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Belarus - Eating and sleeping
It will come as no surprise that this section begins with a few words about vodka. Virtually all of the countries in this part of the world lay claim to being the first to distil this spirit of mythical status, each claim probably having as much validity as the others. Whatever the truth, it’s an inescapable fact that vodka distillation is big business. Every supermarket and shop has row upon row of vodka bottles of all shapes and sizes, with a wide variance in quality and price. It’s usually colourless and free of flavourings, although there is a huge market around the world for spirits flavoured with so-called complementary additives such as pepper, honey, grasses and fruit (eg: lemon, raspberry or cranberry). Most people in Belarus drink it straight and unflavoured, as do I. There is an active market in home-distilled vodka and people out in the country are particularly inventive when it comes to making use of organic material for this purpose, usually potatoes. It often tastes surprisingly smooth but can be astonishingly high in alcohol content, so if offered, by all means give it a try but do treat it with extreme caution and absolute respect. I’ve experienced a few terrible hangovers after a night of domashnaya (‘home’) vodka. And I have never drunk it without knowing its source or being able to trust the founder of the feast.
Vodka is extremely popular throughout the country © Ala Charnyshova, Dreamstime
Beer (пиво) is popular as a staple alcoholic drink for recreational consumption. Much of it is bottled or cask-conditioned, but there is a growing trend for local microbreweries to produce their own diverse beers of high quality. If you’re an aficionado, you will have no difficulty in sourcing an increasing number of excellent examples. In bars and restaurants, mass-produced, conditioned beer from the Baltika brewery is most in evidence. Established in 1990 in St Petersburg, it is probably still the market leader, but it has many competitors. It brews nine varieties (unimaginatively numbered from one to nine, each being known by its number rather than by an individual name), ranging from a light ale with an alcohol content of 4.7%, up to a strong lager of 8%, with pale, classic, original, gold, porter, export and wheat beers in-between. Baltika 7 is Olya’s favourite, and probably mine too if I’m drinking Baltika, although my preference is to search out the product of a small local microbrewery.
The cuisine of Belarus derives from the same historical and cultural sources as those of its neighbours and is an articulation of the people’s relationship with the land. So if you’ve travelled in Russia, Ukraine, Poland and the Baltic states, you will recognise dishes and recipes that are common to each. For generations, local people have grown their own produce, particularly potatoes, root vegetables and fruits. This is no surprise, for to do so reflects some of the key historical features of life here across the centuries: long and unrelenting winters, short but intense growing seasons, political and social tyranny, the intensely physical and demanding workload of the peasantry and periodic famine. The resilience needed to combat all of these privations has to be fuelled by hot, nourishing and restorative food. For generations it was a simple question of survival.
The staple diet of those in rural communities was always related to the potato and other root vegetables because, for those living close to the land, this type of dish made good use of produce that was grown locally. Historically, the timing of meals for those working the fields always depended upon the beginning and end of their working day. A big breakfast, around dawn, based on boiled potatoes and baked pancakes, was followed by the main meal of the day around noon. Often served in the fields, the first course would consist of borsch (beetroot soup) laden with vegetables, potatoes, mushrooms and occasionally meat. In fact, to call this dish ‘soup’ does it something of an injustice, for it is a meal all of its own. The second course would be a dish based on cereals and more potatoes, washed down with kvas, kompote or sour milk. When the sun was at its height, it was a nourishing, filling meal, packed with energy-fuelling nutrients to keep the workers going until dusk. Supper at home after dusk would inevitably be more potatoes, this time with some form of stock. There was always a plentiful supply of bread, cereals and meat in the autumn and winter. Spring was the hungriest season of all, simply because last year’s store of produce would have been consumed during the harsh winter.
Historically, meat was often in short supply and was only really eaten on the occasion of significant Christian festivals. These days, you will find few beef dishes on a menu of Belarusian cuisine (it has never been highly regarded here), but pork has always been a favourite, along with salted pork fat, which is regarded still as a great delicacy. One of the most popular pork dishes is machanka, a personal favourite of mine. It is said to date from the 18th century and consists of chunks of meat in a rich and thick gravy, served in a stoneware pot with fried pancakes. You can expect to find it on every restaurant menu. On my last visit, my family introduced me to the concept of eating (wait for it) frozen pork. Smoked, placed in the freezer and then eaten straight from it, your senses will tell you that everything is wrong about this curiosity, but when it (literally) melts in your mouth as you chew it, the experience is unexpectedly tasty. If it’s ever off ered, do give it a try.
Your accommodation costs will easily be the biggest expense on your visit and at the higher end they can be substantial. A star system ranging from one to five is in operation in the country, but it bears little resemblance to anything that you will have seen before. Th e exception to this is the growing number of new private enterprise hotels, where standards match those found elsewhere in Europe. The older Soviet-style hotels have a bewildering variety of rooms of diff erent class and status, with prices to match. You can expect to be off ered, for example, a room that is economy, standard, business, semi-suite or deluxe, with daily rates starting at US$60 and going all the way up to US$900 and beyond. You will be encouraged to indulge yourself at the top end of the range, but if all you want is somewhere to rest your head, then rooms at the bottom end will be more than adequate. And if you have the time and confi dence to shop around a little, you can usually find a reasonable deal on a decent room. In recent times, a number of new breed hostels have opened for business in Minsk and elsewhere in the large cities. Well appointed and with high standards of service, they represent excellent value for money.
In part, however, tourist accommodation is no exception to the general rule that, everywhere you look, you will still see relics and reminders of the days of the Soviet Union. In the 1960s and 1970s, when the fi rst intrepid European tourists pioneered holidays there through the only medium that was available, the state tourist agency Intourist, they all returned home with tales of having stayed in soulless, monolithic concrete buildings, where the awfulness of the food was matched only by the surliness of the staff , there was no hot water, every fi tting was hanging off, there was never a plug for the bath, the windows didn’t fi t their frames and guests were kept awake all night by the cockroaches. Today, things are diff erent: the food is pretty good, the staff try to smile (some of them, sometimes), you don’t need to bring your own bath plug and perhaps most important of all, the cockroaches seem to have gone. But the soulless monolithic buildings are still there, as is the concrete, both more crumbly and neglected than they were back then.