Belarus – Why Visit?
Belarus Digest starts a series of articles on tourism in Belarus prepared by Nigel Roberts, a a UK-based freelance travel writer specialising in Belarus.
I first visited this extraordinary and much misunderstood country in 2001. I have returned many times since then to explore widely, initially working on sustainable development projects with families in communities blighted by the Chernobyl catastrophe.
Then from 2005 I was also researching material for my travel guide to Belarus, first published by Bradt Travel Guides in 2008. The latest (and third) edition reached the bookshelves earlier this year.
The first two editions have sold well, as does the third. I receive regular correspondence from readers around the world. More and more online resources showcasing Belarus appear regularly. There is clearly growing interest in the country as a destination for travellers. So what can the first-time visitor expect to find? What are the treasures that await?
Minsk ‘Hero City’
For many (though not all), the jumping-off point is Minsk National Airport. Situated 40 kilometres east of the city on an extension of the M2 motorway, access to the capital via bus, cab and express train is good. The airport itself has recently undergone significant refurbishment, as befits its status as the point of arrival and departure for all international flights.
Minsk itself was almost completely destroyed by the Nazis in World War II and was honoured with official recognition as ‘Hero City of the Soviet Union’ in 1974. After the conflict, Stalin ordered it to be rebuilt in a manner that would stand testament to the might, resilience and ingenuity of Soviet communism. It remains one of the best examples of post-war Soviet Utopian urban planning, with cavernously wide boulevards, grandiose brutalist architecture and wide-open spaces, where the eye is always drawn up and to the horizon.
Amongst my favourite places are Pobyedy Park, now home to the splendid and recently relocated State Museum of the Great Patriotic War; Nyezalyezhnastsi Avenue, the city’s main thoroughfare, ideal for promenading and people-watching, where a number of major squares are also to be found; and the National Library, an eye-catching and most unusual building of unique geometric proportions.
Perhaps my favourite place of all is the Central Bookstore (Tsentralnaya Knigariya) at 19 Nyezalyezhnastsi Avenue, where a myriad of glossy pictorial guides, maps, postcards, posters and calendars make excellent souvenirs to take home. And for a taste of high culture, take in a glorious opera or ballet performance at the National Academic Bolshoi Opera and Ballet Theatre of the Republic of Belarus.
Outside Minsk: Palaces, Castles and Sombre Remembrance
For those with a yearning to see more of the country, a number of day trips from the capital are readily accessible. Around 90 kilometres south-west is the stunning 16th century Mir Fortress, former home of the ‘big baron’ Radzivili family, and one of the country’s four UNESCO World Heritage Sites. 30 minutes further south-west by road and 120 kilometres from the capital lies another, the delightful historic settlement of Njasvizh with its beautiful moated palace, also dating from the 16th century and also formerly in the ownership of the Radzivilis.
If you have stamina for a long day out, the 14th century castle ruins at Novogrudok, 40 kilometres north-west of Mir, are also worthy of a visit. Then for a significant clue to understanding the collective national psyche of the country today, visit the National Memorial Complex at Khatyn. Only 75 kilometres from Minsk, this deeply affecting and doleful memorial was constructed on the site of a former village that was razed to the ground in the spring of 1943 and its inhabitants brutally butchered. A visit here is a must-see.
Brest ‘Hero City’
Not all visitors will arrive by air of course, and for those who travel by train the most likely point of entry into the country will be in the south-western corner, at Brest. It’s a real border town of energetic hustle and bustle, as well as a significant staging post on the Berlin-Moscow railway line and the main intercontinental highway from east to west. The most important site of interest is the Hero-Fortress, a strategically crucial complex featuring extensively in a number of historical brutal conflicts, most notably under siege on the first day of Operation Barbarossa, Hitler’s invasion of the Soviet Union in 1941. Tales of heroism and privation abound here.
Brest is the location of my favourite restaurant in the whole of the country, Jules Verne on Gogolya Street. It is also the gateway to the wonderful Byelovezhskaya Puscha State National Park and Biosphere Reserve, another UNESCO World Heritage Site and home to several hundred European bison. It is also possible to visit Grandfather Frost in his own natural environment …
Situated in the north-western corner, Hrodna (also spelled as Grodno) is an elegant city of grace and charm. It has one of the largest concentrations of Roman Catholic worshippers in the country and is a centre of Polish culture. The region abuts Poland and the western border of the country has moved significantly east and west at times in history. Catholicism dominates much of the architectural heritage, but the striking Drama Theatre, which would not be out of place in a scene from Tolkien’s Middle Earth, is also worthy of note.
The lovely city of Vitebsk in the north-east is regarded by many as the cultural capital of the country. The much-loved Slavyansky Bazaar festival is held here every summer, and there are numerous sites of interest connected with favoured son Marc Chagall. The oldest town in all Belarus, Polotsk, is located within this region.
So Why Visit?
The sites mentioned here are a tiny taster of all there is to be seen and experienced. From my first visit 14 years ago, the single feature that has dominated all my time here continues to be the unconditional hospitality of ordinary people. Sometimes wary at first, with familiarity comes trust and a willingness to openly share. It’s the country’s greatest treasure. I invite you to see for yourselves.
Nigel is a UK-based freelance travel writer specialising in Belarus