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Phespirit goes to Belarus
Minsk     May 2009

A little after eight in the morning Phespirit stepped out of Minsk central station and onto the city's streets. He had travelled overnight by train from Warsaw to Minsk for his first visit to Belarus. The Warsaw he left behind had been a higgledy-piggledy, reconstructed modern metropolis kissed by sunshine under blue skies. This new place was dominated by cold, starkly-regimented buildings, Soviet classicism on a grand scale, under white skies with a thin mist of rain in the air. Phespirit felt slightly daunted, but after just a moment's hesitation he strode off towards for Hotel Oktyabrskaya, his pre-booked accommodation, a ten-minute walk along Kirov street.

The hotel wouldn't allow him to check in before midday so, after a token attempt at freshening up in the lobby toilets, Phespirit stowed his bags in a room next to reception and went for his first walkabout. He headed northeast, across the narrow Svisloch river and along Nezavisitmosti avenue to Peramohi square. The 'square' is in fact a large roundabout with a towering obelisk-style Second World War monument, complete with eternal flame. He continued, passing a cinema with hand-painted posters promoting 'Terminator' and 'Angels and Demons', on to the St. Aleksander Nevsky church, a quaint red brick building topped with green onion domes. He spent what was left of the morning looking for a bank that would change pounds sterling into Belarusian roubles. This proved very tricky as most would only change US dollars, Euros and Russian roubles. He was relieved when he eventually stumbled across the BPS Bank ("БПС Банк").

Back at the hotel, Phespirit was given the key to room 307 and moved into his large, comfortable, albeit slightly-chilly accommodation. He unpacked, made an altogether more thorough attempt at freshening up, consulted his guidebooks and set out once more. He walked via Lenin street to Svabody square, along Internatsionalnaya street to Yanki Kupaly park, then over the river for the catchy-named First Congress of the Russian Social-Democratic Workers' Party Museum. Phespirit likes to tour all the major museums in a city, but this was one of only four he found to visit. He was impressed that they had taken the trouble to provide information in English.

The next day Phespirit strolled along the main artery of the city south of the river, Nezavisitmosti avenue, from Oktyabrskaya square to Nezavisitmosti square. He then looped round via the railway station, back up Kirov street and down Karl Marx street. Via this route he was able to mop up the remaining museums: the Museum of the Great Patriotic War; the National Museum of History & Culture; the Belarusian State Art Museum. It also took him past the home ground of Dinamo Minsk football team, where he splashed out 5,000 roubles (£1.20) to buy a top-price ticket for the evening match against FC Naftan Novopolotsk. Phespirit was one of eighteen hundred fans in a forty thousand seater stadium. All except the ten away supporters would have gone home satisfied with the 2-0 result.

Rain poured forth throughout Phespirit's final day in Minsk. Clutching his mini umbrella, he set off to visit the assorted churches located to the northwest of Oktyabrskaya square, plus a few other stops along the way: the Bernardine Church (closed), the Cathedral of the Holy Spirit, Maryinsky Cathedral, St Peter & St Paul Church, the Island of Tears, the National Academy Opera & Ballet Theatre, the Synagogue (closed) and finally St Mary Magdelene Church. He finished with a slow walk back to the city centre alongside the Svisloch before enjoying a leisurely meal of grilled chicken, washed down with a tasty Belarusian Merula red wine, at the Freski restaurant. When his time was up, he returned to the hotel to collect his bag, and headed down to the station for the night train from Minsk to Warsaw.

There's no denying that Minsk lacks immediate beauty. The monstrous, domineering architecture of its post-war rebuild appears cold and imposing at first sight, but once accustomed to it the city gradually becomes more appealing. It is clean and uncluttered, relatively straightforward to navigate, and there are oases of greenery and water to relieve the severity of its stonework. Phespirit was happy with his visit.

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