Saturday 10 September 2016
We have an early start for a long day’s drive out through the countryside to visit the UNESCO World Heritage Sites of Mir Castle and Niasvizh Palace. As we head out into the countryside we see more farming activity and lots of people fishing around lakes, with camp chairs set up in the reeds. Andrei tells us more about Belarus along the way: 3 years maternity leave (although not a lot of money); retirement for men at 63 (but life expectancy is 66); retirement for women at 58 but their life expectancy is 78 years; the pension is not much and many people try to supplement their incomes however they can by selling items such as vegetables or flowers. The woods around the city are owned by the state and anyone can go out and pick mushrooms or berries etc.
Schooling is free and the state will pay for university education but students must then work for the state for 2 years after graduating. They are often sent to country villages for this work and are given incentives to stay there such as receiving a free house after 5 years. Young men will often go to university to avoid military service; they have to serve for 9 months but it can be in 2 parts; the requirement ceases after they turn 27 so some will go overseas and return later.
Much of Belarus’ history is similar to Lithuania and for a long time they were both part of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania; it is only since Soviet times that their histories have diverged. Belarus is in the middle of Europe so whenever anyone was going to invade or attack anyone else in the area they passed through Belarus, often destroying everything in their paths.
Since the end of the USSR in 1991, Belarus has also had its independence and has been re-establishing its cities and identity. Initially it continued to use Russian rubles but then started to print its own money (also rubles); Andrei showed us some of the earlier banknotes with beautiful pictures of wildlife on them. The currency struggled and they kept having to print notes with more and more zeros on them: we saw a 1 million Ruble note. Just recently they have revalued and printed new notes with 4 zeros removed; these are the notes we received at the border, but both old and new currencies are still in circulation and you may pay in new notes and receive your change in old notes which is a bit confusing but really you just take 4 zeros off anything that looks big.
Both of the buildings we are visiting today are now owned by the State but were originally owned for 300 years by the Radziwill family – who were a very wealthy and colourful lot. Today there are branches of the family in Poland, Russia and Lithuania but no longer in Belarus. The properties are now owned by the state and open to the public.
Back then, fathers and sons often had the same names so the use of nicknames was common. We hear about Prince Mikołaj Krzysztof “the Orphan” Radziwill who as a young was taken to a meeting at the Tsar’s palace and fell asleep so his parents put him to sleep in one of the rooms. He cried as he woke up and was discovered by the Tsar himself who picked him up and took him out to the meeting and said ‘who’s orphan is this?’ – he liked the name and it stuck with him. Prince Michał Kazimierz “the Little Fish” Radziwiłł was a great womaniser but had a bad memory so called all his women ‘Little Fish’ so his nickname became Little Fish. We hear so many stories over the day of lives and deaths of the family members, stories of 28 pregnancies, early deaths, long lives, ghosts and more.
Niasvizh Palace was the Radziwill family’s main residence in Belarus and Mir Castle just the country house. Both buildings have had a range of uses in more recent times, serving as Nazi facilities, sanitoriums, and refuges for families trying to rebuild their lives and villages after wars. Unfortunately most of the original furniture was burned by desperate people trying to keep warm but they have restored much of the buildings with equivalent furniture and furnishings: for example, 9 of 14 surviving Belarusian large tapestries are on display at Niasvizh Palace.
Our first stop is Mir Castle, which was originally constructed at the end of the 15th century and now has sections in Gothic, Renaissance and Baroque styles. It was abandoned for nearly 100 years, was badly damaged during the Napoleonic period, and restored in the 19th century. We have a tour by a local castle guide who speaks good English but she appears to have learnt her stories by rote and often just says them without any feeling or expression. Although renovated, the castle is now a museum that gives a very good idea of what people wore and did during times in the castle and what decorations and furnishings would have been in each of the rooms. In the ballroom we are treated to a performance on a grand piano by one of the top young Belarusian musicians.
We drive through to Niasvizh village for lunch at a local restaurant that specialises in traditional meals. We have a salad of fresh local vegetables to start, followed by a borscht soup (with chicken and vegetables as well as beetroot). Then we have chicken and potatoes covered with melted cheese, and to finish a cup of tea and some shortbread biscuits sandwiched together with jam.
We visit an old Jesuit church nearby that survived many a tragedy through the dedication of its priest who variously rushed out to the villagers when there was a fire to get their help in putting it out; and distributed all the organ pipes to different villagers when they were invaded. Miraculously afterwards every single organ pipe was returned and the organ re-assembled.
Then we walk across a causeway across a man-made lake towards Niasvizh Palace (home to the Radziwill family for over 400 years) – it is so well hidden that you can’t really see it until you are almost there. It is another beautiful Indian summer’s day and there are wedding parties everywhere having their photographs taken. The palace is huge, taking us more than 2 hours for the tour (and half of it is now taken up by a hotel and meeting rooms so we didn’t see them). It is as much an art gallery as a museum and full of magnificent examples of furniture, furnishings, clothing, portraits, equipment, weapons, musical instruments, theatre props and so much more. The rooms are jaw-droppingly ornate. In the chapel we have a recital by flute and ‘organ’.
The grounds of the Palace are huge but we only see a very small part as we walk around to the family’s crypt and see a small graveyard of soldiers who had been there during the war.
Back onto the bus for a 2 hour drive back to Minsk – arriving back at the hotel at 7.00pm. Having had a huge lunch, Gill and I settle for beer and crisps in our room and an early night. Others ate at a restaurant nearby.
For this and other similar tours see:
Peregrine Adventures (Comfort tours)
Geckos Adventures (for 18 to 30s)
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