Western insight into Europe’s exact centre
By Viktar Korbut
‘Welcome to Belarus! This is a small country jammed between Poland and Russia, which remains a mystery to most Europeans. In 1991, after the USSR’s collapse, it gained independence for the first time. Being at the crossroads of West and East, of European culture and the Slavonic world, Belarus synthesises these two worlds.’ So reads Federica Visani’s first French-language guide to the country, Bielorussie (published by famous Petit Fute Publishing House). Despite being located at the centre of Europe, many Europeans are only just discovering Belarus, alongside those from further afield. ‘Belarus’ image is enchanting’ writes Ms. Visani.
Ms. Visani continues: ‘Forests, lakes, rivers, flatlands and marshes… Belarus is a green paradise! Over a third of its territory is covered with forests and, even in the centre of cities, there are huge wooded parks. The country is called ‘blue eyed’ due to its abundance of lakes. In turn, Polesie’s huge marshes are known as ‘Europe’s lungs.’
This will be news for French-language readers. The author explains that most people know of the country due to the Chernobyl catastrophe, which occurred in 1986 and affected its major part. Although radiation has contaminated many fertile lands, reserves remain, with the natural balance unchanged for centuries — even millennia. Ms. Visani has visited many of them, so shares her views: ‘Large forests make Belarus attractive for lovers of nature and active tourism. You must visit at least one reserve in Belarus during your stay. Water sports, hiking, cycling and horse riding are easily organised while hunters and fishermen no doubt find luck along the banks of rivers and lakes. Eventually, the gathering of mushrooms and berries is guaranteed!’ No special permit is needed for such pastimes in Belarus, except in specially protected territories.
It seems to the French, that, despite historical ordeals, Belarusians are calm and, importantly, hospitable. ‘Wherever you go, you’ll find people ready to help you and show the way. Sometimes, they are even ready to invite an unknown person into their home’ she writes.
The guide focuses on how much cheaper it is to attend a sporting or cultural event in Belarus, to buy souvenirs or go to a restaurant, compared to France. ‘However, hotel prices are sometimes high, especially in Minsk’ she notes.
The French traveller precisely describes Belarusian cuisine: ‘Long frosty winters and the rural character of the country predetermine the character of Belarusian cuisine, which is caloric and nutritious. It is connected with the soil: pork, potatoes and vegetables (cucumbers, mushrooms, cabbage and tomatoes) are at the heart of recipes. Desserts use white cheese, apples, berries, poppy seeds and honey while potatoes are the foundation of every meal. It’s no coincidence that Belarusians are called ‘bulbasi’ (potato eaters); at least 25 potato dishes are common, all differing greatly!’
Kindness of the soul
Nigel Roberts has visited Belarus at the request of Bradt Publishing House (the world’s largest English-language guide book publisher) and, in April his Belarus will be published —accompanied by colourful photos and maps. This 272 page edition is the largest and freshest reference edition about the country released in English.
Nigel Roberts knows Russian well, which has enabled him to travel through Eastern Europe, forming an adequate view on Belarus in comparison to neighbouring states. He believes: ‘Belarus is ever changing’ and that ‘change has exceeded my expectations’. In particular, tourist infrastructure is improving. He writes: ‘Belintourist’s Information Centre, near the Yubileinaya Hotel in Minsk, now provides a range of tourist information in English. Moreover, local staff speak English fluently, while working at weekends and during public holidays.’
Despite Mr. Roberts having travelled through the whole country, he admits: ‘Belarus remains a secret at the heart of Europe for me.’ He continues: ‘While walking through the modern city of Minsk, you’ll be amazed by its monumental architecture, which glorifies and honours Soviet communism. Outside the capital, you’ll be impressed by the magnificence of the primeval forests, rivers and lakes, as well as local flora and fauna.’ His observations coincide with those of his French colleague, confirming their objectivity.
The release of new guide books on Belarus in French and English show the special interest being shown by Westerners. Symbolically, demand for such guides has generated results from two large publishing houses simultaneously. Sadly, the covers of the new books are disappointing, since they depict Orthodox churches in the typical Russian style. In fact, these fail to reflect the true image of traditional Belarusian architecture. Despite wars, each Belarusian city is crowned by a church in the ‘Vilnius Baroque’ style — characteristic for Belarus and common to Lithuania, western Ukraine and eastern Latvia. The style was used for building Minsk’s major Roman Catholic and Orthodox churches. Having failed to notice this, the authors have rather distorted the country’s image. However, this proves that Belarus is yet to be fully discovered, as the authors admit. The country remains a mystery but this very feature entices tourists, drawing them to explore new angles of local nature, history and culture. Mr. Roberts accurately notices: ‘In the Belarusian hinterland, wonderful museums exist. Rich culture, historical monuments (including those preserved from the Middle Ages) and beautiful churches remain. Each traveller will be welcomed by the warm souls of local people’.