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.
Minsk is the sort of place where you can feel relaxed and at ease without even knowing it.
Minsk is the capital and largest city in Belarus, with a population of 1,974,800 in 2017. As the national capital, it has special administrative status in the country and it is also the administrative centre of Minsk oblast. Perhaps surprisingly, given the geographical size and metaphorical significance of its giant neighbour, the Russian Federation, Minsk is also the headquarters of the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS), which was formed on the breakup of the Soviet Union. In truth, however, the significance of this status is minimal. The CIS has always been a fluid federation, honoured more in concept than in reality.
Take in the serene atmposhere at the Cathedral of the Holy Spirit © Maryia Bahutskaya, Dreamstime
Most capitals of the world are characterised by a high level of ambient 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. Outside rush hour, when there is gridlock at major junctions and drivers are impatiently leaning on car horns, ten-lane boulevards are often devoid of traffic. In many cities of the world, there is a feeling of claustrophobia as buildings close in on top of each other. But in Minsk, the skies are huge and there is a real sense of open space. Wherever you meander, vast and sweeping panoramas unfold before your gaze, all with a host of different sights. At times it feels 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 or even antisocial behaviour. Access to all areas of interest to the visitor by public transport is simple and uncomplicated, not to say impressively efficient. 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 these days: that of promenading. This is because walking is seen as so much more than simply a mechanical act of propulsion from A to B. Rather, it is an art form to be savoured, with every footstep to be relished. Everywhere you look, even in the depths of winter and no matter what the time of day or night, you will see people strolling, apparently aimlessly, but locked in conversation and arm in arm. Here in Minsk (and indeed, everywhere in Belarus), 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.
On the banks of the Svislach River, Gorky Park is Minsk's prime people-watching spot throughout the year © Ryhor Bruyeu, Dreamstime
My favourite time to be in Minsk is on a Sunday, before breakfast. I always set the alarm early and get out on the street as soon as I can lever myself out of bed, just to walk and walk. The grandiose buildings and particularly the monuments to the heroism of the city and its people during the privations of war are all the more impressive if you can enjoy them in solitude and in silence. Often I ride the metro for hours with a multiple-journey card, picking stations at random and alighting to wander. My favourite treat to myself is to get out at Traktorny Zavod (Minsk Tractor Works), emerging from the subway a time traveller, launched back 50 years into the heyday of the Soviet Union. Monuments, flags, banners, billboards and the Stalinist architecture of the factory itself proclaim the glory of labour under Lenin’s authoritative gaze. And on Sunday you will have the whole place to yourself to meander as you please. Inner peace, serenity, a feeling of security and a rare connection with the soul, all on the streets of a major capital city? Count on it!