Travel Drinking: Eastern Europe - Drunk from the legs up

Its tourist industry may be stuck in a timewarp, but there are unexpected pleasures to be found in Minsk, not least in its cocktails. By Mark Rowe
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The Independent Culture
QUITE HOW I ended up joining a May Day parade of fridge factory workers in Belarus 10 years ago remains unclear. I remember crossing a road with a friend to take some pictures and getting swept along, believing it safer to march in step than extricate ourselves and risk being quizzed by a KGB officer.

We strode through Lenin Square, Minsk, under the benign gaze of banners of Lenin, Engels and Marx, and the noses of the Belarusian Soviet Socialist Republic politburo. The festive mood was full of glasnost and our new friends encouraged us to hold up the banners of the proletariat (Mine said: "Congratulations! From Minsk Fridge Factory No 7").

I have spent 10 years telling my friends that Minsk was a fun place, to no avail. We welcomed a pace of life slower than that in Moscow. There was just as little in the shops, but there were fewer people queuing for it, and you didn't have to trek as far to buy it. Food and drink were unimaginative - salami, bread and a murky kind of juice - though the smarter hotels had champagne-and-cognac cocktails, a concoction which made you drunk from the legs upwards, leaving your head clear.

The seedy side, of puffed-up Mafia types frequenting underground bars, largely passed us by, though I was once asked by a local man how much I charged for the four women with whom I was drinking. When I explained they were British students and not the local femmes de la nuit, he apologised profusely - to me, not to my speechless colleagues.

While the outside world feared the Soviet Union, we saw its absurdity at first hand. You could buy toothbrushes but no toothpaste, soap dishes but no soap. We scarcely paid attention to the more worrying aspect, that Belarus was on the flight-path for much of the radiation emitted from Chernobyl. Aged 20, it was easy to take the "young and indestructible" approach and in any case, fruit and veg were so scarce we rarely faced the dilemma of whether to eat them.

Today, Minsk is unfairly condemned as a post-war Soviet planning experiment gone wrong. Just one building was left standing after the Second World War. But Minsk is far from grey. It looks unexpectedly fresh, its broad central boulevards have a Parisian feel and many of the buildings have been brightened up. The city is a textbook of 20th-century architecture. Ten years ago, the very idea would have seemed absurd to the citizens of Minsk; today the prices seem absurdly low by British standards.

Wander among the numerous parks where you can hire a boat to dawdle along the River Svislach. By the river's edge you will find the restored old quarter, where churches - many built, repainted or reconsecrated since 1989 - and wooden houses huddle together. The Belarusian state ballet, a short walk away, remains critically acclaimed. The art gallery is an under-marketed gem: a large collection of Belarusian landscape paintings mixed with a shuddering sculpture of Baba Yaga, the Russian witch of fairytale yore. And make time to visit the vast Kamorowski market. While the Georgian and Uzbekh traders have disappeared, the bazaar is one of the city's economic hubs, a kaleidoscope of humanity, meat, flowers and vegetables.

But those looking for vestiges of the old empire will not be disappointed. A statue of Lenin stands on the edge of Independence Square and busts of the man pop up across the city, while gargantuan slogans remain on some rooftops, sadly noting that the "achievements of the people will be eternal".

For entertainment, look no further than the Yubileynaya Hotel, a misshapen and ill-proportioned concrete haven for Soviet nostalgics. The voluminous dining room remains unchanged after 10 years and you can still enjoy Chicken Kiev and a bottle of Soviet champagne for less than pounds 2. Our evening there felt like a scene from the film Groundhog Day. At 9pm, the lights lowered as the band played - just as it did in 1989 - "Feelings" and "Yesterday".

The tourist industry, still dominated by the state-run Belintourist, is also trapped in a timewarp. Irritant travellers are swatted away by ice-maidens still gripped by the permafrost of the Soviet state sector mentality, as we discovered when we tried to book a ticket home. The horny- handed ice maiden at Belintourist's office - which sported posters advertising hunting holidays in Serbia - could only just work up the energy to advise us to ask at the bus station.

In fairness, tourism in Belarus is cautiously stepping into the headlights of capitalism, rather like the rabbit after which the nation's currency is nicknamed (450,000 to the pound and counting). We arrived and left Minsk a day early, which would once have made hotel receptionists catatonic, but now all our paperwork was transferred smoothly by the helpful Ludmilla, at no extra cost. A quantum leap indeed.

Mark Rowe paid pounds 150 to fly from Gatwick to Vilnius, with British Airways (0345 222111). There are four trains a day from Vilnius to Minsk.

A double room at Yubileynaya Hotel costs pounds 30 a night through Belintourist (00 375 172 269840; fax: 00 375 172 231 143; e-mail: belintrst@ntthcmk.belpak.minsk.by)

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