Discovering Belarus…a journey to Europe’s frontier
Europe product manager Simon Clifford travels to Belarus and discovers that ‘Europe’s last dictatorship’ should not be discounted as a holiday destination.
Depending on where you draw the line, the continent of Europe is considered to include 44 countries. I had successfully tucked 43 under my belt, with just one notch missing: Belarus. So when I was given the opportunity to visit, I absolutely jumped at the chance, and what a surprise awaited me!
Gaining independence after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, Belarus continued to look east to its brothers in Russia, unlike its neighbours – Lithuania, Poland and Ukraine – who looked to the EU. Their president, Alexander Lukashenko, who came to power in 1994, clamped down on press freedom and any kind of opposition, further alienating the West. However, things are slowly changing in this secretive country, helped by a younger generation with access to the internet and a greater awareness of the outside world. The big change for tourism here came in 2018, when Belarus finally dropped visa restrictions. You can now visit the country for up to 30 days visa free when travelling via Minsk airport (sadly not by land from Lithuania or Poland, or at least not yet).
Panoramic view of the historical centre of Minsk
My journey started in Minsk. This isn’t a capital that would win a beauty contest but offers a fine example of Soviet architecture. Stroll along wide, leafy avenues lined with impressive municipal buildings, many in the Stalinist gothic style. There are huge green spaces and a buzzing cultural and café scene. The old town was all but flattened during the second world war but its historic churches, nunneries and taverns have been beautifully restored.
Island of Tears, Minsk
Cultural highlights of the city include the Island of Tears, a memorial to the Belarusian soldiers who fought in the nine-year-long war in Afghanistan (1979-1988); the Roman Catholic Church of Saints Simon and Helena on Independence Square; and the House of Fashion with its colossal frieze depicting Soviet workers. Try to get tickets to a performance by the Bolshoi State Ballet of Belarus at the National Opera House, a beautiful art deco, constructivist building completed in 1939, showcasing some of the finest opera and ballet in Eastern Europe.
Frieze on the House of Fashion, Minsk
Moving out of the city, past the lines of Soviet apartments with their bright mosaics depicting Soviet success, we moved into another world, where time has all but stood still for almost 50 years. Unlike almost all other former Soviet states, agricultural land in Belarus is still state owned with collective farms. Heavy industry is an important part of the economy, and Belarus is one of the largest exporters of tractors in the world. They also produce the BelAZ mining truck, the largest in the world at over 450 metric tons! Their factory outside Minsk is open to visitors providing a unique opportunity to see these colossal vehicles under construction.
BelAZ mining truck factory, Belarus
Travelling deeper into the Belarusian countryside we made stops at two impressive Unesco world heritage sites: the Mir castle complex and Nesvizh palace. The latter was owned by the Radziwiłł family, one of the most powerful, non-aristocratic families in Europe in the 15th and 16th centuries. Set on a small hill above a lake, it’s certainly one of the most beautiful and historic sites in Belarus.
Mir castle complex
In the far south west, on the border with Poland, lies the city of Brest. It was here, in June 1941, that the Nazis launched Operation Barbarossa – the invasion of the Soviet Union. The Brest Fortress held out for six days but was then abandoned by the Soviet army. Nearly all the city’s defenders perished, leaving the civilian population at the mercy of the enemy. This included 20,000 Jews, who were imprisoned in a camp. Only seven survived. Today the fortress is an area of peace and a place to reflect while the two memorials, ‘Courage’ and ‘Thirst’, are powerful reminders of the horrors of war.
Monument of Courage, Brest Fortress
Moving north we visited Białowieża forest, one of the last and largest remaining parts of the immense primeval forest that once stretched across the European plain. Today this is a unique habitat for over 800 bison and, in cooperation with neighbouring Poland, is protected as a Unesco world heritage site.
Gateway to Białowieża forest
Our final stop on the way back to Minsk was Ganka Estate, one of many agritourism sites across the country. Here you can enjoy the beauty of Belarusian nature, learn about rural traditions and get a taste for traditional folklore and cuisine. We had great fun baking traditional rye bread in a family kitchen followed by a lavish dinner, with rather too many shots of the local homebrew in between courses. Needless to say I slept well on the bus back to Minsk.
They say travel broadens the mind, and travelling to Belarus certainly did that for me. It was a country I once considered an ex-Soviet backwater and Europe’s last dictatorship, but what I found was a country overflowing with culture, history and nature, home to a proud, hospitable people so keen to show off their country’s individuality and to change our perceptions of possibly the most misunderstood country in Europe.
Join Cox & Kings’ group tour Belarus Uncovered, following a similar itinerary to the one described here by Simon. Alternatively, if you are interested in private travel, please either call one of our specialist travel consultants or complete our tailor-made request form and one of our experts will get back to you to help you plan an itinerary.