Category: Travel

Walk on the wild side: A tour around Poland’s Białowieża national park

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‘Bison Street’ at dawn

It is 3am and the sun is just starting to rise in the sleepy village of Białowieża in eastern Poland not far from the Belarusian border. A light mist surrounds the traditional wooden houses whose inhabitants have not yet stirred while the birds chatter noisily in the trees and rooftops above us.

We are going in search of the bison, deer, wolves and boar that roam wild in the Białowieża National Park, which is home to Europe’s only remaining primeval forest.

Our guide Michał explains that there are no guarantees we would see any of these animals as he drives us to a clearing next to the thick forest on the edge of the village. The skies by now are a striking crimson colour as the sun continues to rise and we get out of the car at the appropriately named Żubrowa (Bison) Street where we are greeted by a small herd of grazing bison. Although they are Europe’s largest mammals, weighing as much as 900kg, they are also extremely shy and only come out at dawn and dusk to feed before retreating into the forest during the day-time away from the prying eye of humans.

With its abundant wildlife, Białowieża was, for many centuries, the hunting ground of the tsars and later, Hermann Goering. The bison were hunted to near extinction in the first part of the 20th Century and although they have been reintroduced again, they still remain extremely vulnerable not least because of their limited gene pool.

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The big wooden gates which reveal a ‘Garden of Eden’

Our journey continues through the fairytale forest and we catch fleeting glimpses of rare woodpeckers, wild boar and deer along the way. We then make our way through the big, wooden gate to the special protection area of the forest, a Unesco heritage site which is accessible only with an accredited guide.

“Welcome to Europe 2,000 years ago,” Michał says as the gates close behind us. Sometimes described as a ‘Garden of Eden’ this swampy wilderness evokes romantic notions of what Europe was like before humans settled there and built towns and cities. Tall oaks, spruce and pines create a shaded canopy and the smell of wild garlic and rich, damp vegetation hangs in the air. Without human intervention, the forest is constantly regenerating and as trees die and fall, fungi, moss and other plants start to form in the nutrient-rich, decomposing bark.

Michał points out the footprints left by animals on the ground and my spine tingles at the thought of wild boar and wolves crossing this path just a couple of hours before we do.
Although the primeval forest is regularly visited by members of the scientific community and a small number of tourists Michał says that it could be under threat from foresters who want to use the wood for commercial purposes.

The forest may support a diverse ecosystem but some locals see the dead wood on the ground as a waste. Instead, they want to create areas of managed woodland containing the types of trees suitable for logging rather than those that occur naturally. The forest has been protected since the First World War; it has survived the turbulence of the Second World War (perhaps perversely because of Goering’s links to it) and the communist era. It would be a tragedy if it were destroyed at time when we are more knowledgeable than ever about this area of outstanding natural beauty.

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Moss and fungi grow on the dead trees.

 

– How to get there: We flew to Warsaw from Stansted Airport. It takes around four hours to drive to Białowieża. There is good range of places to stay from camp sites to hostels and bed and breakfasts. There are also a couple of upmarket hotels including the Twin Peaks-esque Hotel Żubrówka.

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A head for heights: Exploring Poland’s Tatra Mountains

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Mnch or ‘Monk’

“Lie back and relax”, our mountain guide Piotr said to me as I teetered at the top of the mountain on a fluorescent green rope.

“Easier said than done,” I thought to myself through gritted teeth, peering down and imagining myself falling head first onto the jagged rocks below.

I was about as far from relaxed as was possible. Not only am I a novice at rock climbing, I’m also petrified of heights. So rather than taking Piotr’s advice, I dangled inelegantly like a conker on a string and tried to cling onto the rocks.

My partner Alastair and I were climbing in Poland’s Tatra Mountains near the holiday resort of Zakopane. Piotr had picked us up from our guest house early that morning and we had driven up a winding mountain road flanked by densely-needled pine trees and traditional wooden chalets.

Our ascent began from an eerie, desolate car park just inside the national park. Piotr told us that during the communist years little thought was given to conserving this area’s natural beauty and a busy main road had cut right through it.

We stopped briefly at Morskie Oko, a clear, icy lake whose name, suffused with folklore, means ‘eye of the sea’. From here we could see the mountain we were going to climb: Mnich (or ‘monk’) which stands at just over 2,000m above sea level. A steady hike took us to the part where the only way up is with ropes.

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Alastair and me at the top of Mnch.

After an energy-boosting lunch of sandwiches and chocolate, along with some sugary cinnamon tea and a spicy sausage supplied by our guide, we began to climb. Piotr led the way, expertly picking his way up the rocks like a squirrel, while Alastair followed confidently behind. I, on the other hand, was decidedly more wobbly. And it didn’t help that as we were climbing, clouds had started to surround us, making it feel like we were in a smoky cauldron.

But when we reached the summit, the cloud cleared, revealing spectacular views of the brilliant blue Morskie Oko and the valley below which, as a mere hiker, you would not get to see. Still, I can’t say I wasn’t relieved when my feet were planted firmly on the ground again, with the thought of dumplings and a cold Żywiec in front of a blazing log fire to keep me going as we made our way down.

 

 

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Playful pictures: Cyril Blazo at The Moravian Gallery, Brno

cyrilI have just returned from the the Czech Republic’s second city Brno  – a beautiful, historic place where the streets are lined with grand central European buildings, theatres and churches and where the beer is as cheap as water. But unlike the country’s big sister Prague, there is not a stag do in sight and the warm Moravian climate brings a relaxed quality to the city as people while away the hours in one of the many pavement cafes and breweries.

One of the highlights of my trip was a visit to the Moravian Gallery (Moravska Galerie) with an exhibition by Czech artist Cyril Blazo. His collages look deceptively simple, even child-like. He takes pictures from magazines, newspapers and even colouring books and cuts out a shape in the picture. He then turns it over to place the picture on the reverse side onto the first picture creating humorous juxtapositions. Some of these work better than others. Some are simply playful while others make an implicit comment on the fact that we live in a world where we are surrounded by 2D images which can be deconstructed.

The Moravian Gallery itself is excellent. There are some outstanding works by early 20th Century Czech artists particularly from the expressionist and cubist movements. The mood of some of these paintings seems much darker than those produced by western European artists at this time and it was a good opportunity to see something not normally shown in the UK.

Other treats for art lovers in Brno include the beautifully painted Centre for Experimental Theatre and Cafe Falkwhich puts on live music and films in its basement. And not only does it do fantastic (and very cheap) coffee cocktails, it has some lovely vintage furniture and a really bohemian – sorry ‘Moravian’ – vibe.

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From the age of elegance . . . a glimpse into the Abraham Textilarchiv in Zurich

I was lucky enough to catch the last few days of the Soie Pirate exhibition at Zurich’s Landesmuseum,  a collection of pieces from the Abraham Textile Archive.

Throughout the softly-lit rooms there were some wonderful examples of colourful fabric patterns and swatches from the Zurich textile firm Abraham.

The opulent fabrics and timeless designs, most of which date back to the latter part of the 20th Century, perfectly evoked the elegance of the post-War era. The exhibition also draws together various aspects of the textile industry such as the craft of creating fabrics – shown by the printing table – as well as the firm’s links to the fashion world.

And forhigh-end vintage fashion lovers, there were some excellent examples of dresses by Yves Saint Laurent, Givenchy and many more using Abraham fabrics.

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Am I alone . . . strange goings-on at the Berlinische Gallerie

Walking through a ground floor room at the superb Berlinische Gallerie, I had a strange feeling that I wasn’t alone. In fact, I was surrounded by figures, including children, a receptionist and other guests breathing like human beings and appreciating the art on the wall.

It took me a moment to realise that I was the only sentient being in the room and these ‘people’ that I was surrounded by were mannequins who all formed part of American artists Edward and Nancy Kienholz’s installation The Art Show. The figures were grotesque – ugly, empty, bored figures with car parts instead of mouths breathing loudly. The vast room was used to great effect and every detail perfectly conceived – and I got the distinct impression this was a scathing attack on the art world as money-driven and pretentious.

The gallery also had a fantastic collection of Modernist art including Dadaism, Constructivism, Futurism, Expressionism and much more from both German and international artists. Some of the themes explored in this collection include the city, industrialisation, oppression under totalitarianism and war. Well worth a visit.

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