Belarus: A Christmas trip to the land that time forgot – Part 4
Novogrudok is an unassuming town between Minsk and Grodno which, with the freezing sleet and slush in which we arrived, did not look particularly appealing.
It’s the sort of place you’d pass through on the bus without so much as taking a glance if you were on the way somewhere else. We were as it happened – we had spent a long day travelling to the castle of Mir from Polotsk, but decided to stop off anyway to break the journey. The town’s claim to fame, though, is that it is the birthplace of the poet and writer Adam Bernard Mickiewicz.
A literary giant of Central Europe and author of the Polish national epic poem Pan Tadeusz, he was born in the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth to aristocratic Polish parents. Mickiewicz has statues in his honour in Warsaw, Krakow and various parts of Poland and is considered to be the country’s national poet. Yet, like most things connected with language, culture and identity in this part of the world, the truth of his national identity is far more complex. For a start, the first line of Pan Tadeusz are:
Lithuania, my fatherland! You are like health;
How much you must be valued, will only discover
The one who has lost you.
Written at a time when Poland was partitioned by Russia and off the map completely and in which Belarus was just the name of a Russian region west of Moscow, Mickiewicz can be forgiven for having an identity crisis. He grew up around Russian speakers and he strongly identified with Lithuania (attending university in Vilnius) but wrote and spoke in Polish. There are statues to him in Vilnius, the Lithuanian capital, and Lviv, in present-day Ukraine. However, the Belarusians probably celebrate him less than anyone (his writing hardly being pro-Russian) and his little house, like Chagall’s, is a little-visited curiosity in the suburbs. As I trudged the provincial streets of his hometown, the question of language and identity was again going through my mind. The poet dreamed of a Polish-Lithuanian homeland; his writings were driven by it.
The fact of his birthplace is an accident, and Belarusians probably find little to celebrate in him, as he wasn’t “one of them”. If anything, he should probably be considered a great Slavic poet, and as one who documented a time when Poland, Lithuania and Belarus did not exist, this would seem a fair compromise to the unbiased, although scholars of these countries will doubtless argue otherwise. Again, how Belarus can manage to find a national identity amongst all this is hard to fathom.
We arrived in Mir quite late and after a long day. The village is dwarfed by an impressive castle, probably the biggest single surviving fortification in Belarus today. Our room in the only affordable hotel was only secured after a nervous wait for an unclaimed room which had been booked. The journey of 300 kilometres from Polotosk via Novogrudok and Minsk had taken 14 hours on ancient buses and made me wish we could have taken a train; unfortunately, Mir is unconnected by rail. The 16th-century pile of red brick and stone is very pleasing to the eye and overlooks a serene lake. It is one of only four UNESCO World Heritage sites in all of Belarus because of the paucity of historical sites in the country.
The next day we spent exploring its considerable grounds and interior, and it felt like a bit of a novelty. Compared to some of the mighty castles and manor houses in Poland, Mir is quite modest, but in Belarus it is the star attraction. Built in the 16th century by Polish royalty, it has suffered its fair share of destruction over the years, particularly by the Russians during Poland’s war with Russia in 1655 and against Germany in the Great Patriotic War (the Second World War, as Russians like to call it), but it has been largely restored now and is in great condition. Views out over the surrounding countryside were, if not spectacular, at least pretty in a bucolic way by Belarus standards, and the place felt more special and appreciated for its uniqueness here. The nearby village had a crumbling, tumble-down feel, and like much of what we had seen, it seemed a bit lost in the past with no significant signs of modern life around at all. This and the nearby villages of Njasvizh and Dudutki are held up as prime Belarusian tourist spots for history buffs, but the sad truth is that they are rare examples of pre-20th century architecture in a country where little has been allowed to exist over the centuries by marauding armies.
Again, the flatness of the surrounding countryside was striking. For vast swathes, Belarus is flat as a pancake. Unfortunately, like Poland, this has been one of its main problems in history, as armies from every direction have been able to sweep through with ease. And, being land-locked, it is also coastline-free. What it does have is hundreds of thousands of acres of forests. Bialowieże, a massive primeval forested wilderness 100 kilometres southwest of the Polish border is perhaps the best example, containing rare European bison, countless pristine post-glacial lakes and a largely untouched countryside. It is at its best in the summer months and, I would imagine, it is ideal for cycling, fishing, mushroom picking, boating and other simple pursuits.
A budding eco-tourism scene exists and staying with locals in their farmhouse homes would be an excellent way to experience the real Belarus. Winter is not the best time to experience its modest rural delights, though, and if I regretted coming here at this time of year it was mainly for that reason. For a country not much smaller than the United Kingdom in terms of area, Belarus surely deserves some sort of recognition for its geographical uniformity and sheer lack of must-see “sights”. Not many places can boast that, and in a perverse way I like the country better for it. It rewards the adventurous because everything is off the beaten track.
Our final stop on the trip was Grodno, just a couple of hours west by rickety bus in a freezing persistent drizzle. It was January 3rd now, only three days from the Orthodox Christmas. Grodno, like Brest, is hard-up on the Polish border, in more senses than one. It doesn’t benefit from being close to the EU in terms of tourism, the amount of tourists trickling over the border from a largely indifferent Poland having little effect on the local economy. Grodno, however, contains many examples of Polish architecture, particularly its impressive Catholic churches, and while it is no Belarusian Lviv, its pleasant compact centre, replete with narrow cobbled streets, a university and castle, makes it pleasant to wander around. It again lacks what most would consider being “must-see” sights, but I had grown used to that in Belarus, and you just have to accept it’s a low-key kind of place. Its population of 330,000 makes it the fourth-largest city in the country after Minsk, Gomel and Mogilev, and there is a sizeable Polish population left over here from the war; this territory was in pre-war Poland. It also contains the largest Roman Catholic community in the country. Being only a few kilometres from the Lithuanian border, the city also has a Lithuanian minority, and after the First World War for a time it appeared the city would become part of Lithuanian territory before it fell into Polish hands.
Grodno turned out to be the priciest place for accommodation on our trip; there are no budget options in the city, and of the several mid-range refurbished communist-era hotels that we could stretch to, the Hotel Slavia offered comfortable if modest rooms with an average breakfast for a rather steep price of $120 a room. This in itself would be enough to put off most backpackers, but the hefty visa costs mean that this city has almost no traveller scene whatsoever, and the hotels aim their prices towards business travellers accordingly. Until this point, I had not been to a city in Europe where the cheapest accommodation was so expensive – even London offers cheaper hostel beds – and it is a good indication of the pricing structure foreigners have to deal with in the country. That being said, I didn’t notice any three-tier system of pricing here, which was some recompense. The fact that the friendly receptionist spoke Polish and was nice, too, reminded us we were back within striking distance of home – Białystok was only 50 kilometres away.
The city had a few decent eateries and was probably the best place we had been for food on the trip – food had been a largely underwhelming aspect of the holiday, and the meat and potatoes (with a large emphasis on the latter) diet had not particularly inspired. The cuisine is a mixture of Polish, Russian and Lithuanian influences with dishes such as bliny and pelmeni (dumplings) being widely available along with regional staples such as borscht (beetroot soup) and draniky (pancakes). Pork, beef and game are the most popular meats, while trout, herring, perch and carp the most widely-eaten fish, and almost all dishes are served with some form of the ubiquitous bulba (potato). Sea fish are understandably absent.
Mushrooms, though, are the staple closest to Belarusian hearts, and in the season the forests are alive with families going mushroom picking. Mushrooms are salted, pickled, smoked and dried, and used for soups, stuffing, sauces, fillings and accompaniments, and are central to Belarusian cuisine. Locals have an almost religious affiliation to them, and their importance cannot be understated. “If all else fails in trying to ascertain what makes a Belarusian a Belarusian,” I was told by a Polish friend who is an expert on Belarus, “you can always rely on the humble mushroom. No true Belarusian will have a word said against them.” Eating out in Belarus, like going out in general, is a hit-and-miss affair though. “Foreign” food is mostly limited to pizzas in the provincial cities, and even in Minsk fine dining is for the elites only. You might find yourself being the only diner in a restaurant much of the time; the average Belarusian simply cannot afford to eat out, and home cooking is far cheap and more popular.
Our time in Belarus had come to an end, and I felt my two weeks in the country had given me a real insight to what had always been an enigmatic question mark on the map, and hopefully an appreciation of what it has to offer. I am still confused about what Belarus really is, how its people can construct an identity, whether it truly can call itself a country when it is culturally and linguistically so Russian and when it relies so much on the old Motherland for financial assistance. While there is a metaphorical brick wall separating it from Poland and the EU, its territory merges imperceptibly with Russia’s to the east, with the free movement of people encouraged, requiring not so much as a border check to come and go as they please.
The country is so eastward-looking that it does not seem to have any agenda to deal with the EU on any level, sanctions against trade between the EU and Belarus notwithstanding. Lukashenka’s reign does not look like it is ending any time soon, but when compared with the present chaos in Ukraine caused by occupying the same seismic geo-political borderland between east and west, one must ask the question whether Belarus would be any better off without him – at least economically speaking – at present. Belarus may not like the way its bread is buttered, but by and large it seems to accept it. Its economy is in better shape than its neighbour to the south, while social unrest is almost non-existent in comparison.
Belarus is, if nothing else, a safe place to be, and travelling its serene territory you get a feeling of calm that is unlike many other places in Europe. It is stuck in time, and when it finally moves into the 21st century, you sense, this calm will disappear. Until then, travellers to Belarus experience a world that time has forgotten.
Stuart Wadsworth is a freelance writer and travel photographer, and has contributed to Rough Guides, Urban Travel Blog, the Krakow Post and other media. He has a blog: http://www.offexploring.com/stuinkrakow. Stuart has spent the last decade travelling to, and writing about, Central and Eastern Europe, the Middle East and Central Asia, and has visited every country in the old Eastern Bloc. He calls Krakow his home for now and enjoys spending his spare time watching and reviewing live music, and in the summer escaping to the mountains. His career as a food critic was curtailed due to an expanding waistline.