The trip to Brest was supposed to be easy: board the night train in Vitebsk just before midnight, and get off at Brest the next morning. Not so: I had made the mistake of printing my e-ticket for the train and losing the ticket, which mysteriously annulled my e-ticket. Two officials take me to their office as I see the red lights of the train, my train, disappear into the night; thanks to a police guy, I can communicate through a friend of his who speaks French. It transpires that there is an alternative, the women give me a new ticket, the policeman takes me to the train, instructs the provodnita (the train lady), who takes care of me as if I were a VIP, and who wakes me up in Orsha. Three (!) policemen are waiting for me, take me to the waiting hall, where I chat with a Turkmen student, until one of the policemen takes me to my Brest-bound train, hands me over to the provodnitsa, who takes me to my compartment. When she opens the door, at 3.15am, she asks me something in Russian, and as I try to guess what she is trying to ask, a female voice from the dark of the compartment asks in perfect English if I speak that language. She turns on the light, and we have a most enjoyable conversation until we reach Minsk in the early morning, where her father picks her up from the station after having left the country more than 3 years before. After a punctual arrival of an adventurous ride, I walk out of impressive Brest station, dump my stuff at a hostel, and walk to what makes Brest famous: its fortress.
Now, I have seen a lot of fortresses, but Brest fortress is a league all of its own. The city is located on a strategic location at the confluence of the Bug and Mukhyavets rivers, and in the 1830s, it was moved 2 kilometres to the east, so that a big island in the middle of the rivers could be turned into a massive, star-shaped stronghold. While it was initially built as well-defended barracks, it rose to fame during the beginning of operation Barbarossa, the German attack on the Soviet Union in 1941. The battle for the fortress was followed by a siege, and legend has it that the soldiers had nothing more to eat and drink in the last month, but still held out against the Germans. The defence has become one of the heroic feats of the Red Army, which explains why the fortress was converted into a major memorial place after the Great Patriotic War. The barracks and gates still lie in ruins; tombs and monuments have been added. The walk from downtown Brest is along a wide boulevard with its own share of monuments, and looking at the sky, I can only hope that I will be lucky once again, and explore the fortress without rain.
When I cross one more street, a huge star in the distance guides me to the monumental entrance. The defensive wall here has a gap, which is bridges by an enormous metal "roof" with a star-shaped opening. When I walk through the tunnel, the sound of war comes from the ceiling, getting the visitor in the mood for her or his visit. Before my eyes, an open space, demarcated by the erstwhile mounds. Soviet tanks on the left, until you reach the large, square-like centre of the fortress. Here is the Thirst sculpture, symbolizing the hardship endured by the soldiers who defended the fortress until the last moment. The bayonet-obelisk in the middle, pointing to the sky. The ruins of the White Palace. Rows of black tombs with the names of commanders who died here, and adorned by coronets of flowers - hundreds were buried here. Music plays with dramatic singing of Dreams by Schumann, giving the experience even more dramatic impact. Looming above it, the main monument: a colossal sculpture called Courage, a determined face looking down at whoever passes by. From here, I walk through the Kholmsky Gate, badly damaged, explore the area outside the barracks but still within the vast fortress area, and walk to Terespol Gate, along the Mukhyavets river. Behind the gate, a heroic statue depicting soldiers and a woman offering water from a helmet to a wounded soldier. The only building that survived the transportation of Brest to the east, is the Church of St. Nikolai, which was rebuilt after it was inevitably diminished to rubble during the World War II. It now stands right next to the memorial buildings and monuments, as an eternal anchor of peace amidst the barbarity of war. I walk and walk, go back to places I have seen before, sit down to let it all sink in, notice that the background music stops, as the sun slowly disappears from a cloudy sky which, in turn, looks dramatic, too.
Around the World in 80 Clicks
Personal travel impressions both in words and images from Brest Fortress (Belarus). Clicking on the pictures enlarges them and enables you to send the picture as a free e-card or download it for personal use, for instance, on your weblog. Or click on the map above to visit more places close to Brest Fortress. Read more about this site.