Wednesday, 11 January 2012

North-east Poland

It's a while since I've posted about favourite places. Here's one a bit further afield (for me - not for the Ukrainians reading this blog).

Last year but one I went to Poland for the first time in my life. My main aim was to see new birds, and for that the outstanding area was the north-east corner of the country, but I wanted to spread my wings wider - so I sought to book with a nature tour provider for the first week to visit the Bielowieza Forest and the Biebrza Marshes before heading south to Krakow, with a bit of looking around Warsaw and Krakow, and visiting Auschwitz. Maybe I'll blog on that last thing some other time.

Anyway, my first tour provider let me down at the last minute and I'd already booked flights. Another Polish tour provider (step up Waldemar!) didn't have a tour for those dates but happened to be free and we agreed he'd do a one-to-one tour at still a very reasonable price. He's brilliant and I'll be happy to respond to anyone wanting nature tours in that area and give his contact details.

For the birders, well, I added five birds to my life-list, not easy in Europe nowadays - White-backed Woodpecker, Pygmy Owl, Great Snipe, River Warbler, Aquatic Warbler. I did even better with butterflies and dragonflies. Enough of that.

Warsaw was a busy European city. As we drove east things still looked quite familiar. As far east as the River Bug there are still people wearing Nike gear jogging with I-pods.

The far north-east was something else - another country, almost another continent, and Waldemar said it seemed like that to him too. As we drove into Bielowieza village along a dusty road, little knots of people turned to look at us. There were old women in head-scarves everywhere. The buildings were nearly all wooden, old and full of character. The churches were very, very different from the modern Catholic churches I'd seen on the way: in fact, most of the people in this area are Orthodox. It was clear that the place was poor, but a decent, resilient poverty, not the poverty of glazed eyes. As for my eyes, I think they must often have been wide. The whole place was so strange to me, and I've been in Africa and the Balkans. But it was fascinating strange, not worrying strange.

The forest was magic - a huge expanse of forest that had been forest since the ice-age receded, with a good variety of trees many of them emerging from, or standing by, shallow water, so to an Englishman it was like thick fen. It would be good just to stand in the forest, not in the silence but the birdsong - though the mosquitoes would be a problem!

When we left, it was for the massive expanse of the Biebrza Marshes, wetland far more expansive than anything else until you're in the former Soviet Union. This was less remote and was dotted with farms and villages, but it was still magic because of the extraordinary numbers, vitality and variety of bird and insect life.

It's a marvellous area and I hope to go back.


  1. Sounds amazing! Similar to parts of Romania that I have seen...I always think the River Bug is a funny name, sounding more like a waterborne disease carrying insect...

  2. Thanks, James. Yes, I imagine parts of Romania would be similar. Coming into the village I was reminded of films of the Wild West, specifically the Mexican farmers riding into the Western town in “The Magnificent Seven” – wooden buildings, dusty street, a man looking round sharply at the sound of horses’ hooves.

    Yes, the name does sound funny to Anglophone ears – and are the locals River Buggers?