This story appears in the March 2019 issue of National Geographic Traveler magazine, Israel edition.
Story by Daphne Raz Photographs by Eddie Gerald
Belarus in the dead of Winter. The cold bites and the sleet stings your face. Fog softens the landscape of fields in waiting for the spring planting and leafless forests, but the warmth inside the country houses is soothing and comforting. This warmth is not produced by fireplaces and wood burning stoves that emit a smoky aroma. It emanates also from the hospitality of the rural tourism entrepreneurs who open their hearts and homes to their guests.
The center of Minsk is a study in contrasts: behind the wide Soviet avenues lie elegant old quarters and neon lights of casinos sparkle in front of stern gray public buildings. Driving out of the center, large residential blocks make way for villages and vast snowy tracts of land. Belarus covers an area of more than 200,000 square kilometers. 40 percent of them are forest lands. 20,000 rivers and streams flow through them 10,000 lakes dot the landscape. Only some nine million people inhabit all these, leaving vast open lands.
Rural tourism entrepreneurs in Belarus are people who follow their passions - be it horse riding, bee keeping, traditional music or food and the production of samogon - Belarusian moonshine. Their enthusiasm and hospitality are contagious and warm even the coldest nights.
Valeria Klitsounova is considered the mother of rural tourism in Belarus. She and her late husband established Dudutky - an open museum in the village of Ptich. "It was an achievement to make rural tourism interesting," she says.
The snow covered landscape holds also many memories – these are poignantly present at the Khatyn memorial, 55 kilometers from Minsk. Ghosts of homes mark the place where the village stood before it was burnt to the ground by the occupying Nazi forces for cooperating with the partisans who hid in the adjacent Naliboki forest.
The forest is also home to one of the remaining populations of the European Bison. Almost entirely extinct in nature, the bison has been reintroduced successfully to the forests of Belarus and eastern Poland. Despite their massive size, they manage to remain slip undetected among the trees.
Photo essay was conducted with the help of the National Tourism Agency in Belarus.