I’m not sure if this trip was brave or stupid on my part! Maybe a bit of both! I decided I wanted to try a cycling holiday so picked an Explore trip that was only 5 days with 3 days cycling, and graded easy. Between 20 – 40km per day, and fortunately for me relatively flat! At the time I didn’t own a bike – nor had I owned one in about 20 years! In the last year or so before this trip I’d done a half day cycling in Vietnam and a half day in Japan and really enjoyed it, so thought I’d give it a go!
I loved cycling through the Vietnamese paddy fields in Hue, and the mountains in Takayama in Japan. ‘I’ll train in the gym on the exercise bike and it’ll all be fine!’ Cycling on the road – as I now know – is very different to cycling on a static bike! I kept up – just, well almost.. I was very slow compared to the others and am eternally grateful for there patience and pleasant company!
It does not matter how slowly you go as long as you don’t stop.– Confucius
Belarus looked like a really interesting part of the world – and it lived up to expectation! Doing a trip by bike is a nice way to cover a lot of ground with great views along the way! I visited in July 2018 and the weather was generally warm and pleasant, bar one heavy rainfall during our longer cycle where we sheltered in a bus stop!
What I hadn’t anticipated was the large framed German bikes! I’m relatively short – not a problem hiring a bike in Asia, bit more so when they’re German! It was a really heavy hybrid and far too big for me. The guide put the saddle down – but: ‘Tough, this is your bike!’ Once I got used to it cycling wasn’t too bad. It was stopping and starting that was the problem! I learned to brake and jump off the saddle sort of at the same time!
Belarus is a really interesting place. Lots of history and in some ways it felt like going back in time. Minsk (which will always remind me of Friends!) is developed though you can still see the Communist style. We visited a couple of castles, stunning and in great condition. Although some parts have been reconstructed. Our third day cycling was through forests and parks to an eco village and a somewhat eccentric musicians house. Such an interesting part of the world and still very unspoilt from a tourism perspective.
Day 1 – Minsk city tour
There is a cycle path running through through the city with a few places to stop along the way, making this route suitable even for beginners. It’s also a great way to cover a lot of ground and get a different perspective of a city.
One of my favourite stops was in a street filled with art, we stopped for a coffee break and had chance to take it in.
There are various points of interest to stop on the way. We cycled in the morning and in the afternoon took in a city tour seeing some of the impressive architecture. As well as the war museum, full of artefacts with a beautiful memorial.
We also stopped at a local market. There’s the usual fruit and food stalls at the market though the bra stall was a little bit different..
The Soviet feel of the city is still there, and very evident, despite this example being above KFC!
Day 2 – 41km between castles
This was a long day for me and where it became evident that cycling outside is different to static cycling in the gym! The last 10km I found really hard! In fact at one point I thought I was going to die! It’s true what they say about digging deep and pushing on! Having trained this year for a 350 mile charity bike ride, 40km feels like nothing – but it’s all relative!
That said it’s mainly flat in Belarus and once out of the city the cycling is predominately on quieter roads surrounded by pine forests. It’s a really beautiful place to cycle.
Both Mir and Nesvizh castles are 15th century UNESCO would heritage sites. We started at Mir castle, it was part of Poland until 1939 when the borders changed. We had a thorough tour of the castle with a guide. It’s well maintained with some beautiful furniture.
It’s said that soldiers mounted these metal frames with feathers on to there armour when going into battle. The noise they created when riding on a horse would startle and frighten the enemies horses as they approached, giving an advantage during the battle.
Much of the castle still demonstrates original, extravagant decor.
We spent a night in Nesvizh castle, the rooms felt old but grand. Dinner and breakfast were included and both were delicious. Again we had a detailed tour, though by this point I was tired and ready for some food! It was still a gorgeous and again well maintained castle. Nesvizh was part of Poland until 1945, and was regarded as one of the most beautiful castles in the area.
The castle and the courtyard just outside our rooms.
Day 3 – forests, eco-villages and countryside
On day 3 of cycling we cycled through beautiful forests to Rosy eco-village. Families have moved out of the city and chosen to live a simple, self sufficient life. Each family produces different food and they trade with each other.
The family we visited served us fresh bread, salad and tea, it tasted amazing, and we were surrounded by gorgeous gardens.
Ales Los farmhouse is run by a couple who have dedicated there life to music. They are outstanding musicians and play amazing folk music. We were welcomed by them playing us in, then they showed us around and educated us on some traditional instruments.
We had a great lunch stop in an 18th century lodge run by Vadim and his wife. It was traditional, hearty food and cannot be described as anything other than delicious! Being traditional they fed us wine and liquor too!
We headed back to Minsk for the evening and ate in a traditional restaurant with delicious food and some fantastic flavoured vodkas! Honey vodka was my favourite, it was even good neat over ice.
After dinner and with no cycling to do tomorrow we hung out for a few drinks in our hotel bar which had pool tables and being a Saturday night was full of locals. A round of drinks – 2 vodkas and 2 beers same to £2.50! And some of the locals had clearly had a few!
What made the trip more interesting..
Was the interesting group of people and our Polish guide. On these solo travel trips you meet people from different walks of life and you all have one thing in common – you all love to travel. It feels like a secure way of travelling solo if you don’t want to do it completely alone.
In this group were two couples, and a gentleman who’s wife was at home, all older than me, and our guide who was a fair bit younger. But what a great bunch of people and brilliant company they turned out to be! Age aside we all got on well as travelling companions.
Peter has travelled a lot and lived abroad with work. He spent a lot of time in Japan where I’d just got back from in April, having wanted to go as far back as I can remember. We spent hours talking about Japan and what we loved about it!
John’s Polish father had been captured in 1940 by the Russians, who sent him to a hard labour camp in Siberia. In September 1939 when Russia invaded Poland at the start of WWII, he was farming about 12 miles from Nesvizh. He left his farm, which was on the border of what was then Poland and Russia, never to return. John had a map drawn by his father and the name of the village, so rather than take the second castle tour that day, John jumped in a taxi to try and see where his father once farmed. At dinner that night we eagerly awaited an update on his story! John I hope I’ve recounted this correctly!
What an amazing experience that I wouldn’t have had without this trip. And a pleasure to talk to people I wouldn’t otherwise have met.
The Practical Stuff
The currency is the Belarusian Ruble. It’s a closed currency, you can exchange before you leave the airport, or withdraw cash. I recommend the latter on a Starling bank card for the best rates. Cards are widely accepted in Minsk but less so in more rural areas. https://www.starlingbank.com/
Drinking tap water is not recommended, you can pick up drinking water cheaply everywhere, almost as cheap as the vodka!
Tourism is still relatively new in Belarus so it still feels unspoilt and untouched, making for an authentic stay. It’s a fascinating place filled with history and outstanding architecture, as well as natural beauty, good food, and of course – great vodka!
The cycling trip was a different way to see a place and a great experience. Also a bonus on holiday that you can eat and drink what you like without gaining weight as you’re exercising everyday whilst sightseeing!
Explore is a great company to travel solo with and I’ve done many of there trips now. I also recommend Exodus, slightly dearer and usually nicer accommodation. Flashpack is good for 25-45 year olds. G adventures are good, cheaper and a little more basic. Often, but not always, a younger crowd. Intrepid is another one, similar to g adventures. It’s amazing how many other people travel solo, and I’ve always had a great experience on these group tours. Another one I haven’t tried yet but fully intend to at some point is Grasshopper, who specialise in cycling trips in Asia.
If you get the opportunity to visit, I thoroughly recommend a trip to Belarus!