Nesvizh Castle, Belarus
Travelling through this part of Europe, there are two things that constantly appear. One is cold beetroot soup. The other is the Radziwiłł family.
Let’s leave the soup alone for now. (Although, if you haven’t tried it, you must – it’s my new favourite dish!) And let’s talk instead about the Radziwiłł family and, specifically, about their property at Nesvizh Castle in Belarus.
The complex at Nesvizh Castle is astounding. And to understand the scale of what you’ll find here, it’s important to know a little about the Radziwiłł family.
The Radziwiłłs were powerful people who came to the peak of their strength in the 16th century (and remained influential into the 20th century). They weren’t political rulers and they weren’t religious leaders (although individual members of the family became both those things).
Officially the Radziwiłłs were called ‘magnates’ and the best way to think about them is as an extremely wealthy family that had power at every level of nobility. Their influence stretched across modern-day Belarus, Poland, Lithuania, and Germany.
Anyway, let’s not get distracted by all of the countries where they had their fingers in a pie. After all, at their height, the Radziwiłłs owned 23 palaces, 426 large towns, 2032 estates, and more than 10,000 villages!
Let’s get back to Nesvizh Castle in Belarus – one of the most important and impressive of their properties.
You approach the castle from a long tree-lined avenue that is on an elevated path in the middle of a lake. On first glance you may think it is designed this way as a defensive measure – but it’s really just about the aesthetics.
In fact, even though this is technically called a castle, it’s one where design has always more important than function. When the Radziwiłłs took over the land here in 1533, there were some foundations of an old medieval castle. Rather than make the most of the fortifications, they constructed an elegant renaissance-baroque house.
Over the centuries, Nesvizh Castle has been successfully attacked and so, when it came to repairing it, more defences were added. But always by some of the top architects from across Europe.
Modifications of the castle, and the enlarging of the garden, continued until 1939 when the Soviets invaded the area. The Red Army took it over and it fell into disrepair. However, it has since been restored, opened to the public, and designated as a World Heritage Site (one of the reasons I made the trek out from Minsk to see it).
After coming along the avenue in the lake, you get your first glimpse of Nesvizh Castle, now protected by a moat and a sturdy outer wall. It’s not until you go through the main gate that you can truly appreciate how beautiful the exterior is.
In the central courtyard, the yellow walls of the castle look down with scores of windows. Grand and imposing, the status of the Radziwiłł family is reflected in these facades.
But going through the entrance door at the far end of the courtyard to the inner rooms – well, that’s where you see that the wealth of the family was not measured simply in quantity, but in quality too.
Walking through the inside of Nesvizh Castle is the highlight of the visit here.
There are the rooms with the dark wood panelling, paintings of long-gone family members on the wall, the chandeliers offering a glint of contrasting light.
There are the bright reception rooms where sun floods in through the windows onto the ornate couches and the marble statues, and reflects off the large mirrors.
There is the games room where a billiard table sits in the middle but is no distraction from the dozens of pairs of antlers displayed on the walls as trophies from hunts.
And then there are the more personal rooms – the bedrooms, the dressing rooms, the private lounges – where the family would retreat to be alone.
Have a look at some of these photos I took inside the castle, to get a sense of what you’ll find there.
Visiting Belarus has been full of surprises. It’s one of those countries where, despite what you expect, you’ll find things that make you question everything you thought about it.
Nesvizh is probably not a surprise, as such… but it is unexpected. Because so much of my perception of Belarus is based on the current situation and the politics since the middle of the 20th century.
It’s easy to forget that there were many hundreds of years before that when this was a wealthy land full of powerful families who have left their legacy in places like this.