Around The Black Sea: Belarus, Ukraine, Moldova, Bulgaria

We toured around The Black Sea through those former Eastern Bloc countries we hadn't visited yet. One of the motivators for this trip was that Belarus had given up its outrageous visa fee of around 60 euro per person. Now the only nuisance left is that in order to get an entry stamp, you have to fly in and out of the country and pay for a so-called "medical insurance" at the border. While the insurance costs only a couple of euros, it still feels stupid to pay for nothing.

The capital of Belarus, Minsk, was very clean and organised. It reminded us of Yerevan thanks to the old Soviet style buildings and huge, broad avenues. Despite having a couple of million inhabitants, Minsk feels like a small town as most people live in suburbs and the city centre is empty in the evening. Belarusians lament that their city is grey and doesn't offer many recreational activities; people get lost in the everyday humdrum. Many progressive youngsters have left the country and those who are still there dream about moving abroad. We were lucky to meet with a few exceptional Belarusians who dare to think outside the box and search for alternatives.

Lovely Odessa, Ukraine

From Minsk, we flew to Odessa, Ukraine. The city had a notorious reputation in the Soviet Union era as it was the paradise of thieves and scammers. In fact, crowded marshrutkas (minibuses) and trams still offer many opportunities for those looking for easy money. We met a couple who had been unlucky enough to be pick-pocketed right upon arrival.

Our stay was peaceful with no unpleasant incidents. We enjoyed Odessa's dilapidated beauty and great seaside with lots of sand, which is exceptional as the Black Sea beaches are usually stony with large pebbles. (The sand in Odessa has been transported from elsewhere.) We met, again, some exceptional people who were engaged in interesting projects creating travel houses and rebuilding the war-torn areas of the country. Although the war has weakened Ukraine, it has also connected people. The young are optimistic about the future and also rather patriotic, at least compared to Belarusians.

Two very different beach towns: Constanta and Varna

From Odessa we continued by bus. Our trips were not great in distance but the roads were not in perfect condition so travelling took a lot of time. Most buses are small marshrutkas. They are jam-packed and there is no air-conditioning available. While the weather was quite cool in general, Moldova was tormented by a heatwave. We were travelling light having only jeans with us, which didn't feel such a great choice in the hot and humid marshrutkas where the temperature jumped to 40 degrees Celsius, although in much chillier Minsk they had been a blessing.

Despite the fact that both Romania and Bulgaria are in the EU, there was a passport control for all passengers in the Romanian-Bulgarian border. When we asked for a reason, the border guards looked sour and told us to ask the politicians. Everything else was like in the EU in general, particularly prices. Romania and Bulgaria are considerably more expensive than the neighbouring countries. For example the 3-hour bus trip from Constanta, Romania to Varna, Bulgaria cost more than 20 euro per person. With the same amount of money we later crossed the whole Turkey in 24 hours.

Romania's beach town Constanta is quite dreary and the streets are filled with rubbish. Compared to that, Varna felt like a heaven. There are beautiful old buildings and great sand beaches. In May, there were not too many tourists around, but it can get crowded during the European holiday months, which of course annoys locals.

Back to Georgia via Turkey

From Bulgaria we returned back to Georgia by bus through Turkey. The whole trip from Odessa back to Batumi was about 2400 km or 1500 miles. It meant quite a lot of sitting, but we enjoyed seeing other parts of the Black Sea coast, making new friends, and practising Päivi's basic Russian skills she has been recently acquiring.

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