Hrodna (Grodno in Russian) in many parts has the look and feel of an overgrown village; it's hard to believe that this is one of the country's largest cities. As in a big village, there's not much to do here other than hang out, watch life go by, peer across the Nioman River and check out some fine churches. Hrodna survived the war better than elsewhere in Belarus and has some picturesque corners, yet oddly enough these are more impressive in photographs than in person.
A novelty for foreigners is how un- Western the city looks and feels, sitting in Europe yet as if capitalism passed it by. Devoid of Western advertisements and shops or any sense of a customer-geared industry, Hrodna really does feel 'far away'.
Hrodna has been tossed back and forth between major powers for its entire existence. Settled since ancient times and first mentioned in 1128, it was an important town under the Princedom of Polatsk and was a crucial outpost on the fringes of Kyivan Rus until it was absorbed by Lithuania in the late 14th century. Russia took over in the 1770s. After being overrun in WWI, the city found itself back under Polish control until 1939.
During WWII, Hrodna's large Jewish contingent was wiped out. Today, Hrodna has a substantial Polish Catholic population, whose presence gives it a welcome whiff of multiculturalism.