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Grand Duchy of Lithuania castles and palaces in Belarus

Castles and palaces of Lithuanian Grand Duchy in Belarus are located within 100 km from the modern Lithuanian-Belarusian boundary. They were constructed in the during the golden eras of the Duchy (14th-17th centuries). During 19th-20th centuries (after the Duchy fell) these magnificent buildings were neglected and even scavenged for bricks. After 1991 independence Belarus started rebuilding them (not fully authentically).

Ružanai (Ruzhany) palace undergoing reconstruction. The neglected wing is visible through a restored gate. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Grand Duchy of Lithuania is regarded by some Belarusian historians to be the source of Belarusian statehood. There are even interpretations claiming that the Duchy was more Belarusian than Lithuanian. This is however not true as the ruling nobility was mainly of Lithuanian origin, while demography (after the Union of Lublin) was 46% Lithuanian and 40% Belarusian. However, the medieval Lithuania was a very tolerant society for its era. It had been united by largely peaceful means and the 1529 Statute equalized rights of Orthodox Belarusians with those of Catholic Lithuanians.

The first emblem Belarus adopted after its independence was the Lithuanian Vytis (albeit in slightly different colors). Contemporary Belarusian flag (white-red-white) was also based on Vytis (unlike the modern Lithuanian tricolor which is criticized by some heraldry experts for breaking with heraldic tradition). These symbols are still used by opposition alone as after A. Lukashenko came to power in 1995 he switched back to modified Soviet symbols as he associates Belarus more with the Soviet history rather than the medieval one.

Lithuanian castles and manors near Minsk-Brest highway

You may see some of the most magnificent Lithuanian castles along the Minsk-Brest route.

Arguably the most famous among them is Myras (Mir) Castle. Part of UNESCO heritage it was completely rebuilt by ~1995. Initially constructed by Jurgis Iljiničius (George Ilyinich) in late 15th century (gothic style) it was subsequently expanded by the famous Radvila (Radziwill) family (16th century, Rennaisance style). Back then only the richest could have owned a brick castle. A museum is now located inside.

Myras (Mir) castle in the evening. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

One of the major Radvila family residences is located some 30 km south. This is the fortified Nesvyžius (Nesvizh) Palace commisioned in 1582. Together with Sapiegas, Radvilas were one of the most influential Lithuanian families.

Nesvyžius palace (crowned by a tall tower and joined by a lush park) was a gem of the Radvilas and in turn a gem of the Grand Duchy‘s famous manor culture. Rebuilt in 2010 it houses a modern museum with English inscriptions, computer displays and historical re-enactments (something rare in Belarus). The nearby Nesvyžius town has little authenticity in it as it faced destruction (like most Belarusian towns). However the Radvila-funded world‘s second-oldest Baroque church (after Gesu in Rome) survives while a towered city hall was recently rebuilt.

Opulent courtyard of Nesvizh (Nesvyžius) palace. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Naugardukas (Navahrudak) town has a Glastonbury-like atmosphere with Tor replaced by castle ruins on the Mindaugas Hill. Castle has been developed by Grand Duke Vytautas and his successors (14th-16th centuries). The lower town has Grand Duchy churches and even a Tatar mosque signifying the multicultural population of the former Duchy. Stryjkowski chronicle claims that Naugardukas was Grand Duchy’s capital prior to Vilnius but this is unsubstantiated by any other historical documents.

Naugardukas (Navahrudak) castle ruins (left) and one of its old small churches (right). ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Ružanai (Ruzhany) houses an extensive 18th century Sapiega family palace. The front part that includes gate is rebuilt but the entire horseshoe-shaped arcaded courtyard buildings are ruined. The inspiring former lavishness may still be felt however.

Some of the buildings that surround Ružanai (Ruzhany) palace courtyard. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Kosava (some 15 km north of Ružanai) is the birthplace of Tadeusz Kościuszko (Tadas Kosciuška), a Polish-Lithuanian military officer (1746-1817) who reached intercontinental fame as he fought for independence of his homeland, helped USA win freedom and even the tallest Australia’s mountain is named after him. A restored wooden hut marks his birthplace. From this hut one may see a Turkish-inspired palace of Wandalin Puslowski nearby (ruined, under restoration) but it dates to the post-Lithuanian era (1831).

Lithuanian castles and manors near the Lithuanian border

South of modern day Lithuania there are two large cities of Hrodna (Gardinas; pop. 300 000) and Lida (Lyda; pop. 100 000). Lida was part of Lithuanian-inhabitted core of the Duchy while Hrodna marked its limits. Both cities were defended by might castles.

Rectangular Lyda (Lida) Castle (built by Grand Duke Gediminas in the 14th century) defended by two towers was built in plains rather than on a hill. Now rebuilt its courtyard houses various events. In medieval eras it housed expelled khans of the Mongol Golden Horde.

Gediminas Castle in Lida. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Hrodna (Gardinas) has two castles, both located next to each other on twin hils at banks of river Nemunas. The Old Castle has been constructed by Grand Duke Vytautas the Great whereas the palace-like New Castle dates to 17th century. Their interiors were destroyed by Soviets (Old Castle now houses wood worksops). Between the castles a Lithuanian-funded wooden sculpture of Vytautas is located, one of merely few statues for Grand Duchy-era luminaries in Belarus.

The Old Castle of Hrodna and Vytautas the Great statue. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Merely some 50 km east of Vilnius, just beyond Medininkai border control point there are remains of two once-glorious castles: Alšėnai (Golshiany) and Krėva (Kreva). Alšėnai was yet another residence of the Sapiegas. The remaining ruined part is not completely destroyed as you may still see former internal walls and filled cellars (and imagine the magnificient past).

The remains of Alšėnai Castle. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Few Lithuanian castles could outdo Krėva (Kreva) in historical importance. It was the location of 1385 Union of Krewo that made Lithuanian Jogaila also a Polish king (known there as Jagiello) and tied the histories of both nations for upcoming five centuries. Additionally it is likely that Grand Duke Kęstutis had been previously murdered in Krėva by Jogaila’s conspirators. Currently however Krėva is ruined. The rectangular walls are destroyed in places and only the lower part of rectangular towers remain intact.

A map of Lithuanian castles and palaces in Belarus is available here

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