Nauru Travel Diary

From Houston to Sydney 2013

From Houston

to Sydney



I have often found that when flying from one city to another, it can be difficult to find much time for looking around either city.  The time taken for packing and travelling to an airport to begin the journey, and the time taken to negotiate immigration, collect bags and find one’s hotel at the end of the journey, can quickly mount.

In that context, I was delighted that even though we travelled from Latvia to Belarus today, we were still able find some quality time for excellent explorations in both cities.

The weather forecast for Riga this morning was a bit grim – sunny conditions at first, but rain starting at about 11am.  We decided to make the most of the sunny blue skies when we woke (which actually wasn’t that early) by taking a walk through the old section of Riga before breakfast as a way of expressing a final farewell to a city we had both come to like very much.

We chose some of the (very few) streets that we had not previously traversed, and our first destination was a group of just three buildings in Mazā Pils Street known as the “Three Brothers”.  These three beautiful buildings are among the oldest in Riga’s old city, and each dates from a different century, the oldest having been built at the end of the 15th century.

Our walk continued from street to street, and in the quietness of a Sunday morning, walking the streets was a magical experience.

The room where we had breakfast had a glass ceiling, so we followed the passage of the clouds overhead with interest as indicators of what was happening with the weather outside.  I was interested in taking a walk of about 4 kilometres to Victory Park and back before we left.  As Di had, as she called it “zero interest” in Victory Park, we agreed that I would take the walk while Di did some re-packing.

The walk to Victory Park and back required a walk along the eastern bank of the River Daugava before crossing the river on Akmens Tilts Bridge and a further walk along Uzvaras Bulvāris, past the new National Library construction site to the Soviet Victory Monument.

Despite (and, to some extent, because of) the threatening clouds overhead, this was an invigorating walk.  Many of Riga’s sights looked quite dramatic against the dark grey clouds that were accumulating, and yet there were bursts of sunshine from time to time (which is when I tended to slow down and take some photos).

The rain held off until the last 10 minutes or so of my walk, by which time I had returned to the eastern bank of the river and I was able to reduce the extent to which I got wet by walking under the trees whenever possible.

We left the hotel for the airport at about 12:15pm, a comfortable time to check-in for our flight that was scheduled to leave at 2:10 pm.  We were flying with Latvia’s airline, Air Baltic, which has a reputation for charging for each and every additional item whenever possible.  This impression was confirmed when we arrived at the check-in counter to be informed that we should use the self-serve machines for check-in if we wanted to avoid the 10 Euros per person charge for being checked-in by an attendant.  I knew I would have to pay for our check-in bags, as the air fare I had booked cost us only US$36 per person.  The luggage added an extra US$28 per person, but I thought that was still good value for a one hour international flight.

Our flight with Air Baltic was on a De Havilland Canada Dash-8, not my favourite type of plane, but I have to say that this was quite a pleasant flight.  Leg room was good, the flight was smooth and the arrival was punctual.  We arrived in Minsk at the scheduled time of 3:15pm.

Belarus has the reputation of continuing many of the bureaucratic practices of the Soviet era.  Landing in Minsk certainly triggered a wave of Soviet aeronautical nostalgia as I looked across the airfield to see lines of Tupolevs, Ilyushins and Antonovs.  Even the newer second-hand Boeing jets of the national airline, Belavia, are painted in a colour scheme that is very reminiscent of Aeroflot in its Soviet hey-day.

Ours was the only flight arriving in Minsk at the time, so the lines at immigration were short and moved quickly – until we reached the desk.  As is also the case with Russia, a condition of getting a Belarusian visa is that you must have travel insurance that covers medical expenses.  I had taken out travel insurance specifically to get my Russian and Belarusian visas, but although my insurance seems to have satisfied the Belarusian Embassy in Washington DC, it did not satisfy the lady at the immigration counter.  Di and I were directed upstairs to a special desk for “Foreigners Compulsory Medical Insurance”, where I dutifully paid US$6 ($1 per day per person) and received my medical insurance certificates.  Thus armed, we returned downstairs to the immigration counter where we were processed with maximum efficiency and courtesy.

Minsk Airport is located 45 kilometres from the centre of Minsk.  However, it was easy to find the transfer desk and arrange transport, and we were soon on our way into Minsk, travelling along one of the smoothest freeways we have experienced for quite a long time.

Although the weather had been wet when we left Riga and heavily overcast when we arrived in Minsk, the clouds had cleared by the time we reached our hotel in central Minsk at about 4:30pm.  Unlike our time in Murmansk and Sweden, the length of the day in Minsk was considerably shorter (being located further south at “only” 54°N).  Nonetheless, sunset today was not scheduled until 8:47pm, giving us plenty of time to have a walk and explore the centre of the city.

We made the most of our time, and had a great walk that I would estimate was about 4 kilometres.  We started in the heart of Minsk, just a couple of blocks from our hotel, at Independence Square and Lenin Square, the large open area in front of the National Parliament Building with its Soviet-era Lenin statue in pride of place at the front, and across the street from the Minsk City Council Building.

After walking around this area for a while, admiring the scene in the glorious afternoon sunshine, we took a long walk north-east (and back) along Minsk’s main street, variously labeled as Niezaliežnasci Praspyekt and Nyezalyezhnastsi Praspyekt.  Quite simply, I thought this street was fabulous.  It is lined on both sides by beautifully preserved and renovated Stalinist buildings from the Soviet era, fronted by some of the widest footpaths I think I have ever seen in a large city.  The whole scene gave the appearance of order, elegance, spaciousness and cleanliness, without having a sense of being over-sanitized or artificial.  This street is probably the best example I know of a large ensemble of high quality Soviet architecture, perfectly preserved and able to be experienced as it was designed to be.  Not even Moscow has anything like Niezaliežnasci Praspyekt (or whatever its correct spelling is supposed to be).

Our walk took us past some of Minsk’s most impressive buildings, including the KGB Headquarters, the Palace of the Republic, the World war II Museum and, perhaps most extravagantly decorated of all, the Trades Union Palace.

Of course, this was just the beginning – our introductory stroll around Minsk.  We will explore the city in much more detail tomorrow, and I can hardly wait.

Day 37 - Riga to Minsk


11 August 2013