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Belarus - When and where to visit
The climate is moderately continental, ranging from unforgiving winters, when the mean January temperature is –6.7°C, to warm summers, when the mean in July is +17.8°C. The annual level of precipitation is 550–650mm in the low country and 650–750mm at higher elevations. The average vegetation period is 184–208 days. Generally, the climate is favourable for growing cereal crops, vegetables, potatoes and fruit.
The likely assumption for the uninitiated is that since Belarus used to be part of the Soviet Union, the weather will always be grey, featureless and, in winter, bitingly cold. This is only partly correct. Each of the four seasons is distinct and boasts its own features. Winter is indeed bitingly cold for the most part, with the first snows tending to fall in late November, but the temperature does not plummet until the turn of the year. December is often wet and slushy. Come January, the thermometer can free-fall to the minus 30s, with long periods of snow accompanied by bitter winds. The scenery can be dramatic: clear blue skies, a watery sun, heavy frosts and thick, immovable, impenetrable ice. But these conditions tend to be the exception rather than the rule, and for the most part the temperature averages around –7°C with consistent and regular snowfall. It is a time when most people remain indoors unless necessity drives them outside to work or study.
Spring is a time of intense activity in the fields. This is also the time to see storks on the wing and nesting atop the high poles that are erected in villages for this very purpose. The temperature is generally warm and welcoming. Summers can be extremely hot with temperatures into the 30s, while biting insects are voracious in forests and near to water. Be sure to wear long trousers and clothing buttoned to the neck and wrists, accompanied by some form of insect repellent, particularly at dusk. But don’t be discouraged: this is a time of long days, balmy evenings, glorious sunrises and sunsets, a verdant landscape and fresh produce in the markets and by the roadside. As if to store up reserves of fresh air and sunshine for those long winter nights, people spend as much time outdoors as they possibly can. In rural areas, this means tending the fields, while in the town, the promenade remains a favoured pastime.
Autumn is a glorious time to be in Belarus. Summers tend to last well into September, but come harvest time in October, the colours of the fields and forests simply take your breath away. There is no real diversity of colour but a golden scene stretches into the distance almost everywhere. One Sunday predawn morning in October, I left Mozyr in the south by car in pitch darkness to catch a lunchtime flight from Minsk. As the first rays of the sun began to illuminate the landscape with a deep and warm glow, followed by brilliant bursts of gold, the song ‘Fields of Gold’ was playing on the radio. I know that’s a really twee story to tell, but it was a lovely moment and one that I am very pleased not to have missed.
Belarus offers much more to experience and to see than a single visit will allow, but a week would make for a fascinating, if intense, first trip. It is not possible to see all of the key centres of interest in that time, so be selective. The best advice is to visit Minsk and probably at least one other of the big towns, plus as much of the rural hinterland in-between as can be accommodated in the time available.
The capital city and living monument to the grandeur of post-war Soviet urban planning, where expansive boulevards, stretches of water and vast green areas guard the last piece of the Old Town that the Nazis could not destroy. It’s also home to 17 museums, 12 theatres and 38 palaces and centres of culture.
National Memorial Complex at Khatyn
Just 54km from the capital, this complex commemorates the hundreds of villages that the Nazis razed to the ground in the Great Patriotic War.
This frontier town in the southwest of Belarus, home to the hero-fortress, is where religious history was made in the 16th century and where eastern and western Europe meet, at the symbolic gateway to the old Soviet Union.
Located near the Polish border, on the banks of the Nieman River, Grodno has beautiful architecture (including the stunning Polish cathedral) and historic Lithuanian connections.
This village community, close to the Lithuanian border, has its own microeconomy and the administration is run strictly along sustainable development lines, based on traditional crafts and cottage industries.
The birthplace of the painter Marc Chagall, Vitebsk has many summer arts festivals and rich artistic traditions.
With its historical centre and the beautifully restored Leninskaya Street, this is the city where the last tsar of Russia, Nikolai II, had his final residence.
The country’s second-largest city, which is home to the impressive park, palace and cathedral complex founded by Prince Rumyantsev in the 18th century.
This town and district, home to ‘Old Believers’, has a world-class museum of iconography, the traditional weaving school at Nyeglubka, historic churches and locations of considerable ecological interest.
Be sure to visit Byelovezhskaya Puscha (the third UNESCO World Heritage Site in Belarus), Berezinsky, Braslav Lakes, Narach and Pripyatsky national parks, where the wilderness and biological diversity of the country can be enjoyed, and where ecological tourism is steadily beginning to take hold.
Although the main tourist sites (identified above) form a good basis for the structure of a visit, the best way to get to the heart of the country and its greatest treasure, its people, is to strike out alone. The task should not be underestimated, for to do so is not in the least easy. One of the hang-ups from the days of the old Soviet Union is a complete lack of understanding of the concept of the independent traveller. It also says much for the hospitality of the Belarusians that they are keen to share their country’s riches by offering personal guides to everything that there is to experience. This means that guided tours will certainly show you a great deal, although the level of control over the structure and pace of arranged itineraries will not suit the traveller with an urge for personal discovery. Overall, in the context of discovering and experiencing as much as possible, the arguments in favour of either independent or guided travel are very finely balanced, but perhaps the safest option, certainly if you are on a first visit and don’t have contacts in Belarus, is to stick to the main travel agencies. A major advantage of this option is that the process of obtaining an entry visa will be considerably simplified. Then, after your first experience of spending time here, you will have gained the confidence to head out solo on subsequent visits.