When Chelsea’s UEFA Europa League draw was made I knew that I would miss PAOK as I was on holiday, whilst Vidi in December was a non starter, thus I fancied Bate Borisov in Belarus due to it being a country I hadn’t previously visited.
This was no straight forward trip to arrange even for Tommies Tours. The easiest way it seemed was to fly via somewhere to the capital of Belarus, Minsk, Borisov was about an hour away. The flight was touching £300 and the return was via Istanbul with a four-hour wait there as well. I explored the other options and flying to neighbouring Lithuania seemed a decent choice and again a country I hadn’t visited. However, by going this way you required a visa, what a stupid situation this was, if you fly into Minsk a visa isn’t required but entering any other way you need one – it should be all or nothing.
The visa seemed reasonable at £60 on top of the £143 flight to Vilnius, but problems lay ahead. The Belorussian Embassy in London would not answer any emails or phone calls, it was a complicated visa form thus I needed to speak to them. Eventually we decided to pay £100 for a visa company to assist us, which I must say they did well – the train to Minsk came out at £30 – not bad for a return which took over two hours both ways.
So flights booked and the visa arrived in time and match ticket was purchased for £17.50. The usual ticket collection was in place and with luck at our hotel, which by the way was excellent – kudos to Billy for booking, at least he didn’t moan about the hotel.
We flew to Vilnius via Stockholm where I refused to pay €12 for a pint at the airport but cracked and paid €9 for a bottle of pear cider – no logic in that. We arrived in Vilnius and a decent night was had. It wasn’t a poor place by any means but, my understanding is that compared to the other Baltic states such as Estonia and Latvia, Vilnius isn’t the nicest of the three. Maybe we weren’t there long enough but there was it seems only one street with bars and there wasn’t many, although they were decent. The beer was fine, we did look for a late bar, but to no avail we couldn’t find one, albeit a good outcome probably due to us having to catch the 06.15 train. There was passport control procedures at the station and the border crossing was nervous, they inspected our passports like they were looking for gold, but when they got the stamp out I knew we were in.
The station in Minsk was a taxi ride away to the hotel where we passed the renovated national stadium – it looked impressive, as far as floodlight go it was porn, they were like gigantic tennis rackets.
The hotel bar was open when we arrived at 10.00am thus beers were ordered and we refused to pay the €77 for an early check in. We checked in at 12.00, showered and headed back to the bar and left for the mini bus to Borisov. Once again, this was a contentious decision as most were staying in Minsk till later – kick off wasn’t until 21.00, Google had shown a couple of bars in Borisov but the driver firstly decided to drop us of at the impressive stadium on the outskirts, I mean who wants to go in the stadium at 14.00 – he eventually managed to find a bar – the obligatory shamrock was outside and it had wooden decor inside. This area was grim, I’ve travelled a lot and this city was the grimmest I’d visited: it had nothing going for it.
Ordering food and drink was a nightmare, the waitress brought us two plates of cheese balls instead of the chicken and chips we ordered, she didn’t understand what a vodka and orange was: we were in Belarus! The beer was vile so I again plumped for pear cider all the way from Cornwall! The old Bate stadium was adjacent to the bar and it seemed a pity we weren’t playing here – proper old skool stadium. It seemed that some Chelsea fans were happy to stay in one bar but I wanted to say that I’d been to more than one, so we decide to head off to bar Pinta.
The taxi arrived and promptly expected us to walk through the mud and puddles to it. Billy was having none of it and we persuaded her to drive to an area not as muddy. She drove off and whilst pulling out of a junction I could see the lorry drivers eyes, we were lucky – I’m sure someone had just given her a set of keys and said drive, she was character but wasn’t fit to be behind the wheel. To make matters worse, bar Pinta didn’t exist, to save our embarrassment of going back she came up trumps and took us to bar Dogma her local. It was a great bar and the thought of grim Borisov soon vanished.
The local Chelsea fans were there and wouldn’t take no for an answer regarding buying us a little drink, large shots of vodka were bought and I swear we couldn’t say no. A bear of a man then came in with a ‘Cymru am byth’ jumper (Wales for ever) but he was in no mood for a laugh, he was the sort of guy who you didn’t want to upset, he persuaded us to join him and share his jug of vodka, a man of little words, a gentle giant perhaps, but possibly ex-forces. Came across as a bit of a nutter.
We eventually managed to free ourselves from vodka man and got to the ground. The evening sky was the same as the city, dank misty and grey. Chelsea scraped a win and the trip back to Minsk was a thirsty one, the hotel bar was crammed with Chelsea until the early hours of the morning where most realised they had a plane or train to catch.
I can’t really judge Minsk as I didn’t see enough but the contrast between Belarus and Lithuania was immense. Belarus people seemed regimented, and it seemed like a job for everyone, whilst when we arrived back in Vilnius everyone seemed jovial and happy. Borisov is the worst place I’ve ever been to, although I’m in Albania soon…
Four flights – ran a mile to catch a connection
One crazy taxi
Vodka – lost count
Beer- mostly good
Food – good