Getting to Belarus

Panorama view of the old part of Minsk in Belarus

Panorama view of the old part of Minsk in Belarus.

Belarus was mentally added to my Bucket List a few years ago. I was just killing time, looking at a map for new destinations to dream about.  Minsk is not too far from Vilnius and Wizzair has really cheap flights to there from Bergen, so that was the route I chose.

Do I need visa to go to Belarus?
First things first; Yes*, most nationalities need a visa. If your country does not have an embassy or consulate of Belarus, you qualify to arrange the visa on arrival at Minsk International airport. However, the price is then higher (for me 90€, compared to 60€) than if you arrange it before. Check your details for visa to Belarus.

After comparing back and forth quite a bit, I ended up arranging it before, even though using Visasupport AS had its additional cost as well.

*New rules from 12 January 2017 allow visa free entry for citizens of 80 countries for stays up to 5 days, so check the rules for your country. However, you then must enter and exit at Minsk International Airport Terminal 2. 

Transport between Vilnius and Minsk:
Arriving at Vilnius Airport I found a mini bus right to the left when I exited, that took me to the bus station for 1 Euro. I had actually bought a bus ticket with the Wizzair bus when I booked the flight, but as I did not instantly see it outside, I went for the other option. It was anyway cheaper, so I would choose this option next time. Or, maybe even the train, as it is right next to the bus station.

Since I was not sure if the flight would be on schedule, and also how long the transfer from the airport to the bus station would be, I did not dare to book the bus ticket from Vilnius to Minsk in advance. In hindsight, I would though. The bus from the airport to the bus station took only 10 minutes. For me it was not a problem buying the ticket when I arrived, but it can actually be sold out, so at least check regularly the availability online. And, if you have a long enough time lap to be sure to make it, why not book and get done with it? That is slightly cheaper too.

The bus from Vilnius to Minsk operated by TOKS was nice and comfortable. However, I would recommend taking the train by Belarusian Railway instead if it fits your schedule. Not only is it a faster route in general, but the passport control is done while the train is actually moving, making it more predictable as well. Taking the bus we actually had to check all our bags as well at the border. It goes without saying that the train was my choice getting back to Vilnius.

Accommodation:
As I have a Belarusian friend, I stayed over at his place, but there are several hotels in Minsk, such as Hotel Belarus or Manastyrski Hotel, situated in an old monastery. A number of apartments are also listed at Airbnb.

If you are new to Airbnb you can sign up using this link, and get $25 off on your first booking.

The train station in Minsk, Belarus

The train station in Minsk.

The train from the train station in Minsk to Vilnius

The train from Minsk to Vilnius

 

Visiting Auschwitz and Birkenau – A day for reflections

Auschwitz Arbeit macht frei
Auschwitz
main camp house different exhibitions including war history, explanation about the extermination, evidences of crime, collection of personal belongings and photos of prisoners. Living- and sanitary conditions are also shown. Moreover, there are several places of special interest, such as the Death Wall and gas chamber and crematorium 1. In addition, there are national exhibitions going in depth of the fate of the prisoners from different countries. Auschwitz II – Birkenau, show the living conditions of the prisoners in original barracks, as well as the railroad tracks leading directly into the camp, stopping by the unloading ramp.
Death Wall in Auschwitz
Auschwitz prisoners
Auschwitz II Birkenau 11
When I visited Auschwitz and Birkenau 13 years ago, it was as a part of a school trip. The previous years, classes had went on this trip during spring, but the teachers had now decided they wanted to go in winter instead as the site looked quite idyllic when the trees were blooming. I totally get there point! The trees along the path between the houses in Auschwitz were bursting with green leafs, and the grass among the barracks in Birkenau were packed with colourful flowers.

Don’t get me wrong, it is hard enough to imagine the cruelty that found place in the concentration camps anyway, but the more idyllic scenery does not help.
Auschwitz
Auschwitz II Birkenau 6
I was actually surprised that the entrance to the area was free, but at the same time I am very glad, so that all that want do visit can do that. The only thing you have to pay for is if you want to have a guide.

Since both of us had been here before, we decided to walk around by ourselves. On my previous visit, a time witness that had been a prisoner in a concentration camp accompanied us. The stories of Eskild Jensen made such a big impression that I could still remember details from the stories he told us 13 years ago. He was imprisoned in Sachsenhausen that we also visited back then. It was obviously a totally different experience now, but at the same time it was also good to be able to take some more time to soak in the impressions. However, I think it could be useful to get the small guide book that give the brief description what the different barracks exhibit to be able to select what to focus on.

Auschwitz was established I 1940 for Polish political prisoners, but it did not take long before the Nazis deported people from all over Europe. They were mainly Jews, or others the Nazis considered less worthy as humans.

The choice of location was not by coincidence. Located just far enough outside the town Oswiecim for the inhabitants there not to intervene, and also being close to an important railway junction.

Auschwitz originally counted 20 buildings, but as the number of inmates continued to rise, they first built an additional floor, before they had to build eight new buildings. All this was done by the prisoners. In 1941 they constructed a second camp, called Auschwitz II – Birkenau.

One of the first things you notice when entering the area, is the barbed wire fences. Above the main gate at Auschwitz you see the inscription “Arbeit facht frei” (Work brings freedom). The prisoners would pass this gate every day on their way to work, with an orchestra playing to make them march so the SS could more easily count them.

From 1942 Auschwitz became the largest center for mass extermination of European Jews. The majority of the Jews deported here were killed in gas chambers immediately after arrival. As many of these were never registered, it is hard to know exactly how many persons were murdered here, but it is believed to be 1,5 million victims!

Most Jews coming to Auschwitz and Birkenau were convinced that they had been deported for resettlement. This also made them bring their most valuable belongings. Once unloaded from the trains, a physician from SS examined the new arrivals, determining who was capable for work, and who would be sent strait to death in the gas chambers. They did off course not know that this was their destiny, as they were told they would have a shower. The large bathroom was indeed filled with lots of showers, but they were never even connected with water. After locking and securing the doors, the chamber were filled with Cyclon B gas, killing the ones trapped inside. Their possessions were removed, including jewelries and gold fillings in their teeth.

Photo: Aschwitz II – Birkenau

Photo: Aschwitz II – Birkenau

One of the things making most impression, are the rooms filled with the victims belongings. Especially the piles of shoes in all sizes, knowing that every pair represent a person. And this is just a small part of the ones they collected. Suitcases, glasses and tons of hair are also displayed. Much of the victims’ hair was also used to make clothing.

Shoes in Auschwitz
Glasses in Auschwitz
Suitcases in Auschwitz
Countless prisoners were also undergoing medical experiments, and Dr. Joseph Mengele especially used twins for this matter.

The Death Wall between block 10 and 11 was the scene where thousands of prisoners were executed, by either shooting or hanging.

Aschwitz II – Birkenau is situated 3 km from the main camp. Coming through the gate, the first thing you notice is the railroad tracks leading directly to the center of the camp. After getting the background information from the main camp, you can vision the hordes of people at the unloading ramp, waiting for their fate to be determined.
Auschwitz II Birkenau 2
Auschwitz II Birkenau
The large area once contained over 300 buildings. Of these, 45 made of brick and 22 wooden have survived almost intact. The outlines of the previous other houses are clearly visible.
Auschwitz II Birkenau 7
At the end of the unloading ramp, there are remains of two crematoria and gas chambers. When SS had to retreat, they tried to blow up many of the buildings to conceal their criminal actions.

One of the things that I remember best from my last visit is the barrack for the children. The drawings on the walls made it all a little bit more alive, and made such a big impression on me.
Auschwitz II Birkenau 9
Auschwitz II Birkenau 10
Auschwitz II Birkenau 8
You should allow at least half a day for the visit, preferably even more, as time runs quicker than expected. The sun was setting for an emotional day at the concentration camps.
Auschwitz II Birkenau 4

How to get there:
There are several bus companies leaving from Krakow. We bought a one way ticket from the bus/train station by the local bus company PKSiS. The price was 14 PLN per person. This was a local bus stopping quite a few places along the way, letting off and picking up new passengers.

There is a free shuttle bus running between Auschwitz and Birkenau.

When returning to Krakow, we used another bus company, Lajkonik Bus. It started from the parking lot just across the street from the main building at Auschwitz. The standard was much better, it did not stop that many times along the way, and the price was even better, so I would absolutely choose this company instead. At least on the way back. I would still consider the other bus one way, to get the local experience.

Read my other posts from Poland and the road trip through Europe.

The mills of Kinderdijk – A UNESCO World Heritage Site

Windmills are one of the first things that comes to mind when I think of the Netherlands. In Kinderdijk they have 19 of them, being the only place in the world with so many gathered in a relatively small area. That fact is fascinating in itself, but the area is also very beautiful, with green fields as far as the eye can see, and the carved canals cutting through them.
Mills in Kinderdijk
Mills in Kinderdijk 2
The area consist of the windmills (off course), Museum Mill Nederwaard, Museum Mill Blokweer, and the Visitors’ Centre Wisboom Pumping Station, with boats taking you to the different locations. It is also possible to walk on the public foot and cycle path along the canals. This is open all year, and free of charge.

We decided to go for the package with the Canal Hopper boat, Museum Mill Blokweer and the Visitors’ Centre Wisboom Pumping Station. Buying the ticket in one, gives you a better deal. After getting the ticket, we jumped into the boat, slowly sliding through the calm water, reflecting the green grass and the mills. Just fabulous!
Mills in Kinderdijk 1
Arriving at the dock for Museum Mill Blokweer, we jumped off. The big round stone mill stood before us, with the large sails turning in the wind. Swosh, swosh, swosh. The inside of the mill told the story and lifestyle of the miller and his family living there. Even though watching the mill was time consuming, they still had to make their own living by growing food and fishing.
Museum Mill Blokweer in Kinderdijk
The mill wheel at Museum Mill Blokweer in Kinderdijk
Livingroom in Museum Mill Blokweer in Kinderdijk
The purpose of the windmills was to pump out the water, preventing the land to be flooded. A large part of the Netherlands is actually situated below sea level! One side pumped the water up one level, the other pushed it to the next, until the water finally reached the river. The 19 mills working together with two steam pumps could get rid of 450.000 liter per minute! To me that sounded quite impressive, until I heard they are now building a pump that can do 2,5 million liters!!… But still!

We got back on the boat, continuing along the rows of windmills. A beautiful and peaceful sight. The ones on the right side were built in 1738, the left side two years later. The oldest was actually built as early as 1440, but unfortunately, it was made by wood and burned down. However, a replica was recently rebuilt.
Mills in Kinderdijk 3
Mills in Kinderdijk 4
Finishing off with what might actually had been better as a start; the visitors center in Wisboom Pumping Station. We watched a film telling the story about the area, including stories from different persons in the community and their different roles in the big picture. This gave a better overall picture of the importance of the water management system.

Fun fact: When standing still, the wind sails were set in different positions, each symbolizing a specific meaning. Usually it was used to tell when to pump or when to stop, but it was also used to tell about baptisms and other events.

How to get there:
We came by our own car, but there are also several ways to get to Kinderdijk by public transport, including the waterbus if you are staying in Rotterdam.
The address to enter in your navigation system is Nederwaard 1, 2961 AS Kinderdijk.

Read other posts from Netherlands and our road trip through Europe. 

Shetland og Orknøyene

Loganair flyr direkte fra Bergen til Shetland onsdag og lørdag fra 24. mai til 30. august. Skal du fly utenom disse dagene kan du fly til både Shetland og Orknøyene via Skottland, f.eks. Edinburgh, Glasgow eller Aberdeen.

Både Shetland og Orknøyene var tidligere en del av Norgesvelde, og har helt tydelige preg av dette, både med vikingene og språk.

Passer for: par, familier, vennegjenger, men man bør helst trives ute i naturen. Og ikke minst for historieinteresserte! Gøy for barn å utforske eldgamle ruiner og gammel norsk historie.

Prisnivå: Som ellers i Storbritannia.

Shetland
Lerwick er en koselig by med mye gamle steinhus. Det er en fin tursti langs strandlinjen, og det er også fint å gå tur opp på haugen bak byen. Har møter du på masse ville kaniner. Shetland Museum er fint for hele familien, med interaktiv utstilling.

Ta lokalbuss til Scalloway, den gamle hovedstaden, der “Shetlandsbussene” fra Norge kom under krigen. Det er også et gammelt slott der, og man kan få nøkkel til å låse seg inn og se seg om selv.

En annen kjekk aktivitet er båttur fra Lerwick for å se fuglefjell, havørn, seler. Og sauene som gresser inne på land. Det er også lundefugler på Shetland.

Man kan også ri på Shetlandsponny, så det er en fin aktivitet for barn.

Flyplassen ligger på sørspissen, og rett ved finner man to utgravningssteder. Et av dem er Jarlshof, som er 4000år gamle ruiner i veldig god stand. Det er også mange andre arkeologiske steder over hele øyriket.

Unst er den nordligste øyen, også den nordligste i Storbritannia. Det er mange flotte sandstrender, og det er fint å bo i telt og våkne opp til bølgene. Øyen har også eget bryggeri, Vallhalla Brewery. Det er et veldig lite bryggeri, men kan få omvisning av den entusiastiske eieren.

På søndager er det bygdefest, og det går på rundgang i alle bygdene å være ukens arrangør. Mennene kler seg ut som vikinger, det er kakesalg i samfunnshuset, og leker for barn.

Vi fant ut at det kunne være vanskelig å komme seg dit man ville uten egen leiebil, siden det er litt begrenset med busser. I alle fall dersom man har begrenset tid. Men book bil i god tid på forhånd, de fleste leiebilene er leid ut til oljearbeidere.

Det er mange ulike typer overnatting. Hoteller, gjestehus, B&B, telt, fyrtårn, böd (primitiv overnatting, ofte gamle steinhus), så det er fullt mulig å prøve litt av hvert.

Dersom du bare ønsker å ta en liten svipptur over til Shetland, arrangeres Shetlandsseilasen fra Bergen til Shetland hvert år. Statsraad Lehmkuhl gir deg muligheten til å mønstre på som mannskap.

Få mer informasjon om Shetland.

Orknøyene – øyrike sør for Shetland, rett nord for fastlands-Skottland.
Det går ferge fra Lerwick på Shetland til Kirkwall på Orknøyene.

Øyriket byr på mange historiske steder, men for å nevne noen:
Skara Brae ble funnet etter en sandstorm i 1850. Rester etter bosetning som ble bygget for ca. 5000 år siden. Altså før Stonehenge!
Ring of Brodgar er en stor sirkel med høye steiner (ser ut som store steinheller), 104 meter i diameter. Uvisst hva formålet var, og hvordan de har fått steinene dit. Bli med på gratis guidet tur for å få litt mer forståelse.
Standing Stones of Stenness er en mindre sirkel med steiner som står i nærheten. Det antas at disse steinene ble reist 900 år før Ring of Brogar.
Maeshowe er et gravkammer som ble bygget for mer enn 5000 år siden! Det er begrenset antall besøkende per dag, og man får kun inngang gjennom guidet tur. Vikingene brøt seg inn i gravkammeret på 1100-tallet, og risset inn runer.
Brough of Birsay er en gammel vikingplass. Den er kun tilgjengelig når tidevannet er lavt.

Som man forstår er det mye historie fra langt tilbake, og for å få litt perspektiv kan man se på tidslinjen. Orkney Explorer Pass gir inngang til mange av de historiske stedene, men det er kun i salg i sommersesongen siden mange av stedene er stengt i lavsesong.

En annen, litt nyere, attraksjon er Italian Chappel som ble bygget av italienske krigsfanger under andre verdenskrig.

Old Man of Hoy er kanskje ett av Orknøyenes mest kjente landemerker. Ta fergen over til øyen Hoy og kjør et lite stykke til Rackwick. Derfra er det et par timers fin gåtur til kysten der «steinstolpen» på ca. 140m står frittstående rett opp av havet.

Ellers er det masse fantastiske sandstrender! Dog er det litt kaldt i vannet, men bare som en litt kjølig vårdag her hjemme.

Hvis du har fått nok av historiske steder og natur, bør du ta turen innom Highland Park og lære om whisky. Her har de spennende omvisning med smaksprøve og mulighet til å kjøpe med produkter i butikken etterpå.

Med drikke trenger man mat, og en av øyrikets spesialiteter er lam som kun har gresset på tang. Veldig smakfullt!

Det er med andre ord masse imponerende historie, flott natur, god mat og drikke, men man må heller ikke glemme å besøke de koselige små byene.

Få mer informasjon om Orknøyene.

Hør innslaget på Kveldsåpent på NRK P1.

Se flere reisetips fra Kveldsåpent på NRK P1.

 

The beautiful and charming town Gjirokastra

The old town of Gjirokastra is one of the best-preserved examples of an Ottoman-style town in the Balkans. The town is packed with sights, and I recommend to do as we did; buy a map with the main sight. We also bought the book “Gjirokastra the essential guide” made by Gjirokastra Conservation and Development Organization for additional information.Gjirokastra old town
We followed the map as best as we could, even though some of the sight were not obvious. It sometimes felt like we walked around with a treasure map, but it was great fun. The facts on both the map and in the book was also very informative and useful.

Walking around we saw many different sights, including the hamam, the obelisk, the orthodox St. Sotira church and the mosque. At one point there were 15 mosques in the town, but when the Communists took over after the war they destroyed all but one. The remaining was of cultural significance and was used to train circus performers because of the high ceiling.
Bazaar main street
The old bazaar area was the first settlement outside of the castle, and the main city of Gjirokastra until the 19
th century. Many of the streets in bazaar area was totally abandoned, and it seemed that only the main streets was busy with shops, restaurants and houses. We figured that the houses and shops were probably abandoned during the massive emigration in the 1990s.Abandoned house

Abandoned houses
The residential area on the hill behind the castle was very nice, and also had an enjoyable view.
Gjirokastra hillside
The castle
The castle was first built more than 2500 years ago. It was developed further in the Byzantine period (12th and 13th century). In the late 1400s, the Ottoman Empire continued building to the present size and condition.
The castle
Once you enter the castle, you will go through a hallway with artillery and a tank.

We decided to pay additional entrance to enter the prison and weapon exhibition. King Zog built the prison in 1932, and many of the inmates had opposed communism in the period 1944-1968. Inside the prison cells there were writings on the wall stating quotes from personal diaries and news events. The inner part of the prison had separate cells for punishment, torture and executions. In the 1970s, the Communists opened the prison as a museum. I wish the writings on the wall would have been translated, so we could get more insight in what it was like to be imprisoned and their situation. But it was absolutely still worth visiting this part of the museum as well. The weapons museum had various weapons, mainly “trophies” taken from the enemy during the 1st and 2nd World War. 6000 women fought under 2nd World War. Some of the weapons also dated back from the Bronze and Middle Ages, gathered from all over Albania.
Prison
Other sight at the castle to be mentioned are the cannon collection with mainly British cannons, the American airplane and last but not least; the clock tower.
Cannons and the American airplane
The plane had to make an emergency landing in Tirana in 1957. It was said to be a spy plane, but the pilot was allowed to return home to the United States. The plane was confiscated by the Communist regime and has been exhibited as a trophy on the castle wall since 1969.

The Clock Tower was erected in the 1800s by the Ottoman Empire. They had a long tradition of building clock tower around their kingdom, partly due to the need to control the timing of their five daily prayers. The original clock was stolen either by the Italians or by the Nazis during WW2. The tower was restored in the 1980s, and got a new clock in the 1990s, but it has unfortunately stopped. The Clock Tower is a magnificent construction, and with the mountains in the background, it offer many great photo opportunities.
Clock tower
We could move around more or less everywhere, even in the dark abandoned parts of the castle, which now appears to be inhabited by bats.

From the castle you also have great views of the town and the surroundings, and I would advise to start the sightseeing in Gjirokastra with a visit here, to get the general overview.

The Zekate House
The beautiful tower house in Ottoman style built in 1812 for a general in the Ottoman army, is also worth a visit. The house is now uninhabited and serves as a museum. The neighbor owns the house and opens if you want to enter. There is no light, so it is best to visit while the sun is still up, or bring a small flashlight to be able to see. There is not much to see in most rooms, so you should have some knowledge and imagination to picture how the general and his family lived in the house 200 years ago.
Zekate House
The cistern is the first you see as you enter, and the size of this was a symbol of status. On the second floor there was a living room for guests. One corner is slightly elevated from the floor, and was where the guests with the highest status was sitting. The women of the household had a separate room with its own staircase down to food storage and cooking facilities. This room was located right above the cistern, and was cooled by the cold water. 
The rooms on the third floor was used in the winter since the stone walls made ​​it easier to retain heat. One of the rooms had a small loft, where the women of the house were sent when the men had formal guests. On the top floor there were three rooms, two summer rooms and the reception room. This room featured stained glass windows in several colors and carvings on the ceiling.

To sum up Gjirokastra:
Absolutely a place I would recommend! It is a very pleasant town with beautiful old houses and a great feel to it. Even though we visited during high season, there were few other tourists there. I would say two days is enough, unless you plan to use it as a base for daytrips elsewhere. The best tip; Just walk around, soaking in the fantastic atmosphere!

How to get there:
We took the bus from Saranda at 11.30, but there are several busses during the day. The ticket cost 350 Leke per person, and the drive is about 1h 15m. The bus stops in the new town, so from there you can either walk or take a taxi uphill to the old town.
Bus to Gjirokastra
Where to stay:
There are a few hotels up in the old town, as well as small guesthouses. We preferred to stay in an old local house, and booked a room in Hashorva Guesthouse. The stone house is 200 year old, and very charming. It was no luxury, but definitely good value for money, and good location just a few blocks below the bazaar.

Where to eat and drink:
Taverna Gjocka: Albanian food and local specialities, including the rice dish Qifqi that is unique for Gjirokastra. Very friendly staff.
Kujtimi Restaurant: Nicely located with outdoor tables in a cosy garden.
Taverna Kuka: Nice big outdoor terrace with nice view.
A. Muco restaurant: In a small side street with some outdoor tables. Simple but tasty food.
Byrek Shop: For a quick snack. Has byrek with different filings.
Restaurant Fantazia: It was closed during the day when we were there, but offers great view of the town.
Bar Clavis: A great place for some drinks. We enjoyed sitting outside, but it looked quite nice inside as well, with a movie theme on the walls. A little piece of the big city in the small town. In a very positive way.
Typical Albanian food

Getting to Albania

The only international airport in Albania is found in Tirana, but as the Greek island of Corfu is only about 40 min boat ride away, it is quite easy to get to the south of the country from there. The departures from Corfu to Saranda by Ionian Cruises varies depending on season, so make sure you check the time table when you plan your trip.

It is also possible to get there from the other neighbour countries. Read more about how I got from Dubrovnik in Croatia via Montenegro to Albania.