True Lithuania

Lithuanian Castles in Belarus

Despite all the bad publicity of Belarus in the West (and Lithuania) and the rather dull Soviet-rebuilt Belarussian cities having little of interest, there is one journey to Belarus that relatively many Lithuanians take. This is a visit to certain castles and manors that were constructed by the nobility of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania when this Duchy ruled over whole Belarus (14th-18th centuries). The buildings are in various state of repair: from romantic ruins to full modern restorations. Belarusian state now strives to rebuild more of its scarce historic buildings although these works are sometimes criticized as inauthentic.

Myras (Mir) castle, one of the top tourist locations in Belarus. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

The entire route from Vilnius may take two days (take into account the waiting time on the border which may take up to five hours). Here the castles are listed in the order it is the easiest to visit them, it makes a neat circle (reverse order may also be chosen):

*First (or last) stop may be Medininkai Castle which is still in Lithuania, 2 km from Belarusian border. Only the outer wall remains, but it is intact. One tower is rebuilt as a museum.
*Kreva (Krėva) Castle is especially important to Eastern European history. Union of Krėva was signed here in 1385 making the Grand Duke of Lithuania Jogaila also a King of Poland (later this led to a political union that lasted until 1795). It is also likely that 1382 Jogaila masterminded killing of former Grand Duke Kęstutis here. Only parts of the outer wall and towers remain.
*Golšany (Alšėnai) Castle has been built by Sapiega family in 1610. Picturesque ruined baroque building remains (the castle was destroyed by Swedes in the early 1700s).
*Gerviaty (Gervėčiai) village lacks a castle but is one of the last surviving ethnically Lithuanian territories in Belarus. Prior to 19th century most of this castle-rich borderland was ethnically Lithuanian but the Russian Imperial (1795-1918) and Soviet (1940-1991) russification campaigns took their toll. Gervėčiai's magnificent gothic revival Roman Catholic church (1903) is the largest in Belarus. Interestingly the whole northwestern Belarus is still Catholic despite a linguistic shift. Many of its numerous churches and monasteries date to the Grand Duchy of Lithuania era and they follow Vilnius Baroque sub-style. The older Russian Orthodox churches differ little from Catholic ones lacking the iconic domes.

Gervėčiai church. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

*If you want to visit Minsk (pop. 1 900 000), this is the time. It has no castle on itself and is mostly a post-WW2 city. Moving forward in time slowly it arguably remains the most authentic example of a Soviet metropolis. It still has the Soviet street names and sculptures that once plagued the Lithuanian cities; an institution named KGB still exists and the police is still known as militia. Minsk had its (almost) entire Old Town replaced by Stalinist grandeur while its dull outer boroughs (still named "Soviet", "Lenin", "1st of May" and so on) are even more extensive than anywhere in Lithuania. In fact, they are still expanded in the same style (or lack thereof) as in the 1980s. Minsk may be the place for your first overnight stay.
*UNESCO-inscribed Nesvizh (Nesvyžius) Palace (1583) was a crown jewel of an extremely powerful Radvila family. Massive and opulent fortified palace is now restored and includes a nice park and a family crypt. Actors are dressed as nobles inside. The family-funded Nesvizh town church is the second oldest Baroque church in the world (after Gesu in Rome).

Inside the courtyard of Nesvyžius palace. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

*Mir (Myras) Castle (1510) is also on the UNESCO list. After decades of neglect it was rebuilt in the 1990s and now looks formidable. A museum inside presents a story of this and other Belarusian castles.
*Kosava (Kosovas) palace of a Russian general dates to the post-GDL era, but its Moorish-inspired walls are impressive nevertheless. Once romantically surrounded by a forest it is now in open space and undergoing restoration. Furthermore, the revolutionary hero Tadeusz Kosciuszko was born in a small wooden hut nearby.
*Ruzhany (Ružanai). A former manor of a major Sapiega family (which was second in power after the Radvilas). The atmosphere of ages gone-by overflows when standing in a former courtyard still surrounded by an elaborate wall with holes replacing the windows. Reconstruction is underway, however.

The remains of lavish Ružanai palace. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

*Hrodna (Gardinas) (pop. 300 000) has two castles. The old one was expanded by Vytautas the Great whereas the new one dates to the 18th century. Both have been heavily modified and repurposed by the Soviets and now house blunt 20th-century interiors. A wooden pole for Vytautas the Great has been built between the castles by Lithuania. As the modern Belarusian government is looking towards Soviet rather than medieval era for inspiration this is one of only a few sculptures for Grand Duchy heroes in Belarus.
*Lida (Lyda) Castle is a square walled area with two defensive towers. It is rebuilt and used for knight tournament re-enactments.
*Navahrudak (Naugardukas) Castle now consists of some picturesque hilltop ruins but prior to its destruction during the 1654-1660 Russian invasion it used to be a formidable fortress. According to M. Stryjkowski chronicle, Naugardukas was the first capital of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania before Vilnius (however no other source corroborates this). The town has a Glastonbury-like atmosphere with multiple baroque churches and even a wooden mosque.

It is the best to either drive yourself or to take an organized tour as some of the castles are quite far from the main towns and therefore hard to reach. It should also be noted that English is less than popular in Belarus and that a visa is required for most nationalities.

Map of Lithuanian castles and palaces in Belarus and southeastern Lithuania. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Article written by Augustinas Žemaitis

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  1. Yes, our peoples have a common history. but the article describes a purely Lithuanian version. purely nationalistic version. impression that the author wanted to diminish the role of Belarus in the history of these lands.


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