Wednesday, July 9th, 2014
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 Poland became the Western Soviet Union and 500 years of Radziwill power in this part of the world (according to Wikipedia, they owned 23 castles, over 2,000 estates and over 10,000 villages at one stage) was reduced to a Radziwill princess, kept as a living museum piece at Njasvizh Castle, until she was allowed to escape to Rome at the request of her cousin, the Queen of Italy.
Njasvizh and Mir are two of only four UNESCO sites in Belarus. Njasvizh castle looks and feels very European, not least because it was modelled in the 16th century by Italian architect, Bernadoni. The Radziwills still maintain a strong link with the region, some members have been recently buried at Njasvizh recently. There are currently 72 sarcophagaie in the crypt, which is cool and well looked after, but certainly a place not to stray far from the guide. The place is riddled with legends (a recurring theme in Eastern Europe), including the ghost of the Black Dame (Barabara Radziwill, Queen of Poland) who is said to pace the corridors of the castle, the dark owl that foretells the death of members of the family and yet more tales of hidden treasure and dungeons so large that parts of them remain unopened.
Locals remember the family with fondness, and continue to serve in the castle as their forefathers did before then. Now working in cafes, restaurants and ticket offices for tourists, rather than working for the Radziwill family directly. They are looking forward to celebrating the 100th birthday of a Radziwill from Warsaw in 4 years time.… view more »
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 keeper from the family estate in a Catholic village where we planned to spend the night. The area we are riding through was Poland until 1939, so Orthodoxy is replaced by Catholicism and crosses welcome us to every village. Antonina Nikoleavna invited us to join the evening celebration of Ivana Kupala (Kupala night).
Kupala night is the Slavic celebration of mid-summer. A night of mystery and magic as local girls, with their flowery headresses, search for future husbands, either by looking for flowering ferns in the woods, by throwing their flowery garlands into the rivers and seeing reflections of their future husbands and by jumping naked over bonfires. A kind of multilayered, failsafe approach. Swimming at the end of the evening (dawn really) is compulsory and according to one local maid with a twinkle in her eye, must be done naked. Clearly, another failsafe mechanism!
Local Catholics over the years have tried to turn this into a feast day of John The Baptist, but it seemed to me that the Pagan, folkloric side of this summer festival was the prevailing one, although the ghost of Delilah was to be seen from time to time.
As night fell, locals gathered to the sound of a drum, guitar and the discordant harmonies of the band, which was clad in white peasant attire. Some dressed in traditional Kupala costume, some in jeans and t-shirts. Antonina Nikoleavna was the Pagan High Priestess of ceremonies, ushering in with a wave of her hand and a smile, garlanded girls to sing and dance (folksongs and linen mingled with silk waves and Celine Dionne's Titanic). Brawny villagers, many of whom had the stare indicative of too much vodka, competed in contests of strength and to hunt for hidden treasure (more beer and vodka).
As the midsummer mists were starting to cast a chill on all, three large bonfires with "guys" were lit and suddenly, we were all dancing hand in hand around the blazes, which threw out a welcome warmth and whose vigorous flames lit up the night sky, spitting and crackling and sending up sparks and smoke into the moonlit sky.
As the flames subsided, alliances formed to hunt for the flowering ferns in the surrounding flower meadows and copses, splashes and shouts resounded all around as locals threw themselves into the waters of the lake. Some sat, transfixed by the fires and the summer mists carpeted the surroundings, leaving me again to wonder why people in this part of the world called England "Misty Albion".… view more »
Thursday, July 3rd, 2014
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 Hitler, and singed by the fallout of the Chernobyl's radioactive cloud, the survival of the Belarussian people is an achievement in itself.
Although most people speak Russian, the Belarussian language has equal status and tends to be spoken in the villages and used for official presentations by government officials, such as the lady from the Ministry of Culture and Ideology, at Dubrovni Folk Festival. The language appears to have been put into written form in Cyrillic, Arabic and Latin script at various stages of its development and is now written in Cyrillic. To me, it sounds like someone reading a Russian fairy tale to very small children while eating a boiled sweet and sweeping a stone floor with a bristly brush.
Although it was a shame to (temporarily) say goodbye to my horses in Russia, it has been great to have fresh horses in Belarus. My steed is a large Palamino stallion, who announces his presence to all and sundry with loud whinnies and much rolling of his head and eyes!
The journey from the East of Belarus has taken us again along the banks of the Dnieper. Being one of Europe's largest rivers, it is no surprise that we should end up camping on its banks in different countries and on different occasions. While the Dnieper runs to 4km wide by the time it reaches Ukraine, nearer to its source, it is a clean and calm river bordered by long grass, willows and sandy banks.
The summer heat is back and this has led us to set out as early as 5:30 (zzzz)in the morning just as the cool of the night is being lifted away by the warm summer sun. The light is beautiful at this time, casting dappled shadows through the leaves of the trees that line our route. All of the Belarussian wildlife seems to be out and about too, including darting deer, smiling but suspicious wild boar and some pretty long black grass snakes, which zigzag lazily away from the horses hooves just in time to avoid an incident.
After one such early start, we stopped at the site of a spring (known as Zena's spring) next to a crystal clear and cool river and a wooden cottage, surrounded by long grass, wild flowers, billowing willows and small yapping dogs. The cool river provided a perfect foil for the heat of the day and as we were resting in the shade, the old lady of the cottage appeared as if by magic and started turning the hay she had cut with a scythe for her calf's winter fodder.
Babushka Lyuda lived in the cottage as had her parents before her. All her needs of water were satisfied by the spring, which provided her with cool water in the summer and "warm" water in the winter. Most of Lyuda's remaining needs were satisfied by her kitchen garden, which was a classic collage of potatoes, dill, onions, roses, cabbages, garlic, and parsley. Remaining pretty into old age, with her curls of white hair, shiny blue eyes, and angular tanned face, Babushka Lyuda lived alone, except for her hens, calf, dogs and piglets that she was fattening up for the winter. As we were settling down for a lunch of bread, local honey, fresh milk and eggs, Babushka Lyuba presented us with a bouquet of dill, parsley, spring onions and garlic and refused to take any money. Lyuda's grandson, Misha, had come to visit and all she wanted was for Misha to stroke the horses, which he did with some nervousness as "Marlboro", sensing a chance for mischief, rolled his eyes and tossed his head dramatically, letting out some whinnies for good measure.
After a dinner with Nikolai and Eleanor at their summer cottage outside Minsk, I am waiting for the Independence Day celebrations in Minsk to start. Strangely, although Minsk is a capital city, its wide green avenues, parks and laid back atmosphere don't seem to be too far removed from Zena's spring and the the all-embracing Belarussian countryside. Calm prevails, the nearest remaining state to how it used to be in at the Soviet Union.
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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 approach to Smolensk, our camp for the night was to be next to a strawberry and raspberry farm, owned by Alexey, who was happy to offer us a field next to a lake, full of rich grass for the horses. Alexey mentioned that he'd be happy to sell us strawberries and raspberries for about 3 pounds per half kilo. As it happens, Andrey the groom, had already discovered the raspberry fields as we approached the camp, but from that point onwards, we were all on our best behaviour.
The June temperatures had been falling steadily since the sweltering heat of the first week and we must have looked rather frozen in the morning when we went to buy strawberries and raspberries from Alexey, and he insisted on presenting us with bright red fruits, freshly gathered that morning by his peasants, who were bent double in the fields, warmly wrapped in colourful headscarves and long woven skirts.
Extremely grateful for such kindness, we gave Alexey a ride on one of the horses before riding on to Smolensk.
As we rode along, locals twitched curtains to watch us pass and a number of them came up to talk. They generally expressed an overwhelming nostalgia for the days of the Collective Farm, when horses passed frequently along this road and generally, there was order in the countryside, as opposed to the general climate of rural decay as nature reclaims its territory and the young who can, flee for the cities.
Smolensk, although a backwater itself for several hundred years, gleams magnificently as one approaches it. The Uspensky (Assumption) Cathedral is the shining beacon of the city and the Cathedral territory houses various smaller churches, where we were to find a choir busy practising for an upcoming concert, and the ubiquitous "lavki" selling ikons, books, candles and blessed red wine. The Cathedral itself, which meets you inside with with a brilliant gold iconistas, was ablaze with candles and numerous Orthodox clergy dressed in blue, green and black pacing around, with swinging incense burners and celebrating evening prayer.
Despite its strategic position, not far from one of Russia's main gateways to the West, the town centre, although clean and generally orderly, feels distinctly provincial. Smolensk's sleepy atmosphere today hides the fact that over 90 per cent. of the town was destroyed during the second world war. As Smolensk was liberated, the celebrated Ikon "Our Lady of Smolensk" disappeared and has never been recovered. This recent conflict added to a whole catalogue of wars as the city was fought over for centuries by Russia, Lithuania and Poland. The remaining 16 monumental towers of the Kremlin (one of the biggest in Russia, it originally had 38 towers) stand as a testament to Smolensk's turbulent history. Nowadays one can climb the giddy heights of the Kremlin towers and take in the superb view of the skyline, while dodging the litter of beer-bottles, burnt-out fires, cigarette packets and debris relating to intimate nighttime trysts.
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Saturday, June 14th, 2014
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 integrity, although one cannot help thinking of the girl who pricked her finger and fell asleep for a hundred years when you walk through the park and ruined estate buildings. The collective farm that replaced the country estate as the main work provider in the village has gone. Now villagers put their efforts into tending their peasant cottages and gardens, brimming with bright orange lilies, pink dog roses, onions, potatoes, old apple trees, bee-hives, hens, snappy dogs and rotting bicycles, cars, fridges and step-ladders. The locals are friendly and ready to divulge the secrets of Aleksino.
According to local legend, while after the revolution, the Baryshnikov family "entrusted" many valuables (including paintings and its extensive archive) to the authorities in Moscow and Smolensk, locals believe that the Baryshnikovs buried gold and silver in a tunnel that leads from the ruined chapel under the lake to the hay-barns beyond. It might have been that the Baryshnikovs believed that the revolution would be over in a few years and they'd be able to return afterwards. As the evening wore on, some of the locals were keen to take us on an excursion into the tunnel under the lake to look for treasure, but with the full moon and June fog rising and speech of the locals becoming increasingly slurred and their pace unsteady, none of us had the appetite to stray far from our camp at the lakeside for such nocturnal peregrinations.
Locals also believe that the Aleksino estate was spared from the German bombs during the "Great Patriotic War" due to an agreement between the Baryshnikovs and the Germans. An agreement that involved the return of the estate to its previous owners. In any event, there was clearly heavy fighting in the environs of Aleksino as the local war memorial is full of countless names of the fallen from 1943.
With the lake being full of fish, Slava and Yulia decided to make a "Ukha". Cooked in a steel bucket over the campfire with secret ingredients of a very large slug (it looked like half a bottle to me) of vodka and a burning log from the fire plunged into the bucket for the dramatic finishing flourish, this was a very welcome meal given that the June evenings are quite cool at the moment.
Friday the Dog found a new playmate at Aleksino and we are now wondering whether she will be joined by Saturday, Sunday and Monday in a few month's time.… view more »
Monday, June 9th, 2014
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 parts and some of the riding has been tough with bogs trying to suck us down deep into their depths. Friday the Dog is well suited to such terrain and is proving herself to be very adept at herding us and the horses through the safest paths. The muddy ground is covered with Elk tracks and you can ride for hours without seeing a soul.
The "locals" are becoming increasingly friendly, a typical example, being Vera Nikitina, who today invited us to join her for freshly ground coffee from her recent trip to Florence, fried fish and freshly-baked bread. This was a very welcome break and actually Vera Nikitina is a Muscovite who used to work for a TV channel, hence her trips to Florence and Vienna for coffee. Some of the real locals look at us with suspicion from under their headscarfs and sun-baked faced as we ride past, or ask for directions.
Back to the visitation. Jeff, Ira and the puppies appeared late on Saturday night, looking very Moscow in a swish air-conditioned audi, which had kept the champagne and coca cola at perfect temperature. In celebration of such distinguished guests, we dug out one of the remaining tins of foie gras and treated the guests to a ride on the horse (Ira's long silk skirt being material that none of the horses have been used to for a long time). We also treated the guests to a swim in the pool (aka small lake complete with lilies, slippery sides and the occasional rock that you initially think might be a crocodile). Louis the puppy fell in love with Dog Friday and caused havoc until the storm forced him to retreat to the Muscovite camp.
The night's entertainment was the "son and lumiere" of a seemingly far away storm, which provided a dramatic backdrop, until the wind rose up, the temperature dropped about 10 degrees in what seemed like seconds and large warm raindrops started coming down by the bucketload.
In the morning, the sky was innocently blue, punctuated by fluffy cotton-wool clouds with no sign of the last night's theatre.
Viazma was our destination for lunch and as it happened to be celebrating "Den Goroda" (the town's birthday party), this proved to be an excellent choice. Although Viazma has lost many churches over the years due to politics and to its location on the main drive from the West for attacking armies, the churches and the monastery that remain are outstandingly beautiful. The Orthodox faith was celebrating Trinity Sunday and so the churches all looked very festive with branches of Silver birch around their doors, arches, alcoves and icons.
As for the "Den Goroda" celebrations, it felt as if the town was celebrating a village fete on a grand scale. Children were trying to win prizes, eating ice-cream in enormous quantities and riding on camels and ponies around the main square where a statue of Lenin faces one of the town's main churches. Policemen and soldiers were marching around eating ice-cream and smoking while keeping the peace, and men and women listened and danced to the rock group from Smolensk, who were dressed in national costume and singing "Let's go Russia".
This evening we had a very unexpected treat as we arrived at the family home of the long-dead famous Russian writer, playwright, poet, and diplomat, Alexander Sergeevich Griboedov. This beautiful mansion has been restored thanks to Viktor Kulikov (the director of the museum) and we happened upon a party to celebrate the achievement of restoring a mansion to its former glory and Viktor Kulikov's 70th birthday. The very distinguished guests from museums all over Russia were gathered in the elegant ball room and a feast of Russian delicacies (caviar, smoked meats, fish, Russian salad, vodka, cherry juice and whisky) was just drawing to a close. With the best of the Russian hospitality, we were treated to a guided tour of the museum in English by Viktor's grandson (also Viktor) and we joined the feast.
I have put Alexander Griboodev on my reading list. It seems that in addition to his literary works, Alexander Sergeevich Griboedov led a fascinating life until he was sent to Persia as Minister Plenitpotentiary and was decapitated by a kebab seller who displayed his head at his stall after Alexander Sergeevich had given asylum to an Armenian Eunoch and two Georgian ladies.
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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 their original use.
The town has a population of 30,000 and almost everything has a Yuri Gagarin/Cosmos theme, from the local cinema to numerous shops. On Lenin Street, which leads to the main square there are old wooden houses decorated in traditional Russian style, and some of them have little red stars carved into the fretwork. Locals are laid-back and the shops are full of products from Belarussia. We found some old sign posts showing distances measured in "Versts" (60 to Moscow and 223 to Smolensk).
After dinner, when we were tidying up the camp, the horses started and then stood aggressively like sentinels looking into the evening mist at some unseen foe! They started whinnying aggressively and out of the mist came a large and curious Elk. My horse, in particular, started marching back and forth in a kind of stand-off with the Elk, which looked to us pretty harmless. As soon as the Elk spotted us, it trotted quickly away into the mists, leaving the horses and us to relax in the cool of the evening!
We have been thoroughly spoiled so far along the route with friends visiting from Moscow, bringing victuals that are not readily available locally. More friends are visiting tonight and on the weekend. Storms are forecast for Moscow, but the weather forecast for Viazma (about 60 km from here), which is where we are heading looks fine.… view more »
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 off. Quite soon after setting off, we were joined by Dog Friday, who looks set to be with us for the journey. A gift from Mother Valentina. Dog Friday will be a great help to us camping in unknown territories as we travel to Belarussia.
We're travelling slowly at the moment not to wear out the horses and to avoid the heat of the day. People on the road are being extremely kind, providing water and apples for the horses, sausages for Dog Friday, and tea and cake for Andrey and I.
The fields and woods are alive with life with deer darting around, and wild boars eyeing us suspiciously from a distance. As we travel further, we hope to see Elk, Bears, Wolves and Wild Cats.
We're travelling at a good pace of around 20 km per day and tomorrow we expect to reach Gagarin, named after Yuri Gagarin, with its famous market and much more famous son!
For tonight, we're camping next to a lake. The horses are munching their way through oats and grass, Dog Friday is snoozing and Andrey and Slava are catching up on sunbathing, smoking and iphone messages.
It looks as if the weather will hold for the time being. The weather forecast predicts 30 degrees tomorrow.… view more »
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 has now been scattered to the four winds, but I have to say that the coffee pot will be put to good use during the next few months and will return to Wales after my journey.… view more »