A tale of two Belarusian districts: As Slaǔharad looks to attract tourists, Ašmiany is working hard to retain them

14-05-2018

Slaǔharad District cannot claim to be the most famous or successful district in Belarus. Indeed, the photographer with whom we are travelling to the southern-most part of Mahilioǔ Region admits that she has never even heard of such a district. Slaǔharad District has the tenth-lowest population (less than 15,000) in the country.As for major businesses, there is just a single dairy plant, named Babushkina Krynka. On top of this, the district has long suffered from the after-effects of the Chornobyl nuclear power plant disaster.

And so the question arises: how do you bring people to a spot that’s so ‘out-of-the-way’? What can attract tourists to the ancient town of Slaǔharad? In fact, the answer is quite obvious to those who know the town: the Blue Well. Due to the well’s chalk content, the water here is a beautiful bluey-green colour. Thousands of pilgrims come here for the “Saviour of the Honey Feast Day”, as they think that the local water has healing properties. But one water source is not enough to attract people to Slaǔharad. Something bigger is needed so that people want to come back to the district and spend money.

In 2015, the “From Cradle to Development” project began – a project supported by the European Union. It aims to develop Slaǔharad district, as well as its cultural heritage, both tangible and intangible, and local initiatives.

The project’s coordinator, Vitaliy Vorobey, met us in Liasnaja village, the same place where the famous battle of the Great Northern War between the Russian Empire and Sweden took place. Sometimes, this is also known as “the mother of the Battle of Poltava”. This is another touristic feature of the district. There is a small Orthodox chapel that is more than a hundred years old, and a memorial sign for the battle. There is a museum nearby, where the spirit of the 18th century can be felt. This is where we began our tour.

“There were many people and ideas which required further development. For instance, we have cheesemakers and craftspeople. We have great natural and cultural potential. We have the Blue Well, Liasnaja village and a century-old larch. Tourism needs to be developed. We wrote a project proposal which was supported by the European Union,” Vorobey explains.

After some time, he suggests going to Michajlava farm, which was also supported within the framework of the project. The farm’s owner, Lyudmila Chebotar, moved from Moldova to Belarus back in the 1970s. The country became her second home; she speaks Russian, while inserting expressive Belarusian words into her speech. “How can it be otherwise?” she says. “I live here.”

Slaǔharad Craft House unites women - project video (UNDP)

It’s worth pointing out that Lyudmila has not forgotten about Moldova either. Every two years, she goes to Hrodna to attend the Festival of National Cultures, where she sings in Moldovan. She shows us her wall, decorated with multiple diplomas and certificates, with pride. Her education was in the management of folk festivals and holidays, but she found her calling in something else: cooking for other people.

The table is set as we arrive. There are many dishes on the table: shchi (cabbage soup), oven-fried mackerel, potatoes with mushrooms, a fresh vegetable salad and even freshly collected birch tree sap. It is impossible to stop eating.

Later on, Lyudmila continues to do more magic by the stove, as she makes pancakes for us. This is her signature dish. She holds master classes, in which she teaches tourists to cook traditional Belarusian food on her farm. She says that nobody has been disappointed yet. At one point, a group from Germany came and said that they would stay for three days and, if they liked it, they would stay for another five. Unsurprisingly, they ended up staying for eight days.

“The programme provides serious support. I do not take loans, I only spend what I make,” she admits. “Tourism is better developed here than in the neighbouring Krasnapollie District. If they have groups coming, they take them here to spend the night.”

There used to be only two farms in the district – now there are around 15. Lyudmila does not call other farms her competitors; on the contrary, she calls them partners who put all their efforts into making the area more interesting and attractive.

In Rudnia village, not far from Michajlava, there is another farm, where people go to see how cheese is produced according to traditional recipes.

Tamara Tverdovskaya greets us wearing a traditional outfit. She says her mother taught her to make cheese and she now keeps three cows. Her creamery has been equipped to hold master classes on cheese making – a facility that would not exist without the EU's support.

Sliced cheese awaits us on the table. This is exceptional cheese; you won’t find it in the supermarket. Homemade apple and grape juice is also offered to us. Today, Tamara has different kinds of cheeses on offer, with various different flavours: one with garlic and dill, one with dried fruit, one with raisins, others with cumin and with spicy peppers. There are around 15 cheese producers in the district, and each year, Slaǔharad holds a cheese festival called “Haspadarchy Syr”.

Belarus - eco-tourism in Slaŭharad - project video

The next stop is Ržaŭka village. Here, a museum – the “Bees' Kingdom” – opened its doors in 2017. Aleksey and Galina Yermakova are in charge of the museum. Galina is a kindergarten teacher and Aleksey used to be a driver for a collective farm. They are united by their love for bees and honey, and everything that is related to them. Thanks to the ‘From Cradle to Development’ project, they were able to realise a dream they had for a long time: to open a unique museum.

They greet us playing the accordion, and offer us a drink of Trutnevka, a special 40% alcoholic beverage made from honey. However the museum also has something for children, as well as adults. There are interactive games and films for kids, in which they can discover how bees live inside their hives. 

They are planning to open a house on top of the beehives, so that visitors can lie down on the floorboards and listen to the bees doing their work. Aleksey Yermakov is a fourth-generation beekeeper, so he knows everything about bees. It’s safe to say that Aleksey’s insight, combined with the sweet treats, resulted in a very successful trip for us.

It is obvious that Slaǔharad District is taking the right steps in order to become more recognisable and popular among tourists. It’s certainly not fair, or accurate, to say that there is nothing to see here.

If we look at the opposite side of Belarus, Ašmyany district definitely does not suffer from a lack of touristic attention. The region is home to the ruins of the glorious castle of Sapieha, the beautiful neighbouring village of Baruny is located in Halšany district, poet Francišak Bahuševič's motherland is in Zuprany and the town of Kreva is also located nearby. The region can’t complain about a lack of tourists, but it could nevertheless be made even more attractive.

Forty-year-old Minsk native Aleksandr Varykish looks like he stepped straight out of an 18th-century portrait. He fell in love with Halšany village and its surroundings around ten years ago. Back then, Aleksandr had the idea to buy land in the area, in order to build his own farm. Finally, in 2009, he had the chance to do so. He bought a plot of land with a house that used to belong to nobility in Radzievičy, which is just six kilometres from Halšany. The house used to belong to the Rakitski family, who left for Vilnius and could no longer take care of the estate. The 100-year-old house is currently open to tourists. Here, they can eat delicious food, take part in a costume show and see a unique collection of 3D models of castles, palaces and other attractions.

Aleksandr’s idea was inspired by a park in Poland. At first he thought that it would be too expensive, but it turned out to be manageable. He initially received support within the framework of the “Support to Local Development in the Republic of Belarus” project, which is financed by the European Union and implemented by the United Nations Development Programme. “They are our mother and father – there would be nothing here without them. It was an excellent start,” Aleksandr says.

He has also completed courses in the creation of 3D models, and is planning to create a real park of castles next to the home, with a special emphasis on gothic architecture.

Aleksandr is also planning to restore an old windmill near Radzievičy, home to the only remaining German prison that dates back to the First World War, and a huge estate in Benyuny. It seems that while most people have heard of Halšany district, not everyone knows that there is such great cultural heritage nearby.

Author: Zmicier Pankaviec

Article published in Belarusian and Russian by Nasha Niva