Białystok, Poland – Do you know the danger of a single story? Perceiving a country or a population through one specific lens over and over again? And when you actually visit a place, you discover how one-sided, outdated and limited your initial opinion was. When tourists think about Poland, they usually associate it with cities like Krakow and Warsaw, famous historical and artistic figures like Chopin… and of course Auschwitz along with all the other places and events linked to the tragedy of the Holocaust and World War II.
So, in the spirit of learning something new every day, let’s take a look at Poland from a different perspective. Let me bring you to places from my homeland that rarely end up in travel lists. First stop: the Podlasie region – including Suwalszczyzna – located in the north eastern corner of the country, next to the Lithuanian and Belarussian border, a region often forgotten and overlooked by Polish and foreign tourists alike.
Before World War II, Podlasie was one of the most ethnically diverse regions of Poland. During the markets days held in the streets of Tykocin, Białystok, Supraśl and others, one could hear an incredible mix of languages – Polish, Russian, Ukrainian, Hebrew, Belarussian and many more. Ludwik Zamenhof, who took note of their inability or difficulties to communicate in everyday life, came up with the idea of creating a universal language to help people in Podlasie – and all over the world – communicate without barriers: Esperanto was born.
Some traces of the centuries-old multiculturalism can still be found today. Many of the last remaining representatives of Poland’s Muslim minority, the Tatars, still live in the quiet town of Kruszyniany. And although most of the synagogues are gone, were destroyed or fell into ruin, the colorful and beautifully ornamented Orthodox Christian and Catholic churches can be found everywhere. And go superbly well with their little sidekicks – the small chapels scattered everywhere throughout the region.
Podlasie is often referred to as the “alley of miracles”. Probably due to the strong cult of St. Mary, a great number of revelations have taken place in the region. Hell, there’s even a research institute of miraculous phenomenon at the University of Białystok, which specializes in the study of miracles. Spoiler alert: they’re not Ghostbusters.
But the crown jewel of Podlasie is its natural beauty, with as many as 4 national parks located within the voivodeship: Wigierski, Biebrzański, Narwiański and Białowieski. Anyone who has been there might arguably consider this part of Europe as one of the wildest they’ve ever visited… and among the most breathtaking. If you haven’t spent a night in Suwalszczyzna , you don’t know what pitch black is.
The parks are hide-outs and get-away destinations, not only for animals but also tourists and travelers wishing to spend their holidays away from the crowds. Each summer, forests along the rivers Czarna Hańcza and Rospuda turn into little, rough campsites. These crystal-clear rivers are then overtaken by eager kayakers.
These river roads used to be completely uninhabited and the only sign of human presence one could have hoped for was coming across the so-called “Berry Bun Ladies”, local women who stood on the little bridges and river banks offering their home-made pastries. Nowadays, the trail is becoming more and more crowded and lively, and it’s easier to find what you need to fully satiate your appetite.
Written by Justyna Dzik Wykrętowicz
Born in Kozienice, central Poland, Justyna studied law at Krakow’s Jagiellonian University and lived in Warsaw and Budapest. Lawyer by profession and traveler by passion, she publishes her stories about lesser-known and off-the-beaten track parts of Poland on Plan Poland and Z dala od biura. A bike-addict, fan of non-fiction books and enthusiastic writer, she joined the team of Kafkadesk contributors in September.