With one foot still in its Soviet past, Belarus might not be the most obvious choice for travellers, but its isolation is at the heart of its appeal.
Observed on 7 January, in Belarus it’s an opportunity to reflect on the true meaning of Christmas without the trappings of Western commercialism. And if you’ve been good, Grandfather Frost may have a little something for you …
The endless, freezing nights of the bleak Belarusian winter may not yet be over, but spring is coming. The symbolic rituals of the Maslenitsa festival acknowledge that winter is at last beginning to pass, heralding renewal and new life in the run-up to Easter. It’s a folklore tradition and people, particularly in the countryside, observe it with friends and family where they live.
The most important festival in the Orthodox calendar is observed with solemnity and reverence in households across the country. If you have Belarusian friends, you will be invited to spend this holiest of days with a family in the heart of the community. It’s an unmissable weekend.
On the ninth day after Orthodox Easter, families gather together to remember those they have lost in a powerful display of the ties that bind. Widely observed throughout the country, they visit family graves to pay their respects, lay flowers and share a meal. As with Orthodox Easter, the experience of observing this symbolic day with a local family is a rare and precious one.
Held on 9 May, the commemoration of victory over the Nazis in the Second World War (known in this part of the world as ‘the Great Patriotic War’) is a massive celebration of nationalistic pride. The parade in Minsk is gigantic, with no less impressive events in every town and city. Take to the streets wherever you are and don’t forget your camera.
Spend warm summer evenings in the company of locals promenading city streets and parks. This is largely a lost art in the West but here, it is joyously observed. Then grab a pavement table at one of the many cafés to watch the world go by. My two favourite places for a stroll are Victory Park in Minsk and Rumyantsev-Paskevich Park in Gomel.
This international festival in mid-July of ethnic Slav song, dance and culture is not to be missed if you find yourself in Vitebsk, the city of Marc Chagall. Most events take place at the purpose-built amphitheatre but the city itself is also taken over by one huge street party of events and celebrations.
Summer’s end may not be too far away, but the weather is still ideal in August for getting close with nature, particularly as the sun has been warming the water of rivers and streams for many months. Follow the lead of locals and get out into the wild for a picnic. The flora and fauna of Belarus are a joy to behold. My personal favourites are the forests and riverbanks of the Sozh River in and around Vetka.
Summer holidays are over, everyone else is at work, school or university, so this is a great time to meander the delightful palaces and museums of historic towns such as Mir, Novogrudok, Njasvizh, Pinsk and Polotsk. Don’t overlook palace grounds; autumn is coming and the light at this time of year presents some lovely photographic opportunities.
There may not be a wide variety of colour amongst the trees here, but this time of the year is not called ‘Golden Autumn’ without reason. Woods and forests everywhere display the lustrous warmth of amber shades as the leaves begin to fall. It’s a beautiful time to be strolling in parkland.
October Revolution Day on 7 November may no longer be widely celebrated, but the events of 1917 are a fine backdrop for exploring Belarus’ past as a constituent republic of the USSR. Every town and city has its own museums with displays and exhibits covering the country’s revolutionary past and the days of the Soviet Union. Having a sound grasp of past events in this part of Europe is key to understanding what’s going on in the present.
There’s snow on the ground, the days are short and temperatures are beginning to plummet. There’s no better time to visit Grandfather Frost at his home in the depths of Byelavyezhskaya Puscha National Park (www.belarus.by/en/travel/belarus-life/residence-of-father-frost). Immerse yourself in the folklore traditions of Belarus as his hand-maidens take you on a winter wonderland tour, before you get to meet The Man himself. But you better have been good this year …