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Belarus: Polatsk

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Polatsk | Belarus | Europe

[Visited: May 2014]

People in Minsk could not believe I wanted to go to Polatsk, and claimed there was not much to see there. Nevertheless, I stick to my original plan, and the marshrutka from Minsk takes me to this town in the north of Belarus in some three hours. I get off at the railway station, check out the trains to Vitebsk (my next stop), and walk into the city. A good-old grand hotel turns out to be very affordable, and after I leave my stuff behind, I start exploring town. To my surprise, there are signs pointing to the sights of Polatsk everywhere, even in English, making this town the most accessible of all places I visited in Belarus. Within minutes, I arrive at the geographical centre of Europe - at least, according to the Belarusians (there are several more places that have the same claim to fame). A bronze monument with a ship on top, and the map of Europe inside, with a big dot where Polatsk is located, mark the spot. Walking down Francisk Skoryni Avenue brings me past other monuments: a statue of 17th century Simeon of Polatsk, an important contributor to Russian literature and native of Polatsk, and the more curious monument to the letter ў which is unique to the Belarusian alphabet and was invented in the 19th century to make the language sound more attractive.

Picture of Polatsk (Belarus): Interior view of the Cathedral of St Sophia

The Svoboda Square has the inevitable war monuments to both the war against Napoleon and Hitler, and just around the corner, I come across a wedding party about to set off on a tour through the city. From here, I walk towards the Cathedral of St Sophia, but it soon turns out something special is going on today. There are lots of people around, and I see more and more people in ancient clothes. When I want to walk up the hill, it turns out there is a medieval summer festival; the girls let me in without paying. I make a brief stop at Boris Stone, a boulder in which Boris carved a message with religious symbols in the 12th century. But there is a lot of hubbub going on; in a confined space, men are running around on horses clad in bright blue, red, and yellow, performing skills that were in use in the Middle Ages. After I visit the Cathedral which was modeled after the Haghia Sophia in Istanbul, it turns out that a complete medieval battle is being fought here, with men wearing the heavy armoury of that period - must be very uncomfortable in these summer temperatures. I am amazed at both how violently and seriously the "soldiers" are fighting each other (I can hear them hit each other with loud bangs; some get quite badly injured and one even gets carried off to hospital), and because I am free to walk around the battlefield to get close-ups of the soldiers. It apparently is some kind of competition: the audience gets wild, and there are two guys commenting on the games.

Picture of Polatsk (Belarus): Sunset over the river Dvina with the Cathedral of St Sophia and the Epiphany Monastery

From the battlefield at the foot of the Cathedral of St Sophia, I walk the quiet neighbourhood on the banks of the river Dvina, where I see many attractive wooden houses painted in bright yellow, purple, green, blue and red, cross the river, and walk a trail on the other side. From here, I have good views of the old city which is at the other side of the river, and I see the cathedral again, the Epiphany Monastery, and other buildings, and walk all the way to the bridge on the other side of town from where I watch the sun go down on Polatsk. The next morning, I am up early, walk to the cathedral and Boris Stone again, and from there, across the Red Bridge (so called because of a bloody battle against Napoleons forces), to the Convent of St Euphrosyne. Inside, there are several churches, of which the smaller Church of the Saviour is the most interesting, even though it is unfortunately closed. There are beautiful frescoes inside, which are best seen from a side door; it is here that the most famous daughter of Polatsk, Euphrosyne, is laid to rest after her remarkable 12th century life. Every year, pilgrims from around Belarus flock here to pay homage to her and kiss her cross - even though the original one mysteriously disappeared in 1941 and was never recovered. On my way back to the city, I pass the statue in memory of Euphrosyne, the first patron saint of Belarus and the only virgin saint. As I am on my way to the railway station, I realize I am very happy I made it to Polatsk.

Picture of Polatsk (Belarus): This boulder in which Boris carved religious symbols and words lies just outside the Cathedral of St Sophia
Picture of Polatsk (Belarus): The Church of the Saviour is located in the Convent of St. Euphrosyne
Picture of Polatsk (Belarus): Monument to the soldiers who died defending the city against the Germans in 1944
Picture of Polatsk (Belarus): Wooden houses in Polatsk are often painted in bright colours
Picture of Polatsk (Belarus): St Euphrosyne is a daughter of Polatsk, a 12th century nun who became patron saint
Picture of Polatsk (Belarus): Frescoes on a pillar of the Church of the Saviour, where St. Euphrosyne has found eternal rest
Picture of Polatsk (Belarus): A special monument to the letter ў of the Belarusian alphabet
Picture of Polatsk (Belarus): Marker of the geographical centre of Europe
Picture of Polatsk (Belarus): House of Peter the Great
Picture of Polatsk (Belarus): Reflection of the Cathedral of St. Sophia in the Dvina river
Picture of Polatsk (Belarus): Medieval festival in Polatsk: men dressed up perform on horseback
Picture of Polatsk (Belarus): Medieval festival in Polatsk with two women dressed up in medieval clothes
Picture of Polatsk (Belarus): Battling for victory on a medieval festival

Around the World in 80 Clicks

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