Once upon a time, Europe was covered by an immense primeval forest. But as time passed and the continent’s population and economic need and greed grew, those virgin forests have been split and cut down. However, a part of this ancient forest survived on the border of Poland and Belarus – and it’s amazingly beautiful
The ancient Białowieża Forest streches over part of Eastern Poland (Puszcza Białowieska) and western Belarus (Белавежская пушча, Biełaviežskaja Pušča). Not only is it the last natural forest preserved in the European lowlands, but also a place of true wonders. In the XV century it became one of the first protected areas and has stayed under protection ever since. Thanks to that, many species extinct in other places survived in the Forest. And there’s more: many common species, especially trees, reach significantly bigger sizes and take different forms in the Forest. Goat willow – a common European shrub – can be found there in a form of a tree reaching up to 22 m!
King of the Forest
Białowieża Forest is home to 60 species of mammals, including grey wolf, Eurasian lynx and the largest population of wild European bison (Bison bonasus) – an Eurasian cousin of America’s great buffalo.Weighing up to 920 kg or 2028 lb, bisons are peaceful vegans living in mixed or solely male herds. Twice threathened by extincion, they survived thanks to the Polish king Sigismund II Augustus, who in the XVI century instituted death penalty for poaching – and thanks to efforts made to reintroduce the captive population after the World War I, during which all the free-roaming bisons were killed. Nowadays you can quite easily meet this magnificent animal on the forest trails – simply pay attention and have a little patience, and you might get lucky. But remember – although peaceful, bisons are much bigger than you and should not be disturbed, so don’t try to scare the animal or get too close, as the result might not be pleasant.
For those who didn’t manage to meet the “King of the Forest” in the wild, Białowieża prepared the European Bison Show Reserve, located just a few kilometres outside of the town of Białowieża, easy to find on the road between Białowieża and Hajnówka. The show reserve also keeps bison x cattle hybrids, wolves, wild boars, and a lynx. The animals are supposed to be kept in semi-natural conditions, in large enclosures with natural vegetation, and the chances of spotting a bison are certainly much higher than in the nature – yet I leave the ethics of keeping wild animals in a ZOO to your judgement.
Land of open shutters
The Polish side of the Białowieża Forest lies in the geographic-cultural land of Podlasie – commonly known as the “Land of open shutters”. This rural area deeply rooted in Belarusian Orthodox, Polish Catholic and Tatar Muslim traditions will take you back to when Central Europe was a true melting pot, and a land of mysticism. Tiny villages filled with old wooden buildings with rich carved ornamentation, votive crosses and shrines are just a few parts of the amazing landscape of Podlasie. Visit the beautiful villages of Trześcianka, Soce and Puchły, look for the blue Orthodox church in Hajnówka on your way to Białowieża, or simply go for a bicycle or hirse ride to discover the hidden wonders on your own!
Eat & drink
After a trek in the primeval foest and a bike tour in search of the wooden architecture, you might want to relax with a glass of cold apple juice with a good slug of Bison Grass Vodka – Żubrówka. This refreshing spirit has been produced for more than 400 years now, and is based on rye flavoured with a blade of bison grass (Hierochloe odorata), a herb native to Białowieża Forest. Another great thing about Żubrówka is that you can easily buy it in almost every store. If you’re looking for something stronger, ask locals about bimber or samogon – a home-brew sour mash. Some can be purchased in shops as a local product (eg. Duch Puszczy – Spirit of the Forest), yet usually this sour mash is made for personal use and trying to find it can be an adventure in itself.
When it comes to eating, you will easily find a place to suit your budget, from tiny home-food bars on the main street of Białowieża, to Carska, a luxurious restaurant inside an antique train station built in 1903 for Czar Nicholas II of Russia. Things can get a bit tricky if you’re vegan, but try asking the super lovely owners of club-cafe Walizka in Białowieża – they normally serve yummy cakes and coffee, but might have something more to help you out.
War over the Forest
As you are reading this article, the fight for Białowieża Forest continues. Protected by law since XV century, it is now in threat of being turned into an ordinary managed forest used primarily for timber logging. You can show your support for the protection of this unique place coming to Białowieża to visit what still remains of the ancient European forest.