I love bringing my friends to Belarus. This time I was joined by my boyfriend Charlie, an Alaskan physicist working in Tallinn, and our friend Becca, a freelance graphic designer from England, also based in the Estonian capital.
“Is anyone else getting in?” Becca asked looking around an empty bus as we were leaving Vilnius on the morning of January 2nd.
The bus was bound for Grodno, with a short stop in Druskininkai. Minutes later, a man hurriedly jumped inside and nestled on a seat next to the driver. The engine bellowed and our trip officially started.
Getting ready and crossing the border
Bringing my friends over the border wasn’t as difficult as it seemed, so I had to drop my initial plan of stuffing them into a suitcase.
The only documents needed for a visa-free trip were their passports, along with travel permits requested a week earlier from a Grodno-based travel agency, printed and signed.
Health insurance and cash amounting to roughly 21 euros per day were requested as well, but the lady at the passport control didn’t ask us for any.
American and British passports made quite a fuss, causing the lady at the border to carefully examine each page.
As Becca recalled later, she had never seen someone scrutinizing her passport so closely and intently for such a long time, taking all sorts of copies, looking at it with a lit up magnifying glass.
Charlie added, “I thought how few European travelers they must get, or perhaps how curious people are. I received many more noticeable stares from people than most places I’ve traveled.”
First glance of the city
Our neighbor on the bus, eager to talk, amused us with stories of shopping for moonshine in the villages along the road, and unconcerned moose walking over the cars waiting to cross the border.
The man was traveling to a small village near Grodno, to claim the inheritance of a house left by a dead relative. The conversation started on the bus continued in the car of our Airbnb host, who gladly offered us a tour around the city.
A splendid view of Grodno opens from Kalozha church of Sts. Boris and Gleb, an impressive relic of ancient Black Ruthenian architecture, with Neman river cutting the city in half.
With patchwork wooden and brick houses creeping up the hill, it’s hard to believe that less than a century ago the area was known as the “New World”, designated exclusively for the rich.
Grodno screams more mind-boggling toponyms, such as the “Swiss Valley“, a scenic park with rolling hills, dating back to the 18th century.
As unique as Grodno is, it might have acquired a new curious place name. Zhilibert’s park was hard to pronounce at first, so Charlie came up with a nickname of his own. “And then again there was the jelly bird park which was all lit up with lights. I think the park at night was my favorite spot.”
We settled in a cozy apartment on Kirova street, affectionately called “babushatnik” by some of the Airbnb reviewers.
Around Grodno in one day
The next day we couldn’t resist our host’s recommendation to visit the most celebrated restaurant in the city, the Royal Hunt, during lunch hours. After brief consideration, we went for a three-course meal that cost us 3 euro each.
In Tallinn, where my friends come from, it’s near to impossible to come across a restaurant that would serve food so cheap.
Becca was ecstatic, “A full tasty meal and drink for just a few euros, I will definitely miss that being back in Estonia!”
After wandering along the streets for a bit, we finally reached our next destination, Janush Parulis Museum of Life and History of Grodno.
I secretly lamented over the thought there might not be enough weird things on the trip, but those who seek will find.
Read also: Five Rogue Museums In Minsk That Are Must-Go
The museum is a wonderland of the heaps of assorted artifacts, from books and paintings to handmade guitars, tobacco stuffing machines from the 19th century, a collection of sleds, and whatnot. Literally, name anything, it’s there.
A field trip to Korobchitsy
With the sudden drop in temperature and heavy snowfalls, we abandoned our initial plan of roaming through the surrounding villages and went for an easier alternative, agrotourism complex Korobchitsy.
After walking around wooden sculptures covered in snow, we collectively agreed it would be far better to revisit in summer.
“It kind of reminded me of a park we have back home that used to be called Alaskaland,” said Charlie, “it had a bunch of wood carvings and random things to do that were associated with our history.”
Sadly, there is not much to do in Korobchitsy when you can’t understand a word of Russian, except walking along the snowy pathways.
Next to Korobchitsy, there is a ski slope with a humble name Korobchitskiy Olimp. Named after the legendary Mount Olympus, it hardly scratches the sky (we remember Grodno thing for memorable place names). The slope with the adjacent park is a great place for winter sports.
Nightlife: don’t miss your bedtime
On our first day in Grodno we were attracted by the unspoken appeal of Faraday bar, so going there was a matter of time. However, it turned out not exactly as we expected.
It had a cool name, recalled Charlie, but there weren’t many places to sit. It also gave off the feeling like everyone was in private groups, rather than out to socialize.
A few blocks away there was Cuba bar. A classic hole in the wall place from the U.S., according to Charlie, it was a good place to hang out for drinks and foosball.
Nesterka also seemed like it could be nice, but “we were there too early to see what’s the party like” Charlie added about Grodno’s only vegan bar. Much to Becca’s distress, since she is a vegetarian.
“The fact that there was a video game emulator in a bar was pretty strange and cool; you wouldn’t ever see that in the U.S.,” Charlie pointed out.
Russian banya – too hot or not too hot?
On our last day, the coldest of all, we were ready for some sauna experience. Neither of the guys had ever tried Russian banya, so they were excited. There was no public sauna at Aquacenter, the biggest water park in Grodno, that is why we booked book a private sauna for three.
Becca thought it was amazing how much space we got to ourselves, including a whole big pool. She found it hard though to stay too long, because of the heat.
“It’s a lot hotter than Finnish saunas,” Charlie admitted, “and actually kind of reminded me of sauna back in Alaska, which is also typically very hot but pretty dry.”
Thoughts on the visa-free trip
We had discussed different scenarios, but the trip back went as seamlessly as one could imagine.
Charlie joked that the best way for Belarus to make travel easier would be joining the EU. Or, at least, adding more English translations.
Becca agreed that the language barrier was rather off-putting. More vegetarian options in restaurants and less plastic straws would be good, too.
“Same with getting around on the public transport,” Becca continues, “I felt like that would have been difficult without our Belarusian friend, but maybe it would have actually been OK – it’s hard to say!”
“And more generally, advertise someplace?” proposes Charlie. He adds:
“I literally didn’t know Grodno existed before going there, but I’m glad I went.”
Text by Alesia Ivankova. Photos courtesy of Alesia and Becca.