Having visited most countries in Europe already, I jumped at the chance to visit Belarus shortly after they removed the need for visas for visitors from around 80 countries. I booked myself onto a small group tour with 12 other people which included trips into the countryside as well as Minsk, the capital.
Before travelling to Minsk, people had told me this city would be “just like the USSR days” and that the country had not moved on much since then. I was pleasantly surprised therefore to see that the city is full of modern architecture & there were already big chain hotels in the city centre. Yes there are still some grey, Soviet-style buildings but the government invited some Brazilian street artists to come and paint them and now they are all decorated in bright colours!
My hotel was in the outskirts and from the outside looked like typical Soviet-style architecture. Inside, it was clean and modern but very silent and lifeless throughout the corridors. Where were all the tourists?
The answer is that Belarus, along with Moldova, has the lowest number of tourists in Europe. That may change now that visas are no longer needed for stays of up to 30 days. The lack of tourists was such a blessing for me. As a frequent traveller, I prefer avoiding places that have become overcrowded with tourists and am always searching for hidden gems. Walking around Minsk, our group of 12 was the only tour group I saw. I also saw a handful of Russian tourists. Russians did not previously need visas to visit Belarus so they have always made up the majority of their visitor numbers.
Most of Minsk was sadly destroyed in WWII. However, if you visit the Trinity area, you will see the older part of the city with colourful, traditional buildings and a variety of restaurants as well as lovely views across the river. The city has several parks and there were gorgeous flowers in a lot of places around the city. I’d also recommend visiting the Great Patriotic War Museum. It tells the story of Belarus during the war and I didn’t realise that they lost a third of their population in WWII. We also learned about the main religions in the country. The majority of people practice the Russian Orthodox religion and 14% are Catholic. There are also smaller minorities of Jews, Protestants and Muslims. We visited the Red Church, which is Catholic, and they offer services in Belarusian and Polish. More on the languages later.
Following the visit to Minsk, we set off for a couple of days in the countryside. Belarus is a country with 10,000 lakes. With a lack of tourists, this means you can have a lake all to yourself! I visited in high season (July) and the lakes I visited were still very quiet which meant I was able to capture some stunning photos.
In the countryside, we visited the castles at Mir and Nesvizh, both UNESCO sites. We had a one hour tour inside both castles and then I was lucky enough to be able to stay for one night in Nesvizh Castle. The rooms are basic with wooden decor but the price is very reasonable compared to staying in castles elsewhere. It also means early in the morning and in the evening, the castle is closed to day visitors and only the overnight guests can wander around the courtyard inside the gates.
I was also pleased to experience a taste of traditional Belarusian music. We were taken to the house of a local musician, Ales Los, who showed us various instruments including the Belarusian bagpipes, known as duda. He also explained how the history of bagpipes is linked with the Celtic people. Being from Scotland (and a lover of bagpipe music), I was extremely interested in this history. This video shows a short clip of his music.
Now onto the languages of Belarus! The main language is actually Russian and this is what you will hear in the cities and big towns. However, in the countryside, many people speak Belarusian. The musician, Ales Los, sang some songs in Belarusian. Most of the media and TV is in Russian. However, there are some schools teaching through the medium of Belarusian, 9 in Minsk and 200 in the country overall. However, the children in those schools also learn Russian. My tour guide did not think that there were any monolingual Belarusian speakers anymore (write to me if you find one!) but there is a revival of the language, culture and traditions, particularly in the countryside. The President even recently gave a speech in Belarusian. I learned enough Russian to cope with my needs on this trip and I also had a look at Belarusian which reminded me of Slovak (I learned Slovak to A2 level). I then started digging further and found a You Tube channel dedicated to teaching Belarusian!
One budget airline has arranged to start daily flights to Belarus from next year. In one way, it’s good for the country to receive more tourist income and perhaps it will create more jobs. However, it may also give away one of Europe’s Best Kept Secrets. Who knows! For now, I’d highly recommend Belarus and take the chance while it’s quiet and you may have these stunning lakes all to yourself!
Omniglot – Basic phrases in Belarusian
Easy Belarusian – You Tube channel
Italki – Skype lessons in Belarusian -If you register on this link and spend $10 on lessons, italki will give you another $10 voucher to spend on their site.
Feel free to send me any more links for resources!
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