To travel the country roads from Warsaw to Białowieża is to head deep into Poland’s far east. By the roadside, the regimented rows of snow-topped pines are interrupted by dramatically lit-up onion-domed churches — here Orthodox is the main religion, Lithuanian restaurants abound, and those whose ears are attuned to the difference might hear Belarusian being spoken.
Białowieża is Europe’s largest stretch of primeval forest, straddling the border with Belarus. A UNESCO World Heritage Site, it’s billed as the continent’s answer to the Amazon for its age and biodiversity. But while it’s home to plenty of fascinating creatures, the star of the show is undoubtedly the bison.
The European bison died out in the wild in 1921, as a result of over-hunting and poaching. However, thanks to a breeding programme using captive animals, they were reintroduced to this area in the 1950s. Now there are some 900 bison in these parts — though 20 or so are culled each year to keep numbers stable — and today Białowieża is the best place for spotting them.
Visitors tend to stay in nearby Białowieża village, in accommodation such as Wejmutka, a cosy wood-panelled lodge with a huge bison head mounted on the wall of the dining room. Here, the welcome is as warm as the wood-burning fire, with hearty Polish dishes and bottles of local Żubr (Bison) beer — the perfect fuel for a Polish safari.
A contrast to the wilds of the forest, Białystok is the region’s largest city, with a colourful old town (think a compact version of Krakow), a grand palace and Poland’s biggest Orthodox church. Music lovers should stop by in June, when the European Centre for the Arts hosts Halfway Festival, featuring up-and-coming alternative acts from around the world.
Bison and wolves aren’t the only mammals that call Białowieża home. If you’re lucky you might spot red deer, lynx, beavers and the made-up-sounding raccoon dog (which looks a little like a cross between a cat and a badger). However, the once ubiquitous wild boar is now becoming increasingly rare due to African swine fever.
Summer is ideal for exploring the forest on its network of well-marked cycle trails. Most hotels have bikes you can borrow, or else there’s a hire shop in Białowieża village — just pick up a map from the PTTK tourist office. In winter, try cross-country skiing instead.
Three to try: Polish delicacies
Instead of being baked in the oven, sękacz cake is cooked on a rotating spit by an open fire. A sponge-type mixture is poured over the spit in layers, forming icicle-like peaks — the finished product resembles a pine tree. The arboreal connection continues when it’s sliced, with the layers creating tree-trunk-style rings inside.
You won’t go hungry in this part of Poland; meals are filling and portions generous. One of the tastiest traditional dishes is babka ziemniaczana (potato cake). Made with potatoes, onions and eggs, and baked in the oven, it’s a bit like a giant rosti. For meat-eaters, pieces of bacon or sausage are usually thrown in as well.
If you don’t like spuds, you’re in the wrong place. Another Eastern Polish speciality is kartacz, a heavy, stuffed potato dumpling. Topped with lardons or fried onions, it’s usually filled with minced meat, but you might also come across versions containing wild mushrooms or sauerkraut.
Wizz Air flies from Luton to Warsaw from £19.99 one way.
Wild Poland offers three-night Wildlife Weekends in Białowieża from PLN2,540 (£505) per person, with the chance to spot animals including bison, elk and beavers. The price includes transfers from Warsaw, accommodation, all meals, permits and guiding. wildpoland.com
Published in the May 2017 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)