The Belarusian border town of Brest represents a kind of window on the west for White Russia. Railway lines from here will take you to Warsaw, Berlin and even Paris.
Brest can look back on a long history and is one of the oldest towns in Belarus – nearly 1000 years old. It was the first Belarusian town to be granted Magdeburg Law, the right to self-administration.
Brest, which was previously called Berest, came under Russian rule in 1795, after having been part of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania for 450 years. The fortress of Brest was built between 1836 and 1842 to protect the western border of the Russian Empire at the confluence of the rivers Bug and Mukhavets. It was the largest fortress compound in the entire Russian Empire in the 19th century. In order to build the fortress, the town of Brest was moved eastwards, or in other words torn down. In the first days of the Great Patriotic War, as the Second World War is called in Belarus, Brest fortress was famed for the heroism and resistance of its soldiers, so today Brest is known as “city of heroes”.
This is an excellent reason for us to put the town on our itinerary for a long weekend, but it is also a worthy starting point for a longer journey around White Russia.
Brest has many tourist attractions. The historic traces of different eras are still evident today, numerous monuments and museums are waiting to be discovered. What’s more, Brest is surrounded by untouched nature.
We will either collect you from Minsk airport or from Brest Station, if you are travelling with the night trains from Warsaw or Berlin. If you are coming via Minsk this would be a good opportunity to visit the capital, which we would be happy to arrange for you. In Brest, our English-speaking guide will be waiting to welcome you. Your guide will take you to your hotel in central location and will help you with checking in. After giving you a while to settle in and recover, he will collect you from your hotel around midday.
He will then accompany you on a extensive stroll around the town, giving you an outline of its turbulent, almost one thousand year history. You will start your tour in Levanyevski Street, where the city Museum of History is located. You are welcome to visit this and gain a deeper insight into the history of the city. To the left lies the municipal recreational park “1st May” with one of the numerous World War monuments at its entrance.
From there you will continue on your way across the main town square, the Leninskaya Ploshschad (Lenin Square). This sports an impressive ensemble of neo-classical architecture dating from the 1920s-1930s when Brest was still under Polish administration. It is now home to local government – as in Soviet times, under the watchful eye of a statue of Lenin.
From Lenin Square we turn into Mickiewicza Street, dedicated to the Polish/Lithuanian poet who was born in the province of Brest. Like Levanevski Street, Mickiewicza Street was part of old Brest-Litovsk, which was formerly home to the nobility – as one can see from the architecture. At the end of Mickiewicza Street stands the Orthodox Church of St. Nicholas; in pseudo-Russian style, its shape is reminiscent of a ship and it was built with donations made by sailors of the Pacific fleet in 1900.
To the left of the church stands the current building of Brest State University, which functioned as a boys’ school at the turn of the 19th to the 20th century. Next door to the university is the modern Orangerie, which is open to visitors and which houses many exotic plants.
From the university you will wander along the upper part of Sovietskaya Street, Brest’s lovingly restored pedestrian zone, to Pushkinskaya Street and the typical Belarusian restaurant “Svayaki” (Belarusian: relatives). Here you can sample many typical local dishes such as dranniki (hearty potato cakes), matshanka (pancakes with a meat sauce) and salo (marinated lard). And you can also try a glass of samagon, a home-distilled vodka).
After this you will return to the Sovietskaya Street. At the point where Pushkinskaya and Sovietskaya cross is the kolkhoz market, where local tradesmen sell an assortment of food items. This will give you a good idea of what is available locally and will also give you a chance to sample this and that. Subsequently we will return once again to Sovietskaya Street where it is the custom for a lamplighter to light the gas lanterns which are true works of art. One of them – the bat lamp – is one of the most popular meeting places in the town.
Where Sovietskaya Street crosses Gogol Street there is an impressive monument which has been heralding the 1000th anniversary of the foundation of the town in 2019 ever since 2004.
On the left you will see the State Exhibition Hall, which features artworks mainly by Brest painters and sculptors. The curator is always glad to show you around and you may well have an opportunity to make direct contact with local artists.
Next to the exhibition hall is the former Jewish quarter. Unfortunately there is nothing left of the former buildings (cemetery, synagogue, school) but you can visit the monument to the Jews murdered in the former ghetto. At the turn of the 19th century more than half the inhabitants of Brest were Jewish and the town was one of the largest cultural centres of Judaism in Eastern Europe.
It is now only a stone’s throw to Masherov Boulevard where the large state department store (ZUM) is to be found. This will give you some idea of the variety of products made in Belarus. From here we shall continue to St. Simeon’s Cathedral, which was the first church to be built in Brest after the town was moved from its original site to 2 km to the east in the 1830s. During the Soviet era, the cathedral was the only place of worship where church services were celebrated. In front of the church stands the statue of St. Athanasius of Brest, the patron saint of the town.
Turning into Lenin Street, we come to the “Museum of retrieved art treasures”, a collection of artworks which have, over time, all been confiscated by White Russian customs officials and have found a new home in the museum. Next door to the museum there is a commemorative stone with a coat of arms testifying to the foundation of the town. Afterwards, while passing through General Ikonnikov Park you will see a monument to the soldiers killed in action on 28th July 1944 during the liberation of the town.
Next you will come to the Theatre of Drama and Music, which became famous for its international theatre festival “Belaya Wezha” which has been held in September for 10 years now and which is attended by street, puppet and drama ensembles from all over the world.
Returning to the Gogol/Lenin Street crossroads, you will see a boundary stone which has marked the former border between the town and the fortress since 1915. The tour of Brest ends in Gogol Street where the elaborately fashioned lanterns evoke memories of various works by the great Russian author (Gogol). At this point, your guide will make further suggestions for how to spend the evening and then the rest of the day is yours!
Your guide will pick you up after breakfast and drive you to the Brest Fortress. Together you will explore the extensive compound including the majestic monuments and the St. Nicholas Church. In addition, there are three museums which you can visit and your guide can give you an introduction to any of these. They include the Berestye Archeological Museum with extensive finds from the excavation of the historical settlement of Brest. Of particular interest are the original remains of the wooden houses dating from the 13th century. Next door to this you will find the Art Museum, which exhibits paintings, sculptures and other artworks by local artists. A special attraction is the reconstructed model of the town as it may have looked at the beginning of the 18th century.
At the centre of the memorial centre is one of the most frequented Belarusian museums, which is dedicated to the defence of the fortress during the Second World War, concentrating particularly on the year 1941.
After visiting the museums you might like to still your hunger in the “Citadel” restaurant, which is housed in one of the former casemates.
From the fortress it is only a stone’s throw to the Railway Museum, which is your destination after lunch. It is an eldorado for railway buffs and the exhibits include locomotives and railway carriages from the various eras of railway history. Your guide will be a former railway worker.
Your tour guide will return you to your hotel around 4 p.m. and the early evening is free to use as you wish.
Later your guide will pick you up and take you to the home of a Belarusian family who will serve you an evening meal with delicious local specialities and show you what everyday life is like in Belarus.
Today you will travel to the enchanting landscape of the Belovezskaya Pushcha National Park, which is a UNESCO world heritage site. It is one of the last virgin forests in Europa. It is also the location of Wiskuli, a government property where the heads of state of Belarus, Russia and the Ukraine sealed the dissolution of the Soviet Union on 8th December 1991.
After breakfast at your hotel, you will set off to the park by car – a distance of about 65 km. Halfway there you will stop off shortly in Kamenets to see a stone watch-tower which was erected in the 13th century to guard the wooden fortress of the little town. The tower is used as an exhibition area by the Brest History Museum and if you are interested you might like to see the latest exhibition.
You will be welcomed at the park by a park ranger, who will take you into the depths of the wildlife park, a unique biosphere reserve where European bison and many other wild animals roam in freedom. A 16 km trip through the woods will make you familiar with all facets of the wildlife reserve. This tour can be made either on a bike, on foot or partly in a vehicle, depending on your fitness. En route you will have a snack in a hunting lodge, sampling home-made specialities and locally distilled forest schnaps (Belapushchanka). During the closed season (between May and August) you can accompany the ranger to a hunting stand at dusk and maybe get a sighting of one of the impressive gentle giants and take photos.
You will spend the night on the edge of the nature reserve in a remote country homestead where you will lodge in a comfortable log cabin. The evening will be spent around the camp fire with shashlik (tender marinated and barbecued kebabs prepared by your host) and beer.
The morning will begin with a substantial breakfast: fresh eggs, bread baked by your hostess and goats’ milk which you can try to cajole from the goat yourself, under supervision.
Then you will set off on a full-day trip to discover the most interesting part of western White Russia (otherwise known as Polesie). The approximately 350 km itinerary will take you (by car) through vast landscapes and places where the turbulent history of the area has not failed to leave its mark.
Our first stop is in Pruzhany, the capital of the rayon (district), which is located at the confluence of the rivers Mucha and Vets. Here you can visit the cloth halls built in 1896 which are well-preserved and still bustling with activity today. The Alexander Nevski Church is also well worth visiting.
From here it is not far to Ruzhany, which boasts two mighty ruins which attract anyone interested in history. One is the former synagogue, the other a vast palace complex which was totally neglected after a fire in 1914 and now bears surreal witness to the rich culture of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania around 1770.
Now we turn southwards from the north-eastern tip of today’s journey and continue to Kossovo, a castle which was likewise left to slumber but is now being restored. In 1830, Count Puslovsky attempted to create a replica of the country house of the Polish national hero Tadeusz Kosciuszko, who was born in 1746 not far from Kossovo.
We continue now to Bronnaja Gora, a place that even many White Russians have never heard of. However, it was the scene of the murder of 50,000 Jews between 1941 and 1942 and as such was one of the largest extermination sites on the territory of the state. You will visit two monuments, to which your tour guide will give you the relevant background information.
On our way back to Brest you will have the opportunity to visit many German military cemeteries dating from the First and Second World Wars. Shortly before we arrive in Brest in the late afternoon, we will stop in the little town of Kobrin for a short stroll and refreshments.
Once back in Brest, the remainder of the day is yours to do as you wish.
Depending on when your train leaves Brest, you can either spend the time as you wish or pursue one of the following options:
Brest railway gauge changing facility
This is a unique experience for railway fans. In Brest railway gauge changing facility all passenger trains travelling from east to west, and vice versa, need their gauges changed from the wider Russian railway gauge to the narrower western gauge. To see this you can visit Brest railway depot accompanied by your English-speaking tour guide and a worker from the depot and watch this unusual process in the gauge-changing shed. The excursion lasts about three hours.
Accompanied by your tour guide, you will visit the Brest State Liqueur and Vodka Factory, one of the largest distillers in the country. A factory employee will explain the production process and of course you will have the opportunity to sample the vodka, balsam (a herbal liqueur) and other liqueurs made here. The excursion lasts about three hours.
Rendezvous in a local artist’s studio
Should you have discovered a taste for the local art scene in one of the Brest museums, we would be happy to arrange a visit to the studio of a local visual artist. Accompanied by your tour guide you would have the opportunity to discuss the peculiarities of the local art scene and watch the artist at work. The excursion lasts about three hours.
Depending on your point of departure, it goes without saying that your tour guide will ensure that you reach the station in Brest or the airport in Minsk in good time.