Braslau Switzerland from above Belarus

Belarus is often called blue-eyed. Only from a bird's eye view this can be fully understood. The country has about 11,000 lakes and about 20,000 rivers and streams. Most of them are located in the Braslaw (Braslau) Lakes National Park, which covers a total area of 183 km². The density of lakes here is higher than in Finland, for example. Rivers and streams connect the central lakes, the largest lake district consists of 61 lakes.

The southern part of the national park is characterized by flat lowlands, forest areas alternate with extensive swamps. Forests cover a total area of 31,000 hectares. In the predominantly widespread coniferous and spruce forests there are many small picturesque forest lakes. One of the most beautiful of these forest lakes is called Bozhje Oko (english: Eye of God), which has the shape of an almost perfect geometric circle. In Braslaw the belief is widespread that God sees through these lakes and watches over the earth.

[caption id="attachment_2436" align="alignleft" width="300"]Braslau Lake District Hill Mayak Belarus Hill Mayak near Braslaw (Braslau) | Photo: Tatyana Pilipenko[/caption]

The many lakes are a result of the last ice age. About 18,000 years ago this area was still covered by extensive glaciers. As it slowly became warmer, enormous erosions occurred, which formed this unique system of lakes and gentle hills. This can best be admired at the viewpoint "Mayak" (see picture). Mayak is surrounded by numerous ridges of hills within a radius of about 50 square kilometres. Each of the ridges has its own name, together they form the Kesikowskie ridge (the name comes from the name of the nearby village). Mayak is the biggest hill of Kesikowskie, its height in relation to the nearest lakes is almost 50 meters, in absolute sea level it is 174 meters high.

Today there is a viewing platform on the hill, from which the visitor can enjoy a fascinating view. To the north one can see the border with Latvia, and nearby are the mast of a wind power station and the towers of the churches of the village of Plusy. In the east, a mosaic of hilltops of the Kesikovskie range of hills with extensive wooded valleys can be seen. To the south, the outlines of the Catholic church in the village of Ikazn and the castle hill in Braslau can be seen. In the foreground is the lake Strusto with its numerous islands. To the west, a Catholic church and the wooded Perwoloka peninsula can be seen, where there are beautiful bathing places in the surroundings of meadows and woods.

At dawn and in the evening hours the light is almost magical. Travel fans who are attracted to Scandinavia often compare these places with Finland. The attraction of the Braslaw lakes is that each of them has its own character and its own special shape, as can be seen at the lake Strusto. In the middle of the lake there is the second largest island of Belarus, called Tschajtschin (area 1.6 km²), which itself has its own small lake. Lake Wolosso is the deepest and cleanest lake in the National Park. Its depth is more than 40 meters and the water is so clear that you can see up to 8 meters into the depth.

The flora and fauna around the lakes is diverse. The region is home to more than 800 plant species, some of which are endangered and are on the Red List of Threatened Species of Belarus.

More than 30 species of fish live in the lakes, almost 40 percent of all birds in Belarus nest on the territory of the national park. 45 bird species are registered in the Red Book of Threatened Species. Among them, the Mute Swan (Cygnus olor) is particularly noteworthy. These sublime birds were almost extinct, but have recently been resettled on the Braslaw Lakes and are now strictly protected. Other rare bird species living on the lakes include the black stork (Ciconia nigra), the grey crane (Grus grus), the herring gull (Larus argentatus), the willow ptarmigan (Lagopus lagopus), the Dunlin (Calidris alpina), and the Ural Owl (Strix uralensis).

As far as the local fauna is concerned, the European badger (Meles meles), the Eurasian lynx or northern lynx (Lynx lynx), and the brown bear (Ursus arctos) are under special protection.

[caption id="attachment_602" align="alignleft" width="333"]Braslau Switzerland Belarus Braslaw lakes | Photo: Benny Reiter[/caption]

All these animals live in the National Park, the heart of which lies in one of the oldest cities of Belarus, Braslau. The city is surrounded by five lakes, Lake Drivjaty is the largest in the National Park (see picture).

In the heart of Braslau rises the castle hill, of which fortified settlements from the 5th to the 18th century can be traced. Today you can walk through the picturesque little streets of the city. Unfortunately, hardly any excavations have taken place, so little is known about the history of Braslau. However, it is known that the settlement was inhabited until the 11th century by the Latgals, the ancestors of the Latvians. With the expansion of the Slavic peoples in the early Middle Ages, however, the Latgalians were displaced. The town is a little younger than Vitebsk or Polotsk and was first mentioned in a chronicle in 1065. The castle hill in the centre of the town was named in honour of Prince Bryachislav of Polotsk in the 11th century. This is where the actual roots of the city name lie.

The history of the city of Braslau has always been closely connected with the ruling Grand Dukes Mindaugas, Gediminas, Vytautas, and Alexander the Jagiellonian.

At the top of the already mentioned castle hill stands a white obelisk. The obelisk is dedicated to the famous Belarusian doctor Stanislav Narbut. In 1906 he founded a very modern hospital in Braslau, where patients from all over the country came to. The doctor had the opportunity to work in other places, but remained loyal to his small homeland throughout his life.

At the foot of the mountain you can see the Church of the Birth of the Virgin Mary, which is considered an excellent example of neo-Romanesque architecture. The present church was built in 1897 on the foundations of the destroyed 15th century church. During the Soviet period it was used as a storeroom for a long time, only in 1967 it became a place of prayer for the faithful again.

Another religious attraction of the city is the Orthodox Church of the Assumption of the Virgin Mary, built in 1897 in pseudo-Russian style. Today the church houses over a hundred icons, some of them very old, to which believers from all over the country make pilgrimages.

The military cemetery from the First World War has been preserved until today. In the vicinity there is also a tomb from the 19th century.

The so-called Braslau Switzerland is a unique region, whose beauty and historical wealth attracts many visitors.

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Paddling on the Prypyat Belarus
[caption id="attachment_788" align="alignleft" width="331"]Orthodox grave cemetery in Turov Turau Belarus Orthodox cemetery in Turov | Photo: Anna Kovaliova[/caption]

Polesia, Polesie or Polesye has always impressed travellers with its unique and unspoilt nature. Polesia (Belarusian: Palesse, Russian: Polesje) is located in the polesian lowlands and extends to the territories of Belarus, Poland, Russia and Ukraine. The total area of the territory is approximately 130,000 km². The largest part of Polesia lies in the south of Belarus and the north of Ukraine.

The area of Belarusian Polesia is 61,000 km², slightly less than a third of the total Belarusian territory. The extension of the region from west to east is about 500 km, from north to south about 200 km. The largest cities of the region include Brest, Pinsk, Turov and Mozyr.

In the scientific literature there is no uniform opinion about the origin of the name. Most of them hold on to the opinion that the root "les" (Belarusian / Russian for the word forest) is decisive. This means that Polesia designates an area bordering on forests. Another derivation is based on the Baltic root "pol-" or "pal-", which denotes a swampy landscape.

The toponym Polesia was first mentioned in 1247 in the Galician-Volhynian Chronicle. The first known map of this region is the so-called "Gdansk map" from 1560, and the place name Polesia was found several times in works of Polish historians. The borders of the region were drawn in different sources but each time still differently. The common bond, however, was always the Pripyat river basin.

The connecting element Pripyat and its numerous tributaries, such as the Pina, Yasselda, Braginka, the Zna, Sluch and Ptitsch, run through the region and its towns. In the east of Poland flows the mighty Dnieper and its tributaries Berezina and Sosh, in the west the Bug with its tributary Muchawetz. Together they form a widely ramified water system that forms large flood plains during spring floods.

In the lowlands between 100m and 130m above sea level, remnants of glaciers from the last ice age, large swamp massifs and extensive moors appear in the flat relief.

This area is unique in Europe. Some of the most important continental migratory bird routes cross here. Especially waterfowl such as the black-tailed godwit (Limosa limosa), the redshank (Tringa totanus), the lapwing (Vanellus vanellus), and the Terek sandpiper (Xenus cinereus) rest here. Polesia is the habitat of many birds that are threatened with extinction in Europe, including the Corncrake (Crex crex), the Great Snipe (Gallinago media), and the Greater Spotted Eagle (Aquila clanga).

The Pripyat river lowlands provide habitats for rare animals such as the European pond turtle, the otter and the European mink. For ornithologists, biologists and ecologists this region is therefore of special interest.

[caption id="attachment_609" align="alignleft" width="315"]Prypjat marshes near Lyaskovichi Belarus Pripyat marshes near Lyaskovichi | Photo: Benny Reiter[/caption]

Among the many marshes, the Sporovskoe Marsh is outstanding, one of the largest natural mesotrophic fens in Europe. Most of it is preserved in its natural state, only a small part of the area has been drained by a system of canals. This swamp is characterized mainly by its richness of species and an abundance of medicinal plants thriving there. Rare orchid species that are on the Red List grow in the eastern part. Wild animals like beavers (Castor fiber), otters (Lutrinae) and the rare muskrat (Ondatra zibethicus) live in the water. Meadow Harriers (Circus pygargus), Marsh Harriers (Circus aeruginosus) and various species of water and marsh birds nest there. The Sporowskoe bog, however, was made famous by a small bird, the Aquatic Warbler (Acrocephalus paludicola), 9% of the world population of which lives in Sporowskoe.

[caption id="attachment_610" align="alignright" width="309"]Forest Prypja marshes Belarus Forest in the marshes | Photo: Benny Reiter[/caption]

The territory of Belarusian Polesia is 38% forested. Deciduous and coniferous forests are widespread in the watershed areas. On the left bank of the Prypyat there are mainly spruce forests. On the flat territories there are more oak forests, on the lowland moors - black alder and birch forests. In the last century many hectares of forests were destroyed by logging and fires. In the Pripyatskiy National Park, established in 1996, the natural landscapes of Belarusian Polesia are now strictly protected.

The biggest problem for the local ecosystem is, as in many places, the human being. The greatest influence here was the draining of many swamps. In Belarus, the drainage of the swamps began already at the end of the 19th century. At first on a small scale, individual farmers cultivated small plots of land to make them suitable for agriculture. The mass draining did not begin until after the Second World War, in the 1950s. These measures reached their peak in the 1960s. The arable land was used and adapted for the cultivation of cereal crops as well as hemp and tobacco.

Despite this, Belarus has preserved many of its swamps and marshes compared to other European countries. The total area of Belarusian swamps is 863,000 hectares. However, this is less than a third of what it was in the 1960s.

Even today, there is still controversial discussion about the drainage of the swamps. On the one hand, it was advantageous to gain new land for agriculture. On the other hand, however, this also led to chemical fertilisers from the fields ending up in lakes and rivers, causing damage there.

However, the draining of the swamps did not cause the greatest damage to the region. In 1986, a large part of the territory of Polesia was radioactively contaminated by the Chernobyl nuclear disaster, which occurred in the immediate vicinity.

Today, the "State Radiation Ecological Reserve of Polesia" exists here, which consists of over 216,000 hectares of contaminated land inaccessible to the civilian population. It is mainly scientific research that is carried out there, as well as measures aimed at preventing the contamination from spreading to other territories.

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Birch over the Berezina Belarus
[caption id="attachment_612" align="alignleft" width="373"]Twilight over Beresina Belarus Twilight over Beresina | Picture: Benny Reiter[/caption] The Berezina biosphere reserve is an area primarily covered in pine forests which alternate with moors and flood plains. The reserve has an overall surface area of 85,200 hectares and is to be found about 100 km northeast of Minsk. Untouched forest and extensive moors are typical of the reserve. Overall the moors cover 50,700 hectares, which makes it one of the most widespread moorland areas in Europe. It can absorb vast quantities of carbon dioxide from the air and is therefore of vital importance for climate protection. Thanks to its biological diversity, the biosphere reserve is of significance well beyond the borders of Belarus. It is home to four dominating ecosystems: thick forests, deep swamps, lakes with abundant water and vast wild meadows. The forest is predominant, covering about 89% of the overall area. The original formations of vegetation: Scot’s pines, black alder woods and downy birch, which are to be found in the extensive swamps, are of particular importance. The River Berezina (Belarusian: Bjaresina) is part of the water system in the biosphere reserve, along with many smaller rivers, streams and connecting channels, as well as old river beds and numerous lakes. The biosphere reserve lies in the river basin of the Berezina and Essa, which are likewise part of the Black Sea and Baltic basin. The watershed between them lies in the north-eastern part of the reserve. The River Berezina has its source 45 km farther away on the northern edge of the reserve. The river winds its way through the reserve over a length of 110 km. Its banks are lined with numerous backwaters and lakes.  Canoe tours on the Berezina are extremely popular due to its interesting course. The largest tributary of the Berezina is the Sergutch, which is 35 km long. The rivers are abundantly filled and usually the spring floodwater floods the reserve in March, subsiding only after 20-40 days. The lakes in the reserve, which are largely connected with each other, are extremely rich in nutrients (eutrophic). The largest lake is called Palik and has a surface area of 712 hectares and looks like a broadening of the Berezina river bed on the southern boundary of the reserve. Part of the artificial Berezina water system also flows through the reserve, linking the rivers Berezina and Daugava. The system has an important role to play, helping to keep the water level constant. It was enlarged between 1797 and 1805 on the orders of Paul I (Russian emperor from 1796-1801) as part of the ancient trading route from the Varangians to the Greeks. Nowadays the river Berezina has lost its economic importance, as it is no longer passable for large ships. It is entirely left to itself and provides a habitat for a wealth of flora and fauna. The tranquillity provided the perfect environment for flora and fauna. In the meantime, more than 230 bird species live in the biosphere reserve, of which 56 are on the red list of endangered species. Among the rarest species are the Eurasian bittern (Botaurus stellaris) and the corn crake (crex crex). Both are acutely threatened with extinction. The flora in the biosphere reserve is composed of over 2000 known plant species. This is more than half the entire flora in Belarus. 37 species are on the red list. New species are constantly being discovered on the banks of the Berezina. The last three to be discovered include dwarf cudweed (Omalotheca supina), tall bog sedge (Carex paupercula) and the Sudetenland bladder fern (Cystopteris sudetica). The fauna is equally as diverse and comprises 56 species of mammal, including the European bison (Bison bonasus), the brown bear (Ursus arctos), the European badger (Meles meles), the Eurasian lynx (Felis linx), the pond bat (Myotis dasycneme), the lesser noctule (Nyctalus leisleri), the northern bat (Eptesicus nilssonii) and the garden dormouse (Eliomys quercinus). These are all on the red list of endangered species. The brown bear is of particular interest. The population in Belarus is estimated at between 100 and 130 animals. A third of the Belarusian population of brown bears lives in the biosphere reserve (about 35 animals). [caption id="attachment_613" align="alignright" width="267"]Canoes on the Berezina Belarus Canoes on the Berezina | Picture: Benny Reiter[/caption] As one can imagine, the conditions for creating a biosphere reserve with great biodiversity were from the outset anything but ideal. Vast areas of forest were destroyed in the First World War and the Polish-Soviet War (1914-1921), decimating the number of wild animals. Elk, red deer, roe deer, boar, bears, otters and martens were almost extinct. Beavers were considered to be extinct until the Belarusian zoologist Anatoly Fedjuschin discovered a colony in the upper reaches of the Berezina in the early 20s. The biosphere reserve was founded in order to protect these and other animals. Hunting was forbidden, as was deforestation and any settling or human activities which would affect the woods and moorlands. It even meant relocating local inhabitants who lived on the reserve territory. Scientific research activities gradually got underway. Not only were the beavers preserved, but they were also resettled in other areas. As in other Belarusian national parks, there are various protected areas in the Berezina biosphere reserve. The most rigorously protected area covers 47.2% of the total territory. Any kind of human activity is strictly prohibited here. Today, the Berezina biosphere reserve is listed on the UNESCO list of biosphere reserves. Go on a trip with us and discover the reserve on a multi-day canoe tour accompanied by an experienced biologist.
05/04/2016