Belarus on a weekend - can you? is written by Jens Skovgaard Andersen.
Belarus - open or closed?
The country of Belarus has for years been a somewhat closed country for tourists. But in recent years they have started to relax the visa rules, so it is both easier and not least cheaper to get to the country as a tourist. I had to take advantage of that.
My research told me that the province of Grodno in western Belarus - with the country's second largest city of the same name - had abolished tourist visas in an attempt to get more tourists. Primarily for the benefit of neighboring countries Poland og Lithuania, both of which border the province.
The road to Grodno
According to the internet, the city has some beautiful churches and monuments in honor of both military and political heroes, so that was a bit like I was counting on. It sounded like a great destination for a weekend getaway. Now I say well enough that they have abolished visas, and so far that is also true enough. But it is not completely uncomplicated.
To avoid having to pay for a visa, you should instead have a document stating that you do not need a visa. And funnily enough you have to pay for it… But I did it through a travel agency I found in a set up for it Facebook group, and I had to hope that everything was in order now.
The good thing about Grodno is that it is located in a corner of Belarus, which is a short distance from Lithuania's second largest city Kaunas, which has cheap flights to and from Denmark. So I tried to see how cheap it could all be done. As the headline suggests, the goal was to be under 500 Danish kroner for the entire baduljen.
A flight ticket with Ryanair from Copenhagen to Kaunas can even be obtained very cheaply, and we managed to find round trip tickets for 150 kroner. It should not be possible, but it could. However, it required me to fly very early from Kaunas on the way home. This meant that it was best to spend the night at the airport on a bench. It's not the best night's sleep you get that way, but such were the conditions.
Kaunas Airport is usually quite quiet at night. Just this time, however, there were craftsmen going on all night long as the airport was to be temporarily expanded. But with music in his ears and blindfolds, he still managed to fall.
Well, back to the start: I lured a buddy along on the trip, and we headed east in the spring.
Kaunas - Lithuania's number two
Kaunas is a manageable town with a cozy medieval center and an old castle. We found shelter in a former convent - or something like that - in the middle of the town hall square in the center. It could not be much better and it cost quite a bit for a room.
Friday night went with finding food in the supermarket, looking a little at the city, looking a little at a few local home-brewed beers and then a basketball game in the big Zalgirio Arena just across the river that divides the city. It was a good experience where the local basketball heroes lost to an Italian team. But we had fun and the ticket was touchingly cheap. It can clearly be recommended.
Saturday meant departure to the actual destination; neighboring Belarus. We just reached the bus, which drove towards the border via the town of Druskininkai, where we had a stop. It all went painlessly so far. But we had gotten butterflies in our stomachs about having to cross the border into the unknown.
How would they treat us at the border with Belarus? Did we have the right papers now? What if they asked us something we could not answer? What if the bus drove on without us? The questions were many and there was not immediately anyone we could be reassured by. The other passengers and the driver spoke other languages than we do.
The border with Belarus
The border crossing took some time, and the passport and visa-free document were scrutinized carefully. We had probably heard that you also had to present proof that you had insurance that covers Belarus. Such a one is not easy to get in Denmark, but we had a plan.
We would show our credit card and tell them that there was insurance included on it. That may not have been entirely true, but we took the chance. And if that did not work, we would have heard that one could then buy insurance at the border. It worked. There was nodded firmly and stamped just as firmly, and we were now locked in.
We had booked an apartment in Grodno in advance. The landlord called and tried in sounding Belarusian to explain what we should do when we arrived in the city. I did not understand much of that, but I got the idea to stick the phone to the bus driver. After a lot of Belarusian negotiation - that's how it sounded at least - I got the phone again with an "Okay!", A definite nod and a "Kein Problem!". We had to reckon with that…
Arrival in Grodno in western Belarus
On arrival in Grodno - which depending on the language also goes by the name Hrodna - the driver ran out of the bus and found a man with a car. We were told very precisely that it was him we were going with. And that was that.
We were driven to an entrance in a residential area in the northern part of the city, and the apartment was shown via a few Russian words, some pointing and a lot of 'okay's. Nice apartment, which was characterized by the fact that it is furnished for rent to tourists. We were happy to be in place, but now we also had to go out into the city and look at the surroundings.
Grodno's center is dominated by large squares with statues - not surprisingly by, among others, Lenin and a tank - red and green flags and plenty of space on the road. In addition, there is a cozy green park, which stretches along a small river, a fine business district and the river Neman, which cuts through the city.
Maybe it was the blue sky and the sun that shone down on us, but I must admit that it was a positive surprise that this was how the city, completely unknown to us, presented itself to us.
It was with a smile on our face that we went in search of a place where you could both drink a local beer and also be on the internet. That combination, however, was not so straightforward, but it eventually succeeded in a small café on the business street. Here we threw ourselves over the local specialties and got to watch a live-streamed football match from home. You don't want to miss anything, even if you are away.
Football in particular was on our 'to-do list' and we had seen the local team, FC Neman Grodno, play the next day. We should experience that. Football is otherwise only sport number two on those edges, and the local ice hockey team - also called Neman Grodno - had just won the championship two days before our arrival. It would definitely have been a great thing to watch, but we would not miss football.
At first it was on sightseeing in the local churches and cathedrals. They are available in Orthodox, Catholic, Lutheran and probably even more variants. That may not be the image we had in advance of a communist country. But Grodno's location, both geographically and historically, makes it a true melting pot of European currents.
However, it is generally a bit difficult to speak the usual tourist languages, but it is not the fault of the locals that the rest of us do not know Russian or Polish. Then you have to point and make yourself understood in other ways.
Fortunately, there are large well-stocked supermarkets where you can find everything for a cozy evening; whether you are into sweets or vodka. Both are available in impressive quantities and at quite foreign prices.
Small church, great experience
One of the city's oldest sights is the 1100th-century Kalozha Church. Despite its modest size, the church is clearly worth a stroll, especially as the walk goes along the calm river. On the whole, there are plenty of beautiful churches to visit. We could see for ourselves that you can easily be allowed to explore the churches a little, if you ask nicely.
They do not get very many tourists in Grodno, so the welcome was warm and the curiosity great. The same was true for the football match, which was the next item on the agenda, and since it was the first home game of the season, there was even free admission to the match. We like that!
The stadium is rather controversially laid out in a former Jewish cemetery, which was expropriated with violence and power, and the modest memorial outside the stadium itself deserves a more prominent location.
To ball with the locals - football in Belarus
We took a seat next to the local 'ultras' at the stadium, and we got quite a few scowling glances. Our red-blue club jerseys from home were a bit reminiscent of today's opposing team's red-black. But when we were told that of course we had come all the way from Copenhagen to Belarus to keep up with FC Neman, the mood changed quickly and the smiles spread as the message reached around among the most hardcore fans.
Unlike in Denmark, there is no sale of alcohol in the stands for a football match, and that was a bit of a surprise for us. Our prejudices we brought with us were once again put to shame. On the other hand, the stadium was well visited by, among others, a lot of families with children - as well as the local conscripts, who were sent out to clap - and the atmosphere was really nice.
Neman's ultras, in collaboration with the mascot, who is a man dressed as a deer, did their best to shout in the yellow home team, but it still ended 0-0. However, the result did not ruin the good and slightly different football experience for us, and from now on we stick a bit with FC Neman when they play.
For the very beer-hungry, however, it must be said that you can quench your thirst in the small café - or 'buffet' - at the stadium, but then you have to drink out before going back to your place.
100 euros all inclusive for a weekend in Belarus
Our eye-catching football jerseys attracted a lot of attention, and this led to several articles and interviews in the local media. As I said, Grodno and the surrounding area are far from overrun by tourists. The local journalists were very interested in how they could attract more tourists from Denmark, for example, to the city.
We tried our best to come up with good advice, and two basic tips went again: First, we need to know that there is something called Grodno. And secondly, you must be able to get there easily and preferably cheaply.
The journalists were able to report that steps are being taken to upgrade the dilapidated and half-forgotten local airport so that it can receive, among other things, European low-cost flights, and I am personally looking forward to that.
Until we get there, you have to take via, for example, Kaunas in Lithuania, and it can easily be done really cheaply. Okay, it came to cost more than the 500 kroner that was the starting point, but the whole molevit with plane, bus, accommodation, basketball, football and a lot of interesting sights was kept under 100 euros per. person. It's so cheap that not even the local journalists completely believed in it… But it's good enough, so just look to get going!
Enjoy in Belarus!
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