18 January 2011

Polotsk, The Most Belarusian City

Belarus has a reputation for friendly people – everyone who has been to, written about or come from this country has said that it’s difficult to find a more hospitable, welcoming population. So far, we’ve found that the reputation is well deserved. The first town we found ourselves in was Polotsk, the oldest “city” in Belarus and the country’s spiritual capital, apparently. We’ve found that most people are very curious about us – they don’t get many tourists here. In fact, the woman at the tourist office said that she had never seen an American in Polotsk.
Polotsk isn’t breathtakingly beautiful, but it has a good deal of charm. It sits on a nice stretch of the Dvina river, which is the defining feature of this northern region. There is a real mix between old and new here in town. Belarus was absolutely destroyed during the second world war, and Polotsk, like many other towns, was mostly razed. There are still some old, wooden houses, but the majority of people live in newer, concrete constructions. The old buildings, like many we saw on our drive from the border, are painted in a gaudy, unabashedly-colorful way that makes them look very cheerful – even if the windows are a little crooked and the roofs undulate to match the sinking foundations.
There are a lot of people out and about, but we’ve heard that it’s rude to photograph anyone without their permission. Maybe we’ll get bolder about it. For now, we have only animal and building pictures. Here’s a cat in front of a brightly – colored wall.
We are much indebted to the tourist office staff, who were absolutely wonderful. They were excited to show off their town and the literature that they had put together about it. They have an extensive collection of brochures and maps, all available in English! One thing we learned: Polotsk is the geographic center of Europe. We’re not entirely sure why this is, but there is a signpost (pictured above) that seems to demonstrate the fact. If we don’t seem overly enthusiastic about the claim, we aren’t the only skeptical ones. The woman at the tourist office whispered to us that “every country has this thing.” It is fun that we stumbled upon it, though, and that we can claim to have slept right at the very heart of Europe (our hotel is the building in the background of the picture).
The highlight of the town, according to the tourist office, is Saint Sophia Cathedral, which sits on a knoll overlooking the town and the Dvina. It has been reconstructed many times, due to the many wars that have swept through here, but its foundation and part of the building are the oldest brick structures in Belarus – they date to the middle of the 11th century.
Inside there is quite a bit of gold leaf and bright paint. They keep it up quite well, and one can go down and walk around part of the basement, where bricks and tiles are displayed alongside copies of coins and jewelry that have been found during renovations. Two old women patrolled the doorway area, asking us to buy tickets. We shelled out 5,000 rubles for our entry fee and a photography license. That may seem exorbitant, but, at 3,000 rubles to the dollar, it wasn’t too bad.
We saw this interesting little slide thing in a schoolyard. Initially we thought that it was a pencil (from the back), then maybe a rocketship or missile. Now we think it’s a Cossack’s head, or something along those lines, which is a little frightening.
These are some of the booklets we were given at the tourism office – more information than we’ve been able to find about a lot of other places. It’s especially exciting to us because our guidebook is especially bad. We were only able to find one guide to Belarus, and it has very scant information and is quite out of date. We feel much more confident now, and are getting excited about exploring more of the country. If Belarus can be a difficult place to visit, it’s certainly not because of the people here – they are very proud of their country and are excited that other people are interested in it. Last night we ran into some of the people from the tourist office at a dinner that they were throwing. We chatted a little and one man asked us some questions, trying to figure out if we were travel writers. He was a little disappointed that we weren’t. I will relay something, though – he asked us to tell everyone at home about Belarus and tell them to come to Polotsk, which I am doing. Even if we’re not really travel writers, we can still make some kind of endorsement of this brave little place.

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