Russians, Lithuanians, Germans, Israelis and even a visitor from Dubai —
Crown Prince Said bin Maktum, like it in Belarus.
Adoring the sea, I’ve never taken a holiday at a Belarusian spa, although I have an idea of what’s on offer at such places: I often organised my mother’s recreation. She told me about all the resorts and therapies she has tried over the years. It quite makes me think of accompanying her to a spa myself.
On holiday on the warm shores of the Red Sea in Egypt in November, I was astonished to hear some St. Petersburg residents extolling the virtues of our Belarusian spas. They’d visited ‘Pridneprovsky’ spa in the Mogilev Region several times, drinking in sunsets over the wide Dnieper and lounging on its picturesque banks — shaded by the forests, rich in mushrooms and berries. They’d also been to ‘Lesnoe’ spa in the Vitebsk Region and ‘Berezina’ spa in the Minsk Region.
Discovering shared experience tends to bring strangers together, especially when on holiday. Such points of contact make us feel we’ve known our new acquaintances for ages. When our friends mentioned having been to a spa on the River Berezina (Napoleon’s army retreated across it in the autumn of 1812) my mother, my husband and I nodded… When they recollected their ‘Lesnoe’ stay, we remembered that our own family had been camping on the bank of Lake Domashkovskoe at the time. We found out that we all loved the lake, which is full of such rich minerals that it leaves the skin soft as silk. At first, this water scared me because the drops lingered on the skin (it is filled with residual oil). Our friend — a hydro-geologist — tells me that the water is rich in organic matter, which makes it brown, rather like famous ‘Truskavetskaya’ (in the Transcarpathia Region of Western Ukraine). It isn’t suitable for drinking but is excellent for the skin. Our St. Petersburg friends were duly impressed by my knowledge, gained from a reputable scientific source. We laughed at the thought of the lake covered with a film of oil — like the Dead Sea.
I was pleased to tell them about my own trip to ‘Lesnoe’, to visit my masseuse friend. I drank birch syrup I’d collected myself in April and walked in the forest. One member of our party — a windsurfer called Andrey, from Grodno, joked, “Belarus probably has spas which offer kidney cleansing treatments each April — to deal with all the birch syrup drinking.”
He had his own tales to tell of rather unpleasant massages in Albena (Bulgaria). He was obliged to visit ‘Sosnovy Bor’ spa in the Vitebsk Region afterwards, to have his back seen to! I asked why he hadn’t chosen famous ‘Radon’ or ‘Porechje’ spas in Grodno but he explained that his friend works at ‘Sosnovy Bor’.
The Crown Prince of Dubai married a Belarusian girl from Smolevichi (a town near Minsk) and a reception was organised for him in that area as he was enchanted by the cordiality of our people and the beauty of the countryside there. The St. Petersburgers, having heard about the Crown Prince, asserted that they would visit Belarus in future and asked us to list the advantages of ‘Sosnovy Bor’.
Six months have passed since my Egypt holiday and I’m now far more of an expert on Belarus’ spas. Such trips are relatively cheap, as are holidays at our agro-farms. There are 102 spas in the Republic, with several being very large indeed, such as ‘Belagrozdravnitsa’. ‘Sosnovy Bor’ was named best spa-resort in Belarus last year (in a contest run for the first time by the Citizens Rehabilitation Centre, under the Council of Ministers).
In fact, having been chatting about this delightful location with Andrey from Grodno and our friends from St. Petersburg, we were inspired to visit ‘Sosnovy Bor’ ourselves. Our guide — Viktor Ponomarev, the Deputy General Director of Medicine and Nutrition at ‘Belagrozdravnitsa’ — has been engaged in medicine for over 30 years. He is a real organiser and expert in the spa business. He notes, “Patients have the right to inspect what they are paying for — as with any other goods. One businessman, Heinz from Berlin, visits ‘Radon’ spa 2–3 times a year. He’s over 60 and has problems with his spine and joints; he has osteochondrosis. Having weighed the costs, he chose ‘Radon’ — driving there by car. He takes 6–7 radon baths and undertakes a course of mud-therapy. After 15 days, he leaves feeling far more mobile.” Tickets to ‘Radon’ sell like hot cakes; last year, over 5000 people (including those from abroad) stayed there.
Dr. Ponomarev tells us about other spas and the children’s health resort ‘Rosinka’ (Vitebsk Region) — ranked first in its field in 2008. ‘Porechje’ spa (Grodno Region) has a ‘Mother and Child’ programme for parents to attend with small children. Clearly, Viktor and his colleagues (1300 people work in the system) work hard to keep their ‘customers’ happy. They still need to pursue a marketing policy though.
“Do foreigners come to ‘Sosnovy Bor’?” I ask Konstantin Zenkov, who heads the spa. “Their number increases each year. 120 Israelis stayed with us last year; they come to cool down,” he smiles. The spa is represented in ‘Belagrozdravnitsa’ website, featuring hundreds of photos; being a creative person, he takes pride in it. “Here are the Israelis... Our outstanding countryman, cosmonaut Petr Klimuk, also visited us,” Dr. Zenkov tells us.
Zenkov also explains that the Israelis appreciate the spa being close to Minsk, since many are natives of the capital. They tend to take tours of Gomel, Bobruisk, Brest and Pinsk, enjoying the hospitality of the Belarusian people, as well as their calmness and moral virtues. Of course, Belarus’ countryside is also a huge attraction, especially with its mild continental climate. Like the Germans, Poles, Estonians and Latvians, the Israelis are quite particular when it comes to treatments.
“Do spa patients manage to walk along the river and see the waterfalls?” I ask. “Of course,” Zenkov smiles, “especially the Russians. They sometimes miss a procedure in order to sunbathe or watch the beavers.” Dr. Ponomarev adds, “The beavers are an indication of an ecologically clean environment, since they’ll only live in clean water. Unfortunately, their dams can be inconvenient for us. Nevertheless, beavers are protected by the state.”
Dr. Zenko tells us that the Germans are among the biggest visitors to ‘Sosnovy Bor’ — especially those with cardiovascular problems. Patients’ blood pressure tends to lower by 5–10 points without medication. “The air, loaded with pine fragrance, plays its part, as does the weakly alkaline water,” he explains. “Conditions for treatment are special here: we have numerous procedures which use the water and pine-trees — some are 60–80 years old. Balneo-therapists believe each hectare of the forest produces around 4kg of ether oil daily; the waterfalls are charged with negative ions and sparkle — like famous Chizhevsky’s chandelier outside.”
The telephone rings and Dr. Zenkov answers. The people from St. Petersburg are calling to say thank you for their stay. “They strengthened their immune systems, so they can fight off colds. The Gulf of Finland is famous for its biting winds...” he explains. I thought that our friends from St. Petersburg would come to stay at ‘Sosnovy Bor’… or somewhere similar in Belarus. There are so many wonderful resorts close by.