I have never visited a place so inaccurately described in guidebooks as Brest.
Everything I read indicated that Brest would be the most Western feeling of the cities I would visit in Belarus:
It is is very much the case…that Western influences predominate here. (Bradt)
There is a calm and relaxed side that speaks of charm, grace and elegance. (Bradt)
There are many delightful avenues that are just right for promenading in this splendid city. (Bradt)
This prosperous and cosmopolitan border town looks far more to the neighboring EU than it does to Minsk. (Lonely Planet)
Brest has plenty of charm and has performed a massive DIY job over the past few years. (Lonely Planet)
After reading all of this praise, I had high expectations – as it turned out, too high.
Rather than feeling the most Western of the three cities I visited in Belarus, Brest felt the most Russian to me.
I left the bus station in the center of the city and walked to my hotel along crumbling sidewalks and past shabby, concrete, Soviet era apartment buildings. I went from a luxurious hotel room in Grodno with free wi-fi, free laundry service and made-to-order breakfast to a sparse room in Brest with rough, Russian-style toilet paper, no shower curtain, rusty pipes and one of the saddest excuses for a breakfast buffet I have ever seen. And while receptionists in both Minsk and Grodno greeted me with cheerful smiles and passable English, the women behind the desk in Brest simply seemed annoyed by everyone and everything.
In Brest, I found the kind of tacky commercialism that was blissfully lacking in Minsk and Grodno – ugly signage, chain stores and kiosks on every corner. Sovetskaya street, the main pedestrian zone, and Lenin Square did have their charms, but they were the only parts of the city that did.
One guidebook heartily recommended a stroll by the river, but I turned back after about 15 minutes because it was so lacking in visual appeal. Wandering down a street not far from the river, I encountered the kind of ramshackle wooden homes with yards piled high with junk that I sometimes saw in rural areas of Russia, but never in the center of a city. Aside from one fascinating mural in front of a nondescript apartment building, it all felt dismal.
I spent three days in Brest, wondering where I could find all of the delightful avenues and charm described in my guidebooks.
Aside from Sovetskaya street and Lenin Square, I came up empty.
The only redeeming thing about the city (and the main tourist attraction in town) was Brest Fortress.
The entrance itself is impressive, in the shape of a large star with Soviet war anthems, radio broadcasts from World War II and the sound of gunfire and bombs dropping playing ominously as you walk through to the grounds. The fortress itself is known best for its role in Operation Barbarossa, during which Soviet troops valiantly defended it against the Germans while they destroyed almost all of the city of Brest. Severely damaged, authorities decided after the war not to rebuild it but to instead create a large memorial to the fight that took place. For the history buffs out there, it is also where Lenin negotiated the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk with the Germans at the end of the first World War.
The centerpiece of Brest Fortress today is the 34 meter tall mass of concrete shown below, which stands next to an obelisk about 100 meters high.
I happened to arrive for the changing of the guard ceremony involving two young women and two young men who stand guard to an eternal flame burning near the base of the obelisk. With white bows billowing at the bottom of the girls’ braids and the boys clearly trying hard not to crack a smile in their unfortunately over-sized uniforms, it wasn’t exactly the changing of the guard at Buckingham Palace, but I found it amusing nonetheless.
Behind the obelisk stands the Byzantine Church of St. Nikolai, with the glimmering gold domes so popular throughout Russia. Elsewhere on the grounds I found a few other memorials and a collection of tanks, but not much else. After a walk around the outer walls of the fortress, I headed back through the giant concrete star as the sounds of exploding bombs bid me farewell.
While one of my guidebooks recommended I needed at least four hours to see everything there was to see at the fortress, my seemingly very thorough visit lasted about an hour and a half, which left me wondering if I missed something or if, again, the author was just exaggerating.
For anyone thinking of visiting Belarus, I wouldn’t write off a stop in Brest altogether. Lying on the border with Poland, it is a logical destination heading into or out of the country and Brest Fortress is worth a couple hours.
But I wouldn’t give the city more than a day, maybe two.
Three days was certainly too much.
15 thoughts on “The One Redeeming Thing About Brest”
Thanks for your entertaining post Katie, and while I feel that your observations were certainly more accurate than the guidebooks, I also think that you overlooked some important details.
We are currently making plans four our fourth trip to Brest and I couldn’t even imagine spending only 90 minutes at the Brest Fortress. It sounds like you missed the museum inside the fortress which takes a couple hours on its own. Caution to those who plan to visit the museum, you will need to provide your own interpretor as they provide only Russian speaking guides. There is also an archeological dig just outside the walls of the Fortress despicting prehistoric life in Belarus. Also be sure to visit the convent that used to serve as the hospital for the Brest Fortress. Take your time going through the Fortress, weighing the significance of the impossible odds stacked against the Soviet army and you can’t helped but be moved with emotion. I’ve spent entire days exploring the Breat Fortress and feel that there is always more to see. The last time I went I stumbled on a cache of 100’s of Jewish tombstones that I had never seen before and was photographed wearing an authentic Red Army uniform.
The train museum in Brest is well worth the $0.20 admission where you’ll see excellent examples of Soviet train history and they even allow you access into the trains.
There are many other sites well worth seeing just outside the city limits of Brest including the 800 year old Tower of Kamyenyets and the birthplace of Thaddeus Kosciuszko, hero of Belarus and America. Also be sure to visit Biełaviežskaja Pušča National Park which is of great cultural significance to Belarusians.
Most of all we go for the people of Belarus, some of the kindest and most generous people we’ve met in our travels.
I agree with you on your observations on the city of Brest in general, it’s not a tourist city … this is the real Belarus.
I returned home yesterday from 10 days in Brest. It’s an odd place. In one sense it’s as you described, a bit run down, Soviet, not very charming and yet I kind of miss the town and I’m considering returning for 6 months of Russian studies. It was my second visit there in two months and I feel like I have a toxic relationship with it in the sense that the city was at times harsh to me but I’m drawn to it. Maybe I have a fairer perspective on the place having spent time in Gomel which really is Soviet and the people different. I don’t know. Maybe I should check out Grodno next.
Thank you for posting this. I live in Belarus. Yes, it’s definitely a dismal place, hell on Earth so to speak. Not many Americans stop by, except for the World Bank people who come here to give loans to the government because the government is broke.
I agree with 100%. The memorial is the only thing worth seeing in Brest.
Still, it’s such an impressive memorial that it’s worth going to Brest. 🙂
You mention the consumerism and chain stores being there and not in Minsk. Maybe that is the “western influence”. Not necessarily a good thing in that respect.
That could be – it’s hard to explain but the way it was all presented felt more Russian – a little tackier perhaps.
Well that stinks that Brest was such a let-down. It certainly looks quite Soviet to me.
But, that being said, those concrete sculptures at the fortress look awesome!
Whoa, that concrete sculpture looks huge!! But yeah, doesn’t seem like you need three days to see it, lol. Sometimes guide books don’t make any sense…
I really enjoyed this post. I have been to a few places and afterwards wondered if the person that wrote the guide book ever visited.
Ugh, I hate thinking a place is going to be interesting and it turns out to be a huge let-down. I know we all can’t like the same things/places, but this sounds like a fairly dull place.
Yeah I had actually been looking forward to Brest the most out of the places I was going in Belarus, so it was like double the letdown – and I got there after liking Minsk and Grodno way more than expected, so it was kind of a down way to end my time in the country.
Thanks for the honest (and funny) review. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a guidebooks that rated something as “average” or “if you’re going that way anyway” so it makes sense that there is some exaggeration here and there.
Haha, very good point, although I have seen some say a place isn’t worth too much of your time. I actually went back to my guidebooks actually I first arrived to re-read the description to make sure i hadn’t imagined all the praise. 🙂
When the guidebooks all seem to tout the benefits of a place, you wonder if there is something going on behind the scenes enforcing that. Sorry to hear your visit wasn’t what you expected, but hopefully you’ve had some pleasant surprises to balance it out!
I loved the other 2 towns I visited in Belarus – Minsk and Grodno – so that definitely balanced it out. It was just kind of a bummer way to end my time there since Brest was my last stop.
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