"Belarus is one of those countries we know so little about, shrouded in a blanket of post Soviet fog. But I was curious and wanted to find out what lay beneath the blanket.
So, what did I find as we crossed the border from Poland? Hrodna was the first of several delightful cities of medieval cobbled streets and squares, old churches and monuments. We were struck by how well kept and tidy each was, a distinct lack of litter, with flowers everywhere, pot arrangements in squares, flower beds along streets and in parks, arrangements on walls and pavements as if a giant Belarus in Bloom competition was in full flow, a gentle oozing of quiet civic pride emanated everywhere.
Between each city we drove through lush countryside of green fields, forests of red pine and silver birch, and the gold of wheat being harvested. The roads we drove along were well-appointed and the cars we passed were modern. People looked, if not rich, comfortably off.
The villages were an eye catching treat of traditional wooden houses painted in a multiplicity of colours, each one different and usually set in a garden of flowers and fruit trees creating a colourfully picturesque scene of rural quietude that was so pleasant to be among. Any preconceptions of grey drabness and poverty had been quickly dispelled.
We spent a day in the Biosphere of Berezinsky National Park, walking trails through the forest of pine, silver birch, spruce and alder where local guide Yelena enthusiastically explained every nuance, answering questions with inexhaustible knowledge. We met lynx, bear, wolf and others at the zoo for rescued animals and walked to the raised bog, Yelena's favourite place, where she demonstrated by standing in it, allowing water to ooze over her ankles. The view from the top of the observation tower was expansive and impressive across the sphagnum and isolated birches to the misty border below the forest on the far side.
We met a succession of knowledgeable and enthusiastic local guides who talked freely and jokingly to us. I remarked on this to Laryssa in Vitebsk. She agreed but cautioned that at work people may still be a bit more careful.
Yet there remains a sombre side. Belarus lost a quarter of its population in the last war and every town has its lasting memorial. The most haunting was Khatin, once a village in a forest clearing, exterminated by Nazis in reprisals for supporting partisans and chosen to represent all 186 such villages across Belarus. Headed by a giant statue of a haggard partisan carrying a dead child it brings you up short to read the names and ages on the house sites, the list of villages and see the tombs that represent them.
Minsk was different. The first busy place we had seen and a thriving city with shops, restaurants and all modern amenities.
On our more southerly return we visited the estate castles of Nesvizh and Mir, both impressive edifices and busy with visitors, but all Belarussian. Foreign tourists are a rare commodity in Belarus and I only spotted two other lots on our whole trip.
A visit to the hero fortress of Brest and we were crossing back into Poland. It seemed suddenly hectic, full of traffic and adverts. "I think I could have stayed in Belarus", said somebody.
Indeed, all our discussion was upbeat in that we had seen somewhere that was no Soviet throwback, defying everyone's expectations in being much more colourful, scenic, modern and well looked after than anyone had expected, leaving us with lots of positives."
Words and photos by Nick Langridge. Nick travelled on Belarus Explorer.