Dear fellow travellers
Imagine a place where a mellow topography and a few centuries of unorchestrated urban development have created an amiable township. A slightly faded square, now happily under redevelopment, is dominated by an extravagant Baroque cathedral. A dozen other churches around the town, from simple wooden sanctuaries to exuberant temples topped with exotic onion domes, compete for the Sunday faithful. But religious devotion does not alone define the texture of life in the town, for it is also an industrious community.
At dawn the streets in the central area are swept, and the main thoroughfares buzz with the quiet hubbub of a thousand souls going about their business. Cars are few, but cheap trolleybuses link the more distant parts of the town with the commercial districts. The main market is full with products, stalls laden with fine displays of fruit and vegetables, and a dozen butchers trim steaks and cutlets in the meat hall. The banks, the bookshops and the library are all open long hours, including Sundays. And the post office too, of course, for why should an eager correspondent not need stamps on a Sunday? Little alleys lead into courtyards that are, at this time of the year, draped with blossom. There are fine parks, a zoo and an abundance of children's play areas.
The day's work done, there are outdoor cafés for relaxation. A group of men quaffing a beer or two here, and there a trio of young women, freed from their office desks, sharing an early evening bottle of merlot wine. Style is everywhere, mascara and high heels aplenty, and the big brand names are beginning to vie for attention in the main shopping boulevard.
A large beer and a litre of fuel both cost the same: about fifty euro cents. A good bottle of red wine, well aged for a decade, is two or three euros. Main dishes in the Café Cronon, a little place just off the main square that masquerades as a wooden rural farmstead, all cost about two euros each.
And where is this? Well, amazingly, this is Belarus. hidden europe is just back from the country that is, for many of us, the least known in all Europe - a place that seems firmly off limits for most tourists. And the town is Grodno, a historic religious and trading centre that sits comfortably on the bluffs above the Neman river. The onetime Jewish population, which one hundred years ago numbered sixty per cent of the population, was the victim of Nazi purges. An empty synagogue now stands forlorn on the bank of the river.
But it came as a surprise to find that there is more to provincial Belarus than the politics that earn the former Soviet republic such a pariah status in the western media. Grodno may not be a regular destination for a city break. It is no Prague or Krakow to be sure, but it offers much the same happy mix of ingredients that many travellers love, but without the crowds of fellow tourists. Plus a dash of the bizarre besides. It is an uncanny feeling to wander Grodno's main street, a giant statue of Lenin at one end, and Coca-Cola signs at the other. A willingness to get to grips with the Cyrillic alphabet is essential, and a smattering of Byelorussian or Russian certainly makes all the difference.
Of course, like every country, there are many sides to Belarus, some less palatable than Grodno in the mid-May sunshine. Take Highway 30 out of Gomel' for example. Gomel' is Belarus' second largest city, away on the other side of the country from Grodno. Highway 30 heads northeast out of Gomel', dips down to cross the Sozh river and into the town of Vetka. Established by ultra-conservative orthodox Old Believers, Vetka is just one of dozens of places in Belarus that found themselves downwind of Chernobyl, when the nuclear reactor accident occurred twenty years ago this spring.
Beyond Vetka, Highway 30 becomes very quiet and it is lined by the familiar yellow and black trefoil signs that warn of radiation hazards. This is terrain that was irredeemably polluted by Chernobyl. Abandoned farmland and empty houses attest to the catastrophe. And yet there is the odd cottage where new settlers play a game of chance with their health and try to eke out some kind of a living. In Besedz and Bartalameevka, migrants from southern Russia, some fleeing unstable areas like North Ossetia or Chechnya, pick berries and mushrooms in the forests, mindless of the dangers of settling in this forbidden territory.
Nicky Gardner and Susanne Kries
(editors, hidden europe magazine)