After a somewhat grayish walk in Smolensk, a sudden journey into spring in Polotsk, Belarus, was like transporting myself to a whole new world. I arrived in Polotsk very early taking a night train called Dvina that looked very old-fashioned with its branded blue curtains and thick linen. The hostel where I stayed was one of the best in terms of quality and price, very close to the railway station and at the same time in a walking distance from the center. Well, Polotsk is no metropolis but it’s Belarus’ oldest city.
My first photos in Polotsk were that of a red-brick house which might have been painted over once. I found it in a backyard of a street full of low-rise buildings on my way to the center. While descending to the Western Dvina river, a heard a church service (it was Sunday) in this early 20th century church. There was such a crowd of people there I couldn’t get in and so took a photo of the sky instead:
Then, following the Francysk Skaryna avenue (the nation’s first printer who printed the Bible in Old Belorussian in early 16th century) I came across this Soviet era relic, indicating that this very residential house is officially a House of Exemplary Sanitary Order and High Household Culture (rough translation). See, they didn’t paint it over, so I guess it is still true!
And then I left the avenue and started walking along the river. It was such a fine morning, looking more like spring than anything else! I saw a lady carrying twigs probably for some handicraft and a couple of dog people.
I could hear cock crowing somewhere on the other side of Dvina. And there was this cat enjoying the sun together with me.
Moving closer to the center:
Polotsk is celebrating its 1155 years this year. Wow. And it’s not that it was founded in 862, it’s just that it was mentioned in the chronicles under this year. Some archaeological findings say it was there already in the 8th century.
Now Polotsk is a mixture of a village and a low-rise town, with specimens of many eras, which I really liked. Don’t expect much from it though, it’s small though sprawling quite extensively (no wonder here as most of its buildings are one or two-story).
A huge abandoned ‘palace’:
I was a bit mislead by the name of the street running behind this building, called Castle Street. The only thing left from the Castle times is this mound that they used to built a stadium in the 60s.
The Polotsk University is also an example of recycling – it now occupies an ex Jesuit College.
And here’s one of the most beautiful sights of Polotsk – the hill with the St Sophia Cathedral:
The cathedral was first built in the 11th century, then demolished and rebuilt in baroque style in the 18th century. It’s elegant, carefully measured in every detail and architecturally interesting from any angle, it seems.
It also reflects the sun and serves as a sort of a lighthouse or a mirror with its facade turned to the river.
Of course the original 11th century cathedral looked nowhere close to this one, instead it resembled the St Sophia Cathedrals of Kiev and Novgorod the Great – round and Byzantine-like. The stones that remain from the early church are now on display at the base of the walls:
A very touristy point:
And here’s a part I liked a lot – a bridge hanging over the Polota river – which actually gave the city its name.
Here’s what you find across the river:
A true village:
With the signs of civilization:
Looking from the hill over the city lying below:
As I realized I had seen almost everything in the city center by that moment, I decided to walk to the convent founded by Euphrosyne of Polotsk, one of the most loved saints of Belarus and one of the country’s patron saints too. She was a daughter of a noble family but ran away from it all and became a nun, copying books and helping the poor.
The convent is located outside of the city but you can reach it on foot taking a rather dusty road.
The monastery was full of people and the smell of freshly baked buns was coming from a local bakery.
This small church above is actually the one that is still preserved from the Euphrosyne times, i.e. the 12th century. It was later restyled (which is a bit misleading) but the frescoes ones sees inside give away the long history of the place. Here is the church’s shadow on the late 19th century neo-Byzantine cathedral.
Outside of the monastery, one of the most photographed spots 🙂
Yes, this is Polotsk too, where else would you find Vegas and Pharaoh in one place:
Coming back to the hostel, I passed by the 1952 railway station:
And then peeped in the local market which is a stone’s throw away from my hostel:
An array of handmade stockings:
A boy’s corner:
And an apple corner:
After a short rest for lunch at the hostel I continued my walk in the city.
The central hotel called Dvina in the pompous Stalinist style:
Did you know that the geographical center of Europe is in Polotsk? It’s of course contested by other places but why not Polotsk.
(Spot the traditional kerchiefs in the background)
Midpoint of Europe or nit, Polotsk is wonderfully provincial and decadent.
Zoom in: they put new plastic windows in this tattered house:
A mural on the same street telling the story of Polotsk, located on the trade route from the Varangians to the Greeks.
My next stop (I was already making yet another circle around the city) was at the local history museum. And a very dusty local history museum it is, housed in a recycled late 19th century Lutheran church. By the way, one of city’s museums (that of natural history) is located in a former water tower.
Miraculously I was not the only visitor of this museum that day. There was one exhibition I particularly liked – although it seems it was even dustier than the rest – representing a traditional wooden house interior. I also paid to see a room they opened for me dedicated to the 100 years of the revolution only to find some (dusty) Soviet exhibits once removed from the museum’s permanent exhibition and now nonchalantly restored.
And yes, although they speak Russian there – never heard anyone speaking Belorussian throughout my journey – it turns out they use their official language in social ads, on state billboards and… on tags in museums 🙂 No English either. Had to ‘secretly’ overhear the excursion (obviously in Russian) and did my best to understand the Belorussian. Having inhaled quite a mass of dust, I continued my walk towards the cathedral when I realized they were having an organ concert that day. Too late, all the tickets were sold and so I just relaxed in the rays of the setting sun.
Such a fine day!
Creamy facade of the St Sophia Cathedral:
So, Polotsk did pass my test: it’s small, there are old buildings all over it, a river (even two) and hilly places, a local history museum, a market, postcards (which I failed to buy as I didn’t have Belorussian rubles yet – and by the way after the denomination they do look very much like euro, both coins and notes, see here), there’s a nice hostel to stay overnight and also a natural reserve nearby which I wish I could visit. Like Smolensk, Polotsk had its fine moments, used to belong to various nations, was occupied during the Second World War and is now a tourist attraction. But unlike Smolensk it has a much more humane face, so to speak (at least they don’t fine you for crossing the street in the wrong place). Or was it – again – just the weather? 🙂
This post goes to my Travel series.