After the Great Patriotic War in the USSR, 12 cities were entitled as heroes. A hero-city would typically stand as a battlefield, or suffer from a siege. The Brest Fortress is the only non-city geographical object to bear a hero title. Even without visiting museums, walking around four square kilometers territory can take a couple of hours. Make sure not to get lost by following my guide on what to see and do in the Brest Hero-Fortress.
The fortress stands at the place of the ancient Biarescie settlement at the Belarussian-Polish border. After devastating Napoleonic wars, Russian Empire wanted to build a line of fortresses close to western borders. Several islands of Brest town on the crossing of West Bug and Mukhavets rivers fitted perfectly. Citizens were ordered to move Brest three kilometers aside to provide space for future bastions. The construction started in 1933 and lasted for nine years, but the fortification works never stopped.
The first chance to test the citadel was missed during WWI. Commanders ordered troops to abandon the fortress to Germans, even though the fort was ready to stay under siege for over six months. After the 1917 revolution and the beginning of the Russian Civil War, the Bolsheviks decided to quit WWI. They signed up the Brest-Litovsk peace treaty with the Central Powers in the Brest Fortress on March 3, 1918. After the end of the Russian-Polish war in 1921, the fortress belonged to Poles. According to the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact, USSR and Nazi Germany invaded Poland in 1939. German troops captured the citadel and officially handled it to the Red Army. Both at the fortress and in the Belarusian history textbooks at schools there is just a couple of sentences about this event because of undying unpopularity of the subject.
I would recommend entering through the main gates, exploring the Citadel and Valynskaje Fortification and then coming back here to check out the northern gates and bastions. Close your eyes at the countdown under the star-shaped gates to hear the first seconds of war. Nazis broke the peace treaty with USSR by attacking the Brest Fortress on June 22, 1941. Their plan to capture it in one day failed dramatically. Despite numerical superiority and surprise effect, the siege lasted for seven days. And, the last USSR soldiers out of 2000 victims held out till the 23rd of July. Ten years after the war ended this story was praised in books and movies and became vital in the Soviet propaganda. The memorial complex opened in 1971.
Soon, you will see four tanks and an underground vault with the Army Club Museum. It was closed for reconstruction during my visit. With more luck, you will be able to see how the Soviet soldiers spent peaceful days at the fortress before WWII. Part of the exposition is devoted to life in civilian hideaways during the war.
If you’re hungry, turn right before the bridge for the «Citadel» restaurant. Take a fast-food pastry called «cheburek» at the bar or a proper meal at the restaurant part. Eating in this historical building adds up to overall experience.
The 30-meter-high «Courage» monument together with the 100 m high bayonet, eternal fire, and memorial stones composes the central part of the memorial complex. Turn left after the main bridge to see the «Thirst» monument to soldiers who risked their lives getting water for their comrades from the river. Large red-brick building on the right is the Museum of Brest Hero-Fortress. There are 12 halls full of historical artifacts and archive documents: personal items, ammunition, photos, battle maps, and pictures. You can also book guided tours here. The Territory of Peace Museum tells personal stories of the fortress defenders. The Brest Fortress Chronicles Museum feels more like time traveling through theatrical stages with wax figures.
Red Kholmskija Gates are dear to me because, for 15 years, I saw them daily on 50 rubles banknotes. In reality, they are even more impressive. After you pass the bridge, turn right for the museum of the XIII-century settlement Biarescie and walk up the hill behind the museum. Check a small defense bunker to get the feel of first-hand battle encounters. If you keep walking straight after the bridge, you’ll see ruins of the Bernardine Monastery on the left. Further left is a historical building with a fisherman shop, explaining the number of fishermen along the river. Keep going straight to see St. Mary Nativity Orthodox Convent and the south gates with roads to the city and border control post.
The Ciarespalskaje Fortification is located on the bordering island, and you can only get there as a part of a group applying ten days in advance via the web-page. There are not many buildings, but nature is wild and beautiful there. The Fifth Fort is one of the outer fortifications around the fortress that remained intact. Unlike the renovated museums of the Citadel, the interior here looks old and authentic. You can examine real WWI and WWII cannons and artillery in the yard. Unfortunately, the fort is six kilometers away from the main fortress. You can either get here as part of an organized tour or use public transport to get to the "Fort" bus stop and then walk.
Brest Fortress’ fame did a bad joke to it. The location is so significant, that the directions pointing to the fortress around the city look the same as the road signs with the names of the streets. Also, there are no additional signs in English. When you reach Brest, follow the pedestrian street Sovietskaya, and then turn right on Masherova Avenue. In around 20 minutes of walking on a deserted windy boulevard, you’ll see a wall with an empty star on the horizon. It is a pretty long way, but it is more solid than using public transport. Bus #2 departs from the main station to the fortress every couple of hours: check the timetable in advance and test your luck. And, of course, save this guide of what to see in the Brest-Hero Fortress.
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