hidden europe 14

Frozen in time: a border town in Belarus

by Nicky Gardner


Yes, even the hidden europe team has holidays. We went to Belarus, just for fun! The provincial city of Grodna turned out to be a most engaging spot. We report from a place that deserves to be better known.

It is just hot enough for the lime trees to drip their sticky sap over the café tables below. Just hot enough too for the dust from the town square to irritate the eyes, and just hot enough for the flowers of the giant clematis that entangles the balconies of a shabby grey apartment block to wilt a little in the noonday sun.

A stray dog watches the kids dig holes like foxes on the bluff of the River Garadnichanka, just down from the synagogue. The river is no more than a stream really. It cuts its way through the town. Carefully channelled through the parks, where students sit on its banks and discuss love and life in hushed tones, the little river is witness to all that is Grodna. It takes the visitor a while to understand this. For on most maps, Grodna's river is the Neman, a huge heavy snake of a river which carries the burden of Europe's history. The Neman is an extraordinary meandering waterway that fed the life of a thousand Jewish shetls on its long sluggish route from the low hills south of Minsk to the Baltic.

The Neman may be the river that outsiders associate with Grodna - just as under its German name, the Memel, the river symbolised the eastern margins of a Reich that was meant to last for a thousand years. ‘Von der Maas bis an die Memel' - from the Meuse to the Memel - ran the now discredited first verse of the German national anthem. But it is the Neman's tiny tributary, the Garadnichanka, that really gives life to the town. Sometimes no more than a metre or two across, the Garadnichanka tumbles down through the town, around the Orthodox cathedral, past the statue of Lenin striding out in his new frockcoat, and skirting the bluff on which stands Grodna's old synagogue. And then, amid a maze of allotments and wooden cottages under the shadow of the ancient church of St Boris and St Gleb, the Garadnichanka gently gives its waters to the Neman. The watery gift is a little dirty perhaps, but all the better for having had such an intimate engagement with Grodna. The Garadnichanka captures the flavours of Grodna, little whiffs of the town's history, probably a good admixture of today's effluent too, and takes them down to the Neman.

If Grodna were in western Europe, or even just a little further west, some enterprising soul would long since have organised direct flights from London, Paris and a dozen other cities, bringing in the planeloads of weekend visitors for a regime of culture and cheap beer. But politics interfere, and Grodna finds itself in Belarus. Poland is just twenty kilometres away to the west, and the border between Belarus and Lithuania is only slightly further distant.

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Related note

Rail update: Russia, Ukraine and Belarus

New rail timetables for the former Soviet Union come into effect later this month. There remains some uncertainty about some services, but for travellers heading east, here are a few thoughts on what to expect: the return of the Berlin to Kaliningrad night train, a new link from Riga to Minsk, a direct daily train from Berlin to Ukraine and more.