7 of the best things to do in Belarus

A country that’s coming in from the cold, there’s never been a better time to visit Belarus. Not only have new visa-free regulations come into place, but the country is about to host a major world event.

The European Games kick off in the capital Minsk (21 to 30 June 2019), with nine of days of sporting action that will pave the way for the Olympics in Tokyo next year.

Add in the global response to HBO’s harrowing, highly-rated miniseries Chernobyl, and the spotlight is firmly shining on this landlocked nation, which is sandwiched between Russia, Ukraine, Poland, Latvia and Lithuania.

Here, we reveal the very best experiences that await in this intriguing yet often overlooked former Soviet republic…

1. Explore the capital, Minsk

A panorama of historic Minsk, the capital of Belarus (Shutterstock)

Stately squares, pretty parks and handsome boulevards, Minsk is a city that takes many by surprise. Independence Avenue, the longest street in the city at more than 15km long, is a good place to start.

Stroll along part of it and you’ll see striking examples of ‘Stalin Empire’ architecture and cross five of the city’s squares including Victory Square (pictured below), dominated by the Victory Monument erected in 1954 to honour the troops of the Soviet Union.

Other impressive architecture awaits at the National Opera and Ballet Theatre (pictured) and the earthy red exterior of the Church of Saints Simon and Helena. As one of the only buildings to survive WWII, it has certainly enjoyed some divine intervention.

Best of all, a city break here will cost you a fraction of other tempting destinations after Minsk was named the cheapest capital city in Europe last year. A cappuccino will set you back about £1 while a beer costs less than 70p. Cheers!

2. Enjoy Eastern Europe’s most rewarding countryside

Entrance to Belovezhskaya Pushcha National Park in Belarus (Shutterstock)

Beyond the urban delights of Minsk is some of the most rewarding countryside in Eastern Europe. Arguably the most important slice of wilderness is Belovezhskaya Pushcha National Park, the last remaining patch of primeval forest that once stretched from the Baltic Sea all the way to the banks of the Buh River.

Located 340km southwest of Minsk, in the Brest region of the country, and famed for its ancient oak trees (some of which are more than 500 years old), it is one of four national parks in the country. and was first recorded in the year 983.

Home to the largest population of European bison, Belovezhskaya Pushcha was once the preferred hunting ground for nobility but these days all the wildlife, from the wolves to the woodpeckers, are protected.

3. Find out why Belarus is so ‘blue-eyed’

Naroch Lake is landlocked Belarus’s largest (Shutterstock)

Blue-Eyed Belarus – as it’s affectionately known on account of its 11,000 lakes – is a country that hasn’t allowed its landlocked geography to dampen its love of water.

Its glacial lakes and 20,000 rivers were formed with the melting of the Valdai glacier around 13,000 years ago, creating a wonderfully romantic landscape.

Naroch Lake and the clear Narochanka River are good spots for fishing and kayaking but the country’s most beautiful body of water is, arguably, just over the border.

Svityaz Lake, in Ukraine, is surrounded by myth and legend. Apparently, a city once stood there, until residents flooded it during a siege believing it to be better to die than live in captivity.

4. Discover the OTHER side of Chernobyl

An abandoned farm in the Belarus Exclusion Zone, open to the public from April 2019 (Shutterstock)

Most people associate Chernobyl with Ukraine but Belarus was also heavily affected by the disaster in 1986. In fact, it’s claimed that 70% of the radioactive particles spewed out by the plant landed across the border in Belarus resulting in 135,000 Belarusians being evacuated and relocated.

Fast forward some 33 years and there are two exclusion zones in place – one of which opened, in part, to tourists just two months ago. So, what awaits those who are brave enough?

Well, the spine-chilling experience focuses on the Polesie State Radioecological Reserve, a secretive area hidden 15km deep into the forest.

Here, you won’t only learn about the contamination from the reserve’s scientific team and visit some of the 95 eerie villages that were once home to a population of 22,000 but also discover the surprising amount of bird life that the area now attracts.

There are also glimpses of industrial buildings and more intimate details such as abandoned boats still moored on the Pripyat River.

And rest assured, it’s perfectly safe with experts reassuringly declaring that the radiation dose to visitors is less than that of an average plane journey.

5. Float through fairy tale castles

Nesvizh Castle and Fortress Bridge, Belarus (Shutterstock)

From Cinderella to Dracula, who doesn’t love a castle? And Belarus has a few fair. After gaining independence in 1991, the government sprang into action and set up restoring many of the country’s most historical and beautiful castles.

Once such place given a whole new lease of life was Puslovsky’s Castle, with its battlements, tall turrets and neo-gothic facade. There are over 100 rooms and towers that symbolise each month of the year, the four tallest representing the summer months when the harvest is reaped.

Another not to be missed is Nesvizh. Dating back to the 13th century it was once home to Radzivili dynasty and continues to be surrounded by landscaped gardens and ornamental lakes. Some of the original earthen walls can still be seen today. Cinderella would be most impressed.

6. Stay at a local farm

Cows stroll on a farm near Minsk, Belarus (Shutterstock)

For most Belarusians, a few days in the countryside ranks amongst life’s greatest pleasures with many seeking solace in the abundance of rural boltholes, many of which are farms, that have opened their doors to tourism.

There’s something to suit all tastes, from working farms that offer a rather rustic option to fancy farms that have truly reinvented themselves.

One such example is the Forest Inn Farmstay, with a two-bed guest house perched on the fringes of a forest an hour’s drive from Minsk.

You won’t find a TV here (hurrah) so entertainment comes in the form of loudly chirping birds and long walks to the Neman River and nearby villages.

7. Be beguiled by Belarus’s tractors

The BelAZ 75710 in all its heavy machine glory (Shutterstock)

Prepare to be amazed by some seriously cool tractors. Yes, tractors. Bear with us…

Admittedly heavy duty machinery rarely features on most holiday itineraries, but they really should do on a trip to Belarus, which proudly produces the world’s largest: the BelAZ 75710.

Standing at almost 9m in height and capable of carrying 450 tonnes, it’s feat of engineering that they are rightly proud of.

There’s even a tour to see the production line along with a guided stroll around Zhodino, the district specifically built for workers at the plant, 40km outside of Minsk.

And of course the experience wouldn’t be complete without taking a spin on one yourself – in the passenger seat, obviously!

See the best of Eastern Europe:

7 of Europe’s wildest, untamed places to explore

1: Zagori, Greece

Voidomatis river, Zagori (Dreamstime)

If your only experience of Greece is the islands, Zagori could be something of a shock. Instead of bright white-blue houses and Mediterranean beaches, expect to find rustic buildings carved from the surrounding rocky landscapes and enormous mountains with steep cliff faces rippling all the way to the Albanian border far off on the horizon.

While no Zagori visit would be complete without a dip in the freezing but crystal clear Voidomatis river or a hike down some of the ancient trails that criss-cross the terrain, the attraction that draws tourists here from around the world is the dramatic Vikos gorge, the world’s deepest gorge (in proportion to width).

‘Vikos’ is translated from the Slavic word for ‘echo’, and certainly the way the gorge will reverberate sounds around the walls has to be heard to be believed.

2: Bialowieza Forest, Poland/Belarus

European Bison at the European Bison Show (Dreamstime)

The largest remnant of a once-vast European primeval forest, Bialowieza is a 580-square-mile tribute to a long lost world. Straddling the border of what was once the edge of the Soviet Union (it became the Polish-Belarus border in 1991), it’s a haven of wild meadows, deep river valleys and 500-year-old ancient oaks. Despite the many living trees, the walk to the fallen Jagiello Oak, a 400-year-old giant that blew down in 1974, is one of the most popular hikes.

It’s a priceless habitat for some of the great carnivorous wildlife, which has been wiped out across much of the rest of Europe, including otters, lynx, wolves and even an estimated 900 European bison. See the animals for yourself at Palace Park, which was walled off by Polish royalty in the 19th century, making it one of Europe’s oldest nature reserves.

Alternatively, visit the European Bison Show Reserve and observe the various breeding programs that are helping to reintroduce bison and other threatened animals.

3: Eisriesenwelt, Austria

Eisriesenwelt cave (Dreamstime)

A visit to the Eisriesenwelt allows you to walk in the footsteps of Anton von Posselt-Czorich, who first discovered the cave entrance in 1874, and Alexander von Mork, who, inspired by Posselt-Czorich, undertook the first proper explorations of the cave network in 1912.

What Mork and his contemporaries discovered (Mork was killed in action during World War I, meaning he personally never saw the public opening of the Eisriesenwelt in 1920) went on to become the world’s largest ice cave, with over 3,000ft of ice-lined tunnels.

Highlights of walking through the vast ice cave network include huge natural ice columns reaching from the floor to the ceiling, incredible frozen waterfalls and the enormous 330ft high Eispalast (ice palace), containing walls with ice up to 23ft thick.

4: Donana, Spain

Dunes of Donana National Park (Dreamstime)

Tucked away in the most south-westernly corner of the Iberian peninsula, these remarkable wetlands at the mouth of the Guadalquivir river are a diverse mix of vast marshlands, lagoons and woodland, and comprise the largest nature reserve in all of Spain.

Despite the twin threats of wildfires and large-scale dredging of the Guadalquivir, it has stood the test of time and is now home to a variety of iconic animals, from deer and boar to the vulnerable Spanish eagle and the endangered Iberian lynx. Most importantly, it is an absolutely vital safe haven ground for an enormous variety of birdlife, including over half a million waterfowl who spend the winter here.

Experience the best of the natural environment by exploring the network of hiking and cycling trails to view the vast dune systems of Matalascanas and Asperillo.

5: Loughareema, Northern Ireland

Vanishing Lake (Dreamstime)

‘Water ran out’ is the Gaelic translation of this lake name, which effectively summarises the unique and bizarre characteristic of this local feature. Informally known as Northern Ireland’s infamous ‘Vanishing Lake’, the basin can go from almost entirely empty to up to 20ft deep in just 12-to-18 hours. Equally, an entirely full lake can completely vanish in just a few days.

To this day, where exactly it goes and how it gets there remains a mystery. It may be that this entire rugged landscape of the Causeway Coast and Glens district is riddled with underground cracks and fissures, which allow water to disappear below ground and then mysteriously reappear in some distant location.

Nearby coastal trails and dramatic beauty spots include the famous Giant’s Causeway and seabird dominated Rathlin Island, so ensure you explore the surrounding area.

6: Danube Delta, Romania

Pelicans fly over the Danube (Dreamstime)

After navigating its way over 1750 miles, through 10 countries and four capital cities, the Danube has a huge amount of water to be discharged when it finally reaches into the Black Sea, and the pristine wildlife haven it creates is ripe for exploring. Overall, this 2,200 square mile landscape comprises Europe’s largest continuous marshland.

Try a Danube river cruise or kayak hire from the eastern Romanian city of Tulcea, and enjoy the rich birdlife (over 300 species), dense vegetation and occasional other wildlife that roam into this dense network of waterways, forests and small islands.

Biodiversity hotspots, such as the Letea and Caraorman forests, are strictly protected, and therefore accessible only with a qualified guide.

7: Corsica, France

Capitello lake, France (Dreamstime)

They call the GR20 the hardest hiking trail in Europe. Over 110 miles long, it crosses the French island of Corsica from north to south (or vice versa) taking in harsh rocky terrain and thick vegetation as it goes.

The inner landscape of this Mediterranean island, contained predominantly inside the vast Parc Naturel Regional de Corse, is rugged and unforgiving, home to wild mouflon (wild sheep), red deer and an immensely diverse array of birdlife.

The GR20 has basic shelter and places to buy food and water during the peak summer months, but outside of this window hikers are required to carry all supplies with them. During winter, the trail is covered in snow in large sections, so it’s recommended for experienced Alpine climbers only.

If you do fancy the GR20 challenge, ensure you visit the spectacular glacial lakes of Nino, Melo and Capitello, and take a brief side trip to Monte Cinto, the highest mountain in Corsica.

The record time for completing the GR20 is a jaw-dropping 31 hours and six minutes, posted last year by French ultra-runner Francois D’Haene.

Chris Fitch is senior staff writer for Geographical, the official magazine of the Royal Geographical Society, and author ofAtlas of Untamed Places: an extraordinary journey through our wild world, published September 28 by Aurum Press.

For more on the book, seewww.quartoknows.com.

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