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A few months back, we gave Belarus a mention here on EuroCheapo. No surprises of course that our posting opened up a mini-debate on the ethics of travel to a country that wins no awards for liberal enlightenment.
Yet, it is precisely because of its unusual politics that Belarus is a top destination for European travellers anxious to sample somewhere a little more offbeat. The country is beginning to cut a dash in the ecotourism market (think farm stays, fishing and birdwatching), and its cities have a stunning range of monuments and museums.
Eastbound by train
We have been back in Belarus these past few days. The Moskva Express from Berlin is a train with many merits. The train’s nocturnal entry into Belarus at three in the morning is not one of them. We are not at our best at that hour. But the women of the border control were friendly and efficient. They even spoke some English. In truth, though, it really helps to have a few phrases of Russian when visiting Belarus, and it is essential to be able to read the Cyrillic alphabet – if only to decipher road names and street signs.
A city of art and culture
Our destination was Vitebsk, a city in the northeast corner of the country. Vitebsk deserves to be much better known. The city on the Western Dvina river is a gem. One-time Jewish city, birthplace of the painter Marc Chagall, and host of the annual Slavianski Bazaar – one of eastern Europe’s foremost festivals of music and culture. Dance troupes from across the Slavic world and beyond; music in a dozen genres; film, art and poetry too.
The two sides of Belarus
Belarus seems very foreign to many visitors that cross its borders. It is hard to get a handle on the place. The presidential website tells one tale. The human rights pressure group, Charter 97, recounts quite another story.
Travellers must make their own judgements. In Vitebsk, we found a people of unfailing courtesy. Hospitable, friendly, keen to party and very proud of their country.
Vitebsk at festival time is Belarus at its best – and for visitors from western Europe unbelievably good value. A half litre of beer for less than a dollar, a tram ride right across town for just a few cents and a main course in a good restaurant for less than five dollars. True EuroCheapo country.