In the western reaches of Belarus, it’s a place where rustic wooden homes stand defiantly beside grand palaces and fortresses. It’s where Orthodox churches shoot up next to Catholic ones, and where you’d find the locals daringly pairing their beloved potato pancakes, draniki, with both lard and jam – a culinary twist that’s as intriguing as it sounds. Over the centuries, this land became a melting pot, a delicious stew of Belarusian, Polish, Lithuanian, and Russian influences. And in a nod to its storied past, the walls of its medieval castles still echo the clangs and clashes of knights in tournaments. Meanwhile, the once opulent estates and princely palaces have opened their grand doors, beckoning you to spend a night and live a slice of their history.
Grodno and Brest. Two of Belarus’s heavyweight tourist draws, and yet, they’re as different as night and day. Grodno, with its cobblestone streets, feels like a living relic – perhaps the best-preserved medieval gem you’d stumble upon. Brest, on the other hand, bears scars of the Great Patriotic War, having been almost entirely decimated once upon a time. Now, a straight drive between these two might take you about 250 kilometers, but if you’re up for wandering off the beaten path, that journey could stretch to 800, taking you through the heart of Belarus’s underappreciated wonders.
When you tread through Grodno and Brest regions, you’ll realize why Belarus is often dubbed the ‘Land of Castles’. It’s geography—a crossroads of cultures, allies, and adversaries—has blessed (or cursed) it with a legacy of palaces for diplomacy and fortresses for defense. Today, many have been reborn, restored to their former glory. While some house museums, bearing witness to the stories of yore, others have been snapped up by private folks, some of them descendants of their original lords. In this land, the past isn’t something just to be read about; it’s palpably alive.
Grodno is the best preserved historical environment in Belarus
Grodno, Belarus—a place that predates even Moscow by 19 years, having laid its first stone in 1128. It once held the title of the second most significant city, right behind Vilnius, within the realms of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania. But as war’s fickle finger pointed towards Vilnius during the Thirty Years’ War, crumbling it, Grodno rose to the occasion, becoming the Duchy’s administrative pulse. Walking its streets feels like a journey through the corridors of time: from the echoes of its medieval past on Starozamkovaya, Troitskaya, and Dominikanskaya, to the Soviet-era resonance of Sovietskaya, Karl Marx, and Kirov.
Then there’s the Boris and Gleb Church—a 12th-century structure, the grand old dame of Grodno. Its original precinct was once known as Kolozh’s settlement, lending the church its alternative names: Kolozha or Kolozhskaya. Adorned with polished, colored stones and majolica tiles shaped like crosses, it almost feels like a jeweled box. Yet, time and nature haven’t been wholly kind. The 19th century saw part of it succumbing to a landslide into the Neman River, leaving behind a juxtaposition of 12th-century stone and 19th-century wood.
Adjacent to Kolozha, two castles stand sentinel atop twin hills, linked by a bridge. The Old Castle carries a unique title: Belarus’s only royal castle originating from the 12th century. Though, like any old structure, it’s seen its share of makeovers—first under Duke Vytautas and later under King Stefan Batory.
Grodno’s New Castle, an 18th-century relic, stands in stark contrast to its elder counterpart. In its walls, in 1793, played out a scene reminiscent of a dark political drama: the last Sejm or assembly, infamously dubbed the “Silent Sejm”. Catherine the Great, from St. Petersburg, strategically dispatched troops to Grodno to ensure the delegates couldn’t vacate the castle. On a bleak September 23, a silent session of the Sejm began, stretching till dawn. Marshal Belinsky pressed for approval of a treaty with the Russian Empire. Met with stubborn silence, a Krakow deputy famously declared, “silence indicates consent,” and with a mere single-vote advantage, the deal that saw Poland’s assimilation into Russia passed.
Stroll a bit, and you’d find the old fire station. Across the street from it stands the majestic Moorish-styled Great Choral Synagogue, early 20th-century architecture at its best. Besides being a hub for religious ceremonies, it’s home to the Museum of Jewish History, a subsidiary of the nearby Museum of the History of Religion.
Up until 1961, Grodno’s heart cradled the Catholic Church of the Virgin Mary, a 14th-century masterpiece by Prince Vitovt. Transformed into the Orthodox Sophia Cathedral in the 19th century, it met an explosive end mid-20th century by local authorities. Fast forward to 2014, Grodno’s skyline witnessed a ghostly 3D projection of the church during a commemorative plaque unveiling. By 2022, the church’s revival was embedded in the urban development project. In an endeavor to prevent religious disputes, it’s proposed that the reconstructed church houses two chapels for both the Orthodox and Catholic faithful – taking a leaf out of Kaliningrad’s cathedral playbook.
Nestled in the heart of the central Soviet Square stands the Jesuit Church of Saint Francis Xavier, a titan among Eastern Europe’s baroque cathedrals. Its consecration was graced by the likes of Emperor Peter I and Poland’s King Augustus the Strong. Inside, the towering 21-meter altar, all crafted from wood, catches your eye. The church also boasts Europe’s oldest functioning tower clock, which originally adorned the city magistrate’s tower but found its way here after the tower’s demise. Restoration efforts in ’95 hinted at its 13th-14th-century origin. In 1990, the Pope gave the church the title of ‘minor basilica’ for its historical and pilgrimage significance. Behind the church, the Catholic curia stands, bedecked with saintly statues, alpine slides, and ornate wooden carvings adorning its windows and balconies.
Adjacent to the cathedral is the two-story building of the Jesuit pharmacy, Grodno’s pioneer in the world of potions and elixirs, with records dating back to 1687. Nowadays, it’s a place where one can pick up modern remedies or marvel at the antique medical tools once used to autopsy King Stephen Báthory after his untimely demise in Grodno.
To the right of the church, you’ll find the “Batory House”—the regal residence of Polish King Augustus the Strong. It’s believed to have been erected during Stephen Báthory’s reign and later came under the ownership of the Sapieha family. Some historians speculate that its design might’ve once mirrored Warsaw’s royal castle, possibly reflecting the Sapieha’s aspirations to the throne.
Down Castle Street lies another piece of architectural grandeur: the 18th-century mansion of the Khreptovich family. Legend has it that this was built from Anna Khreptovich’s dowry, who was so wealthy they dubbed her the “hundred-thousand lady”. Grodno still preserves the residence of the last Polish king— the Stanislavovo estate. Today, this sprawling compound houses the Agrarian University. Like the spices in a hearty stew, every building, every corner of Grodno has a story; a testament to its rich, tumultuous history.
A bit off the beaten path, you’ll stumble upon the Pokrovsky Cathedral, Grodno’s primary Orthodox sanctuary. It’s a tribute, a memory etched in stone, to those souls lost during the Russo-Japanese War. Within its hallowed walls, you’ll find hauntingly unique icons depicting scenes of priest executions during religious persecutions. Just opposite, tucked away in a courtyard, there’s a 19th-century neo-Gothic structure: the Lutheran Kirche, where every weekend, the somber, haunting tunes of organ music filter through its stone walls.
Surrounding the Kolozhskaya Church, way back in the 19th century, they carved out a park bearing the same name. But it’s the Zhiliber Park, opposite the historic center, that holds a particular charm. Initially birthed as a botanical garden for the Grodno Medical Academy, it’s a patch of green that whispers stories of the past. On its fringes, an ivy-clad building of the state university stands with its walls draped in nature’s green tapestry.
Nestled between the Bernardine Monastery and the New Castle, there’s a dramatic theater— a Soviet-modernist structure that, if you squint a bit, looks part crown, part tiered cake. The Puppet Theater, the oldest existing theater venue in Belarus, was commissioned by Polish King Stanislaw August Poniatowski, an aficionado of the arts. Over on Socialist Street, the still-functioning “Red Star” cinema holds its ground. Built between 1914-1915, it’s second in age only to the Cinema House in Vitebsk.
And as the summer sun casts its golden hue on the central courtyards—accessible via archways from Sovetskaya Street—there’s something truly magical that takes place. “Tantsy garadzenskikh dvorykau” or “Grodno Courtyard Dances.” Here, beneath apricot trees, anyone and everyone can join in, swaying and stepping to a live folk tune. A dance, a city, a story—Grodno never stops telling it.
A bit off the main drag, atop the “Neman” shopping center, you’ll find “Roof of the World” lounge-café. From here, the cityscape unfurls like the pages of a gripping novel. But for a real step back in time, slide into “Raskosha 1795”. Beneath its arched ceilings of a 1795-built house, you can sip a coffee, feeling every inch of history it’s seen.
The first urban water supply system, a venture by the “All-Russian Share Water Company,” gave rise to late 19th and early 20th-century water towers affectionately dubbed by locals as “Kasya” and “Basya” – short for “Katerina” and “Barbara.” Today, they house artistic workshops, a nod to their enduring spirit.
Not far from the train station, Belarus’s first zoo stands. Its inaugural resident? A simple beaver, for which Jan Kohanovsky, one of the founders, personally made a trip to Lunno – a village about 40 kilometers from Grodno – after hearing of the injured creature.
Near Grodno, the Augustow Canal stretches out – an engineering marvel linking the Neman and Vistula rivers. Commissioned by Alexander I, it was crafted to bypass Prussian territory. Surrounding the city, remnants of the Grodno Fortress, a brainchild of Nicholas II, linger.
Where to crash? In Grodno, it’s all about the central vibe, waking up to medieval vistas outside your window. An apartment at “Semashko” will set you back 140 Belarusian rubles, with a view of the Church of Saint Francis Xavier thrown in, not to mention access to the sauna and pool. For a dash of modernism, the “Tourist” hotel offers rooms for 55 Belarusian rubles – a short hop from the core of the city.
Monasteries of Grodno
A city pulsating with the heavy footsteps of history and commerce, Grodno, perched at the crossroads of ancient trade routes, was a fortress. Not by walls or battlements alone, but by a protective ring of monasteries. And these weren’t just sacred bastions of faith and culture; they stood as bulwarks against invaders, both physical and spiritual. Beyond the Jesuit monastery attached to the church of St. Francis Xavier, relics of six other monasteries remind us of this past.
The Bernardine Monastery, conceived in 1495 by the decree of none other than the Grand Duke of Lithuania and Polish King Alexander Jagiellon, stands tall as a Gothic-Renaissance masterpiece, its church an embodiment of Vilnius Baroque. And yet, juxtaposed with such profound history is the backdrop of young, enthusiastic seminarians prepping for priesthood and students shooting hoops on a school basketball court, flanked by medieval structures. History and present, interwoven seamlessly.
The Franciscan Monastery and the Church of Our Lady of the Angels were built in the 17th century in the Baroque style on the opposite bank of the Neman River. The church organ is the oldest in Belarus: it was made by Prussian masters in 1750.
The Nativity of the Virgin Mary Orthodox Monastery, born in 1632, exudes Baroque elegance. It replaced the ancient Cathedral of the Theotokos, cruelly claimed by a fire, resurrected by Italian architects with a finesse only they could master.
The Brigittine Monastery stands defiant, almost untouched by time. A 17th-century marvel sculpted by Benedetto Molli, an Italian Jesuit architect. This place once cradled the relics of St. Clement, Grodno’s celestial guardian. Amidst its solemnity, lies Belarus’s oldest wooden structure – a “lyamus” (a utility building) from the 17th century.
Further along, the Monastery of the Holy Spirit stands as a testament to the vision of Queen Bona Sforza, from the illustrious Milanese house of Sforza. Founded in 1550, its remnants punctuate Sovetskaya Street, offering glimpses of a bygone era where religion, royalty, and architecture intertwined.
In a tucked-away corner of the city, remnants of the Dominican monastery whisper tales from the 17th century. Commissioned by the ambitious Frederic Sapieha, much of its grandeur has been eroded by time. Now, only a few facades bear silent witness to its former glory.
Day 1: Storks, an agro-town and a mosque-like church
140 kilometers on the road
Swathed in centuries of history, this land boasts being one of the oldest inhabited regions in Belarus. Think back to the first Lithuanian dukes who made this their hunting ground. Or King Charles XII of Sweden, who, during the Northern War, thought it strategic enough to set up his base when laying siege to Grodno.
80 kilometers from Grodno
Western Belarus. Imagine endless forests and sprawling fields. And storks. Damn, the storks! You see them everywhere, balancing on rooftops, electrical poles, or just lazily strolling through the fields alongside the road as if they own the place.
Venture through this lush landscape, and the road from Grodno brings you to the ‘agro-town’ of Rozhanka. Now, ‘agro-town’ is a uniquely Belarusian term. Picture a scaled-down city, but with the vibe of a village. You get central water and gas supply, well-laid out roads, schools, cultural spots, and even legal services. But here’s the catch: the number of residents? No more than in any typical village. The Belarusian hinterland leaves you with a feeling: it’s tidy, verdant, and hey, if you’re thirsty, you can casually stop at a drinking fountain and use the communal mug hanging on the fence.
Then there’s the Petro-Pavlovsky church in the Rozhanka cemetery. Even in the Grodno region, where most folks are Catholics and Catholic churches are as common as, well, churches, this one stands out. Why? Because in the 19th century, this church was given a facelift in English neo-Gothic style by none other than the Italian architect, Henryk Marconi. The man’s resume? Loads of churches, town halls, and palaces throughout Poland and, oh yeah, the now-crumbling Vienna station in Warsaw. Go figure.
20 kilometers from Rozhanka
Don’t get tripped up: the emphasis is on the “O” in its name, because if you put the accent on the U, you get the Russian word for “stomach.”. Think Middle Ages, when oak groves sprawled all over, hence a name drawn from the word “acorn” (zholud’).
Inside the town’s church rests Grodno’s benefactor and patron, Antoni Tyzenhaus – the guy who brought theater to Grodno. He rubbed shoulders with the likes of Jean-Jacques Rousseau (whom he tried to woo to Belarus) and naturalist Jean Emmanuel Gilibert. At the peak of its cultural game, Stomachville even had its own violin quartet, boasting a Stradivarius violin. Fast forward to the 20th century, and a neo-baroque palace of the Swiatopolk-Czetwertynski princes rose up. Currently, it’s getting a makeover.
10 kilometers from Zheludok
The road from Zheludok is a dance between the national highway and a village road. But let’s give it to Belarus, their roads are pretty solid – even the ones that snake through tiny villages are typically paved.
On the outskirts of Murovanka, you’ll find a freshly restored Church of the Nativity. Thick walls – two meters, to be exact – hint at its past as a fortress, making it resemble a quaint castle. History wasn’t kind; it saw destruction from Cossack raids and the troops of the Swedish king, Karl XII. The church’s corner towers? Strikingly minaret-like.
There was chatter once, suggesting it was meant to be a mosque. Given that Ivye, located 70 kilometers away, has housed a Tatar community since the 15th century, it wasn’t far-fetched. But scholars these days, they’re dismissing that theory.
In Belarus, you’ll count ten of these fortress-type temples – be it churches (like the one in Murovanka), cathedrals, or even a synagogue, scattered across regions from Grodno to Mogilev. You never know what history is lurking around the corner in this part of the world.
30 kilometers from Murovanka
Lida’s more than just the district center – it’s the throbbing heart of Belarusian brewing. This is where they craft the famous “Lidskoe” beer. The brewery’s roots stretch back to 1876. Today, the grounds house the Lida Brewery Museum, a tribute to the artisanal beer-making days. Steps away, by the reservoir, lies a sandy beach – designed specifically with the differently-abled in mind.
But the city’s crown jewel? That would be the Gothic Lida Castle, meticulously resurrected from its ruins a decade ago. The twin towers of the castle are home to a historical museum. The castle stands as a testament to the grand designs of the Lithuanian Grand Duke Gediminas, built in 1323 to guard against the Teutonic Knights. This defense line extended from Novogrudok Castle in Belarus, all the way north to Trakai in Lithuania. Though now a protected relic, the castle’s grounds once played host to a sports stadium and even a traveling zoo.
Nestled near the Lida Castle is the Church of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross, adorned in the Vilnius Baroque style. Frescoes breathe life into its vaults and walls. Within, there’s an image of Our Lady of the Rosary, revered by Lida’s Catholics. The architecture of the St. Michael Cathedral evokes memories of Ancient Rome, reminiscent of the Pantheon. An intriguing footnote in its history? From the 1960s till 1996, it served as a planetarium.
Night falls. From the humble windows of the “Lida” hotel, one can gaze upon the medieval castle and church. Depending on how plush you like your bed, a night here will set you back anywhere from 43 to 150 Belarusian rubles.
Day 2. UNESCO castles and Jadwiga Cup
130 kilometers on the road
50 kilometers from Lida
Before Vilnius was ever spotlighted as the capital of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, Novogrudok held that honor. Now, it’s a place where the whispers of the past echo loud and clear. The 13th-century castle ruins stand testament. Though the structure was grievously wounded during the Russo-Polish War in the 17th century, and later had its fortifications decimated by the retreating Swedes, fleeing from Peter I’s forces in the 18th century, what remains is impressive. Only fragments of two conserved towers and part of a wall stand, yet the majesty of the ruins cannot be understated. The panoramic view from the castle hill, sweeping over the town and its surrounds, is breathtaking.
At the castle’s foot, the Catholic Church dedicated to the Transfiguration reaches upwards. Initially constructed in Gothic splendor by the Grand Duke Vytautas in the 14th century, it later took on the ornate nuances of Sarmatian Baroque. This sacred space baptized the likes of poet Adam Mickiewicz, a close acquaintance of Pushkin, whose house-museum is just a stone’s throw away.
In the mid-20th century, during an excavation, a medieval carved glass goblet surfaced in Novogrudok (now housed in the Hermitage Museum). Only 14 of these goblets, named after Saint Hedwig, are known worldwide, resting in museums across Poland, UK, Germany, and the Netherlands. Legend has it these belonged to Saint Hedwig, with the power to turn water within into wine.
A short walk from the castle hill lies Mount Mindaugas. Theories about its significance abound. Some believe this mound conceals the 13th-century grave of Mindaugas, the founder of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania. Others argue that this was where Mindaugas was crowned the first and only King of Lithuania.
The town square is dominated by two Baroque churches. Once both Catholic, one has been reconsecrated as the Orthodox St. Nicholas Cathedral. The other remains dedicated to the Archangel Michael, immortalized on the city’s coat of arms. Legend says he saved Novogrudok from annihilation during the war between the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth and the Moscow Tsardom.
Equally intriguing is the Boris and Gleb Church, with its castle-like appearance, constructed in the 16th century and covered with iconic Gothic star ribbed vaults.
50 kilometers from Novogrudok
There’s this place, Mir, roughly a 50-km journey from Novogrudok. It’s most notorious for its castle, a relic from the 16th century, looming in the Belarusian landscape. From a distance, it seems to mimic a gingerbread house, its shingled towers dramatically piercing the sky above the tree canopy. The castle’s storied past has seen it in the hands of the Radziwill magnates for a significant period. Its last known landlords? The Svyatopolk-Mirskys. You can still find traces of them – their chapel-tomb lies just around the corner.
Step inside, and you’re treated to a spectacle: Exhibitions displaying medieval artifacts and armors, scale models of Belarus’s most iconic castles and fortress churches. The interiors have been lovingly restored, flaunting vibrant wooden ceilings, classic Polish fireplaces lined with ceramic tiles, and ballrooms that seem to echo with the laughter of a bygone era. The grounds of the castle are no less inviting – a sprawling park with a pond offers mesmerizing views and occasionally transforms into a stage for riveting knightly tournaments. UNESCO thought the castle was worth noting too, listing it as a World Heritage site.
On your way between the castle and the bus station, you’ll stumble upon the Nikolaevsky Church. A jewel from the late 16th to early 17th centuries. What makes it stand out? Its unique Renaissance design fused with defensive architecture, which, incredibly, has never been altered throughout its history.
40 kilometers from Mir
Nesvizh: The majestic throne of the opulent Radziwill dynasty, the heart of their empire. These folks weren’t just slumming in Nesvizh; they boasted palaces from Warsaw to Berlin and even a château in Ermenonville, France – where Jean-Jacques Rousseau took his last breath. Rumor has it that Queen Isabella of Castile would borrow cash from them to fund Columbus’s wild adventures.
Now, you walk into the town, and there it is – this grand Baroque-style castle, standing tall since the 16th century, surrounded by a moat, whispering tales of romance and intrigue. During the Soviet era, it metamorphosed into the sanatorium “Nesvizh.” It’s been revamped since – a UNESCO World Heritage site, of course.
The castle grounds? Five sprawling parks: Old, New, Japanese, English, Castle. You’ve got your historical statues, and some modern ones thrown in for good measure. And every late August, the parks come alive with the “Нясвiжская фартэцыя” festival – think medieval jousts, horse races, live music echoing the middle ages, theatrical performances, and hands-on workshops in craftsmanship and martial arts. Best part? It’s all on the house.
Cross a bridge from the castle, and you’re in the town square. Dominating it is the 16th-century Corpus Christi Church, a burial site for the Radziwill family, inspired by Rome’s Il Gesù. It’s bedecked in soft pink and yellow hues.
The city gates? Baroque, 16th century, named Slucka Brama. Once a fortress gateway protecting from the side of Slutsk. Upstairs, there was a chapel funded by the townsfolk, housing a now-lost portrait of the Virgin Mary and baby Jesus, encased in luxurious silver.
There’s also this town hall – the oldest in Belarus. The Soviets turned it into a House of Culture; it’s now part of the “Nesvizh” museum-reserve.
As for crashing for the night: “Nesvizh” Hotel, right behind the town hall. You can’t find a better spot in town. Prices? From 100 Belarusian rubles. If you fancy sleeping within castle walls, try “Palac” Hotel. No royal atmosphere, but it’s just like your standard three-star chain hotel. Prices start from 75 Belarusian rubles. Every year, more and more Belarusian castles are opening their doors to travelers. If you’re looking for a story, a piece of history – this is where you find it.
Day 3. Mosaics from Warsaw Cathedral and 400 exhibits in the railway museum
140 kilometers on the road
40 kilometers from Nesvizh
In the heart of Ishkold’, there’s the Trinity Church, founded way back in 1449. Think of a late Gothic style fortress-church, like the one in Murovanka, only this one holds the title as Belarus’s oldest untouched church. Throughout its storied history, it’s been a Catholic church, a Calvinist cathedral, and an Orthodox shrine. Its walls, if they could talk, would speak in tongues.
40 kilometers from Ishkold’
Baranovichi is the rail-junkie’s dream spot. As a major railway junction, the town proudly showcases an open-air railway museum right next to the Baranovichi-Polesie station. There, amongst the rattle and hum, you’ll find over 400 exhibits, a testament to a time when trains ruled the world. And just a stone’s throw away in a building straight out of an art nouveau postcard, there’s the Laevski pharmacy museum. This is where, in the early 20th century, a pharmacist named Stanislav Laevski lived upstairs, and ran a pharmacy downstairs. It’s as if time froze; the place remains virtually unchanged.
But don’t let the railways and pills distract you entirely. Dive deeper into Baranovichi and you’ll encounter the Pokrovsky Cathedral. This gem, built in the early 20th century, is the city’s oldest Orthodox church. The unique bit? Its mosaics originally intended for Warsaw’s Alexander Nevsky Cathedral. When Poland claimed its independence in 1918 and was heading into the Polish-Soviet war, a decision was made to dismantle the Warsaw cathedral. However, Orthodox locals were allowed to salvage the mosaics and other church treasures. Those mosaics, crafted by the skilled hands of artists like Viktor Vasnetsov, Nikolai Bruni, and Nikolai Koshelev, now adorn the cathedral’s interiors and facades.
And if modern architecture tickles your fancy, venture over to the newer districts near the Baranovichi State University. There stands the peculiarly designed St. Sigismund’s Church from the 1990s. Picture a mix between a bird nestled in its perch and a stalagmite.
St. Sigismund’s Church, built in the 1990s and the Intercession Cathedral – the oldest Orthodox church in Baranovichi, built in the first half of the 20th century
50 kilometers from Baranovichi
Slonim. Whisper that name and you’re talking about one of Belarus’s most ancient towns, founded all the way back in 1252. Meandering through its heart, you’ll find yourself ensnared by Baroque structures. But the one that’ll probably grab you first? St. Andrew the Apostle’s Church, standing proud at the town’s entrance. Apart from its elegant facade, it cradles an age-old icon, gilded with silver, portraying St. Anthony of Padua. And scattered around this image are votive objects — hands, hearts, even small animal figures, all dedicated as offerings of gratitude.
The heart of Slonim centers around its former market square, boasting an ensemble of the Transfiguration Cathedral, Trinity Church, a Bernadine nunnery with the Church of the Immaculate Conception, a synagogue, and the town hall. The modern-day Transfiguration Cathedral stands on sacred ground, once graced by the church of the Lateran Canons from the 17th to the 19th century. Shadowing it is the Trinity Church, once a church for the Bernardine monks, rising as part of the city’s fortifications.
Just a stone’s throw away, you have the Church of the Immaculate Conception, constructed for the Bernardine nuns who hailed from Vilnius. This monastery’s design, fused seamlessly with the church, gives it an interesting twist: no central entrance, with its altar facade greeting the streets.
The Slonim Synagogue, like the Trinity Church, also played a part in the city’s defense system. Post-World War II, it lay abandoned, succumbing slowly to time’s wear. But even amidst its decay, its interiors are adorned with preserved paintings and intricate moldings. The Slonim Town Hall, now a district library, was crafted in the 18th century. Pure Baroque, its appearance might fool you into thinking it’s a manor or a stately home.
A little further from Slonim, the village of Zhirovichi welcomes you to the Assumption Zhirovichy Monastery, the cornerstone of Belarusian Orthodoxy. Legend whispers that it’s here an icon of the Virgin Mary revealed itself, revered by both Orthodox and Catholics. The primary cathedral? The Assumption Cathedral, built in 1650, shelters a spring, believed to have surfaced when the icon was discovered. Amongst the monastery’s ensemble, two churches and a seminary lay claim. Till the 19th century, this sanctuary guarded the 16th century Zhirovichy Gospel, now nestled in Lithuania’s Scientific Library. Also christened the “Sapega Gospel,” courtesy of an inscription by the Chancellor of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, Lev Sapega.
As night falls, and if you’re looking to bunk down, the Zhirovichy Monastery has its inns tailored for pilgrims. There are refectories for a hearty, affordable bite. Just a heads-up: men and women aren’t lodged together. Sleep tight.
Day 4. Castle church and ascetic monks
140 kilometers on the road
15 kilometers from Slonim
Imagine you’re cruising down the highway that knits Slonim and Zelva together. Amidst the vast stretch of fields, there’s a sight that almost seems out of place. It’s the Mikhaylovskaya Church-Fortress from the 16th century, one of Belarus’ earliest Gothic Orthodox shrines. This very spot was once the foundation of a castle. But as it crumbled to ruins, the great Lithuanian Duke Vytautas decided it was time for a change. He envisioned a fortified church, which today stands resembling a compact, almost toy-like castle.
25 kilometers journey from Synkovichy
Zelva’s claim to fame? It’s nestled beside the largest reservoir in the Grodno region – the Zelvenskoye Reservoir. The town may be small in size but not in character. Come here for a glimpse of the neo-Gothic Trinity Church, resting atop the foundations of an age-old wooden Orthodox temple.
For a long time, the Sapieha magnate clan held sway over Zelva. In 1643, they played host to the Polish King and Grand Duke of Lithuania, Władysław IV Vasa. The Sapiehas wore their pride for the town on their sleeves, affectionately dubbing it the “Zelva County.” In 1720, they earned the rights to hold an annual fair in Zelva – a fair that over the next 130 years became one of the most significant in the Grand Duchy of Lithuania.
Every July, Zelva takes a step back in time. The “Legendary Epochs” festival comes to town, and it’s a rollicking tribute to various historical periods, from the age of Vikings and knightly tournaments to World War II. There’s something electric about being amidst battles reenacted, witnessing the reconstructions of war episodes, and soaking in the tunes of the era.
40 kilometers from Zelva
Ruzhany: a town deeply tethered to the Sapieha family. Picture this: Chancellor of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, Lew Sapieha, deciding to make this quaint spot his own personal playground. He started with a castle, which, over time, evolved into what can only be described as a sprawling palace. Today, it stands as one of Belarus’s grandest palace complexes. Some parts? Still in ruins. But, like an old friend nursing a hangover, Ruzhany’s slowly getting back on its feet. During the great war, the Germans had the palace, while the Red Army took over the nearby hospital. And in a post-war world, parts of the brick palace were scavenged by locals – perhaps to rebuild their own shattered lives.
In the heart of Ruzhany lies the Baroque-styled St. Peter and Paul Church, casting shadows over what was once a buzzing Basilian monastery. Veer slightly off-course, and you’ll find the skeletal remains of an 18th-century synagogue, mirroring the architecture of its Slonim counterpart. Today, it stands silent and out of bounds, a relic of a time gone by. Its congregation? Nearly wiped out in the Volkovysk ghetto by 1942 and the remnants deported to the Treblinka death camp. By the 1950s, the Jewish whisper in Ruzhany was faint, numbering less than ten. And, in a cruel twist of fate, it’s also the birthplace of Yitzhak Shamir, a two-time Prime Minister of Israel.
On the square’s flip side, the 17th-century Trinity Church stands proud, its altar bearing the Sapieha crest. In a time when religion was on the ropes during the Soviet era, this church was one of the few still alive with the chants of the Dominican monks.
Nearby Ruzhany, you’ll stumble upon Lake Papernya. Born as a reservoir for a paper mill that never saw the light of day (in Belarusian, “paper” is “papera”), it now sports a sandy beach skirted by pines, and not far off, the soothing aura of the “Ruzhansky” sanatorium.
25 kilometers from Ruzhany
Kossovo, it’s a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it kind of town, with fewer than 2,000 souls calling it home. Yet, on the fringes, stands the grand Puslowski Palace. Built in the 19th century, this neo-Gothic gem is all pointed arches, crenelated towers, and arrow-slit windows. The war left it in ruins and the Soviet era wasn’t any kinder, but today? It’s been meticulously resurrected. Twelve towers grace the palace, each echoing a month of the year. The central four, representing the bountiful months of May through August, rise above the rest—with July and August reaching skyward in full glory. Local whispers suggest a hidden passage connecting this palace to Ruzhany’s, wide enough for a horseback ride.
Opposite the palace, history continues with the museum-estate of Tadeusz Kościuszko — a military and political heavyweight in the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth and the USA. A key player in America’s War of Independence, a celebrated son of Belarus, Poland, and the US, and even an honorary French citizen. Oh, and there’s a mountain in Australia bearing his name—it’s the tallest.
Where to crash? Part of the Kossovo castle is now the “Puslowski Hotel”. It’s as opulent as you’d expect from Belarusian hospitality—deep burgundy drapes, bedspreads, and an almost obscene amount of gold. A night’s stay? It’ll set you back a cool 245 Belarusian rubles. And in a place like this, I’d say it’s worth every penny.
35 kilometers from Kossovo
The skeletal remains of a 17th-century Carthusian Catholic monastery serve as Beryoza’s haunting crown jewel. A singular establishment in the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, this order was defined by stark asceticism, a withdrawal from the world, and a vow of silence. A moat circled the monastery, with towers positioned on its walls, bearing testimony to its strategic defense value.
In the aftermath of the Polish Uprising of 1830-1831 against the Russian Empire, in which these Carthusian monks played their role, the monastery faced its doom. The church transitioned into a parish, later left abandoned to the winds of time. Today, what remains are the entrance gates – an emblem proudly displayed on the city’s coat of arms – a bell tower, the hospital’s body, and a fragment of the wall crowned with one of the corner towers. In a twist of irony, one of its walls now serves as a boundary for a neighboring metal depot. Venture to these ruins, and you’re free to wander through the dilapidated corridors, capturing photographs that whisper tales of bygone days.
Day 5. Belovezhskaya Pushcha and Brest Fortress
160 kilometers on the road
40 kilometers from Beryoza
The jewel of Pruzhany is its ‘palatsyk’ – a word from Belarusian translating to a “petite palace.” Stepping inside, you’re plunged into historical interiors that whisper tales of the past. Not far from this elegant structure, you’ll find the ‘White Shops’ – a market arc from the same epoch, echoing the commerce of yesteryears.
50 kilometers from Pruzhany
Kamenets, a relic of a town established in 1276 by the order of Volyn Prince Vladimir Vasilkovich, greets you with history steeped in every stone. Dominating the skyline, the Kamenets Tower, built in 1288, sports walls that are a staggering two and a half meters thick. As you scale its five levels, you can spot the slit-like loopholes that were, presumably, once used to rain down arrows upon enemies. At its pinnacle is a viewing deck that lets you drink in panoramic vistas. Locals occasionally call it the ‘White Tower’, spinning yarns about how its walls were once whitewashed, lending its name to the nearby Bialowieza Forest. However, scholars debate the veracity of that tale.
20 kilometers from Kamenets
The heart of the “Belovezhskaya Pushcha” National Park is nestled in the village of Kamenyuki. Museums of nature, folklore, and archaeology await, along with glimpses of bison, boars, and deer. From Kamenyuki, trails unfurl, and guided tours commence, beckoning you into the open embrace of the national park. Here, Belarus’s very own Santa Claus – Ded Moroz – has his residence.
Moreover, the park is home to the government residence “Viskuli”. A place forever marked by history, for it was here in 1991 that the Belavezha Accords were inked, signaling the end of the USSR. This place isn’t just trees and trails; it’s the crossroads of history and nature, where past decisions still echo in the wind.
40 kilometers from Kamenyuki
In the heart of the agrarian town of Chernavchitsy, a stunning, gothic structure of the 16th century, the Trinity Church, beckons. Reminding me of the fortified cathedrals in Synkovichy, Muravanka, and Ishkoldi, its charm lies in its imposing defensive design. A rounded corner tower on the southern façade makes this church feel more like a medieval castle than a place of worship. It’s stripped of unnecessary flair, with a stark exterior, lofty roofline, and undeniable gravitas.
10 kilometers from Chernavchitsy
Brest, despite its ancient roots, has been largely erased from history, decimated during the Second World War. But one edifice, the Brest Fortress, stands tall as a testament to resilience and history. Built at the cusp of the 19th and 20th centuries, this fortress bore witness to the signing of the Brest Peace Treaty. On June 22, 1941, at precisely 4:15 AM, artillery fire rained down upon it, beginning a relentless month-long siege. The fortress’ last defender, Major Gavrilov, was captured on July 23, 1941. Today, it’s not just a fortress; it’s a hero — the only non-city entity to be granted such a title.
From the eight gates of the fortress, five still stand tall, with the Holmskie and Terespol’skie shining the brightest. Today, what you’re stepping into is a beautifully preserved relic, its ruins embracing an evocative memorial within. The “Brest Fortress-Hero” complex beckons with its monument to the defenders, the Eternal Flame, and the eerily poignant “Thirst” sculpture, capturing a soldier dragging himself to the river with his helmet. The entrance to this historical tapestry? A staggering concrete behemoth with a massive five-pointed star-shaped passage at the Kobrin fortification. Inside, speakers resonate with the chilling sounds of gunfire, explosions, Levitan’s voice, and the stirring “Arise, vast country…” anthem.
Historically, the fortress was built atop the 10th-century Brest detention and the Brest Castle that stood until the 18th century. Now, you can see remnants of these in the “Berestye” archaeological complex, revealing wooden-paved streets and wooden structures from the 13th century.
Within the fortress, the 19th-century St. Nicholas Garrison Cathedral still stands, having been graced by Russian emperors from Alexander I to Nicholas II. Damaged during WWII, it was meticulously restored. Brest’s principal Orthodox shrine is the St. Simeon Cathedral, while the most revered Catholic sanctuary is the Church of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross. This church holds a treasure – the venerated icon of the Brest Mother of God, a replica from the Basilica di Santa Maria Maggiore in Rome.
As I walked the streets of Brest, the stories hidden in its aged bricks and stones spoke of sacrifice, hope, and resilience. The blend of stark war monuments and religious sanctuaries is a testimony to mankind’s will to preserve history, faith, and art, even in the face of the harshest adversities. Brest isn’t just a city; it’s a living chronicle of a tumultuous past, demanding reflection and respect from every visitor.
Belarusian cuisine isn’t for the faint-hearted—it’s rich, hearty, often built around potatoes, pork fat, and meat. Picture the iconic Belarusian draniki — pancakes made from finely grated potatoes. The authentic Belarusian version comes topped either with sour cream or machanka, a distinct sauce. And machanka is born out of the rustic tradition, simmered from pork cracklings, a dash of flour, water, salt, and pepper. Served alongside are vegetables or pancakes that you generously dip into this luscious gravy.
Then there’s zatirka, an unexpectedly sweet milk soup. It’s a dance of doughy lumps, boiled in a scant amount of water, then caressed by milk infused with sugar.
Ever heard of cepelinai, or as they’re known in Belarus, “zeppelins”? These dumplings are crafted from raw grated potatoes, enveloping a succulent meat filling and typically blanketed in sour cream or a sizzling pork fat sauce. Another potato masterpiece? The babka. Think grated potatoes, mingling with pork fat and salt, either baked to golden perfection or stewed in a cast-iron pot. This rustic delight, however, is best experienced in a village or a traditional Belarusian restaurant. And while on the topic of potatoes, one cannot overlook the universal love for fried potatoes, jazzed up with mushrooms and onions.
The air in many Belarusian shops and countryside homes carries the intoxicating scent of dried meats and sausages. The standout is kumpyak and polendwitsa: air-dried pork seasoned with a medley of salt, pepper, caraway, and coriander, hanging gracefully above a stove. Not to forget vitrobyanka—a minced pork sausage, nestled with fat, ensconced in intestines, and seasoned similarly, drying atop the furnace.
And for the spirited travelers, there’s zubrovka—a 40-proof infusion dancing with bison grass. Then, there’s the less-famed but equally intriguing krambambula, a brew of honey and spices. Word has it that back during the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, krambambula had a little quirk: a “male” version that would knock your socks off at 40-proof and a milder “female” variant at 20-proof. And the best way to enjoy it? Paired with decadent chocolate. This, my friends, is the essence of Belarus on a plate and in a glass. Welcome to the feast.
Rent a car
To cruise through Belarus, you’re looking at renting a car from about 85 Belarusian rubles per day. As with most things in life, there’s some fine print: You’ve got to be at least 21 years old, and that driver’s license? It’s got to have been in your pocket for at least a year, though some fancier rides might demand a three-year history. Make sure you’ve got your passport, your driver’s license, and, yes, your credit card handy.
That rental fee? It’s got you covered. We’re talking about the essentials: Liability insurance and comprehensive coverage. But remember, there’s a catch – a deductible that could have you shelling out up to 400 Belarusian rubles in case things go south, like a fender bender or, heaven forbid, a theft. This amount gets frozen on your card as a deposit, but if you return that car in the shape you found it? You’ll see that money again.
As for driving in Belarus, it’s a smooth ride. None of that aggressive city chaos, no cut-offs, no weaving between lanes. The roads are pristine, and the infrastructure? Top-notch. It’s a cruise you’ll likely enjoy, as the road unfolds in front of you, Belarusian style.
When to go?
The sweet spot for wandering the lands of Grodno and Brest? Between May and October. Białowieża Forest will be bursting with shades of green, the castle gardens put on a floral show, and you can watch storks, those graceful giants, strut through the meadows, snagging lizards and frogs from the underbrush.
But here’s the thing about this part of the world: the weather plays by its own rules. It can flip its mood in half a day. Summer’s shifts? Barely a blip. But come winter, with the damp cold sneaking into your bones, you’ll thank the heavens for a thermos filled with something hot. Or find yourself ducking into every café you pass, just to steal a bit of warmth.
And if you brave the winter there’s magic to be had. Imagine the gingerbread towers of Mir Castle blanketed in snow or joining the Christmas service in a medieval church or a five-century-old chapel. It’s history, raw and unfiltered, waiting just for you.