The first Belarusian river cruise: Belaja Ruś – Belarus Photo Digest

In recent years, the Belarusian leadership has been attempting to create a positive image of the country to attract foreign visitors. So far, Belarus seems to appeal mostly to Russian tourists.

Russians perceive Belarus as a nostalgic holdout of the USSR with quality food and good cheap ‘Soviet’ service. They see tourism in Belarus more as a trip down ‘memory lane’. For several decades, most Belarusian health resorts have relied on Russian tourists for business.

However, the launch of the cruise ship Belaja Ruś is a new pearl for Belarusian tourism. This motor ship is a restored and altered OS-2 technical vessel. Its restoration lasted more than five years, as the project was short of funds, and the total cost of the project remains a secret to this day. Local workers at the ship-repair yard jokingly call it the Titanic.

Local water channels still lack interesting and distinctive infrastructure, but hopefully development will gain momentum as more tourists arrive. The cruise’s route will run along the Dnieper-Bug Canal on the rivers Bug, Muchaviec, Pina, and Pripyat, from the city of Brest to Mazyr over 8 days. Over the course of the voyage, tourists will relax and visit tourist attractions during the daytime and cruise the river at night.

The interior of the ship room. Decorations are mostly of Belarusian origin.

 

Open deck for evening gatherings and fresh air.

 

The honorary launch of the ship’s maiden voyage took place at the Pinsk shipyard. Local officials and plant workers were invited to the ceremony. Speakers expressed their hope that this new tourist itinerary would be profitable enough for the plant to finally regain its former glory and attract new orders for ship manufacturing.

 

Officials speaking at the shipyard near the skeleton of a new ship.

 

In accordance with long-standing tradition, a bottle of champagne was smashed against the ship board. The bottle only shattered on the third attempt.

 

A blessing by an Orthodox priest is an indispensable part of any ship launching ceremony.

 

Officials did not reveal the final cost of the ships, saying only that the works lasted for many years and it is hard to calculate the costs.

 

The city of Pinsk has its own river station with distinctive wooden architecture.

 

View of Pinsk from the Pina river.

 

Shipyard workers stare bemusedly at the first tourists.

 

Although many small technical ships sail along the Pina, the appearance of a tourist motor ship has sparked unprecedented interest.

 

The captain and his crew set out on their first trial voyage.

 

A notable marketing move: the name of the ship, Belaja Ruś, is the name of an official pro-government public association, which unites Lukashenka’s power vertical and is widely referred to in official ideology.

Local officials and journalists were the first to embark on the ship’s trial voyage. Tourists have been able to book cruises since 29 April.

About the photographer: Siarhei Leskiec is a freelance photographer whose work focuses on everyday life, folk traditions, and rituals in the Belarusian countryside. Originally from Maladzeczna region, he received a history degree from the Belarusian State Pedagogical University.




Hrodna is learning to handle more foreign tourists

Around 1,100 tourists, a record number, visited Hrodna Region between 26 March and 2 April 2017, according to Belta news agency. Since October 2016, it is possible to visit the region for five days visa-free.

This growth in tourism has occurred despite inconvenient entry procedures: the authorities restrict visits to five days, limit where tourists can go, and prohibit entering the country via certain modes of transportation.

Over the last months, infrastructure, food services, and lodging in Hrodna Region have been developing. However, attracting more foreign investment and modernising housing, air, and railways would do much to increase the capability of the city to host more tourists.

Tourism Development in Hrodna

The amount of tourists in Hrodna continues to grow. In total, more than 7,500 tourists have come to Hrodna since October 2016 thanks to the new visa-free regime.

The majority of visitors come from Lithuania or Poland. Lithuanian and Polish travel agencies are popularising weekend trips to Belarus through package deals. For instance, Beta, a Lithuanian travel agency, offers single-day tours called 'Royal Hrodna' for $20. The tour includes visits to churches and historical places with buses departing from three Lithuanian cities: Vilnius, Kaunas, and Alytus. Since October, Hrodna Region has also been attracting visitors from Latvia, Germany, Italy and 35 other countries.

Augustow Canal is gradually becoming one of the most popular destinations. In response to increased interest, authorities plan to open new border checkpoint at the territory of Augustow canal on 28 April.

Liasnaja-Rudavka will become a border checkpoint for boats, pedestrians, and bicycles. Starting in late April, several new 50-km bicycle routes will be built along the canal.

Belarus can also expect increased tourism in other parts of the country as well. In February 2017, authorities announced visa-free entrance for nationals of 80 countries if they arrive via Minsk airport.

Moreover, according to the Ministry of Internal Affairs, Belarus plans to introduce 12/14-day visa-free entrance instead of five. Belarusian minister of tourism and sports Aliaxandr Šamko reported an increased demand at health resorts. This factor may also contribute to extending the legal length of visa-free visits.

Travel Restrictions for Tourists

While travelling around Hrodna, tourists are restricted to car and bus travel. Several factors could explain this: Lithuania decommissioned the railway connection to Druskininkai after the fall of the USSR. The future of the Hrodna-Warsaw and Hrodna-Bialystok connections was also called into question in late 2015. The instability of rail connections may explain the decision not to include rail travel in the visa-free zone.

Recently, customs officers in Hrodna stopped Polish producer Piotr Dudanowicz and two German musicians at the border and forced them to return to the nearby Polish town of Kuznica. The three foreigners had travelled by train to Hrodna instead of taking the bus. The musicians had to wait more than 10 hours for the next bus in order to come back to Belarus.

Airplane travel to Hrodna is also impossible. Hrodna airport, like all other airports in Belarus, has failed to introduce budget flights. Moreover, authorities did not include the airport in the visa-free zone. Officials still voice doubts about introducing budget airlines in the Minsk airport due to the 'discrepancy of low-cost flights with the rules of Minsk National Airport', according to chairman of Minsk national airport Dmitry Melnikian.

The number of tourists increased but complicated procedures and small print create inconveniences for travellers. Customs officials count the day of arrival and departure as whole days. Experienced tourists advise crossing passport control after midnight if the flight arrives several hours before. In March, two Canadian musicians were fined $3,000 for counting the days wrong, reports KYKY.org.

Can Hrodna Accommodate More Tourists?

Although the amount of tourists continues to grow, services for tourists remain limited in variety and quality. Only 8 hotels and one hostel function in Hrodna, according to Booking.com. In cities with comparable populations in neighbouring countries, the numbers differ significantly. The Polish city of Bialystok has 19 hotels and nine hostels, Lithuanian Kaunas has 24 hotels and seven hostels, and Ukrainian Lviv has 20 times more hotels.

However, over the last months, Hrodna has been developing infrastructure for tourists. The second hostel with cheap prices (around $5 per night) opens in May. However, both hostels can only accommodate 100 tourists. Recently, Burger King announced the opening of a facility in Hrodna, making it the first international fast food chain in the city.

The lack of English-speakers continues to be a significant problem for tourists. Polish and Lithuanian tourist groups often travel on guided tours and have a guide who speaks their language. However, for tourists from other countries, communication remains a challenge. Recently, around 15 waiters in central cafes and restaurants enrolled in special English courses.

Some tourist activities are not well suited to foreigners. The number of tourist agencies in Hrodna dealing with inbound tourism has increased compared to last year, from 10 to 70. Nevertheless, the city currently lacks a tourist information centre. While Augustow canal is preparing several bicycle routes, bicycle infrastructure in Hrodna remains inadequate, according to the cyclist organisation Vela Hrodna. Additionally, there are few possibilities to rent quality bicycles close to the bus station.

A recent journalistic investigation conducted in Minsk by Alena Vasiljeva claimed that certain unique traits of Belarus could be turned into national brands. Safety and the relative absence of racism, as some travellers have noticed, makes Belarus different from many countries. Foreigners have also picked up on the Soviet nature of architecture and even daily life. Lithuanian tourists have praised the quality of Belarusian underwear and coffee.

Even though Belarus has made important strides in improving the tourism sector, more work is necessary. The first step should be increasing the number of hotels, at least to the level of neighbouring Kaunas or Bialystok. Another vital step would be improving the level of English for staff in hospitality industries, improving tourist centres, and working on bicycle infrastructure. Another option to make foreign visitors feel more welcome could be creating an English-version of video guides. The project 'Tourism without a bag' could provide a fitting example.

Simplifying investment opportunities for foreigners would also contribute to the development of the city. This would allow Hrodna Region to handle an increasing amount of tourists and reach a higher level of development.




Belarus opens up? The government announces visa-free entrance

On 26 October 2016 a new visa-free area along the Augustow Canal, a conservation protection zone in the Hrodna region on the border with Poland and Lithuania became effective.

Tourists will also be able to visit adjacent districts of Hrodna region as well as the city of Hrodna (population 300,000) visa-free, an unprecedented measure in the history of sovereign Belarus.

The visa-free regime will last until 31 December 2017. This will make it the second visa-free zone in Belarus after the national park Bielaviežskaja Pušča opened up in 2015; foreign citizens can stay in the forest for up to three days.

These initiatives appear to be an experiment before Belarusian authorities implement a more comprehensive simplification of the visa regime: future plans also include the long awaited authorisation of local border traffic. Belarusian authorities have long overlooked tourism as a source of profit, but the crisis in traditional industries has forced them to consider this option.

Is Belarus finally opening up to the world?

On 23 August Aliksandr Lukashenka signed decree No. 318: "Concerning the introduction of visa-free entry and departure for foreigners” which came into effect on 26 October 2016. The document allows visa-free stay in the Augustow Canal nature park and adjacent territories for a period of up to five days. The authorities launched a special web site explaining the visa-free entry procedure.

Foreigners will be required to obtain permission to stay on the territory of the Augustow Canal park. Permission can be requested from Belarusian tour operators and travel agencies.

Tourists will need to submit a form to border authorities via e-mail or post at least 24 hours before their arrival. Visitors to the park will be able to enter Belarus via four border checkpoints – two on the border with Poland and two with Lithuania.Visa-free stay can last up to 5 days, after which foreigners must leave the territory of Belarus.

Importantly, tourists will also be able to stay in adjacent districts of the Hrodna region and the city of Hrodna (population 300,000) visa-free, an unprecedented measure in the history of sovereign Belarus. Minsk and other major cities are outside the visa-free zone, so a trip there would be considered a violation of visa-free entry rules.

According to Deputy Minister of Sports and Tourism Michail Partnoj, this is a preliminary measure before Belarus opens up to the world even more. The first such initiative appeared during the 2014 World Hockey Championship which took place in Minsk. Authorities announced that foreigners with a ticket for the championship could enter Belarus without a visa.

In summer 2015 the government introduced a visa-free regime for tourists entering the national reserve Bielavieža forest on the border with Poland. Visitors need only posses a valid ID and a ticket for the national reserve.

The fact that Poles and Lithuanians will have easier access to Hrodna may indicate that Minsk wants to test the impact of local border traffic. Its authorisation was long delayed because of Poland and Lithuania’s critical position towards the political regime in Belarus.

Furthermore, the government fears that Belarusians will drain foreign currency reserves while shopping in borderland areas of the EU. However, as relations with the EU improve, Minsk may reconsider the local border traffic issue.

A major obstacle to tourism development

Despite being an immediate EU neighbour, Belarus remains the most closed country in Europe when it comes to visas. Except for former Soviet republics with mutual free travel policies, the citizens of only a dozen countries in Latin America and Asia can enter Belarus visa-free, and even then only for 30 or 90 days per year. Russia has a very similar visa regime, but it offers visa-free entrance to a slightly higher number of countries.

In March 2016 Deputy Minister of Sport and Tourism Michail Partnoj, speaking at a seminar on inbound tourism, made a resolute statement: “We need to open up Belarus… We will break down bureaucratic obstacles by the law and authority endowed upon us. Tourism will develop in Belarus.”

The Ministry of Sports and Tourism remains the main advocate of simplification of entrance to Belarus. This is no wonder, since the success of the tourist industry directly depends on the number of tourists entering the country, and visa barriers remain a major obstacle to visiting Belarus.

To give an example, official statistics report that in 2015 Belarus hosted 300,000 organised tourists (the actual figures seem to be smaller), while Lithuania's capital Vilnius, not the most popular destination in Europe by any stretch of the imagination, hosted around one million visitors. What's more, out of these 300,000 tourists the majority came from Russia, which has an open border with Belarus.

The Ministry of Foreign Affairs has long been reluctant to advocate visa-free travel, as consular fees bring a good deal of income to the ministry. Currently, a person who wants to obtain a Belarusian visa has to pay €60-150 depending on the type of visa. In recent years, however, the ministry has changed its position and supports easing the visa regime.

Belarus security agencies remain the main opponents of a mass inflow of tourists, as they would need to considerably change the way they work. The Border Committee claims the border infrastructure is not capable of handling a larger numbers of visitors, while police will have to cope with much more work registering foreigners and maintaining order in the streets and on roads.

What comes next?

People both inside and outside Belarus have criticised the government for dragging its feet about the visa issue. Many contrast Belarus with Ukraine, which made entrance for all Schengen zone citizens visa-free some 10 years ago.

However, Belarusian authorities are notorious for extreme caution and incrementalism – they never make radical moves when it comes to politically sensitive issues. Therefore, the country opening up all at once seems like a highly unlikely scenario. Moreover, Belarusian authorities are also known for reversing policies if the political environment changes, which happened with local border traffic in 2010.

Nevertheless, these new initiatives indicate an understanding within the government that tourism can become a profit-making industry in times of crisis when traditional industries such as machine building are experiencing stagnation.

Easing the visa-regime will benefit tourism-related businesses, improve Belarus' image in the world, facilitate person-to-person contacts and encourage the integration of Belarus into the European context.

Potential travellers and business owners can only hope that the new visa experiments will lead to a comprehensive simplification of the visa regime shortly after.




Jewish Belarus

Judaism in Belarus dates back to the 9th century. The Jewish community has made hugely significant contributions to every stratum of life in these lands.

But by the end of World War II (the Soviet Union’s ‘Great Patriotic War’), the country’s Jewish community had been virtually wiped out as part of Nazi Germany’s ‘final solution’.

Yet today, small communities that refused to die are beginning to grow and re-establish connections to a heritage and identity that was all but lost. Yiddish can be heard on the streets once more. And all over the country, locals and tourists alike are at last able to visit significant sites that are being actively promoted.

Minsk: re-birth from the ghetto

Between 1941 and 1943, the Minsk Ghetto was one of the largest in occupied Europe. More than 100,000 Jews lived within its confines in the most inhumane of circumstances. Today the Zaslaŭski Memorial marks the spot where, on a single day in March 1942, the Nazis murdered 5,000.

Around 500 of the bodies were dumped in the pit that was dug here, an act of barbarity commemorated by the bleak and doleful sculpture of a line of terrified men, women and children descending into the very pit itself. It never fails to profoundly move anyone who visits.

Frieda Wulfovna witnessed life in the ghetto at first hand. An escapee who lived to eventually tell her story, I interviewed her on a grey and snowy morning at the pit of death. Here is what she told me.

At the Holocaust Museum and Research Studio nearby, on the site of the old Jewish Quarter, Frieda and the handful of other survivors have made it their life’s work to educate and never to forget.

Located in a Jewish house over a hundred years old and opposite the site of a former cemetery, each room houses exhibits that include displays on the lives of individual families, a German military map of the city marking the ghetto boundaries, photographs of the Maly Trascianiec concentration camp on the eastern edge of the city and a memorial to the 33,000 Jews transported here by the Nazis from all over Europe.

Minsk also has a Museum of Jewish History and Culture situated on the Minsk Jewish Campus, where more than 10,000 artefacts have been collected for display.

At long last, the state appears to be acknowledging the significance of its Jewish heritage, though a cynic would say this has more to do with the exploitation of an opportunity to promote tourism abroad. Either way, plans are afoot to develop the memorial complex on the site of the former concentration camp at Maly Trostenyets, with government funds apparently committed to the project. The sculpture ‘Memory Gate’ on the site is both harrowing and deeply moving.

Brest: a race against time

In 1921 a relief programme initiated by American philanthropist Felix Warburg financed the construction of a new Brest suburb to accommodate homeless Jewish war veterans, their families and orphaned children following the privations of World War I, adjoining a Jewish cemetery established in the 1830s.

By the end of the Nazi occupation in 1944 only 19 Jews remained out of a pre-war community of around 26,000. First the Nazis then the Communists desecrated the cemetery, the gravestones either destroyed or used as hardcore in construction.

During significant building works in recent times, the remaining Warburg houses have been bulldozed one by one. Less than a handful remain. Meanwhile, the digging of foundations for a new supermarket has unearthed hundreds of gravestones.

The small Jewish community here is working tirelessly to preserve all that remains, but the clock is ticking. In Israel, urgent discussions have been held in the Knesset itself. And at present, over 1,200 headstones have been recovered from the building site and are presently stored for safe-keeping under the arches of Brest hero-fortress.

The city’s tiny but informative Holocaust Museum displays a model of the original Warburg suburb. Nearby stands the bust of Menachem Begin, the sixth prime minister of Israel, who was born in Brest in 1913.

Unexpectedly, one of the most poignant of the Jewish sites here lies within the curtilage of the Belarus cinema in the city centre, the location of the foundation stones of Brest’s original synagogue. The theatre was actually constructed around it, the shape of the original walls being clearly visible to this day. No plaque acknowledges the significance of the stones, but row upon row of them can still be inspected in the basement of the cinema.

Viciebsk: a favourite son

This charming and elegant city, renowned for its artistic heritage, has a special claim to fame, for ‘brilliant dreamer’ and surrealist painter Marc Chagall lived here for many years. The house of his birth (an archetypical eastern European red-brick Jewish home from the late 19th century) has been turned into a delightful museum, packed with artefacts telling the story of the artist’s life and of the community into which he was born.

Nearby stands the Chagall monument in the old market square of the Jewish quarter, while elsewhere in the city, the splendid Marc Chagall Museum and Art Centre hosts an impressive collection of 300 original works of art.

Provincial Jewish Belarus: ghosts and voices from the past

All over Belarus traces of Jewish heritage stand ready to be re-claimed, many in ordinary and forgotten locations.

While visiting the outstanding fortress in Mir, do not overlook the Jewish quarter behind the modest town square. Only part of the 19th century synagogue remains, though a new one is in the course of construction on an adjacent site. The nearby small but charming museum dedicated to the Jewish history of the town easily repays a visit.

The forests around Navagradak formed the backdrop to the heroic activities of partisans during World War II (notably the Bielski Brothers, whose exploits are well documented in film and literature). The museum in the town houses informative and moving exhibits relating to the fate of the Jewish community during the war and the engagements led by the partisans, which made a huge contribution to the Soviet war effort.

Vetka, a small and sleepy town just 22 kilometres from the country’s second city Gomel, hides dark secrets. Behind the locked gates of a farm enterprise on the edge of town stands the privately commissioned memorial to the Jewish dead of the district, 200 of whom were murdered in this very location. A mass grave was only discovered during works of excavation at the farm.

Even now, old wounds are being reopened in Vetka. Last year the local newspaper published the names of collaborators who it alleges were involved in the murders. And only recently, building works in the town uncovered the bodies of German soldiers killed in action and buried unacknowledged where they fell.

Behind a petrol station across town stands the overgrown and unkempt site of the old Jewish cemetery. Formerly the location of over a thousand graves, only a few broken stones and some rusted railings remain. School Number One has a superb museum devoted to the town’s Jewish community and its history.

Footnote

To arrange tours, visits to museums or memorial sites with an English-speaking guide and to meet community members themselves, contact British charity The Together Plan, working with Belarusian NGO Dialog. Elsewhere, the objects of London-based foundation The Belarus Holocaust Memorials Project are dedicated to establishing memorials at each of the 400 known sites of Nazi massacres.

Nigel Roberts

Nigel is a freelance travel writer specialising in Belarus and is based in the UK.




Eastern Belarus: What To See And Do

The capital city Minsk generally marks the limit of ambition for many first-time visitors to Belarus. Last month, however, we took a glimpse at some of the delights awaiting discovery in Western Belarus beyond the boundaries of the M9, the Minsk orbital motorway.

This article, the second of a two-parter, introduces the visitor to the Eastern half of the country. Here stand the cities of Homieĺ (Gomel)​ and Viciebsk (Vitebsk), famed for the richness of its arts and culture heritage.

Elsewhere lie the historic settlements of Polack (Polotsk, the oldest town in Belarus and one of the oldest in all of Eastern Europe) and Turaŭ (Turov, spiritual heart of the Paliessie), as well as the small town of Vetka with its superb Folk Arts Museum.

Cities: the arts, parks, rivers and vistas

With a population close on 500,000, Homieĺ can justly claim to be the second city of Belarus. 300 kilometres from Minsk and close to the borders with Russia and Ukraine down in the south-eastern corner of the country, its location high above the western bank of the Sož river gave the city significant importance during the Great Patriotic War. Today, all is hustle and bustle as befits its status.

Yet oases of calm do exist, chief among them being the lovely Rumiancaŭ-Paškievič Park, behind the statue of Lenin at the top of Savieckaja Street. Whatever the season, the opportunity to promenade here should not be missed.

The sumptuous 18th century palace designed by Count Rumyantsev stands in 25 hectares of beautiful parkland, from which extensive elevated views east over the river afford a fine panorama. Within the park also look to find the early 19th century Cathedral of Saints Peter and Paul and nearby the Rumiancaŭ mausoleum, an excellent photo opportunity.

270 kilometres north-east of Minsk on the banks of the Western Dzvina river stands the elegant city of Viciebsk, birthplace and long the home of artist Marc Chagall. The excellent museum devoted to his works holds a lofty position on the river’s eastern bank, just across a pretty square from the 18th century Russian Governor’s Palace.

A few moments’ walk south brings the visitor to the magnificent Uspenski Cathedral of the Assumption, one of the city’s highlights. The view from the balustrade takes in the whole of the lower city, including the site of old Jewish Viciebsk.

Little of the original architecture survived the horrors of the Nazi occupation, though one notable building that remains is the House of Marc Chagall, now a lovely museum telling the story of the artist’s life. Just a few hundred metres along Pakroŭskaja Street from here stands the Chagall monument in the old market square.

The popular and much-loved Slavianski (Slavic) Bazaar, an international song and culture festival that takes place annually in the open air in late July and early August, beautifully articulates the city’s relationship with the arts. For one glorious week in high summer, the city morphs into a gigantic street party, with 5,000 artists performing at the purpose-built domed amphitheatre on Frunze Street, as well as (seemingly) on every street corner.

‘The city of all Belarusian cities’: walking in the footsteps of history

No visit to Vitebsk should pass without an excursion to Polack, the oldest and one of the most attractive towns in the entire country. Only 105 kilometres to the north-west and birthplace of famed poet and teacher Simeon of Polack, as well as the great humanist and translator of the Bible Francysk Skaryna, a single walking tour presents the visitor with an opportunity to explore the town’s riches on foot. One such tour is described in the third edition of my Bradt Travel guide to Belarus

However you do it, be sure not to miss the stunning Cathedral of St Sophia, first built in the 11th century, the magnificent Convent of St Euphrosyne, with its cathedral and two churches, and finally the statuary and monuments to be found the length of Francysk Skaryna Avenue. Bring your walking shoes and luxuriate in a slow meander through this beautiful town.

Icons, manuscripts and rušniki

At first sight, the small town of Vetka appears unremarkable. Founded in 1685 by “Old Believers’ (the religious group disenfranchised and persecuted by Catherine the Great and others for failure to accept significant reforms within the Russian Orthodox Church), it stands on the eastern bank of the Sož river, just 22 kilometres north-east of Homieĺ ​.

But this sleepy provincial town is home to the splendid Folk Arts Museum, where exhibits of the highest quality recount the story of the unique culture and history of the region. Ancient artefacts, icons, manuscripts, traditional costumes and woven ‘rušniki’ (embroidered towels with deep ritualistic and ceremonial significance) fill each room.

Old Believers crafted many of the icons in the 17th century, while the rushkini come from the villages of the region. At the school in the nearby village of Niehliubka, pupils still learn to weave on wooden looms made to the exact design of those dating from the 1600s. The headteacher is always glad to welcome visitors.

‘The land of fogs and bogs’

The area to the south of the M10 motorway linking the cities of Homieĺ​ and Brest (the mysterious, mystical and fabled Paliessie) holds considerable appeal to lovers of nature and the great outdoors. Known colloquially as ‘the land of fogs and bogs’, the fragile balance of the eco-system of the marshy lowlands here has been difficult to maintain over the centuries, but work now undertaken at Prypiacki National Park helps to maintain its unique biological diversity.

Do visit Turaŭ, the main town and spiritual heart of the Paliessie​. First mentioned in chronicles in 980, some historians place its importance in Old Russia second only to Kiev. The fine nature museum here explains all the visitor needs to know about the history and ecology of the Paliessie​.

Visitors from outside the country will always find that the attractions of the capital city Minsk are many and varied. But as with Western Belarus, those with an instinct for discovery who venture East beyond the boundary of the Minsk orbital road will uncover many treasures. Be bold and inquisitive. You will not be disappointed.

Nigel Roberts

Nigel is a freelance travel writer specialising in Belarus and is based in the UK.




Western Belarus: What To See and Do

For many first-time visitors to Belarus the limit of ambition and adventure often extends no further than the boundaries of inner city Minsk, yet a voyage of discovery exists elsewhere in the other major cities, museum towns and the natural world.

This article, the first of a two-parter, introduces a number of these treasures in the Western half of the country, where the elegance of Hrodna (also spelled Grodno), the frontier bustle of Brest, the palaces and castles of Mir, Niasviž and Navahrudak and the natural beauty of Bielaviežskaja Pušča National Park all await the curious traveller.

Cities: mediaeval and Soviet heritage

In strategic and geographical terms, Belarus played a number of important roles as the most Westerly of the former Soviet Union’s republics and it comes as no surprise that this feature continues to dominate its attractions today.

Nestling in the north-western corner lies the city of Hrodna. Just 20 kilometres from the Polish border and only 40 kilometres from Lithuania, its cultural and administrative importance within the former Grand Duchy of Lithuania and later in the time of the influential Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth goes back over 750 years.

Catholic and Polish influences abound here, as most notably exhibited in the form of the majestic 17th century Jesuit Farny Cathedral, located centrally on Savieckaja Square. The exquisite high Baroque altars, one of which is 21 metres high, should not be missed.

Only a few hundred metres away, the frontage of the lovely Bernadino Church and Seminary high above the Nieman river affords fine views across the lower town, framing the unusual Drama Theatre, the Fire Tower and the Old and New Castles in the foreground.

Beyond and well worthy of a visit stands the Kaložskaya Church of St Barys and St Hlieb, the oldest remaining building in the city. Probably the only surviving example of the ancient style of Black Ruthenian architecture in the country, much of the original stonework of this lovely church dates from the 12th century.

Almost due south and 232 kilometres away in the south-western corner of the country lies the city of Brest. Situated on the pan-European E30 highway and the main Berlin to Moscow railway line, Hitler unleashed Operation Barbarossa here in 1941.

The 19th century fortress, one of the country’s major visitor sites, withstood a fearsome onslaught for six weeks. The title of Hero-fortress was bestowed after the Great Patriotic War to honour the heroism and self-sacrifice of the defenders during the early months of Barbarossa, the city itself also being honoured as “Hero City of the Soviet Union”.

Today, travellers with an interest in 20th century European affairs will find much in this somber and moving place to fire their imagination. And the Biarescie Archaeological Museum in the grounds of the fortress should not be overlooked.

Only a handful of kilometres from the European Union, this city has all the hustle and bustle of a true border town. Closer to Warsaw than to Minsk, Western cultural influences predominate.

Fairy-tale castles and palaces

160 kilometres due east of Hrodna on the M11 motorway lies the town of Lida with its mighty castle, boasting huge walls and a high level walkway connecting two of the imposing corner towers. Construction began in the middle of the 14th century. The site measures 80 metres square, making this one of the largest castle complexes in the country.

Similar to Lida in design and style, the 16th century Mir Castle and Fortress is one of the country’s UNESCO World Heritage Sites. Only 90 kilometres from Minsk, this sympathetically renovated fairy-tale castle of sublime décor and sumptuous exhibits easily repays the close attention of visitors.

Just half an hour away by road stands another UNESCO site, the historic settlement of Niasviž with its glorious palace. Surrounded by a charming lake and beautifully landscaped grounds, opportunities to promenade abound at this splendid site, one of the finest historical locations in the entire country.

A visit to ancient Navahradak, once the capital of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, splendidly complements a visit to these castles and palaces. Around 45 minutes’ drive from Mir, the 14th century castle now lies in ruins, though renovations are under way.

Its location atop a hill 323 metres above sea level, one of the highest points in the country, dominates the town and the surrounding area, making it easy to appreciate its strategic value in times of medieval warfare.

The town also has a number of sites (including an interesting museum) devoted to the life and works of Adam Mickiewicz, national poet of Belarus, Poland and Lithuania, who was born here and christened in the church on the hill below the castle.

The beauty of nature

Only 70 kilometres north of Brest, the magnificent Bielaviežskaja Pušča State National Park and Biosphere Reserve, a third UNESCO World Heritage site, should be considered one of the country’s ‘must see’ sites. It came into existence as a park over 600 years ago, though its original status as a playground for Polish princes and Russian tsars has now far been exceeded. The first class Museum of Nature presents a fine guide to the history of the park as well as comprehensively describing current attractions, while tourist trails on foot, on horseback and by bicycle abound outdoors.

Several hundred European bison inhabit the park and eagle-eyed visitors should have no difficulty in securing a sighting from roads and paths. Another noteworthy resident, the ‘real’ Grandfather Frost also lives here. I have visited his dacha and was privileged to meet the grand old gentleman himself. He certainly convinced me of his credentials …

European Union visitors entering the park from Poland no longer require a Belarusian entry visa, although the process of applying for exemption presents no less a challenge than the visa application itself!

Four hotels await in and just outside the park, each with decent facilities for nourishment and relaxation. I have stayed at Hotel Number Three, just inside the park gates. Although a little shabby (dating as it does from the Soviet era), visitors to this place of peace and beauty will doubtless be seeking to return to the simplicities of life and nature. In that context, expect to find the rooms basic but clean. All have en-suite facilities.

I have one word of caution if visiting here though; do think carefully before stepping inside the Valeri animal enclosure. All of the animals and birds in this section of the park are caged. Many of them appear to exhibit distress and in particular, I found the sight of two brown bears in a state of considerable discomfort outside their natural environment particularly upsetting. Although the only negative experience in an otherwise delightful place, it remains a significant one.

Belarus has so much to offer beyond the attractions of its capital city. Those with an open and enquiring mind who step outside the boundary of the Minsk orbital road will not be disappointed by all they find there.

Nigel Roberts

Nigel is a freelance travel writer specialising in Belarus and is based in the UK.




Accommodation in Belarus: Where to Stay

Until a decade or so ago, the choice of hotels here was limited to one out of one; Soviet-style brutalist concrete monoliths, crumbling and ill-cared for, often with brutalist standards to match.

Yet as Belarus reaches out to establish a foothold in the Western tourism market, so consumer choice has increased.

This article presents details of the options available and adds a few tips based on my own experiences. Choices are there to suit all tastes. For me, staying with friends always comes first, although for others less inclined or unable to do so, there are plenty of other options.

Luxury to Budget: Hotels and Hostels

Throughout 2013 and into early 2014, every visit to Minsk saw more and more new hotels under construction at breakneck speed in the run-up to the World Ice Hockey Championships.

Today, a full range of accommodation is on offer, from luxury to budget. Most bookings can be made online, directly with each hotel, and payment is made either in advance or at the conclusion of the stay by credit/debit card. However, some hostels will accept payment by cash only.

Currently the most expensive establishment is the imposing Hotel Europe. Oozing opulence and ideally situated for the city’s best restaurants and sights, just off Svabody Square, a single room with breakfast will cost $270 per night, which compares very favourably indeed with prices elsewhere in Europe.

At the other end of the scale, a night at Hotel 40 Let Pobedy behind Gorky Park and within walking distance of many of the city’s sights will cost $50.

Between these two extremes still sit a number of 1970s concrete blocks of the type visitors to the former Soviet Union will remember either with fondness or horror, such as Hotel Jubilejny. Overlooking the Svislač River and only a few moments walk from Park Pobedy and the newly-relocated Great Patriotic War Museum, I find the homage it pays to ‘the old days’ irresistible. A night in a single room here with breakfast costs $89.

Outside Minsk hotels like Jubilejny​ abound, but increasingly it is possible to find something upmarket and out of the ordinary. In Brest, the Hermitage Hotel offers elegant décor and high standards of customer service to match, all for $92 per night. Meanwhile in Homieĺ, Zamkavy Hotel is rated easily the best in town. Staff go the extra mile to ensure high-class service and at $55 per night for a single room, excellent value for money can be found here.

 beware the lure of low-cost ‘non-refurbished’ room

There is, however, one specific word of warning with hotels everywhere in the country; beware the lure of low-cost ‘non-refurbished’ rooms.

On a research trip outside Minsk I once decided to sample one such room in a major hotel, at a cost of $22 per night for bed and breakfast. A nightmarish experience ensued. The room was filthy, with holes in the wall and doors hanging off cupboards, while the crumbling and rusting balcony did little to put me at ease. And the hot water supply was cut off for three days.

To keep accommodation costs low, do your research and go for one of the new breed of hostels. Clean, friendly, secure, well-appointed and often close to a city centre, they cannot be beaten for value.

In Minsk, try the excellent Revolucion hostel, right in the heart of the city, where a bed in a dormitory sleeping 4, 6, 8 or 10 persons will cost $26 per night (breakfast extra). In Viciebsk, a bed in XO hostel, just metres from the majestic Uspienski Cathedral of the Assumption, will cost $19 per night without breakfast.

And in Brest, a bed in a single room at 5 Kaliec (within the Dynama Brest football stadium and only a stroll away from the Hero-Fortress) will cost $23 per night, also without breakfast.

Renting Apartments & Hosting

The number of apartments for rent in all of the major cities has risen exponentially in recent times. More and more agencies are plying their trade on the Internet, where a one-bedroom apartment in Minsk with separate living room can be secured for as little as $55 per night ($330 per week), in a central location or close to a Metro stop.

If you can stay with friends, then so much the better.

For even better value, the classified section in the local newspaper will list columns of private rentals, where the deal is struck directly with the owner. This is only possible if you speak the language or are travelling with a Belarusian friend, of course.

However you do it, a rented apartment gives you the chance to live the life of a local, easily the best opportunity to understand what makes a country and its people tick. If you can stay with friends, then so much the better. You get all the fringe benefits and more, but without the cost!

Websites offer travellers around the world the opportunity to connect with other like-minded travellers interested in homestays. For example, www.couchsurfing.com currently markets over 21,000 local people in Minsk and within a 50-kilometre radius that have registered to offer hosting services.

The registration process is simple and sensible, offering reassurances to both hosts and visitors alike. And as with renting apartments or staying with friends, you will very much feel like a local, with access to hot tips on what to do and see (either going solo or with your host).

Living the Good Life: Rural Homesteads

Following a presidential decree in 2004, there has been a real move to promote ecological and agro-tourism in rural areas, offering visitors a glimpse of rural life as it has been lived for centuries in the form of a stay on a farmstead.

The risk is that it can be difficult to tell whether what is on offer is a realistic portrayal or an invented cliché of a bucolic idyll. The database maintained by the Association of Agro- and Ecotourism ‘Country Escape’ (www.ruralbelarus.by) lists a selection of properties and all major tourist agencies will have access to this and others. Expect to pay around $50 per person per night to see life ‘down on the farm’ (breakfast extra) in Minsk region. Prices elsewhere in the country are comparable, though breakfast is usually included.

Whatever the choice of accommodation, foreign visitors should remember to comply with the requirement for visitors to obtain the necessary stamp on their migration form.

Perhaps old habits die hard, even for travellers seeking to discover a new destination like Belarus. But for those with an open mind, an increasing number of choices present themselves.

Nigel Roberts

Nigel is a freelance travel writer specialising in Belarus and is based in the UK.




Automobiles, Trains and Buses – Getting Around Belarus

For the first-time visitor from the West, a scheduled flight to Minsk provides the most direct means of access to Belarus. Some venture no further than the capital itself, yet getting out of Minsk and beyond the façade of tourism offers the traveller a glimpse of the way of life of ordinary Belarusians.

Whether sharing food and vodka with strangers on a five-hour train journey from Minsk to second city Homiel, or helping the driver collect fares on a local bus ride from village to village, leaving the capital behind can make a genuine traveller out of a tourist.

Travelling By Air

Situated 25 miles east of the city on an extension of the M2 motorway, Minsk National Airport has been greatly refurbished of late. A glorious monument to brutalist Soviet architecture, all is now bright and shiny.

A number of options provide access into the city. A forty-minute taxi ride costs around $50. Buses run by carrier Minsktrans (www.minsktrans.by) depart from outside the terminal building to the city’s central train and bus stations, with limited stops along the way. The journey takes around one hour with a fare of $2. A train service also now operates, but the journey still takes around an hour, with a necessary short bus ride from the terminal to the airport railway station. Expect to pay a fare of $1.5.

Within the city itself, travel by metro, bus, tram and trolleybus is extremely cheap, reliable and safe. Each journey costs around $0.25. Tickets can be purchased onboard and from kiosks, shops and post offices all over town. Contactless smart cards are now available for multiple journeys. Full information on Minsk transportation can be found on the Minsktrans website.

There are currently no domestic flights within Belarus.

Behind the Wheel

Travel by road offers a generally stress-free experience and motoring represents no more risky an enterprise than elsewhere in Europe. The M1 motorway from Brest to Minsk forms a section of the pan-European E30 highway from Ireland all the way to Russia, so expect very heavy freight along this route, with the occasional hazard of extravagant (indeed, reckless) overtaking manoeuvres.

One particularly charming route can be found on the back roads north from Brest to Hrodno along the Western border of the country. A journey of 150 miles through ancient villages, the route skirts the eastern edge of the magnificent Byelovyezhskaya Pushcha National Park.

Hand-in-hand with a major road improvement programme that is still work in progress comes the advent of a state-of-the-art electronic system for the collection of tolls (‘BelToll’). Full information is available on the system’s helpful website (www.beltoll.by). Local domestic vehicles less than 3.5 tonnes are exempt from payment.

Car hire presents no difficulty. Expect to pay anything from $300 to $600 for a week’s hire, dependent upon the size of vehicle. A number of major international operators have desks at Minsk International Airport, with more at several of the city’s hotels (particularly the new ones). All offer online booking facilities in advance. When collecting your vehicle, be sure to produce not only your national driving licence but also an international driving permit.

Once on the road, you will need to pay before filling up at the gas station. Fuel costs are around half of the price payable in the UK.

Officers of the local militia rigidly monitor speed enforcement. They are particularly enthusiastic out in the country. Wherever you are, stick to the limits. If not, a spot fine and rigorous scrutiny of your documents awaits.

Riding the Rails

As in the days of the Soviet Union, trains in Belarus still leave on time but are often slow and rickety, particularly (and perhaps surprisingly) on the major lines between cities. For example, the journey from Minsk to Homiel can take over five hours (eight on the overnight sleeper). The journey to Brest takes between three and a half and five hours. The fares are cheap, starting at $6 for a single ticket on the Minsk-Homiel route, and $5 on the route to Brest. This represents the art of slow travel at its very best, with opportunities to gaze out of the window for hours on end as you slowly rattle across the landscape.

A night journey on the inter-city sleeper affords an excellent way to meet people. You will likely be sharing a four-berth compartment with people you don’t know, but you can also expect to share stimulating conversation and company, as well as your fellow travellers’ food and vodka. Ensure you have something to offer in return. Staff will offer bed linen for hire at very cheap cost.

The route between Minsk and Vilnius now offers an all-together more modern service. At between two and a half and three hours, journey times have been almost halved and the new rolling stock boasts much enhanced comfort. The cost of a single ticket is $16-20. With a number of budget airlines offering fares to Vilnius from various locations in the UK that can be as little as 35-40% of the cost of a flight from London Gatwick to Minsk with state airline Belavia, this provides an attractive alternative for entry into Belarus.

For information on timetables and schedules operated by the Belarusian state railway service, go to www.rasp.rw.by. To buy advance tickets online, visit www.poezd.rw.by.

Travelling by Bus

Inter-city and suburban bus routes operated by state enterprise Minsktrans depart from a number of bus stations in Minsk. By way of example, the journey to Brest takes around five hours and a single ticket costs $9. Homiel is also five hours away and a single ticket costs $8. The journey across the border to Vilnius (and access to budget flights) takes three to four hours and a single ticket costs around $14.

If you are sitting at the front of minibus, expect to be kept very busy collecting fares and dispensing change for the driver

Information on national services and the 23 international routes departing from Minsk’s Central Bus Station can be found at www.minsktrans.by. Tickets can be purchased in advance on www.ticketbus.by, though these pages are in Russian only.

Suburban and rural bus services are operated by state-owned Minsktrans and other local providers, side-by-side with services by private minibuses (marshrutka). Tickets can be purchased at the bus station of departure or onboard in the case of marshrutka. A minibus will often stop wherever it is flagged down on suburban roads and between villages. If you are sitting at the front, expect to be kept very busy collecting fares and dispensing change for the driver, as wads of notes are passed over the heads of passengers.

Bus travel often feels crowded, hot and claustrophobic, particularly by marshrutka, and for this reason my own preference is to travel by train. That said, a ride on a packed minibus will get you closer to feeling like a local than any other mode of public transport. Official statistics show that around the country, 4.3 million passengers travel by bus each day along 4,290 routes. Do not be surprised if it feels that all 4.3 million are riding the same bus as you …

Nigel Roberts

Nigel is a freelance travel writer specialising in Belarus and is based in the UK.




Unusual Aspects of Travelling to Belarus – a Westerner’s Perspective

In geographical terms, Belarus lies at the heart of Europe. It borders the European Union. Its capital Minsk can be reached from London by plane in less than three hours. Even so, the first time visitor may encounter a number of features of life here that will surprise.

An apparent obsession with Red Tape and Bureaucracy, particularly within Officialdom, can both amuse and infuriate. Certain aspects of promenading the streets may catch the eye. A visit to the museum offers a fuller experience than might be expected. And symbols of the country’s turbulent twentieth century history offer a hint as to the national psyche.

Red Tape and Bureaucracy

Belarus is not the only country in the world that requires visitors from abroad to obtain visas as a condition of entry. Stretching from the United States in the West all the way to Australia in the Southern Hemisphere, via Kenya and Vietnam in between (all likely destinations for the tourist), an array of visa rules await.

Earlier this year, the Belarusian government was pleased to announce a relaxation in visa requirements under certain controlled conditions for visitors crossing the border from Poland into Byelovyezhskaya Puscha National Park. Unfortunately, completing the application for exemption matched the application for a visa itself in complexity!

The secondary obligation to present a migration card for stamping on arrival to report details of a traveller’s temporary address and duration of stay can sometimes prove to be difficult, but is not entirely unique either.

If travelling on a trip organised by a travel agency, the procedures required by the regulations will be taken care of. The agency will offer visa application support in advance, and then after arrival, registration of the visit in the form of a stamp on the obligatory migration card will be taken care of by the host hotel.

However, those who choose to travel independently will encounter more of a challenge. The visa application is not particularly difficult and seeks no more information than is required to enter the United States for example, but the subsequent process of registering at the local Citizenship and Migration Office can call for endurance, patience and a calm head.

Registration must be completed within five working days of entering the country. It pays to make this task a priority and if a Russian speaker is available to go with you, preferably someone local, then the path will be less tortuous.

In the final analysis, obtaining a stamp on the obligatory migration form sets a non-negotiable task. Do not overlook it.

Promenading the Streets

Stepping into the road to cross lines of cars in London and other major Western cities can be a stressful business for pedestrian and motorist alike, with jaywalkers and cyclists crossing every point of your peripheral vision.

Not in Minsk. For starters, do not expect to see anyone riding a bicycle. And even with little or no traffic in sight, whether on a side street or an eight-lane boulevard, pedestrians will always wait for the clock on the stand of traffic lights to tick down to green. The rules are universally observed, which means you never step off the pavement until the green light invites you to.

Do not play fast and loose with this. If you do, a militiaman will appear from nowhere to ‘have a word’. Belarus still boasts a police presence per capita amongst the highest in the world. Contrast this, however, with the statistic that London’s faceless officials peer through more CCTV cameras than can be found in Minsk.

A Visit to the Museum

At times, museums in the West present significant overcrowding, such that a long wait just for entry can be expected, followed by difficulty in getting close to exhibits for a good look. At best, self-led tours with only an audio guide and headphones for company make the visit an isolating one.

A trip to the museum in Belarus offers considerably more, but do be sure you have allotted several hours for the experience. Particularly in the provinces, you may find very few fellow browsers. If you go at the right time, a personal guided tour of the exhibits by a local expert, perhaps even the curator, will be offered.

Your guide will want to show you all there is to see and will have a huge amount of detail to share. This presents a fine opportunity to receive a wealth of information on a one-to-one basis that will help you to understand the country and its people, though it does not lend itself to speed. Do be sure to allocate enough time.

Minsk is beginning to present a more welcoming face to visitors from the West in the form of readily available information in English. One good example can be experienced at the excellent Belarusian State Museum of the Great Patriotic War, relocated in 2014 to Pobedy Park. The exhibits feature informative English display boards that paint a vivid picture of all that transpired here in the brutal days of the 1940s.

Other Minsk museums of more specialist interest present a greater challenge for non-speakers of Russian or Belarusian, but with notice in advance it may be possible to arrange an English-speaking guide. Alternatively the travel agency in charge of organising your trip will be able to provide someone, though at a cost.

One example of niche interest is to be found at the Azgur Memorial Museum, dedicated to the life and work of renowned Belarusian sculptor Zair Azgur. The exhibits here are simply magnificent.

Twentieth Century History

To this day the gaze of the old Bolshevik Lenin, leader of the 1917 Revolution, continues to anticipate a brighter future as he stands guard on a plinth of granite (or at least, concrete) in every Belarusian city, town and village.

Equally ubiquitous, reminders of the suffering at the hands of the Nazis endured during the Great Patriotic War are to be found never far away. Whether doleful memorials to the lost, or glorious celebrations of heroism, citizens and visitors alike are exhorted never to forget the sacrifices made by their forbears.

This small sample by no means encompasses all that a first-time visitor may find different about Belarus; after all, travel offers an entirely personal experience and each visitor will have different impressions. Yet all are likely to conclude that a visit to this fascinating country holds much of unique interest in this corner of Europe.

Nigel Roberts

Nigel is a freelance travel writer specialising in Belarus and is based in the UK




Minsk – Getting to Know the ‘Hero City’

By any known measure, Minsk paints a vivid tableau of itself as a major European capital city. Vibrant and buzzing with activity, a visitor can nevertheless feel instantly relaxed and at ease upon arrival without even knowing it.

Almost two million people live here. Business and commerce are thriving. Opportunities to experience culture, the arts, entertainment and sport for young and old, visitors and residents alike are everywhere to be found. And at the same time, the atmosphere and ambience suggest a universal feeling of tranquillity.

Visitors need fear no risk of claustrophobia from overcrowded and overbearing buildings closing in on top of each other. Instead, the vista from horizon to horizon presents huge skies, with a real sense of open space. Why is this so?

Rebuilding the ‘Hero City’

For the answer, look no further than the events of the ‘Great Patriotic War’, when Nazi hordes swept across the country, laying waste to everything and everyone in their path. When the Red Army liberated the city on 3 July 1944, virtually no building was left standing. Every element of the social and transport infrastructure had been eradicated. The pre-war population of 300,000 had been decimated. Only 50,000 shell-shocked and battle-weary residents remained, living hand-to-mouth in the bombed-out ruins.

The initial plan to abandon the city and move the capital east to Mahiliou was soon dismissed and instead, in 1945 a major programme of rebuilding and renovation on an unprecedented scale began.

The result is today’s Minsk, the best example of post-war Soviet Union urban planning on a grand scale and one of the most impressive cities in all of the republics of the former USSR.

Many first-time visitors from the West realise soon after arrival that it’s unlike any capital city they have ever visited before. And it’s less than three hours away from London by air.

Getting to Know Minsk

Information about what to do and see is now increasingly easy to find, particularly online. But a new visitor’s search for the heart of a place is best begun with a process of orientation. And by far the best way to do this is to walk the streets. Because only by physically connecting with one’s surroundings is it possible to feel the buzz and the vibe; the sights, the smells, the sounds, the people, the weather and the seasons. An added advantage is that no money changes hands in the process. It’s all free!

My personal recommendation for a walking tour follows more or less a straight line bisecting the city in a north-easterly direction. It begins in Privakhsalnaya Square in front of the impressive railway station and follows Nyezalyezhnastsi Avenue all the way to Victory Square, taking in Independence and Oktyabrskaya Squares along the way.

Each square has its own distinct characteristics, but my personal favourite is Independence Square. The sense of space and air here is breathtaking. Many pre-war Stalinist buildings survive, and the old master Lenin remains master of all he surveys from his plinth in front of the House of Government, a building of glorious yet simplistic symmetry.

The iconic and very red Catholic Church of St Simeon and St Helena can also be found here. Look also for the Central Post Office, with its imposing clock.

Nyezalyezhnastsi Avenue is the city’s main thoroughfare and the axis around which the great works of reconstruction were designed after the war. Walk north-east from the station along one side of the Avenue to Independence Square, then re-trace your steps back to the station along the other side. Avoiding street furniture and fellow pedestrians, and without stepping into the traffic (!) be sure to gaze up and around the whole time.

There is so much for you to see. Look particularly for the KGB Building and the GUM store. For the best souvenirs in town, shop at Central Bookstore (Tsentralnaya Knigariya) at 19 Nyezalyezhnastsi Avenue, where you can find a wonderful selection of glossy pictorial guides, maps, postcards, posters and calendars, all at very reasonable prices.

If the weather is dry, indulge in one of my very favourite pastimes in Minsk – promenading and people-watching. Try Gorky Park, Alexandrovsky Public Garden, Yanka Kupala Park, Central Botanical Gardens, Chelyuskintsev Culture and Leisure Park and my own personal choice, Pobyedy Park, where you will also find the impressive and newly relocated State Museum of the Great Patriotic War.

Food, Drink and Sustenance

If you’re out walking for hours on end, you’re going to need sustenance and regular rest to recharge your batteries. These are my recommendations.

For breakfast or just coffee and cake, try Maya Angliskaya Babushka at 36 Karla Marksa Street. ‘My English Granny’ will of course appeal to many UK visitors! For lunch and while promenading in Gorky Park, visit Family Club restaurant, where the pizza is particularly good.

For dinner, Kuchmistr at 40 Karla Marksa Street is a good option for traditional Belarusian food. And for beer and a good night out, many of my Minsk friends speak very highly of Gambrinus, centrally located at 2 Svobody Square. The food is also good here.

For a slightly off the wall halt amongst the bustle, a visit to the attractive historic Troitskoye (Trinity) suburb down by the Svislach River might include a rest-stop at the Barzha floating restaurant. It tends to be overlooked and is never busy, but the food and service here are consistently good.

These recommendations are all personal ones based on my own experiences. You may perhaps discover better options for yourselves. Right there is the beauty of travel. Go to Minsk with an open mind. You may be surprised by what you find.

Nigel Roberts

Nigel is a freelance travel writer specialising in Belarus and is based in the UK.




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 …

Hrodna

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.

Elsewhere

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 Roberts

Nigel is a UK-based freelance travel writer specialising in Belarus




Why Do So Few Tourists Visit Belarus?

Belarus remains a blank spot on the map for many foreigners. A mere 137,000 tourists visited the country in 2013—twenty-one times fewer than the number who visited tiny Estonia.

Onerous visa requirements, combined with an underdeveloped service industry, undermine the country’s efforts to attract foreign visitors.

The world’s largest travel guide company, Lonely Planet, warns travellers that “visas are needed by almost everybody” and that “homophobia is rife.” VirtualTourist criticises the lack of customer service, the paranoia of locals, and the country’s “lunatic” president, Alyaksandr Lukashenka.

Belarus may have plenty of attractions, but many things have to change before the country can attract crowds of European tourists.

Given Belarus’s location in the heart of Europe, tourism could become an important source of revenue. With 28.4 million tourists, neighbouring Russia ranked as the ninth most visited country in the world in 2013, just after the United Kingdom.

But even among other post-Soviet states, Belarus ranks near the bottom in terms of tourism. Only Moldova, a country with a population 2.5 times smaller than that of Belarus, was visited by fewer tourists in 2013. According to the UNWTO, Belarus’s $722 million in international tourism receipts dwarfs in comparison to Ukraine ($5,083 million) and Poland ($10,938 million).

The Many Faces of Belarusian Tourism

The web site of the Belarusian Ministry of Tourism praises the country’s pristine nature and rich wildlife. In November 2014, the Tour&Travel Warsaw 2014 travel exhibition showcased agro-tourism opportunities in Brest and Hrodna regions, in the southwest of Belarus. Hunting in Belarusian forests is also coming into vogue.

Visitors to Belarus have more diverse interests, however.

Following the imposition of gambling restrictions in Russia in 2009, Minsk casinos began organising the so-called “Junket tours” for Russians, which include hotel arrangements, pickup at the airport or train station, and a plan of daily sightseeing and gambling activities.

Belarus’s reputation as “the last Soviet republic” also contributes to its charm among some tourists. The country is featured on web sites focused on travel to tragic death or disaster sites, such as Dark Tourism. According to the web site, “given the country's ‘pariah’ status, it’s kind of special.”

The human rights organisation “Belarusians in Exile” has instead used Belarus’s reputation as a dictatorship to undermine tourism. In 2013, the organisation published a cartoon of President Lukashenka welcoming visitors against a backdrop of police beatings. The organisation dared tourists “to experience dictatorship first-hand”.

But some tourists find Belarus’s conflicting narratives intriguing. “For a UK tourist, Belarus is a fascinating ‘other world’ destination,” said Jack Seaman, 29, of London, UK. Seaman said he would enjoy learning “how life in Belarus is and has been different to not only the West, but also to places like Poland, Ukraine and indeed Russia.”

A Haven for Russian Tourists?

Most tourists come to Belarus from Russia, the fourth largest outbound market in the world. In 2013, the country hosted 94,187 Russians, which is 31 times greater than the number of UK citizens, the second-largest group visiting Belarus. According to Belstat, Russian tourists contribute more than half of Belarus’s total income from tourism.

Thirty-one year old Moscow resident Anastasiya Pankratova has visited Belarus many times for tourism as well as business. She emphasises the country’s “tranquillity, open spaces, and order.” Belarus’s affordability makes it an attractive destination as well, according to Pankratova.

But there is a lot of room for improvement. “The catering industry is especially underdeveloped,” said Elena Babaeva, 35, a Muscovite who visited Belarus in summer 2014. “We were stunned when we learned that some cafes and restaurants are closed for lunch.” Babaeva recalled with frustration that she had to drive 150 km from the town of Braslav to Polotsk to replace a damaged contact lens.

Visa Barriers Discourage European Tourists

Currently, only citizens from CIS states, Cuba, Macedonia, Montenegro, Qatar, Serbia, Turkey and Venezuela enjoy visa-free entry into Belarus. Western tourists who do venture into the post-Soviet space rarely bother to apply for a separate visa for Belarus. When obtained at Minsk Airport, the visa can cost up to $420 (for U.S. citizens), which exceeds the cost of a round-trip flight from most European destinations.

Iacob Koch-Weser, a 32-year-old resident of Washington DC, has travelled to Belarus several times for personal reasons. In 2011, he stood in a long line in “an understaffed and poorly managed visa office” in East Berlin. In the following years, he applied for a visa at the Belarusian embassy in Washington DC, where he noted far fewer visitors and applicants. He found the visa officer “a friendly young man who was willing to pardon slight hiccups in the paperwork, so long as it was nothing major.”

“There is a weird contrast between gaudy brochures advertising Belarus's tourist attractions on one hand, and on the other, a daunting list of requirements to acquire a visa, from invitation letters to medical insurance and an obnoxious visa processing fee,” Koch-Weser said. “So do they want people to visit or not?”

An additional hassle for foreigners whose stay exceeds three days is registering at the Belarusian Ministry of Migration. Administrative reasons for the imposition of this unusual additional requirement are unclear because foreigners already fill out a migration form when entering the country.

At the same time, the tourist infrastructure is underdeveloped. “It would have been helpful to see more English and Latin [script] writing in public spaces,” said Seaman, who visited Minsk in December 2014. He recalled that a Minsk tourist information office he visited was “taken by surprise” by his request for recommendations. “Though they did provide me with some useful information, it took a lot of prompting and patience from me,” he said.

Many Other Destinations to Choose From

In April-May 2014, Minsk waived visa requirements for the 2014 Hockey Championship. Some tourists purchased the hockey tickets – a condition for visa-free entry – but chose to occupy themselves with other activities.

One of them is Katarzyna Rembeza, a 27-year old market analyst from Warsaw, Poland, who instead went on a cycling trip.

“[W]e took our tents but never used them because we were sleeping at people's homes. […] Never before have I experienced such a level of hospitality!” she said.

According to Rembeza, while the visa is affordable (€25 for Polish citizens), collecting documents and standing in the line diminished her interest in travelling to Belarus. “The majority of Poles would probably tell you: 'why should we travel to countries with a visa requirement where we have so many non-visa countries to choose from?’” she explained.

Belarus has not only imposed more stringent visa requirements, but also dragged its feet on initiatives that could facilitate visits from abroad. One example is the 2010 Polish-Belarusian agreement on border crossings for people who live within 30 km from their shared border. Signed and ratified by the respective parliaments, the agreement was inexplicably stalled at Lukashenka’s desk.

For Belarusians, getting a visa is a precondition for visiting all but 22 states in the world. Despite high visa costs and humiliating procedures at the European consulates, Belarusians lead in the number of Schengen visas per capita. They have to apply multiple times per year because many EU states grant only one entry short-term visas to Belarusian citizens. For every international visitor into the country, about four Belarusians go abroad.

With countless visa-free destinations to choose from, tourists from Western Europe and North America will choose to travel elsewhere unless Belarus simplifies its visa procedures, modernises its tourist infrastructure, and improves its international reputation.




Hunting Tourism and Corruption in Belarus

Since the end of the 2000s, Belarus has become a destination for many hunt lovers from abroad. 40% of Belarus is covered with woods, which remain a natural habitat for many species of animals. Today, booking a hunting expedition in Belarus can be made online with a couple of clicks.

Many Belarusians still prefer poaching, unwilling to stick to strict rules of legal hunting, even despite constantly growing penalties and fines. An extraordinary case of poaching occurred this past December, when the Belarusian KGB arrested a group of ten hunters in the Chernobyl zone of the Homel region. Strikingly, the officials of wildlife protection agency and police were among them. The group illegally killed four elk.

Corruption among low-level forestry employees remains widespread, as they try to supplement their low wages with additional cash. To protect its rich wildlife heritage, Belarus needs to improve its state system of nature management.

Hunting Tourism on the Rise in Belarus

Unlike most of Europe, Belarus has retained much of its ancient forests, which occupy almost 40% of Belarus' territory. Up to the present day they remain a natural habitat for many species of animals and birds, most of them free to hunt during specific seasons. However, in the 1990s and 2000s Belarus as a hunting destination was little known abroad.

Today, it seems, Belarus is becoming a favourite hunting spot for many individuals. As one online advertisement says, “the most luring feature is the complete authenticity of the wild animals, inhabiting the forests, swamps and fields of Belarus”.

One can book of a few days’ hunt in Belarus through numerous web sites. They provide information on prices, animal species and the various hunting seasons, as well as a list of necessary documents and procedures for foreigners. They also display photos of previous successful hunting trips to attract new customers.

Hunting companies typically offer 3 days of hunting for around €1,000. The price usually includes permission to bring one's own firearm, accommodation and meals, a hunting licence and transport from the airport to the hunting spot, an interpreter and accompanying hunters. Some firms include additional services like alcohol, sauna and trophy preparation.

As for animals, visiting hunters can choose between big game like European bison (prices starting from €10,000), wild boar (€100-600), elk (€700-4,500) or red deer (€700-3,500). The prices depend on the animal’s size, horns and other specific factors. Alternatively, one can go for small game ranging from €10 for partridge, waterfowl or woodcock, to capercaillie for €500.

But not all citizens are ready to pay these kinds of prices for a traditional male occupation. Poaching remains a widespread activity for many Belarusians, especially in rural areas. Corruption thrives, as both local people and local power holders often make deals with forestry workers.

Poaching Bisons in Belarus

In 2013 Lukashenka said he was surprised with the amount of hunting tackle seized from poachers – one thousand rifles, 300 kilometres of fishing net, dozens of tonnes of meat and fish. In 2014 the authorities raised fines for poaching, but so far it is unclear whether this move will lead to a decline in illegal hunting.

Hunting bison, one of the symbols of Belarus, usually receives the most attention in the media. According to Belarusian legislation, bison are divided into two categories – the main gene pool and the reserve gene pool. The animals from the latter pool – usually old or ill – are not considered as listed in the Red Book (list of endangered species), and can be hunted according to a certain procedure.

Environmentalists oppose such norms, saying rare species should be protected regardless of their health or age. But Belarus officials have another rationale – the population of bison is growing and it needs to be regulated.

Belarusians cannot afford bison hunting, as it costs several thousand euro, so the main clients usually come from abroad.

In recent years bison hunting involved many illegal cases. Usually, illegal schemes come from forestry officials, who make money by providing their hunting services for foreign tourists. In winter 2012, a Russian citizen killed a bison and wounded another one in the Valožyn district, while citizens of Lithuania killed three in the Chojniki district.

The guilty forester received only minor punishment for their transgressions. Earlier in 2009 an Italian killed a female bison at the Belaviežskaja Pušča national reserve, where hunting is forbidden. As it turned out, a local forester assisted him in getting to the protected area.

In 2011, the Presidential Property Management Department put a bison's life up for an Internet auction, which caused a public uproar and an online campaign to save his life and forbid this practise from continuining. Plenty of people made fake bids in an attempt to prolong the life of the animal while the owners of the lot checked the identity of the bidder. In the end ,the campaign wrecked the lot and these kinds of bids have not again appeared in public.

While poaching on the side of citizens is still widespread, some cases of government officials involved in this illegal activity have also become public. One of the most striking instances occurred recently, when a nature protection servicemen worked in contradiction of their official duties.

Wildlife Protectors Killing Wildlife

At the beginning of December the Belarusian authorities informed the public of a quite a paradoxical corruption case. Officials from the nation's wildlife protection agency were engaged in illegal hunting together with several police companions as additional cover. The group was poaching in the Vetka district of the Chernobyl area. Two of them were officials from the Homiel Regional Inspection for the Protection of Wildlife and the other five were officers from the Homiel Regional Police Department.

The group was supposed to eliminate wild boars as a part of programme to combat African swine flue. Instead, the group killed four elk. The poachers moved in a car with gangster-style registration plate with the word “Serega”, the name of the owner, instead of the officially required numbers.

The car owner’s son turned out to be the deputy head of Homel Regional Inspection for the Protection of Wildlife. During their detention of the poachers, KGB officers even had to resort to pulling out weapons to stop the car.

The locals say that the poachers organised a hunting business in the area together with a Russia citizen who lives in a bordering town. The men hunted animals illegally and then sold the meat to local people. Now they have been fired from service and face up to four years in prison.

By strange coincidence, the same month on 29 December a senor Belarusian official himself became a victim of hunting. The judge of the Supreme Court of Belarus Victar Rakicki received fatal wounds from some of his hunting colleagues, "residents of the Minsk region", as the Investigatory Committee reports.

Belarus retains its rich flora and fauna, and preserving it should be one of the government’s strategic goals. The authorities should control the local level of wildlife management more thoroughly, as most corruption cases occur there. Besides this, environmental groups from civil society should gain access to policymaking and oversight to help strengthen the public's engagement with this important issue.




An Insider’s Guide to Minsk: Beyond Mainstream Sightseeing

Minsk attracts more and more foreign visitors. Tourism clearly develops. The Ice Hockey World Championship in May of 2014 marked a big mile stone here. It brought numerous first time guests to Minsk.

Many guides provide a standard list of the city's attractions. But what discoveries await those willing to leave the main tourist trails?

In Search of an Old Town

World War II, but also post-war city planing left little of the old Minsk. This is the conventional wisdom about the Belarusian capital. A second glance will probably get you to Trayetskaye pradmestsye— the Trinity Suburb.

This neighbourhood along Svislach-river is where the settlement of Minsk started. Yet, the houses you find here today were all build in Soviet times. Similar attempts to construct an old town are made around Ploshcha Svabody with buildings like the Old Town Hall, build in 2003.

Not far away though you get a better sense of Mink's past. In streets like Rakauskaya or Revalutsyonaya many 19th century brick buildings have survived.

Sometimes old structures also hide behind post-war architecture like the Catholic Church of the Holy Trinity near the intersection of Nezaleszhnasci avenue and Masherova avenue.

When back in the city centre also make sure to stop by the Pobeda Cinema on Internatsyanalnaya street. Notable is not only its pink exterior but also the posters advertising the films currently in show. A closer look reveals that they are all hand-painted. If you are lucky you can even get in for free, as Pobeda hosts a number of film festivals throughout the year.

Meet the Real Minchanin

The façades of Minsk's main boulevards seem quite impressive. But they can also be intimidating and impersonal. To meet the real Minsk, take a turn through the many plaster-decorated arches into the backyards of Minsk. Here you will find authentic Belarusian life and meet the real inhabitants of Minsk – also known as Minchanye.

Babushkas discussing the latest gossip or feeding cats. Children playing. And men enjoying an after-work beer. Lovers of old Soviet cars may spot an old Moskvich or Volga and with a bit of luck – even a Pobeda. Some of them have even retained their original Soviet-era white-on-black licence plate. Walking through the backyards will also allow you huge short-cuts as you can simply walk through a street block, instead of walking all the way to the next corner.

A Trip to the 18th Century

From the heart of Minsk it is only a short metro-ride on Autozavodskaya line to Pushkinskaya station. Walk along the main avenue – Prytytskyha street – until you reach the gates of Kalvarya cemetery. As one of the few places in Minsk to do so, this cemetery offers a trip back in time. Some of the graves have remained untouched for over 200 years. Quite remarkable given Minsk's troubled past in the 20th century.

The inscriptions on the tombstones – some in Cyrillic, many in Polish – also reveal Belarus' heritage at the crossroads of different cultures. Finding a national identity remains an issue in today's Belarus. Many of the graves deserve to be repaired. Time has clearly taken its toll and decay is all around. But that is exactly what makes the morbid atmosphere of this unique place.

Heading out the Flea Market

Minsk's flea market scene still has room to develop. What is considered vintage in the West is either still in use in Belarusian homes – and repaired until it completely falls apart – or thrown away, considered junk. Still, a visit to Zhdanovichi market is worth while.

A short and inexpensive eletrichka train ride gets you to Lyabyazhi station. Leave the babushkas on the train aside – they are heading out to the dacha. Just follow the crowd getting off at the station. The huge market spans over several acres and offers quite literally everything you may want to buy. Food, electronics, clothing and much more.

At the very end – after taking the underpass to cross Tsimirazyeva street – you find the flea market section. Soviet memorabilia, old tools, second hand clothing and every thing else vendors may want to make a few roubles with. The best time to hit the market is a Saturday morning with good weather. Bring sufficient cash and enough Russian to negotiate prices.

For those shopping for second hand books, the book store on the intersection of Marks and Engels street has a separate section for old books. A similar shop called Bookinist is located on praspekt Nezalezhnosti – just north of Akademiya navuk metro station.

The Bunny in Your Wallet

Spending a few days in Belarus you may already have fallen in love with the Belarusian rouble, or rather: its many colourful bank notes. Today they take you on a trip to the most important sights and buildings of the country.

Back in the 1990s, Belarus also had its natural beauty on display on its currency. All Belarusians remember the one-rouble note with a bunny on its front side. It even earned the whole currency the nick name of zaichik – the Russian term for a small bunny.

The entrance hall of the BelSwiss Bank at Ploshcha Svabody features a collection of all Belarusian bank notes of the past 25 years. From the last Soviet rouble – bearing Lenin's profile – to the current series.

Minsk is a Village

A ride down the main roads into town through areas like Kamenaya Horka creates the impression that most houses in Minsk are 20 stories high and have the shape of a box. But Minsk can also be quite the opposite. There are several parts of town with little old wooden houses that take you on a trip to a Belarusian village.

Old water pumps in the yard, colourful houses, unpaved roads and blossoming gardens you find north of Kyivsky Skver, around Hrushauka metro station or on the upper section of Bahdanovicha street. And Minsk even still has cobblestone roads like the short strip near the intersection of Bahdanovicha and Amurskaya streets.

Make friends with Belarusians

Minsk and Belarus remain an extraordinary tourist destination. But be rest assured that even wandering out of the city centre is safe, as crime is generally low in Belarus.

Therefore go out and explore. And Belarusian are eager to meet foreigners. Platforms like couchsurfing will help you to make friends in Belarus. They will introduce you to the real secrets of their country.

Thomas Bergmann

Thomas Bergmann served in the European Voluntary Service in Minsk in 2012/2013.