Eastern Belarus: What To See And Do
The capital city Minsk generally marks the limit of ambition for many first-time visitors to Belarus. Last month, however, we took a glimpse at some of the delights awaiting discovery in Western Belarus beyond the boundaries of the M9, the Minsk orbital motorway.
This article, the second of a two-parter, introduces the visitor to the Eastern half of the country. Here stand the cities of Homieĺ (Gomel) and Viciebsk (Vitebsk), famed for the richness of its arts and culture heritage.
Elsewhere lie the historic settlements of Polack (Polotsk, the oldest town in Belarus and one of the oldest in all of Eastern Europe) and Turaŭ (Turov, spiritual heart of the Paliessie), as well as the small town of Vetka with its superb Folk Arts Museum.
Cities: the arts, parks, rivers and vistas
With a population close on 500,000, Homieĺ can justly claim to be the second city of Belarus. 300 kilometres from Minsk and close to the borders with Russia and Ukraine down in the south-eastern corner of the country, its location high above the western bank of the Sož river gave the city significant importance during the Great Patriotic War. Today, all is hustle and bustle as befits its status.
Yet oases of calm do exist, chief among them being the lovely Rumiancaŭ-Paškievič Park, behind the statue of Lenin at the top of Savieckaja Street. Whatever the season, the opportunity to promenade here should not be missed.
The sumptuous 18th century palace designed by Count Rumyantsev stands in 25 hectares of beautiful parkland, from which extensive elevated views east over the river afford a fine panorama. Within the park also look to find the early 19th century Cathedral of Saints Peter and Paul and nearby the Rumiancaŭ mausoleum, an excellent photo opportunity.
270 kilometres north-east of Minsk on the banks of the Western Dzvina river stands the elegant city of Viciebsk, birthplace and long the home of artist Marc Chagall. The excellent museum devoted to his works holds a lofty position on the river’s eastern bank, just across a pretty square from the 18th century Russian Governor’s Palace.
A few moments’ walk south brings the visitor to the magnificent Uspenski Cathedral of the Assumption, one of the city’s highlights. The view from the balustrade takes in the whole of the lower city, including the site of old Jewish Viciebsk.
Little of the original architecture survived the horrors of the Nazi occupation, though one notable building that remains is the House of Marc Chagall, now a lovely museum telling the story of the artist’s life. Just a few hundred metres along Pakroŭskaja Street from here stands the Chagall monument in the old market square.
The popular and much-loved Slavianski (Slavic) Bazaar, an international song and culture festival that takes place annually in the open air in late July and early August, beautifully articulates the city’s relationship with the arts. For one glorious week in high summer, the city morphs into a gigantic street party, with 5,000 artists performing at the purpose-built domed amphitheatre on Frunze Street, as well as (seemingly) on every street corner.
‘The city of all Belarusian cities’: walking in the footsteps of history
No visit to Vitebsk should pass without an excursion to Polack, the oldest and one of the most attractive towns in the entire country. Only 105 kilometres to the north-west and birthplace of famed poet and teacher Simeon of Polack, as well as the great humanist and translator of the Bible Francysk Skaryna, a single walking tour presents the visitor with an opportunity to explore the town’s riches on foot. One such tour is described in the third edition of my Bradt Travel guide to Belarus
However you do it, be sure not to miss the stunning Cathedral of St Sophia, first built in the 11th century, the magnificent Convent of St Euphrosyne, with its cathedral and two churches, and finally the statuary and monuments to be found the length of Francysk Skaryna Avenue. Bring your walking shoes and luxuriate in a slow meander through this beautiful town.
Icons, manuscripts and rušniki
At first sight, the small town of Vetka appears unremarkable. Founded in 1685 by “Old Believers’ (the religious group disenfranchised and persecuted by Catherine the Great and others for failure to accept significant reforms within the Russian Orthodox Church), it stands on the eastern bank of the Sož river, just 22 kilometres north-east of Homieĺ .
But this sleepy provincial town is home to the splendid Folk Arts Museum, where exhibits of the highest quality recount the story of the unique culture and history of the region. Ancient artefacts, icons, manuscripts, traditional costumes and woven ‘rušniki’ (embroidered towels with deep ritualistic and ceremonial significance) fill each room.
Old Believers crafted many of the icons in the 17th century, while the rushkini come from the villages of the region. At the school in the nearby village of Niehliubka, pupils still learn to weave on wooden looms made to the exact design of those dating from the 1600s. The headteacher is always glad to welcome visitors.
‘The land of fogs and bogs’
The area to the south of the M10 motorway linking the cities of Homieĺ and Brest (the mysterious, mystical and fabled Paliessie) holds considerable appeal to lovers of nature and the great outdoors. Known colloquially as ‘the land of fogs and bogs’, the fragile balance of the eco-system of the marshy lowlands here has been difficult to maintain over the centuries, but work now undertaken at Prypiacki National Park helps to maintain its unique biological diversity.
Do visit Turaŭ, the main town and spiritual heart of the Paliessie. First mentioned in chronicles in 980, some historians place its importance in Old Russia second only to Kiev. The fine nature museum here explains all the visitor needs to know about the history and ecology of the Paliessie.
Visitors from outside the country will always find that the attractions of the capital city Minsk are many and varied. But as with Western Belarus, those with an instinct for discovery who venture East beyond the boundary of the Minsk orbital road will uncover many treasures. Be bold and inquisitive. You will not be disappointed.
Nigel is a freelance travel writer specialising in Belarus and is based in the UK.