Thought you couldn’t go on safari in Poland? Think again…

Posted by Graham Howe on 6 March 2014

Poland is more than wurst, pickles and cabbage. Since joining the European Union in 2004, it has experienced a tourist boom as one of the hottest new destinations in Europe, with loads of attractions. You can even go on safari in Poland …

 
moose crossing, funny sign, poland, safari in poland
 

Poland, a crossroads between Eastern and Western Europe is a crucible of history. As a tourist destination, it also has loads of attractions – tempting tourists with a thousand years of history from the castles of Teutonic knights to the medieval towns of Warsaw, Gdansk and Krakow, and parks where the last bison, wild boars and wolves in Europe run free. There are 10 Unesco World Heritage sites in Poland. These include Malbork Castle, the biggest fortified castle in Europe, the old towns of Warsaw, Torun and Krakow – and the 700 year-old salt mine of Wieliczka with 2000 chambers and 300 km of tunnels underground.

 

A short guide to Torun

Travelling overland through the north of Poland, we visited Copernicus House, the astronomer’s birthplace in the old medieval town of Torun, founded by Teutonic knights in 1233 – and a Unesco World Heritage site today. Yet more school children were ogling the gingerbread exhibition in the cellar – and queuing up to buy specialty gingerbread figurines at the quaint gingerbread shop in Turin owned by Kopernik, the biggest gingerbread company in Europe. When Chopin visited Torun, he raved about the town’s delicacy, “Oh that Torun gingerbread! I’ve just sent a cake to Warsaw”.

Besides Copernicus and gingerbread, Torun is famous for its own leaning tower, city walls, Gothic cathedrals and medieval redbrick architecture. While buying fresh red cherries in the old town square from a farmer’s fruit and vegetable market which has been here for five hundred years, I spotted a statue of a young boy and a circle of frogs in a fountain. According to legend, the pied piper of Torun led a plague of frogs out of the city centuries ago by playing magical tunes – possibly a Chopin mazurka.

English is widely spoken in the bigger cities – and most of the guide books, maps, brochures, museum exhibit signs, etc are in English – or you can make out them out from Polish. I found the Polish language quite difficult with lots of z’s and y’s – its’ related to a group of Slavic languages like Czech and Slovak. Try reading road signs.

 

poland, funny sign, safari in poland

If you can’t read road signs in Polish, you can still make out their meaning.


Our tourist guides were first-rate and fluent in English – and generally the locals we met were very friendly, helpful and open. They’re very hospitable – they have a saying “When a guest is in our house, God is in our home”. They’re also very spiritual – about 95% Catholic. Apparently there was no May Day in the main square in Warsaw on 1 May 2011 – the first time ever – worker’s day was toppled by the beatification of Pope John Paul II – the celebrity Polish pope known as “JPII)!

 

On safari in Poland at Bialowieza National Park

On our amazing road trip through the north-east of Poland, we stayed in a magical chalet with a wishing well which looked like a fairytale gingerbread house in the heart of the Bialowieza National Park. Nature lovers will love the hiking trails through this ancient lowland forest which was once the hunting preserve of the tsars. Today, this Unesco World Heritage site is home to wild boar, bison, wolves, lynx, moose and deer.

 

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The last free-range herd of bison on the Polish frontier between Poland and Belarus. Photo by Graham Howe

 

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A wolf in the wilderness in the ancient Białowieża National Park, Poland. Photo by Graham Howe

 

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Lena the lone moose on a hiking trail in the wilderness. Photo by Grahm Howe


Along the way we spotted some of the 40 000 pairs of white storks with bright red bills which migrate across Poland every summer, building haystack nests on every telephone pole, chimney and rooftop! We were told the storks depart precisely on the weekend of 25 / 26 August every year, travelling from Poland all the way to South Africa – and return to the same nest using their own in-built GPS. The stork is an omen of children and prosperity – but the regal eagle rules as the national symbol.

Biebrzanski National Park is the biggest wetland in Europe and biggest national park in Poland. Nature lovers come from all over Europe to walk trails and kayak stretches along the 60-kilometre waterway, staying at agri-tourist campsites and lumberjack cabins along the banks – and to spot 280 species of birds, including the rare greater spotted eagle and white woodpecker. It is also one of the last refuges for elk in Europe – as well as wolves and beavers. Back at our country hotel, we locked our doors when a wolf howled from across the river at midnight!

The deeper into the Polish countryside we went, the further we travelled back into the past. In the dark ages, Poland was occupied by Teutonic knights who built a mighty chain of 120 castles throughout the land. In the country town of Nidzica, we actually slept in a Teutonic castle and enjoyed a medieval dinner in the dungeon dressed up as knights. (I don’t think they’ve changed the mattresses since!) In Brodnica, we climbed hundreds of steps up the tower of a Teutonic castle once defended by the crusaders.

 

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Tarpan, a medieval breed of horses, in the tsar’s old hunting grounds

 

Malbork Castle

One of the highlights of our road trip was Malbork Castle, the mightiest medieval fortress in all of Europe – and one of the major tourist attractions in Poland today. The ancient capital of the Teutonic Knights was home to the grand master’s palace in the fourteenth century. This massive Gothic fortress with three castles on the banks of the river is an incredible apparition in the countryside. Fans of Harry Potter will enjoy exploring the armoury, the knight’s halls, the dungeons, the dining-halls – and the long-drop loos with a trapdoor to get rid of troublesome guests!

Malbork Castle, Poland, safari in poland

Malbork Castle, the mightiest medieval fortress in all of Europe

 

Nastrovya!

When in Poland, a country of vodka drinkers, you have to do as the Polish do. Nastrovya! So we did a tour of the Polmos vodka distillery (1928) in Bialystok, in the north-east of the country, which exports vodka all over the world. They have the highest column stills in Europe (42m) so the tour is not for vertigo sufferers. Fortunately they do the tasting afterwards! They’re famous for their brands of Zubrowka Biala made using “holy” bison grass which adds a unique aromatic character – as well as cherry, orange and even kosher vodka. Ask any Pole and he’ll tell you they invented vodka in 1405 – and the Russians and Swedish copied them!

 

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Polmos vodka distillery (1928) in Bialystok, one of the biggest distilleries in Europe


One of the highlights of our visit to Poland was a vodka and mead (honey wine) tasting and traditional tea in a Polish home in the countryside – where Zofia Morstin and her family entertained us to Polish specialities like bigos, cheesecake and pastries. She told me “Poland is a country of soup. People still know how to cook. We grow and preserve our own food. Try this blood sausage, fermented pickle and tripe soup!” Local families have been going to the same church for 500 years for generations.

Sceptics of Polish cuisine should read a review by AA Gill (Sunday Times, 17 April 2011) which awards rare five stars to Daquise, a Polish culinary landmark in London owned by Magda Gessler, the grand dame of Polish food. The crossroads of West and East Europe, Poland has absorbed the dishes of neighbours from Russia and Lithuania to Germany. We sampled amazing traditional fare at Gessler’s venues at U Kucharzy (The Cook’s Place) and Polka (Chopin’s home in Zelazowa Wola) and elsewhere – relishing delicacies like borscht, zurek (sour rye soup), bigos (a hunter’s stew), herring, eel, offal, duck, boar, mushrooms, cherries, bliny, golabki, pierogi and placki.

If you’re looking for a new and affordable destination which has a host of exciting cultural and natural attractions for the whole family, check out Poland, Europe’s hottest new secret. Where else can you stay in a gingerbread house, a castle, and a lumberjack’s cabin – and go on a wildlife safari in search of bison, wild boars and wolves?

 
Graham Howe was a guest of Poland’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs. For information on tourist destinations, email [email protected] or visit www.pot.gov.pl

 






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