As we move further into what was for many centuries Cathlic Poland/Lithuania, the speech of the locals becomes more difficult to understand as they use Belarussian, a mixture of Russian and Belarussian, and not infrequently, Polish. A number of locals have asked me if I am Polish and then proceeded to proudly talk about their Polish roots and with names such as Casimir Alexandrovich, these roots are quite near the surface.

The fortress of Mir and the castle of Njasvizh owe a huge amount of their history to the Radziwill family, which effectively formed a state within a state (Poland/Lithuania) until 1939 when old Europe, already battered by the first world war was carved up. Under the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, Eastern… view more »

Ivana Kupala Night

Sunday, July 6th, 2014

So the warm days are settling in, the cool early morning rides through meadows to avoid to avoid the heat of the day also continue. Friends join for a few days riding and friends of friends are providing dinners of stewed pork knuckle, roasted meat and potatoes, evenings in the banya with cool ponds to jump into. The early morning dew continues to get lighter and yet by midnight, the crescent moon reveals a spreading summer mist that covers the fields.

After an afternoon visit to a ruined estate, which is in the process of being restored by a Belarussian repat, who has come home with the enthusiasm and money to restore the family estate, we again came across the
museum… view more »

Crossing the border from Russia into Belarus, one feels the difference immediately! This is as hard for me to believe as it is for you, but that it the truth of it. The wild and tousled countryside West of Smolensk is replaced by an altogether more orderly, but quite empty landscape where man and beast toil with the plough and tractor to allow the fertile soils of Belarus to nourish corn, rye, barley, and wheat.

Five times bigger than Switzerland and with a population of under 10 million, Belarus seems to be one of Europe's mysteries. Buffeted by the winds of fortune between Poland-Lithuania and Russia, trampled over by invading French and German armies during the times of Napoleon and… view more »

The road to Smolensk

Tuesday, June 24th, 2014

The old Smolensk Road is dotted with black and white striped sign-posts commemorating battles with Napoleon's Grande Armee from 1812 and, with more recent silver-painted war memorials, commemorating those who fought against the Germans during the Great Patriotic War (which is what the Russians call the Second World War). Particularly moving are the monuments to the childrens' armies.

For such an historic road, along which invading and retreating armies have marched over centuries, the old Smolensk road is quiet, harbouring no welcoming cafes or such like for visiting tourists. Local shops all sell pretty much the same things, cheese, sausage, bread, vodka (many different varieties), beer, chocolate, biscuits, and ice-cream. Quite a few of the shops were Coca Cola-free zones.

On the… view more »

Riding through the largely rural Smolensk region (three times the size of Wales and a population of under one million), it is not entirely unexpected that we should come across a ruined country estate.

Aleksino, the monumental former home of the Baryshnikovs, has the air of Miss Havisham's Satis house. The orchards are overgrown, the once well-tended formal gardens are full of weeds and the great house is slowly unbuilding itself as the plaster falls from the bricks. Building started 2 years before Napoleon's invasion, namely in 1810, on the basis of designs by neoclassicists Domenico Gilardi and Matvey Feodorovich Kazakov.

After almost a century of neglect, the ensemble of lakes, chaples, grandiose stables, bakeries and the orchard still has an… view more »

Sunday was always going to be a rest day, and with Jeff and Ira, Louis and Beyonce (two frisky Jack Russells) coming to visit for Saturday night, we rose at 6 and set off in the cool of the day. It soon heated up to 30 degrees and we rode through countryside that is increasingly sparsely populated, stopping to give children a ride on the horses and to buy ice-cream, kvas (a fermented bread-drink) and the occasional twix from the local shops.

Much of the area was have been riding through used to be productive collective farmland, but it now a kind of wilderness full of fields of lupins, cow parsley, meadow-sweet and stinging nettles. The land is very boggy in… view more »

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Thursday, June 5th, 2014

Having ridden about 30 km in the baking Russian sun from Moscow oblast into Smolensk oblast, Slava and I toured Gagarin while Andrey pitched the tents for the night in a field outside Gagarin. Gagarin was known as Gzhatsk until 1968 when it was renamed after Yuri Gagarin, who was born in the outlying village of Klushino. For foreigners, the town is a good example of what life felt like during the Soviet Union. Shops are very simple, there is a Komsomol (Communist Youth Movement) building, a simple hotel and a very beautiful church on the banks of the river Gzhat that is still partly used as the regional museum. Nearer to Moscow, many churches have already been restored to… view more »

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First Days in the field

Tuesday, June 3rd, 2014

We set off just as the intense heat of the Russian summer was abating. 50 friends on horseback joined us for the first part of the ride to Borodino Battlefield where Napoleon fought Kutuzov in 1812. For a battle in which so many soldiers died, the site is extremely peaceful, with fragrant flower-filled meadows and eagles gliding in the sky above. We toured some of the monuments and then set off to the Spaso-Borodinsky monastery to pick up some silver crosses for the journey ahead. Mother Valentina blessed us for the journey and wished us God's speed to Transvlvania where we plan to arrive just under three months from now.

The following morning, we washed in the river Koloch and set… view more »

Lord Raglan's Coffee Pot

Tuesday, May 27th, 2014

Starting any day with a good cup of coffee is one of life's great pleasures. This pleasure is particularly keenly felt in the middle of the countryside to the background of the dawn chorus, the horses being saddled up for the day's riding and the Russian flora growing at such a pace during these long summer days that you almost think you can hear it grow! You can certainly see it growing!

While in London yesterday finalising my list of equipment for the ride, I was lucky enough to buy Lord Raglan's silver coffee pot at Christie's, which I plan to to use during the ride to ease those dawn starts! It is a great shame that the historic Raglan collection… view more »

Monday, November 30th, -0001

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