Amble through the boulevards and parks of Minsk
Most capital cities are marked by a high level of noise and a jumble of activity wherever you look. Not so Minsk. For a city of nearly two million people, the atmosphere is universally calm, the skies are huge and there is a real sense of open space. At times, you can stroll for ages in areas of parkland and not see another soul, but without feeling nervous in the process. The streets are spotlessly clean and free from crime. Many of the sights can be reached on foot and in so doing, you will rediscover an activity that is largely lost in the West: that of promenading. Everywhere you look, even in the depths of winter and no matter what the time of day or night, you will see people strolling, locked in conversation and arm in arm. Teenagers mingle with families, young children, older people and young women on their own or in twos, just taking the air, enjoying the sights, chatting and relishing the fact that they have, for a short while, stepped off the merry-go-round of life.
© Ryhor Bruyeu, Dreamstime
Pay your respects at the National Memorial Complex
If you take only one out-of-town trip while in Minsk, then try to make it this one. Only 75km from the capital, this memorial complex bears witness to the horrors of Nazi barbarism during the Great Patriotic War. It was constructed on the site of the former village of Khatyn, which was razed to the ground in the spring of 1943 and its inhabitants brutally butchered. At the centre of the complex is a truly astonishing bronze sculpture, the 6m-high The Unconquered Man. The tragedy of Khatyn was not just an isolated episode in this tumultuous war, for the experience was replicated many times over on the territory of the Soviet Union. Every visitor to Belarus is struck by the large number of war memorials that exist and the extent to which the conflict continues to dominate the national psyche. A visit to Khatyn helps to place all of this in the right context.
© John Oldale, Wikimedia Commons
Explore a landscape of birch forests and snow-edged lakes
Belarus’ national parks are vast tracts of primeval wilderness populated by European bison, wild boar and elk, where ecological tourism is only just beginning to take hold. One of these reserves, Narach National Park, boasts one of the largest (shoreline 41km) and deepest (maximum 30m) lakes in the country, bearing the same name. The park itself covers 94,000ha, 37,900 of which are forest, including the country’s largest concentration of pine. Its 42 lakes have a total area of 18,300ha. This is a beautiful and romantic area, steeped in mystery and legend. The lakes are said to have been the creation of a tragic loss when Nara, the daughter of a forester, saw the death of her sweetheart in a magic mirror, which she then dropped in terror, the shards scattering all around. These fragments became the lakes that can be seen today.
Narochansky National Park © Natallia Khlapushyna, Dreamstime
Delve into the past at Njasvizh Castle
The delightful settlement of Njasvizh is one of the oldest in the country, having first been established as a settlement in the 13th century. Many of the oldest buildings have been retained in the historical area, and the former home of the Radzivili family is widely regarded as the most attractive palace that the country has to offer, surrounded by a large park boasting a number of ornamental lakes and sumptuous gardens. The family’s ownership of the town began in the middle of the 16th century and was to last for more than 400 years, during which time it gained great fame for its prosperity. Over the centuries, many severe trials (such as plunder, fire and war) took their toll on the town, but the mighty Radzivili dynasty survived it all. The line finally ended in 1939, but not until it had first seen off not only the Great Lithuanian Principality, but also the might of the Russian Empire.
© Katsiuba Volha, Shutterstock
Experience the Slavic Bazaar summer street party
Vitebsk is the location of the much-loved Slavianski (Slavic) Bazaar, an international festival of music and culture that takes place annually in the open air in late July and early August. Most of the musical programme is devoted to a celebration of ethnic Slavic music. The main participants are artists from Russia, Belarus and Ukraine, but there are also guests from a great many other countries, both Slavic and non-Slavic. For one glorious week in high summer, the entire city turns into a gigantic street party, with 5,000 artists performing at major and fringe events, seemingly on every street.
© RIA Novosti, Wikimedia Commons