Many travellers venture to the Far East, South America and Europe, but most will stop short of the former Soviet Union States. I find that the transition countries have made, from Communism to Democracy, has created some amazing traits in the population and culture.
I recently spent a week in Belarus, a country only known to me for having a soccer team. I knew it was somewhere east of Poland, but until I did some investigation and discovered how large it was (about half the size of Saskatchewan); I became quite excited about visiting it.
I flew through Vienna to Minsk, capital of Belarus. The entire trip was about 12 hours, which is roughly how long it takes to get to Hawaii. Upon arrival, I was amazed at the heat which engulfed me. The temperature was 30 degrees in September. Certainly not the weather I was expecting.
Belarus translated means White Russia. Prior to 1863, the country was known as Litva (not to be confused with Lithuania or Latvia). In 1863 there was a large uprising against Russia and after the execution of thousands of Litvin citizens; Russia forbade the use of the name. The country was christened Belarus, after an ancient east Slavic state.
As with many central European countries, the years of World War II were detrimental to the nation. Belarus was occupied by the Nazis for five years. The city of Minsk was heavily bombed in 1941 and 85% of all structures were demolished. The capital was evacuated, but not before 1,000 people were killed.
Restructuring under Soviet rule was systematic and enterprising. Wide roads were constructed with ample space for sidewalks. Buildings were concrete and typical Soviet style, designed to house the masses at low cost. The infrastructure grew and for the most part, Belarus was part of the Soviet Union, adhering to Soviet policies, customs and laws.
Churches were to be destroyed, but fortunately, as in the Baltic States, this mandate was not urgent and a lack of funding, and the fact that many churches were destroyed during the war, put this decree on the back burner.
After the fall of Perestroika and Communism itself, Belarus became an independent country, changing its name to the Republic of Belarus (formerly known as the Belarusian Soviet Socialist Republic). The country opened its doors to the West; however, it maintained strong relations with Russia, and has not as yet attempted to join the European Union.
The old city of Minsk is small, as most was destroyed, but the churches that exist are well worth the visit. The main street runs along the river and is very picturesque. I had intended to take a bus back to my hotel, but instead opted to walk. It was 14 Km. but during the course of a day, was an extremely interesting trek.
I stayed at the Marriott Hotel, which had been opened mid-2016. It was probably one of the nicest hotels in the city, certainly one of the most modern. My room overlooked the river, and a large greenbelt. Everyone made a tremendous effort to speak English and courtesy was second to none. All this for only $130 a night. Prices in Belarus are substantially less than the rest of Europe, a nice change for travellers.
A visit to the War museum is interesting, if you enjoy Soviet history, and the new library is extremely modern and immense in size. There are numerous art galleries and exhibitions, depicting modern Belarus, as well as an overview of historic times.
Restaurants are plentiful and serve everything from European, Asian and traditional dishes. Draniki, or potato pancakes are delicious, especially when accompanied by Kvass, an acquired tasting beverage that looks like Coca Cola, but is made of fermented rye bread.
I had an opportunity to visit Ozertso Village, a collection of buildings from the 1800’s. The village was spectacular, and the explanation of life in former Russian times, was quite interesting. The buildings have been restored to their former glory and are unique in architecture, with thatched roofs, wooden planks and even a stave church.
Another visit I made was to the fully restored palace of Nesvizh. The complex was built in the fifteen hundreds and was deemed a Unesco World Heritage Site in 2005. Many of the more than 100 rooms have been restored.
It was interesting that the local guides in both the pioneer village and the castle only spoke Russian, and left it to my guide to translate into English.
I also spent time at Mir Palace, and made time for an enjoyable visit to the village of Mir. I met a babushka who invited me to sit and chat, even though she spoke no English. My guide translated and explained she had lived in her house for more than 50 years, and had never left the area. She was sweet and friendly, and offered me a bouquet of gladiolas from her garden.
Visiting Belarus turned out to be a great decision, teaching me of culture and history in an area I knew little about. If you plan to visit the Baltics or Russia, give some thought to stopping in Belarus for a few days. It is a country you will enjoy.
Jonathan van Bilsen’s photosNtravel TV show can be watched on RogersTV and YouTube. To follow Jonathan’s travel adventures visit photosNtravel.com