FROM BELARUS WITH LOVE – ENGLAND TRAVEL DIARY
FIRST PUBLISHED: EnglandFans, Winter 2008
I arrive at Gatwick just before 1am – it’s two and a half hours before check-in opens, but I’m not alone. England fans are dotted around the airport, and while some hit the all-night burger bar, I camp out in front of the check-in desk and manage to get another hour of light sleep. I wake to find that there’s still 90 minutes to wait, but a queue has already formed behind me, starting with two Spurs fans from Stevenage. There are animated discussions going on – someone has heard there was a two-hour delay at the airport in Minsk yesterday as people were instructed to buy medical insurance.
10.30am (local time): ARRIVAL AT MINSK AIRPORT
Arriving at Minsk Airport on time, the first people to greet us are two immaculately turned out British Bobbies. They offer the usual advice with a smile as we queue up to get our passports stamped. The scare stories about long delays prove to be untrue today, but after all the complications of applying for the visa at home, there are a few wry smiles as one guy fills in a form in just five minutes and pays for his visa in cash!
11.30am: DROP OFF AT THE STADIUM
Travelling on a daytrip I don’t have to worry about navigating the local public transport system. A fleet of coaches take us into Minsk, where we catch out first glimpse of the Dinamo Stadium. It’s a classic Soviet structure: totally uncovered and a bit tatty around the edges, but it’s a beautiful sight for those of us who love those imposing eastern European floodlights. As soon as we step off the coach a Sky Sports camera crew pounces on one of the Stevenage Spurs fans for his match predictions, but money is the main priority for most people. As you’re not allowed to bring Belarusian Rubles into the country, a plane-load of England fans are now scouring downtown Minsk for the nearest cashpoint!
2pm: FOOD FOR PATRIOTS
Everyone has been given a handy photocopied map with all the bars, restaurants and points of local interest highlighted – trouble is, there’s no explanation of what’s what, so it’s more by luck than judgment that I stumble on the U Ratushi bar, a quaint building hidden just behind the cathedral. England flags are draped outside and once in the door it’s heaving with fans. I bump into Andy from Oxford, who I first met in a Yakitori restaurant in Osaka in 2002. “The food’s okay here,” he says, “but it’s slow and the portions are small.” I take the risk and order ‘Dranic’, a local delicacy that the menu suggests is “for patriots and visitors”. It turns out to be potato pancakes with sour cream, but it does the job.
4.50pm: A LITTLE BIT OF CULTURE
Having spent a couple of hours in U Ratushi, it’s time for a bit of culture at the Museum Of The Great Patriotic War. It’s situated on Ploshad Oktyyabrskoy, the vast open square in the centre of the town, but it’s not apparent which building it’s in – even with a vintage bomber and half a dozen tanks in its back yard. I stumble around the square with other fans searching for it and after about 30 minutes I’m inside, studying the devastation that Minsk suffered during WWII. There’s always the temptation to stay put at the first bar or café on an England away day, but when football takes you to the kind of fascinating places that you’d never otherwise visit, it’s always worth looking around. Others have the same idea and many travelling fans pass through the museum today.
At the end of the tour I attempt to stroll around the military hardware out back, but a little old lady at the gate has other ideas as she shouts at me in Belarussian and points to a sign. Apparently it closes at 5pm, and although we’re still ten minutes shy of that, there’s no point in arguing. “She’s got to polish the tanks,” jokes one of the other fans evicted with me.
7pm: WAITING FOR KICK-OFF
Arriving at the stadium early, once inside there is little to do except browse the souvenir stall, but there’s only so long you can look at Belarussian straw folk art! It is getting cold and out of desperation I consider buying a finely embroidered Belarusian Ruchnik – a traditional towel – to wrap around my neck, but in the end the local police allow me outside the stadium so I can buy an England scarf. “Just ask for Sergei,” they say when I ask how I can get back in!
Other fans seem more concerned with getting hold of a programme. Some are throwing 20,000 Ruble notes across the barrier at a young lad in a cheaply printed t-shirt that says ‘official programme seller’. It’s a lot of money out here, the programme is flimsy and you wonder just how ‘official’ he is as the police won’t actually allow him inside the England enclosure.
9.30pm. THE MATCH
There is a definite sense of excitement as the match kicks off. The victory in Zagreb has reminded a lot of us exactly why we travel all over the world to watch this team and there is uncontrolled delight to see Wayne Rooney scoring again. However, the biggest cheers of the night are reserved for Emile Heskey. Even the Belarus supporter who is standing amongst us joins in with the chants. “Your fans are incredible and I wanted to be with you to learn your songs,” he explains. Everyone enjoys his company and he exchanges email addresses with a Brighton fan.
1am: THE RETURN JOURNEY
The coaches are delayed by a few minutes as one fan didn’t show and he announces his late arrival at the airport by taxi with bravado but no explanation. It takes 90 minutes to get through to the departure lounge, long after we are supposed to have taken off. It is only once you get through to passport control that the reason becomes apparent. Our bags and coats have to go through two different x-ray scanners, and we have three passport inspections and three boarding card checks before being able to take our seats on the plane. “I think they’re a bit unhappy that they lost,” jokes the guy behind me.
4am: BACK IN ENGLAND
Only two and a half hours late we land back in Blighty. All that’s left is the long journey home. “See you in Berlin,” shouts one guy as he heads for the long stay car park. Yes, it all starts again soon.
© Words copyright Chris Hunt 2008