the idea that the city has turned around, I don't know. You'll see the massive Soviet era developments in tomorrow's pictures and some of them are quite remarkable.

That's a cat up there. Tomorrow I'm not going to miss The Cat Museum!
Thanks gang, it was FUN!

See how young they are? They walk Fast like young people do, not like ME. When I go on these walking tours, as I have in every city, I wear my trail shoes with laces and trot along in my best effort to keep up.

At the end my feet are feelin' it for sure, so the next day I tootle along in my flips, at my pace, and it's so Peaceful.
August 28

On the card for today, The Cat Museum! When I got there they weren't open yet so..
..I decided to have a treat next door.

It wasn't very good, and actually of all the places I've visited this trip, I've found the least to tell about, food wise, here. I've tried all my tricks - street food, pub food, expensive food, to little success. Oh well.
Following the little paws up to the fourth floor.. The Cat Museum. Maybe they call it a cat museum because of all the cat pictures on the walls? They're for sale too.
Pictures children drew of cats.
And they had several rooms all done up in Harry Potter world.
October Square.

Palace of the Republic, began in 1985, construction halted, restarted, and finally fully operational 2001 and the Labor Union Palace of Culture, 1956.
Labor Union Palace of Culture.
Another Metro station.
Several people, including the sweet Cat Museum lady, said that I should visit 'the shopping center'. I can't imagine myself at a shopping center, but I took the name and looked it up.

The shopping center is actually a department store, GUM, built in the Socialist Realist style in 1951 located on Independence Avenue (Praspiekt Niezaliežnasci). It's also called the State Department Store.
This is pretty cool but the store's actual selling space and available goods reminded me of a Sears & Roebuck from 1951.
Wikipedia says WWII destroyed as much as 85% of the buildings in Minsk and all the infrastructure.

When the Soviets took control they scraped it all away and started fresh with these grand boulevards and heroic buildings and apartment building complexes to hold all the Russians who would re-populate the city.
On one corner is McDonald's, of course, and on the opposite corner is TGI Friday.

You cannot walk across the boulevards for the most part, which is good for traffic, and in every couple of very long blocks there are pedestrian tunnels so it's good to plan ahead on which side of the street you need to be! You can see the crossing tunnels there on the corners.
I was headed to the National Art Museum of Belarus, 1957.

I wasn't prepared for how awesome it would be.
SO awesome. This whole floor was devoted to 20th Century Belarussian artists. I had not heard of a single one of them.

I was standing right here when I realized that by looking at the dates on the pictures the story of modern Belarus would become evident.

To keep in mind:

18th c. Belarusian land annexed to the Russian Empire

1918 Independent Belarusian People's Republic

1922 Eastern regions annexed to the USSR and western to Poland

1939 Western regions joined the USSR

1941–1945 Naxi occupation when Belarus lost 1/4 of its population in World War 2

1991 Republic of Belarus.
Mai Dantsig, 1930-2017
My City, Ancient and Young, 1972

That church is my church in Upper Town, my hotel is behind it, and the construction is for the new Metro that marked an important turning point for Minsk.
Aleksandr Mozolev, 1910-1970
On Holidays, 1966

This picture looks so peaceful, fruit from the trees, flowers from the garden, a barefoot boy and a soccer ball. Not what we think of as 1966 in Belarus. I can't find any information on this guy.
Zenon Lensky, 1864-1927
Portrait of Elzhbeta Vasilevskaya, 1903

I really wanted to talk to this woman. Can't find anything about the artist or the subject either.

Goodness I do have more, but you get the idea.
An aerial of Upper Town. The arrow is pointing to the Cathedral of the Holy Spirit. My hotel is just behind it.
August 29

I'm off for an all day tour out-of-town to Mir and Nesvizh, two small towns home to "impossibly romantic 16th-century castles, which are considered to be pearls of Belarusian architecture. They were once owned by the powerful Radziwill magnate family. The castles are under UNESCO protection for their unique style and history, and are considered world heritage sites."

Nevizh Palace is on a small island and here we're walking along a causeway leading to the castle.
The ever popular locks on a bridge.
There she is, Nesvizh Palace. The government began a refurbishment in 2004 and it reopened for visitors in 2014 so it's all pretty fresh-looking.
The courtyard..
..and the family dining room, not the formal dining room, oh no, that would be far more grand.
Where we ate lunch. It's new and built for events.
I put this here so I could remember how every single, without exception, eating place through the ENTIRE trip has this exact napkin holder, these exact napkins, folded in this exact way.
A sweet group and the same guide from the tour of street art.
Mir Castle. The restoration here was finished in 2013 so like Nezvish Palace, it was all freshly restored.
A bit of the original wall.
Throughout the day I was reminded of Hearst Castle.
The ceiling.
The church on the grounds of the Castle.
This is a different church.. I don't remember but I do remember thinking wow.
And the end of our day.
I was hungry and I felt like a salad. Here's what happened, a chicken salad with vegetables. Grapes with seeds, lettuce completely limp, but the vegetables were crisp and tasty and the chicken wasn't dry so YAY for the best dinner I had in Belarus, which says something about the food I ran across in Belarus.

((St Petersburg spa-CEE-ba As marvelous as you would imagine but oh the HORDES so if possible go when the cruise ships are gone.

TAH-ln a-ee-tahh A fairy tale old town, upper and lower, and the best food.

Riga PAL-dee-es Art Nouveau to beat the band w/Tim.

Vilnius ah-CHeU More spread out, Simona, the Baltic Way, and Trakai.

Minsk spa-CEE-ba Back in time to the not-so-long-ago past.
August 29

I wanted to do a spin on the Hop On Hop Off bus which they don't have in Minsk. There's a similar bus that runs one 1 1/2 hour route 4 times per day, so I Hopped On. You can't hop off though.
One of these days, when I'm old, I'll look up all these buildings but until then, you get the idea, Minsk.

Nezavisimosty Square and that's the Red Church of Saint Simon and Saint Helena Church in the distance. It's a magic place that I didn't get to visit.
The Circus.
Pobedy Square.
National Library of Belarus.
Park Pobedy.
I took the subway home. You might lose track for a minute and think you are in just another city and then, Bam, it's the hammer and cycle and you ask yourself, where am I..what year Is this?
Across from the church and down the street from my hotel.

Palace of the Republic.
A quick peek inside the big church on the hill. Dads and Moms hold up babies to kiss the icons.
The next morning this is my third long long long wait at Stockholm passport control.
HomeBaltic and N&E Europe • Minsk • '19 Aug: Minsk, Belarus

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