The Opera and Ballet Theatre of Minsk, Belarus © Gruszecki
Despite being landlocked, Belarus is a country apart from its continental neighbours, having stoutly resisted the integration into Europe and embrace of capitalism shown by other former Eastern bloc countries. While such isolationism has its negative side - the tyrannical rule of its president and its stringent visa requirements foremost among them - Belarus' Soviet-era atmosphere and relative isolation are also its primary attractions.
Not many visitors include Belarus in their summer vacation plans, but those that do get to experience a portion of Europe almost entirely free of consumerist trappings, litter and advertising. Moreover, foreign investment is discouraged and private enterprise is virtually non-existent, which results in a country that has evolved little in the last 20 years, providing visitors with a sense of time standing still. There is no doubt that in many ways life in Belarus is hard for the populace, and the country has suffered more than its fair share of misery in its history, including losing more than two million of its people (particularly Jews) during the Nazi occupation of World War II. In 1986 Belarus suffered the fall-out from the Chernobyl nuclear power plant accident just across its border in neighbouring Ukraine. And yet there is much that is bright and beautiful in the culture and natural attractions of Belarus. Beyond the clean Stalinist lines of its capital, Minsk, the tiny towns and villages of Belarus are living museums of medieval life, and the national parks contain mysterious forests, murky bogs and swamps, thousands of smooth lakes, and a fascinating array of unspoilt eco-systems, fauna and flora.
Visitors are encouraged to enjoy the great outdoors in the Vitebsk Region, where there are almost 50 designated tourist routes involving hiking, cycling, boating and plenty of chances for hunting and fishing. Hotels and health spas offer rest and relaxation and there is even a calendar of art and music festivals in the region.
Belarus is a destination that rewards those seeking an original travel experience, with genuinely welcoming people, pristine nature and traditional villages, all spiced up with interesting glimpses into a Soviet past that appears to live on in the country's isolated present.