40 minutes ago I boarded a plane at Frederic Chopin International Airport in Warsaw to come back from first vacations in my beloved Poland to the desert. I’m sitting now, with fasten seatbelt in Boeing 777-300 and still wandering, that in my country are still so unusual and by many unexplored places. That just three hours drive east from Warsaw exists so original land. A land where in the sky can be seen next to each church steeple, onion domes of Orthodox churches and mosques. Where Christmas doesn’t last three days but nearly three weeks. At first, on December 24th at midnight, people go to midnight mass and two weeks later they fill up orthodox churches. If you’ll add to this Muslim holidays, in some villages may be hard to find days for work.
You can smell here East
Although it’s only 200 km away from the center of the country, being here in Podlasie region, it feels like it’s much further to the east. This feeling it’s not made only by the proximity to the border, but also by the history of the region. It came at the nascent of Polish state in the X century. Then it belonged to Russian princes and later to Lithuanians princes and finally returned within the borders of Poland. In the XIX century, at the time of the partitions of Poland Podlasie became part of Russia. In that time authorities proposed to everyone who converted from Catholicism to Orthodoxy got four acres of land (2.5 hectares). Tempting isn’t it? And so, today, in the eastern municipalities of the province, the majority of population are Orthodox.
This is an unusual sight when bearing in mind that Poland is an extremely unified and unitary country linguistically, culturally and religiously, you passes again and again Orthodox crosses, charming wooden orthodox churches or crowds of ladies clad in headscarves, as tradition dictates, heading to divine services. After I World War Podlasie permanently, I hope, came back into our borders.
Everything seems to be logical, but from where the hell came Muslims here?! For centuries, Polish kings were taking Crimean Tatars into polish army. The same did Jan Sobieski III in the XVIII century. Unfortunately for King Jan, the treasury at the end of the age was empty. So there wasn’t enough money to pay soldiers for service, so the king offered Tatars land instead of money. Soldiers from Far East accepted offer and settled down in the fertile lands of Podlasie. They built several mosques and inhabit these lands to this day.
Up to the present time remained only two mosques. We visited one of them in Kruszyniany town. A modest wooden church-like little mosque. Indeed Tatars were soldiers, not builders, so they hired locals to work, Christians, and they built as they could…
Although the Tartars never cared to marry and copulate only with their own people and Christian-Tatar marriages were common, our guide in the mosque (tartar, of course) still retains Eastern features: slanted eyes and swollen brows. As he pointed out, Tatars don’t have to feel being Poles, because simply they are Poles, although somehow exotic :)
Guest in the house, God in the house
This traditional polish saying probably nowhere is as strong as here. In Podlasie you can meet with exceptional hospitality of the locals. Everywhere we went, whether in Bialowieza, Narew, Narewka, Kruszyniany, or in Supraśl, people were super nice, straightforward, eager to help. And the typical “sing-song” in their speech, known throughout the country as “borrowing” was making them even more special :)
Podlasie’s residents also features attachment to the traditions and customs. And thank God for that! Whenever renewing their traditional wooden houses, they don’t decide either on concrete pads, or the flashy colors like in some parts of Poland. They renew them in the spirit of tradition and the style in which people were building there for years. As a result, in the Podlasie villages when it comes to architecture, still there is harmony and order.
And while chatting with them in those houses I learned plenty of interesting facts. For instance why farmers always paints shutters in blue color. Well, the color repels insects, in contrast to the bright colors. Finally, I also learnt why this beam on the Orthodox Cross, that isn’t exists on the Catholic Cross is skewed so and not otherwise. One end of the lower beam points toward the top – heaven, and other one which is directed downwards indicates hell. This is how the priests explained to the people who were illiterate and didn’t even know which side is left and right, professed faith.
The Kingdom of Bison
But Podlasie isn’t only people, but also, and primarily, nature! It is here unique in Europe primeval lowland forest, which once overgrown entire continent. Forest, which has never been disrupted with any human intervention. Those forests were defended by Polish kings, and later on by invaders. And it wasn’t the result of their love for the nature. They just protected the land on which they used to hunt.
Anyway, these actions have produced a fantastic effect. In the middle of Europe, in Poland has retained a deep forest, and in it found shelter 58 species of mammals, and 250 species of birds. And the king of them all is the Bison, which is the biggest mammal of the old continent.
But how did it happen that at the beginning of the XX century bison was on the verge of extinction, and today in Poland there are already over 1300 of them? In 1919, was killed last bison in Europe, precisely in the Bialowieża Forest. So scientists from different countries of the old continent, chaired by Polish scholars gathered in Paris and decided that the species must be restored to life. Around the world in zoological parks remained 54 European bisons, of which only 12 were able to give birth. Those ones were transported to Poland, to the Białowieża Forest where they were seen for the last time and to the only remaining primary lowland forest in Europe.
And it worked! Today, bison lives in the wild in various parts of Poland, as well as in Lithuania, Belarus, Slovakia and Russia. And they all originate comes from the Bialowieża ones, from Poland :)
Podlasie cuisine is based primarily on potatoes. Once it’s potato cake, other time it’s Bliny – sepcial Podlasie style pancakes (it’s not pancakes whatsoever but I can’t find proper words), and kartacze (can’t translate it either). I enjoyed everything! But to my palate favorites definitely I’d classify kartacz of venison (shame on me for eating poor roe deer, but I had to try;( ) and Tartar Cymes soup. I could eat and eat!
But Podlasie besides of wonderful people and beautiful landscapes has also problems, mainly of economy nature. Higher unemployment, lower GDP than in other Polish regions and the employment structure with a predominance of agriculture. Emigration from these areas is among the highest in the country. Young people are leaving in search of higher quality of life to Bialystok (region’s main city), to Warsaw (capital of Poland), and more and to Western Europe. Among the local there’s circulating joke that it is easier to get to the capital of Belgium, than to Polish one, because the most popular bus connection is reportedly Siemiatycze (little town in Podlasie) to Brussels.
If people continue to leave, and women won’t have material conditions to give birth to children, by 2030 the population of the region will decrease by approx. 85,000. It’s as there erased from the map relatively big sub-regional town.
During the religious holidays can be seen here many cars on the boards of Western countries. The locals are returning to homes built for hard earned Euros to stay in this unique time with loved ones. Hopefully someday they will returned permanently.