By Olga Loginova, New York
Photos by Alena Lis
A few words from the author:
What can be more fascinating for an adventurous soul than picturesque ruins, haunted by the secrets of the distant past?
Perhaps, each nation has its own legendary ruins, or even better, castles, palaces and caves that inspire poets and artists, and attract tourists and cash to the country. Belarus is no exception. Although little could have survived the two World Wars and 70 years of the Soviet Union, our Castles, or what is left of them, can also tell their fascinating stories to a curious traveller.
Travel adventures are unavoidable and as such have always been twisted bonuses of broadcast reporters working on wheels. Either your car gets stuck in the middle of nowhere, or your cameraman drinks himself into forgetting to push the Record button, or people you are supposed to interview disappear into thin air. As the proverb goes, it comes with the territory, that’s why you always need a Plan B, when you need a good story.
Our Plan B, when my crew and myself went to unmask an alcoholic mother of five from Ashmyany (who by the time we got there had sobered up and behaved like the Mother of the Year), was visiting Halshany, a small Belarusian town to the North West from the Capital, which once was the stronghold of the two famous Belarusian families, the Halshansky and the Sapieha Dukes.
According to the Internet and colleagues’ references, the biggest attraction of the place was the ghosts haunting the town; so as it was almost Halloween Eve, the story could be a nice kicker for the show.
When we came close to Halshany outskirts, it started to drizzle with that nasty autumn rain, which is universally disliked by TV crews. The stone lying near the main road to the town had an engraving of 1280 on its wet and shiny face. According to the chronicles, that was the year when Halshany was founded as a family estate by Duke Holsha. His glorious descendants turned Halshany into the influential trade centre of the Great Duchy of Lithuania, and three centuries later the noble kin declined, leaving no male heirs. Consequently in the 16th century Halshany went over to another famous Belarusian family, the Sapieha, one of who, Pavel Sapieha married the remaining Halshansky sister.
The Sapiehas were famous for their lust for luxury and power, and Pavel was not an exception. The first thing he did was rebuild the Halshansky estate into a magnificent fortified castle, surrounded by banks and fosses. The Castle, which is now known as the Black Castle of Halshany, was considered the gem of medieval Belarusian architecture; it was beautiful on the inside, and unapproachable from the outside. It could serve equally well for royal receptions, or for withstanding a siege.
The only thing it couldn’t survive was Time and the two World Wars of the 20th century. The Castle’s last owner fled to Poland when WWII began, and the desolated castle was demolished leaving picturesque ruins as the reminder of its former grandeur.
Another famous construction founded by Duke Sapieha, was the building of the Catholic Franciscan monastery which has now become the branch of the National Arts Museum (The baroque building is in much better shape than the castle). Interestingly, both monuments once belonging to the Sapiehas are considered haunted by the spirits of innocently killed people.
Halshany with the eyes of Belarusian artist Jazep Drazdovich, 1929
Legends of Halshany
Driving through the mud roads of the town, we observed the plain sturdy cottages of the Soviet era, one-storey trade rows still reminding of the once prosperous town; random horse carts carrying wood, poorly dressed peasants and Lenin’s monument on the main square.
Our first interview was with the director of the Museum. Cheslava Frantsauna Akulevitch; the extravagant lady in fur was waiting for us at the entrance. She led us inside. Although now turned into a museum, the solemn building has not lost the atmosphere of the Monastery: the echo of our steps wandering off and getting lost in the narrow corridors, the electric lamps blinking dimly and the thick walls covered in cracks.
Cheslava Frantsauna explained that there have been several attempts to renovate the building but they all ended badly. She made a meaningful pause: ‘The Ghosts don’t wish to be disturbed’.
It seems everybody in the museum has seen the ghost of the White Dame - a young beautiful woman in a long dress touched by decay and with eyes full of sadness and anger. Cheslava Akulevich readily shares the legend that has made this place so popular with visitors, ghost hunters and the press.
It all started centuries ago when Pavel Sapieha ordered the construction of the Monastery and the Cathedral in Halshany. Despite all the hard work the monastery walls would not hold strong, cracking up as soon as they had been erected. Duke Sapieha was a cruel man and he threatened to execute the workers. The builders decided that evil spirits interfering with the construction needed a human sacrifice. So the first woman to enter the site with lunch for her husband was doomed to be killed and immured in the basement of the monastery.
There was a young guy among the workers whose beautiful bride was always the first to bring the food. He prayed that she would be late that time, but alas the girl came on time.
She was killed the moment she entered the place, and her young body was left in the wall. After that the monastery was built very quickly and with no further delays. However, from then on the monks would get terrified by the ghost of a young girl chasing them in the darkness.
Cheslava Frantsauna swears she has seen the girl drifting in the air, and playing with the electric switchers.
More than that, when several years ago the museum was scheduled for a grand restoration, the vibration of machines disturbed the walls, and the big piece of plasterwork fell off together with a piece of wall. Two construction workers started to clear up the mess and found the skeleton of a woman moored into the wall.
They put the remains in the box and decided to bury them, but forgot to do so. Unexpectedly both of them died.
Shivers… We check the camera, – the battery is almost flat, but it seems Cheslava Frantsauna has more to say. Apparently, the White Dame is not the only Ghost of Halshany.
The ruins of the ancient Castle are haunted by the spirit of the Black Monk, who also likes to play cruel tricks on the curious visitors. This ghost is even older than the White Dame. Once he was called Hremislau Valyuzhinich, a poor man who fell in love with Hanna Halshanskaya, the daughter of the Duke. The girl also loved him, but when her father found out about their secret romance, he ordered to moor the poor fellow into the wall of the Castle (evidently the most effective way of getting rid of unwanted people). Since then the Black Monk has lived in the place, scaring off everybody who would stay in the ruins longer than needed. Cheslava Frantsauna makes big eyes and whispers that more than anybody else the Black Monk dislikes journalists. Oh, good to know, as the Castle is our next point of destination.
The ruins of Halshany Castle, September 2011.
Although nicknamed the Black Castle, the ruins are actually brick red, with scarce flora growing through the cracked walls. One could only imagine how huge and magnificent the Castle had been in the Golden Era of Belarusian History. Even now the brick rectangular carcass with the two surviving towers in its corners takes the breath away. The ruins are silent and ominous. The plan is simple: a stand-up, and the video of the Black Monk promenading in front of the camera. Just in case the Ghost doesn’t appear, I have a black cloth and some candles borrowed from the museum. Fun.
Apart from the spot lit by the headlights of our car, it is pitch dark. Our driver is getting nervous, as the car needs to be returned to the garage by midnight. No ghost whatsoever and we cannot wait any longer. My cameraman helps me to wrap in the cloth and I head to the ruins. It’s damn scary and dark there. The wind threatens to extinguish the candle fire. I am walking slowly in the ruins.
My cameraman (God bless his heart) says I need to climb up the tower stairs and stay in the window. This is exactly what I always wanted – to stay in the empty window of the haunted castle with my back to the possible attacking ghost. Still, here I go, risking the possibility of breaking my neck on the dark stairs.
I am coming closer to the hollow gap, one step at a time. I think I can hear my heartbeat, and …. something else behind my back. Maybe steps? I am too scared to face the darkness behind me. I am counting my breaths, wishing it to be over.
- Done! - The cameraman shouts from below, and the car lights instantly break the evil darkness.
I hurry downstairs, take a last glance at the Castle and jump into the car. Done with the spirits of the past and off to future adventures!