Along Independence Avenue

The final day in Minsk, Belarus.

Early morning. It was neither raining nor foggy so my travel companion and I headed out of our 1950 constructivist-style housing estate to see what Minsk had to offer.

Our first stop was the Great Patriot War Museum, which consists of a huge monument to the Heroes of Belarus, a modern museum telling the story of the war and a park. It is not easy to miss as the monument towers high above the landscape. We had a photo opp on the monument and then went into the museum. After showing our Student Identity Cards, yes it is possible to be a student over the age of 26, we obtained entrance tickets and a photographer’s sticker. There is a route round the museum and our attempts to deviate from it were thwarted by the curators.As in all things Minsk, it is large and the exhibits are on a large scale. There are information signs in reasonably good English but the museum custodians have yet to learn the art of the short, snappy comment.

After the Great Patriotic War Museum (Why still use the old Soviet terminology?)we opted for a bus ride. This cost 55 kopecks and took us downtown. Along the way we could see places we had visited the day before and helped orientate us a little.

We got off at the Gum Department Store, which is a huge shopping emporium reminiscent of 1950s and 1960s shopping experiences. The imposing staircase, which you see in front of you when you open the doors, harks back to an earlier, more expansive, age when shopping was truly an experience. The window displays say the store is only 65 years old but it has the feel of a much earlier age. I especially liked the Art Deco details on the heating grills and columns. One of the floors, I noted that a light fitting was topped with some Soviet Era symbols – a hammer and sickle being one. After perusing real fur coats and the socks (a passion of mine) we headed off in search of a cafeteria. This turned out to be on the top floor in some kind of atrium. The cafeteria is a relic of earlier times. A glass fronted display cabinet with little bowls of salads and desserts, a serving area for the main courses from which you pick your favourites, bread and drinks. I got some kind of meat in a nice gravy with mashed potatoes, a sweet roll and a red liquid with some fruit at the bottom. It is a school dinners experience so you deliver your tray stacked with empty dishes to the washing up window.

After the shopping experience, we headed down the street taking some photographs of grand buildings. We stopped off to take a photograph of Felix Dzerzhinsky, who helped to found the Ceka, and a couple of wall plaques. Then it was into the Post Office.

The Post Office is rather grand as befits a main Post Office. It has stained glass windows and serving windows in a semi-circular pattern around the room. Directly ahead of the entrance is the little shop. This is a wondrous place for collectors. There are printed envelopes with the most amazing designs and letter writing sets. As a collector of Soviet-style printed envelopes I was agog and came away with a handful. I regretted not buying more as they were so delightful The nice manager directed me to some of the collectors editions. There were too many to choose from so I am saving that pleasure for another visit.

Then it was on to Independence Square. Now this is an interesting collection of buildings. To the right, a run-down building which houses a cake shop, a supermarket, a bank (!), an exchange office and, apparently, a hotel.

There is a statue in front of the “hotel” which may have something to do with the foundation of the city. It makes a nice photo. Behind the back is the red Neo-Romanesque church of Saint Simon and Helena, a Catholic church. We had the chance to catch the final minutes of mass.

Then, we went around the front to the main square. Here are the huge government buildings (Dom Urada), a magnificent statue of Lenin and the State Pedagogical University. The square is a hugely impressive site.

We took a break in one of the government buildings which hosts a café-restaurant. Then, it was on to the railway station. Here you see the station, the City Gates and lots of huge buildings and shops.

From here we entered the Metro. It was the rush hour but we still did not have to wait more than a few minutes to buy travel tokens. Using the metro was simple – we followed everyone else and put our token in the slot. I have to say that on my next visit I want to ride the metro and see all the stations. The three I saw were amazing in their design and I am a total sucker for Art Deco and permutations of it.

Alas, we got lost yet again. A few pedestrians managed to understand my mangled request and directed us towards our housing estate. On the way we found a small restaurant where we ordered Grandmother’s Stuffed Cabbage Leaves. Very Polish. Later we visit s cocktail bar which was reminiscent of the kind of thing you used to find in Soho London in the 1980s. Very tacky and tasteless. Hygge, the Scandinavian style currently, popular in London, has not reached these parts.

Then, we were lost again for the final time! 3 nights in Minsk and got lost 3 times!

A trip into the unknown

In the middle of June, I was thinking about where to spend the autumn half term and thought of Minsk. As a user of Postcrossing, I had been allocated a member in Minsk, Republic of Belarus, to write to. The person I wrote to, sent a message back with a link to a video. The video was short, a day compressed into a few minutes, but I was hooked. Within minutes, I was booked on a return flight to Vilnius with the prospect of a short land journey to and from Minsk.

People have asked me, incredulously, Why Minsk? Why not? Many of my colleagues and friends seem to think it is a rather dangerous place. They mean the Ukraine. Actually, the mean The Crimea, which is no longer part of Ukraine having been swiped by Putin’s Russia. Someone mentioned a bomb going off in Kiev. This was the week when an Islamic terrorist mowed down innocent people at a street festival in Nice. Wrong capital and wrong country.

I have elected to fly to Vilnius for two reasons: it is cheaper than flying to Minsk and I would like to see Vilnius again. There is also the added bonus of a transfer from Vilnius to Minsk and back.

I have written a short article for the Minsk Gazette on the thorny issue of travel visas. I have never been to Russia because I really cannot be bothered filling in an application form which is even worse than a job application. People have told me that they would be put off by having to apply for a visa. I have warned them that this could be the new travelling reality now the UK has voted for Brexit. The good news is, that the Belarus visa is two sides of A4 and does not demand to know what colour underwear you have. I managed to print it off and fill it in within 10 minutes.

To go with the visa you need travel and health insurance, a receipt from your accommodation to show that all is above board and the renters have the permit to do business, a nice photograph, tickets and the money. I was missing the accommodation coupon the first time but got my visa the second time.

The visa office had a nice stash of tourist information in England which I have added to my collection. What I have learned from this material is: not a lot of English is spoken, there is a lot of the Cyrillic alphabet around in Belarus and there is a lot to see. My trip is for three days so I am already thinking about how much I can fit it if I keep at it from 08:00 to 17:00. I have booked an apartment in the hope of meeting some residents in the corridors and maybe having a chat. This worked in Warsaw.

I have been corresponding with other travellers on Trip Advisor to find out useful information for the trip. We have had a lively discussion on the possibility of travelling from Vilnius by train. Despite over 30 years of independent travelling and as long teaching the English language, I failed to understand the requirements of the Belarus Railway website ( booked myself a ticket on a Eurolines bus from Vilnius to Minsk. I hope I can make myself understood the other end as I would really like to travel back by train.

I have no idea what to expect in terms of weather, food, drink and the feel of the city. All I know is, it will be a great adventure. I expect to come back having met some wonderful people and with some wonderful photographs.

Making the most of a research trip

My novel-in-progress, Weaver of Words, has reached the point where I need to fill in some topographical, historical and cultural details. Luckily for me, this stage has coincided with the start of the summer holiday season so I can get out there and do the research in person. Much as I like siting at my desk, cup of coffee by my side, whizzing around the internet there are some things which are best experienced and researched in person.

For my novel, Stūra māja: In the Shadow of Fear, I walked the streets of Riga looking at the topography through the eyes of my main character. I had gained a good idea of the layout of the streets from printed maps, Google Maps and  the original television version of Henning Mankell’s Dogs of Riga  but I need to experience the places for myself. Having walked the streets, I then visited the Museum of Occupations and looked at photographs of the streets during the Communist period. I visited the KGB headquarters three times to be sure I knew the layout and experienced the building.

Whilst I cannot actually go back to 1968 and 1973 (the key dates when most of the novel is set), I can visit the chapter locations in person and visit museums and exhibitions. Earlier in the year, I paid a visit to Warsaw so I could visit a Polish block of flats from the era (it resembled a prison with narrow corridors lighted by low-output strip lighting  and metal doors to each flat), walked the streets and seeing the parks and buildings my characters would have seen and then went to the 30th of the Palace of Culture and Science  to experience it for myself. Now, I know the view my characters could have and how cold it is  up there. This is something I could not know without being there.

For my research trip to the Czech Republic and Poland I have to fit a lot in. Suddenly, seven days does not seem enough even though I used to know the locations quite well and am not seeing them for the first time. I will, however, be seeing them through different eyes. When I lived in the Czech Republic I was caught up in the experience and living though the transition from Communism to Capitalism. Now, I am looking as a writer and a historian.

I think careful planning is important when making a research trip. Think about what you want to find out, how you are going to find this information or experience, where you want to go and how much you can physically do in the time. As a result of trial and error, I have developed a series of Excel spreadsheets to keep all the information in one place.

2016-07-07 (2)

This image shows part of the sightseeing and research spreadsheet. I have broken the trip down into days and then into the places I need to visit. I have tried to group the locations in locations e.g. Chodov and Haje so I can visit the cemeteries and the remnants of Communist street architecture.Another day, I got to Havirov following the bus route of the two main characters. I have factored in a drink in the pub-restaurant (restaurace) they visit – that is a bit of pleasure as well as work.

I know some people think this is a bit OTT or even anal but it means I have a list of where I need to go and what I need to do. By arranging everything in my spreadsheet, I am trying to make sure I don’t miss anywhere out.

By taking the time to plan in advance, I have uncovered some exhibitions I did not know about before and which will provide useful background information. There is always so much going on in Prague that the variety of events is somewhat overwhelming and my spreadsheet is providing structure to the trip. It is something I recommend a researcher to do. After all, you have paid a lot of money to do this research so you need to make the most of it.

As well as planning the actual research, I have designed some new business cards. I am hoping that if I cannot find all the information I need some kind archivist will help me out. It’s just more professional to be able to handover a business card than to scribble your details on a post-it note. Just in case anyone is minded to Google me, I have also updated my website. I do want to look my very best.

As a footnote: I have saved quite a bit of money by booking all my travel online.


If any of my readers has advice they would like to share be assured it will be gratefully received.



Solo Travel

Sometimes I travel alone and sometimes with friends. It all depends on the reason for the trip. My last few trips over the past 18 months (Copenhagen, Riga, Warsaw and Budapest) have been with friends and I have enjoyed planning the trips and sharing experiences with them. Copenhagen would not have been quite so much fun on my own; Riga I know like the back of my hand and I have set a novel there, so it was good to share; Warsaw was a research trip but the two friends who came with me made it less work-orientated than it would usually be. I certainly spent a lot more time sitting around drinking coffee and having breakfast than I ever do on my own. It was pleasant but I did not do as much work as I would have liked. Now, I have to return to Warsaw to do the research I went to do in the first place, Sigh.

I went to Lublin, Poland, on my own last summer and enjoyed the freedom of going where I wanted but it would have been nice to share the experiences with someone. Even I got tired of sitting in pubs drinking beer on my own. Strangely, it was one of the few trips where I did not get talking to anyone. Maybe it was the weather or the hotel I stayed at (a business-type place).

I have just returned from a weekend in Paignton, Devon, where I got chatting to quite a few people. It made the trip a little more interesting and I learnt something about lives different to my own.

Next month, I am on a research trip to the Czech Republic and Poland – alone. It is part research and part nostalgia as I am researching my new novel and revisited old haunts from 24 years ago. I have created a schedule so that a) I don’t get bored and b) I don’t miss anything. I am looking forward to my action-packed days and mad travel schedule and hoping I will get to talk to some interesting people. That, after all, is the purpose of travel: to have new experiences and widen one’s horizons.


train ticket Ostrava to Prerov

Original train ticket April 1991