Mir, Belarus

Photo: Olga Maximova 1975 (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
Photo: Olga Maximova 1975 (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons
Europe is full of castles. They’re called châteaus in France, alcázars in Spain, and palaces in England. They have moats, dungeons, towers, and chapels. Kings and queens, princes and princesses lived there. Wars were fought over them. Celebrations lasted for days, sometimes even weeks. They bring history to life better than any textbook ever could. While depending on their location and style, they can be considered ominous, romantic, or even mysterious. But now, as some of the most popular attractions, they’re always crowded. At least in Western Europe. Travel to Eastern Europe, and you can have a castle practically to yourself.

Mir Castle is a UNESCO World Heritage Site in central Belarus. It’s an easy day trip from the capital, Minsk, 85 kilometers north. In the 1520s, Duke Illinich built the Gothic castle’s five towers around the courtyard of a fortress. After the castle changed hands, a Radziwiłł prince added a residence and Renaissance details, including balconies and portals. An Italian garden was planted outside of the northern wall. An artificial lake was dug to the south. While a moat surrounded the walls.

The castle was damaged during the Napoleonic Wars, abandoned, and later rebuilt. The Germans invaded Mir during World War II and turned the castle into a ghetto for the town’s large Jewish population. After years of neglect under Soviet control, the castle is finally being repaired to its former glory.

After exploring the castle, walk around the rest of the charming town. Wander through the large Jewish cemetery. Mir yeshiva, now one of the largest Jewish learning centers in the world, was founded here in 1815. It was forced to relocate during World War I. Visit St. Nicholas’ Roman Catholic Church. The 17th-century church, which the Soviets partially destroyed, is also undergoing restoration. See Market Square, where the local market is set up and vendors sell handmade pottery. Then eat traditional Belarusian food—rye bread, draniki (potato pancakes), and kalduny (stuffed dumplings)—at Mirum Cafe.

Mir Castle may not be Europe’s largest or grandest castle. It certainly isn’t the most visited. But because of that, you can take your time, wander, and dream. The castle is yours.

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