architecture · no recipe · on USSR / Russia · travel

Back to 19th Century in Vitebsk, Chagall’s Birthplace

Vitebsk

I arrived in Vitebsk from Polotsk on board of a ‘business-class’ high-speed train in just 1.5 hours. Together with 3 babushkas who quite confidently enjoyed their ride. Vitebsk is Belarus’ second oldest city, founded by Princess of Kiev in 974 as the legend goes. Vitebsk is now more known as a birthplace of Marc Chagall whose figure haunts the city.

Vitebsk

Marc Chagall’s house is very close to the railway station so I headed there straight away. It was Monday and the museum was closed, so I just wandered a bit in the neighbourhood. It was all about small buildings, industrial sites and very few people.

Vitebsk

Not only the street with Chagall’s home is decorated with murals and his quotes – I spotted many of them all over the city. I’m not a fan and I really know little about him and his art but I think it somehow fits this city to have an artist who had such a connection to it. Chagall would go on painting his native Vitebsk up until his death.

Vitebsk

This quote about ‘homeland in his soul’ is right next to his house, and here it is:

Vitebsk

Same street:

Vitebsk

A nearby street:

Vitebsk

There were quite a few red brick houses in that district, only one of them completely ruined and graffiti-ed – but the rest faithfully serving their inhabitants.

Vitebsk

A local Beatles club where they throw dance parties and watch old movies. Was thinking of going there at first but that night they were having a party for ‘those above…’ which usually means a certain age which I don’t belong to yet.

Vitebsk

Can you spot a lamp in the left-hand window?

Vitebsk

Crossing the Western Dvina river towards the city center:

Vitebsk

In Vitebsk I could feel the winter is coming. After such a springtime day in Polotsk this came as an unpleasant surprise particularly because I was expecting a much finer day judging by the forecast. But the mist was so heavy in the first part of the day that when the sun finally did come out for a brief moment, I had to hurry up to retake most of the photos before it disappeared again.

Vitebsk

From the hill with the Assumption Cathedral one can enjoy the view over the city. The city which in its historical center one feels as if being suddenly transported to the Alexander Pushkin times, to the early 19th century!

Vitebsk

And those 1-2 storey buildings seem to be preserved in a pretty authentic state, not like in St Petersburg where quite a few of these were either upgraded with an extra floor or two, or ‘sank’ into the ground up to the balcony because the ‘cultural level’ grew fast.

Vitebsk

Judging by the plate, this house is here since late 18th century:

Vitebsk

I had my breakfast in the mid of the misty Vitebsk, accompanied by the pigeons:

Vitebsk

Can’t make out if this pigeon here is real or painted? 🙂

Vitebsk

I didn’t expect any museum to be open but turns out the other ‘museum’ of Chagall (or rather gallery – they call themselves Chagall’s Art Center) was working that Monday. They only had one floor of his drawings while at the second floor there were curious posters by Polish artist Ryszard Kaja.

Vitebsk

Then I came up to the Victory Square with this impressive 1970s monument.

Vitebsk

Just a few meters away is a street named after Chagall, with yet another of his quotes:

Vitebsk

And in the inner yard there’s this mural with the iconic ‘eternal student’ of the Soviet cinema – Alexander Demyanenko.

Vitebsk

Ah yes, I forgot to mention that I couldn’t resist the temptation to enter into a real relic from the past that you can hardly find in Russia now – Univermag (“universal store”), the central department store of Vitebsk with – literally – rows of clocks, kitchen utensils and crystalware, and flocks of very serious-looking customers. I was enjoying it immensely but just couldn’t take photos as nobody else would understand – they were enjoying it in a slightly different way 🙂

Vitebsk

Later, in my attempt to find nice postcards, sweet buns (for some reason I was sure I would find them) and some gostintsy (souvenirs) I also wandered way into the faceless districts with all kinds of Soviet houses from various epochs.Ah yes, I also saw this picturesque heap right in front of the local police station in the center:

Vitebsk

And then suddenly there was sun! So I hurried back.

Vitebsk

Oh those balconies!

Vitebsk

The center of Vitebsk is lovely although really small.

Vitebsk

As in many small European cities, if you have ‘too much’ time you end up making circles round the same place:

Vitebsk

Above – ex-town hall, now a local history museum which was unfortunately closed. Below – yet another baroque cathedral, looking pretty much like the St Sophia Cathedral in Polotsk – though less elegant.

Vitebsk
All of a sudden there was this nice evening:

Vitebsk

It’s a pity the sun was about to set.

Vitebsk

The pail and the kettle are there for a reason – they attract people to a local art gallery.

Vitebsk

A glance back at the Assumption Cathedral and the Vitba river which gave its name to the city.

Vitebsk

Trying to get rid of the remaining Belorussian rubles, I visited quite a few of shops in the railway station district. As a result, I brought back gostintsy – some of the goods that Belarus is famous for (at least, in Russia): potato chips (made with salt and sunflower oil, no preservatives), cheese, sausages, sweets and beauty products. Belarus is also providing us with textile, bed linen and… tractors :). By the way I did find some postcards in the end, three of them were particularly interesting, depicting the best known trademarks of Belarus – tractor, condensed milk and a huge truck.

Gostintsy

Belarus products for us I suppose mean something like ‘traditional quality for less money’. And theirs is quite an established brand in Russia, we have many outlets selling their dairy and meat products all over the country. Pictured above – bitter chocolate (which was a little bit too much with 90% cocoa) and that panforte or gingerbread they seem to be particularly fond of and that I sampled already in Smolensk. Pictured below: potato chips and condensed milk in a traditional blue can.

Gostintsy

It’s not my first time in Belarus, as my father’s mother was born and lived there. I was in Minsk, Baranovichi and Orsha. But this time the journey was a solitary one and I had more time (and more occasions) to think of this country from a traveller’s point of view. So, my overall impression of Belarus and its people:

From what I’ve seen, Belorussians are open and uncomplicated. Family is very important to them, relatives seem to be closer to each other – at least in terms of sharing thoughts, problems, i.e. living a more communal life. As a whole, it looks as if the nation has been (or is being?) calmed down and reassured by the state and habituated to a good steady moderately-consumerist life. Although they are not wealthy, they are not demanding either. Yes, I saw quite a few drunk people, some of them were openly drinking vodka in the morning enjoying the view over the river right in the center of the city. It is obvious that the level of income is pretty low but these guys are not used to luxury – and their notion of it might be quite ridiculous from a European point of view. By the way, November 7th, commemorating the October revolution, is still a national holiday in Belarus while in Russia it has been replaced with the amorphous ‘Unity Day’ on November 4th.

I came back home in a formerly trendy but now rather run down Zvyazda (or Zvezda, Star) Minsk – St Petersburg train, through the Art Nouveau gates of my city – Vitebsky Railway Station. Now its name makes more geographical sense to me than it did before!

This post goes to the Belarus section of my Travel series.

G.

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