The agro-town of Zalesie is located just a few kilometers away from Smorgon. This is one of the biggest tourist draws of the region and even entire Belarus. The interest in this location is understandable. Zalesie is home to the family estate of composer, diplomat and political figure Michal Kleofas Oginski. After a large-scale reconstruction project the estate regained its former splendor. BelTA reporters traveled to the famous estate dubbed as Northern Athens by its contemporaries to get immersed into the atmosphere of the 19th century with ladies in gorgeous outfits, elegant gentlemen, balls and rides in lavish carriages.
Last year the estate welcomed more than 40,000 visitors, a year earlier over 30,000 tourists. This place is popular now, however it was not the case before.
Michal Kleofas Oginski inherited the estate at the beginning of the 19th century and lived here for 20 years. Over this time, a stone palace with several halls, a greenhouse, an English park and pavilions in different styles was built near the wooden manor built in the 18th century. Artists, bohemians gathered here, balls, music and literary evenings were held, that is why contemporaries called Zalesie Northern Athens. Here Michal Kleofas also created his polonaises, however, the most famous of them - Farewell to My Homeland – is believed to be written in Venice.
In the 20th century, the estate often changed its owners and even its purpose. It served as a recreation facility and a nursing home; there were also attempts to turn it into a sanatorium ...
"There were plans to rebuild the estate in the early 1990s, but these plans were shelved because of the lack of funds. In the early 2010s, the authorities included the facility into national and regional investment programs. Sponsorship resources and funds of cross-border projects were put together to implement the project. The project was accomplished and the estate reopened for the public as a museum," said Lyudmila Groditskaya, Director of the Oginski Museum-Estate.
The restoration was aimed primarily at restoring the original appearance of the two-century-old estate. Painstaking work with documents, preserved images, attention to detail – restoration experts managed to restore not only the original exterior, but also original features of the interior of the estate.
Today the museum has 13 halls, many of them are dedicated to music. In one of the halls there is an old grand piano, in another - a harp made in England for the royal court in the early 19th century. In the office there is a floor clock. The exhibit is almost 250 years old, but it works properly!
The interiors of the living room, the fireplace and the secretary's office were also recreated. In one of the rooms there is an old pool table, chess, a table for playing cards. The former dining room was converted into a concert hall that hosts music nights, thematic meetings, and concerts. It is great to listen to a live performance in the place where it was written.
However, the exhibits belonging to Michal Kleofas Oginski himself are not so many. Yet, all the objects of the exhibition are authentic and date back to the time when the famous composer lived and worked.
“After all, the main thing has survived, which is the music, the memory and atmosphere of that time,” the chief keeper of the museum Yuri Sheleg said.
He and other museum staff help guests travel back two centuries. The exhibition literally comes to life thanks to small theatrical performances. Here's Michal Kleofas in the office discussing a project called "Oginski's Plan" with his uncle. The senator of the Russian Empire proposed to restore the Grand Duchy of Lithuania. The proposal was rejected.
In another hall Yuri Sheleg acts as Leonard Hodko, the secretary and friend of Michal Kleofas. The drawings of the estate and plans of Zalesie have survived thanks to this man. He was also in charge of a greenhouse.
The greenhouse was also recreated during the restoration. An 1821 edition describing all the greenhouse plants has survived. The exotic plants collection is being created according to the edition.
There are a lot of things to surprise. Can you often see a fruit-bearing orange tree in our region? Or a coffee tree? It can also be harvested, but we could not enjoy local coffee as beans were still unripe during our visit. Dozens more exotic plants can be seen here as well.
Flower lovers are invited to Zalesie in late summer and autumn. Dahlias burst into blossom in that time. These flowers are one of the museum's brands. Today 19 species, with some of them unique for Belarus, are cultivated here.
The park around the estate is beautiful at any time of the year. The park features centuries-old trees and some unique restored objects. For example, an altanka is a Chinese-style gazebo. The second floor boasts an observation deck with a perfect view of the whole estate.
Nearby is Amelia's arbor, named after the composer's eldest daughter. "According to legends, it was a favorite place for seclusion, meditations of Michal Kleofas Oginski. A lot of materials have survived on what the gazebo looked like before. We were able to restore it as close to the original as possible,” Lyudmila Groditskaya said. Today the gazebo is a place for music and literary soirees.
The park, including a pond, an old mill, wooden bridges and a swan isle have become a popular place for walks and photo sessions.
You can go on a tour around the park in a luxury carriage. Work is underway to restore the Oginski stables, there are horses and ponies here. Their number has been recently increased, as one of the ponies gave birth to a colt.
Its birth has become a present for the forthcoming anniversary. Michal Kleofas Oginski's 255th birthday will be marked on 25 September. It is a good reason to pay a visit to the museum and learn something new about the outstanding person.
Photos by Leonid Shcheglov