But with beautiful primeval forests to be discovered, delicious potato pancakes to be eaten and enormous bison to be spotted, it’s time it got a ping on your travel radar.
If you’ve never considered visiting Belarus before (which admittedly I hadn’t either), these brilliantly weird and wonderful facts will definitely spark some intrigue…
1. Around 40% of Belarus is covered by forest.
Sometimes referred to as the ‘Lungs of Europe’, Belarus is home to one of the last and largest remaining parts of the huge primeval forest that once covered the European Plain – the Białowieża Forest. You’ll also find several stunning national parks to explore here, ideal for avid walkers and fans of the fresh air. Oh, and the green stripe on the Belarusian flag actually represents its forests.
2. Independence Avenue is the country’s longest street.
Stretching over 15 kilometres across the capital, Independence Avenue passes through five different squares including Victory Square and October Square. Throughout history, it has not only grown in length and width but has also had 14 name changes – more than any other street in Minsk.
3. Forget Pancake Day, it’s all about Pancake Week!
Called Maslenitsa Week, this Eastern Slavic holiday is celebrated in the last week before Lent. Pancakes are rustled up in every home to be enjoyed with friends and family, as well as being served up at local street festivals. Belarusians don’t shy away from creative toppings either, from ground poppy seeds sweetened with sugar to hearty mushroom stew – the possibilities know no bounds.
4. They love a bit of sport.
With 23,000 sporting venues open to the public across the country, if Belarusians aren’t playing sport chances are they’re watching it. Favourites include football, handball, ice hockey and tennis. A little fun fact for you now… Well-known tennis player Victoria Azarenka comes from Belarus and is the only Belarusian tennis pro (female or male) to ever win a Grand Slam singles title.
5. It’s impossible not to be charmed by the locals.
Belarusians are some of the warmest, friendliest and most hospitable people you will ever meet. Even if they can’t speak your language they will go above and beyond to help you in absolutely any way they can.
6. Their national library is award-winning, in more ways than one.
Also known as ‘The Diamond of Knowledge’, the National Library of Belarus is an imposing structure. Standing at 74 metres tall, with 23 floors and a viewing deck from the top – it’s difficult to miss. It’s enjoyed fame as one of the most unusual buildings in the world but also as one of the ugliest. Apparently, architects Michael Vinogradov and Viktor Kramarenko were asked to make a statement, and they most certainly did.
7. Potatoes are a big deal.
The humble potato is a staple of Belarusian cuisine and it’s rare that you’ll sit down to a meal where they’re not featured. With over 300 potato recipes to choose from such as tukmachi, a layered potato cake, and kalduny, potato wrapped minced meat dumplings – you’ll be spoiled for choice. My favourite has to be draniki. These grated potato pancakes are delicious served with a healthy dollop of sour cream.
8. Street art fans will love Minsk.
Strolling the city streets, you’ll come across a number of large, brightly-coloured murals painted by various street artists. Some of the biggest can be found on Oktyabrskaya Street. This area of town used to be an industrial estate, but the local youth have breathed new life into it. Since 2014, Minsk has hosted Vulica Brazil, a street art festival launched in partnership with the Brazilian embassy that brings together artists from around Belarus and Brazil.
9. The bison is (one of) their national symbol(s).
When choosing their national animal, the Belarusians opted for the heaviest surviving land mammal in the whole of Europe. Brought back from the brink of extinction in the early 50s, two European bison were released into the Białowieża Forest. Today there are around 600 to be spotted here. Other national symbols include the stork and the cornflower.
10. Superstition is the way.
Belarusians love a good superstition. A particularly popular one is that you should never whistle in your house or you’ll blow all your money away. They also say that you shouldn’t clean your house once a guest has left until they’ve reached their final destination, or it’s believed that you’re clearing them out of your life for good.
Sold on Belarus? Check out Intrepid Travel’s 9-day trip discovering all the country’s highlights.