Брэст (Brest). This is the Belarusian spelling, but much more common is
the almost similar Russian spelling Брест (same pronunciation).
Centuries ago, the place was known as Bereste. In some Slavic languages,
'Berest' means 'elm tree', but I am not sure if there is a connection with the place name.
An even older name is Берасьце (Bjeras'ze),
but this name is out of use. For a long period of time, Brest was ruled by neighbouring Poland.
The Polish name for Brest is Brześć.
Another common name for the town was Brest-Litovsk
(Lithuanian Brest, see history). This was probably to avoid confusion, since there is another bigger town
called Brest in Brittany (North-west France).
Brest is the westernmost town of the →Belarus (White Russia) and
stretches along the border to Poland. The town marks a very important frontier train station on the Berlin-Moscow route.
To the capital →Minsk in the north-east it's around 350 km, to →Warsaw
in the west only 220 km. Around Brest, the river Bug (to be exactly the Western Bug) forms the boundary
between the Belarus and →Poland, i.e. it's the eastern border of the European Union.
The rather short river Muchavets flows from the east along the southern edge of the town and finally empties
into the Bug. Nothing spectacular, if this wouldn't be a part of the Bug-Dnieper Canal (Dnieprovsko-Bugskii Kanal),
which was canalised to create the missing navigable section between the Black Sea and the Baltic Sea.
Both rivers are joined by small swamps. There are also some islets in the estuary, which made it a perfect place for
erecting a mighty fortress and a town respectively.
Population: In 2004, Brest had around 290,000 inhabitants, making it the sixth-largest town
in Belarus and the largest town of Woblast' Brest - one of the six Belarusian districts.
Compared to other Belarusian towns, Brest looks a little bit different, although due to the war
older buildings, except for the fortress, are missing there, too. The largest part of the town
stretches between the Moscow-Berlin rail road in the north and the small river
Muchavets in the south. Streets in the centre of town are mostly laid out in a
strict chequered pattern. The wide rail road and train station area can only be crossed by either using the
one and only large bridge or the small footbridge.
Lenin monument on Lenin square
The dead straight street starting from the bridge over the rail road and leading southwards is the main road,
called wulitsa Lenina (Lenin rd.). Halfway, the street crosses the
ploshcha Lenina (Lenin square) featuring a Lenin monument, the House of the Soviet and
a church (see picture on the right). Most street names have not changed after 1991 - there is still the
Street of the Komsomol (=Communist Union of Youth), the Soviet street, the Marx-, Engels-, Ordshonikidse-, Kirov- etc. road.
The vul. Savetskaya (Soviet rd.) three blocks east of Lenin rd. is the main shopping street of Brest.
The centre itself is rather compact and everything is within walking distance. Only the fortress (see below) is more than
2 km away in the western part of the town. The fortress and the centre are connected by vul. Masherava (former Moskovskaya).
Compared to other Belarusian towns, Brest is a rather old town. It was first mentioned as a place called
Bereste in the year 1019. However, at that time it was only a small settlement consisting
of a couple of blockhouses. This was not about to change during the next centuries - Brest was not one of the most
important towns in Eastern Europe. Nevertheless the place was successively raided by Mongols, Slavs, Poles, Lithuanians and so on.
Since 1569, Brest remained under Lithuanian rule. In 1596, the Union of Brest was sealed -
a large group of orthodox Christians acknowledged the pope and therefore bridged the gap between the orthodox East and catholic Poland.
This is how the Uniate Church was born. During the 17th century, first the Russians and than the Swedes invaded the town, but
it still remained under Lithuanian control until 1795 (see also →3rd partition of Poland).
After that, the town belonged to the Russian empire and was used as a fortress. Until 1918, Brest was ruled by Russia.
In that year, Lenin and his comrades played for time in order to save the revolution. Therefore they signed the
Treaty of Brest-Litovsk. It was a contract between the central powers (Germany, Austria-Hungary) and
now bolshevist Russia. As a result of the treaty, Russia lost large parts of its former territory, e.g. the
→Ukraine, wide parts of the Baltic states and other territories.
Germany couldn't enjoy the results of the treaty for a very long time - as is known, it lost the war during the same year.
Now, the western part of the Belarus including Brest became a part of
→Poland until the year 1939, when the German army showed up again at the
western banks of the river Bug. Synchronously, the Red Army moved westwards and seized the town again.
Two years later, the Wehrmacht suddenly crossed the river and took the town within a few hours. The whole town? No,
a small fortress offered fierce resistance. See below for more information. In 1944, the town was liberated by the Russian
army and soon rebuilt. Because of the heroic struggle against the intruders, Brest was declared Hero City.
All in all, there were 13 Hero Cities in the Soviet Union (for the protocol: the others were →Kiev,
→Odessa, Smolensk, Volgograd (aka Stalingrad), Novorossiysk, Kerch, Sevastopol, Moscow,
→Minsk, Tula, Murmansk und St. Petersburg). Today, Brest is a vibrant transit point for
travelers and merchants, which didn't change in 2004 when Poland gained full EU-membership.
From Brussels to Irkutsk, from St. Petersburg to
Vienna - only very few European cities have such excellent train connections. This is because
of the fact that every train running between Berlin and Moscow stops in Brest. All trains stop in Brest for two to three
hours to change the wheels so that they fit the wider Ex-Soviet Union gauge
(Stalin was afraid that his country might be invaded by train!). Here's a hint from an experienced traveler: It doesn't
really worth to step off the train - the train station is often very crowded, chaotic and not easy to navigate.
Besides, the time is too short to see something from the city.
For more details on internationa train connections to and from Brest and Minsk see
→Belarus: Travel information. Note that the railway service to
Hrodna north of Brest has been suspended, leaving the bus as the only option. It's possible to
get to →Minsk on one of the international trains bound for Moscow. This takes around 4 hrs,
but there's a hefty surcharge. It's much cheaper to take the elektrichka (commuter train),
but it's a boring 7 hrs ride going dead straight to the north-east. The fare is 4 Euro only. Taking the night train to
Berlin will set you back 70 Euro. The train to →Warsaw (trains bound for Berlin stop there, too)
needs 4 hours, the fare is 13 Euro. But there is a hefty 11 Euro extra fee to be paid on the train.
The huge train station area is divided into a northern and a southern part, with a longe station hall in the middle.
The northern part with the European standard gauge is for trains running westwards. Before entering the platform,
everyone needs to pass customs and emigration. This can take up to 1 hour, so it's better to show up early. We wanted to
buy tickets for an international train one day before the departure, but we were told that international tickets can
only be purchased the same day or the day before after 9 pm. I don't know whether this rule applies to all trains.
The train station also houses several kiosks and exchange booths, a luggage claim and so on. Foreign travelers are often
approached by elder women asking to smuggle cigarettes for them to Poland (note that the limit is 10 packages!).
Who is coming to Brest? (well, who is coming to the Belarus, anyway?) The town itself doesn't have much to
offer, although it's much more pleasant than let's say →Minsk.
There are some orthodox churches in the centre of town as well as buildings from the early 20th century
resembling typical Polish towns. All in all I counted three churches. And the centre is quite spacious and green
and therefore good for a walk. However, Brest's main claim to fame is definitely the Брестская
Крепость (Brestskaya Krepost', at least that's the Russian name) -
the Fortress of Brest.
Entrance to the large fortress of Brest
The fortress occupies a large area around the confluence of the rivers Bug and Muchavets. The diameter of the outer fortification
ring is quite large (maybe 1 km!?), but large parts of the outer walls were destroyed beyond recognition. The core of the
fortress occupies a small island in the river, which is connected to the rest of the structure by three small bridges.
The fortress was built between 1838 to 1842. In order to do this, the whole town needed to be moved 2 km eastwards.
Thus, the town of Brest as it can be seen today was entirely built after the year 1838. It was during the 1st World War that
the fortress played an important role for the first time. For more about this see below.
What is so special about this fortress? There are hundreds of similar fortresses to be found all over Europe, and many of them
are in better condition than the one in Brest. On June 22 1941, Hitler surprised the Soviet Union with a breach of
the Treaty of Nonaggression. In the early morning hours of the same day, Brest as a frontier town was struck by a massive
artillery attack, leaving 90% of the town destroyed. Of course the fortress itself was known to the attackers, and so
the entire fortress encountered heavy shelling, too. But the garrison inside the fortress didn't believe in giving up
easily and offered fierce resistance. The German attackers decided to besiege the fortress instead of taking it instantly with
heavy casualties. A month and a half later - →Minsk was already overrun weeks before and the
Wehrmacht was about to take Smolensk in present-day Russia - the invaders finally managed to take the fortress.
The remaining soldiers were captured, but as a matter of fact only a handful of them survived the long siege. Needless to say
that large parts of the fortress were in ruins then.
The giant sculpture inside the fortress
That's the way a heroic saga comes into being. Soon after the liberation by the Red Army in 1994, Brest was declared
"Hero City" and even received the unique title "Hero fortress". Instead of rebuilding the fortress, politicians decided to
create a giant monument. There was no one in the whole Soviet Union who hadn't heard of the heroic struggle of the garrison
inside the fortress of Brest. Already the entrance to the memorial is gigantic: A large concrete block was put on the old
outer wall, featuring a huge star-shaped tunnel in the middle. After passing the tunnel, visitors pass the second (or third?)
fortification ring with some old tanks and bullet-riddled walls. A small bridge leads to the island and therefore to the
core of the fortress. A large, shining obelisk, a truly gigantic concrete sculpture shaped as a combatants head and - how strange -
an old church dominate the view.
Right in front of the giant sculpture an eternal flame blazes, guarded by four sentries - two women and two men (yes, emancipation!).
However, the changing of the guards-ceremony appears to be simply grotesque. I can't find a better attribute to characterise
the scenery. The foundation walls of the completely destroyed barracks can be seen next to the eternal flame.
The white palace
The inner island is completely encircled by two-storey brick buildings, from which is more or less left. There is just one building
that breaks the ranks - it's the white building left of the sculpture. Inside that building, the fugacious
Treaty of Brest-Litovsk was signed in 1918. Thanks to the treaty, imperial Germany could wrest large areas
from the revolutionising vast empire in the east - although Germany could not enjoy the newly gained territories for
a very long time (see the history chapter above and →History of the Belarus for more
details). Unfortunately it is not allowed to enter the White Palace.
One of the fortress gates
The white palace marks one of the entrances to the fortress. A small bridge behind the palace leads to another
small island. It's worth to turn around after crossing the bridge: The view of the bullet-riddled, red gate is
probably the most famous view of the fortress, published on millions of post cards during Soviet times. Compared to
other parts of the fortress, the gate and the palace are in a rather good condition, but one can still imagine
how fierce combat was in 1941. The parts further to the north look much worse - in some places, only the outer walls
are left. Actually it takes some time to find a stone which was not hit by gun fire.
The archeological museum next to the fortress
Only a few dozen metres behind the bridge you will find a large and rather modern hall. Note that all other paths
starting from the bridge are off-limits, since this is borderland (nothing less than the NATO border!). The hall houses
the Archeological Museum of Brest and was built around a large excavation site. Of course, all
explanations are in Russian only, but the excavation site as well as the exhibition are well worth a look and offer
the possibility to get away from cruel modern history for a while. Entrance fee for foreigners is 2,100 BYR (0.80 Euro).
The church inside the fortress
All that was left from Old Brest, as it existed before the fortress was built, stands right in the middle of it - just like
they've forgotten to move it as well. The church has a golden dome and is known as
St Nikolai Church. Obviously, the church was reconstructed during the last years, but inside it looks like
nothing was done so far. A pope sells sundry devotional objects such as small plastic ikons etc. inside the church.
However, the interior of the is quite a surprise: it strongly resembles a mosque or, to be more exactly, Byzantine architecture.
This might be because of the low candelabrum and the shape of the vault - anyway, the church is something one wouldn't expect in
this "Hero Fortress".
Apart from the above-mentioned sites, the fortress also houses an interesting museum, to be found
near the small bridge to the main island on the right (when coming from main entrance). Numerous neatly arranged exhibits
depict the construction and history of the fortress as well as the life of the defenders during WW2. The museum is quite large
and informative, although it's of course not completely without propaganda. Unfortunately, almost everything is explained in
Russian only. Entrance fee is 1,500 BYR (foreigners pay 3,000 BYR, € 1). The museum is definitely worth the time and
It takes at least three to four hours to see the fortress and the two museums. I couldn't decide what is more interesting:
the remainings of the impressive fortress or what the Soviets have done with it after the war. Visitors might also
notice school classes marching lock-step through the area! So far, things haven't changed much...
Approximately 60 to 70 km north of Brest starts the National Park
пуща (Beloveshskaya Pushtsha) halfway between Brest and Hrodna.
The park straddles the border between the Belarus and Poland - on the other side, the large town
Białystok is not far. In Poland and elsewhere, the same park is also known as
Białowieża National Park. The area is known as the last natural habitat of bisons in Europe.
Additionally, it features one of the last remaining virgin forests in Europe. But it takes some time
to get there - especially without your own vehicle. The Belarusian part is larger than then the Polish part,
but the latter is easier to access.
Accommodation facilities are limited. Probably the cheapest place to stay is the
train carriage next to the footbridge - it is used as a rather decent
hotel. Note that guests have to use the toilets inside the train station.
vul. Ordzhonikidse parallels the rail tracks south of the station. There, two hotels
and a few restaurants line up. One is the Hotel Maladsyoshnaya, charging foreigners appr. 70 USD for
a double room. The large Hotel Bug on the corner of Maladsyoshnaya and Lenin rd., three minutes away
from the station on foot, charges 17 Euro per person in a double room. There are more hotels in town, but they all seemed to
be more expensive.
Hotel Bug is a little bit old-fashioned and has at least one watchdog on each floor. Staff are more or less friendly.
Only the 1st and 2nd floor have shower rooms. The restaurant on the ground floor is, well, average (although waiters there
can be fiendish during the day). Address of the hotel: vul. Lenina 2, Tel.: 016-236 417.
Only 200 metres away from the hotel on Ordzhonikidse rd., opposite the train station, there's the
Fish restaurant Bar Santa. It's been the only restaurant in the Belarus we've seen with an English menu
(I guess there are more, but you'll have to search them). The dishes there, including several quite exotic fish and sea fruit
platters, are of comparatively good quality. Main dishes are around € 3, and there is even Russian beer on tap. The
service is perfect.
I had heard a lot from various sources about an incredibly good Indian Restaurant in Brest.
And I always wanted to go curry in the Belarus. But - the restaurant was gone! A quite expensive Chinese Restaurant moved in
instead. What a pity.
Online-Portal of Brest in English and Belarusian, containing news, a city map, pictures and more.
Commercial portal of the local telephone company including loads of information and pictures. In Russian only.
Do you have or do you know a good website on Brest? Don't hesitate, let me know!
After checking it, I would love to add it to the link list.
Please note that commercial websites will be declined. For e-mail link see menu on the left.