|It's good luck to have an ostrich nest on your roof.|
|Traditional modes of transport are still used, and not just for the tourists!|
|The modern curves of Hajnowka's orthodox church (inside is where the real treasures are though)|
We had breakfast in the homely half basement decorated with hunting trophies. Each table was set with a tray of meat and cheese, slices of tomato and cucumbers, and a hard-boiled egg, followed by freshly cooked little pancakes. We decided to use our extra day here and booked for an additional night straightaway. Just as well as they were all but full. While we stayed there the hotel had several groups of Dutch visitors, mostly independent cyclists and a “normal” tour group.
We walked to the full-sized “English-style” park (reminiscent of English parks with its natural look), which was an odd thing to have in such a small isolated village. Tsar Alexander III (?) had a palace here, to serve as his hunting lodge. Now all traces of the palace have been erased completely. The Soviets didn’t care much for Tsarist reminders, the Poles didn’t care to be reminded of the whatever it was – Germans? and the net result was the disappearance of the palace although the park remained. At the entrance was a small cabin, marked on our map with an “i” and marked out in large letters “it” and a sign saying Tourist Information Centre above the door. Inside the lady behind the counter answered our question for “tourist info?” by directing us to the museum.
We left confused but soon all was explained when inside the modern new museum we found an English-speaking girl who was very helpful in explaining our options and the best times to visit them. A complicated pricing system involved paying for various services to different agents: to her for the guide for a walk through the strict reserve, which we booked for early the following morning, but for the tickets for access to the strict reserve itself we had to pay separately, and for the horse and cart ride for this afternoon we had to pay the driver directly. None of this of course included access to the museum, with different prices for the watchtower, the temporary exhibition and the main exhibition (for which a guide, also priced separately, was mandatory) which we planned to do tomorrow. At least we had a few things booked, the first one the horse and cart ride through the northern parts of the forest, outside of the strict reserve.
We returned to our hotel and picked up Eddie, and drove round the quiet village streets, to the recommended Russian restaurant tucked away at the far end of the village, on the border between the village and the forest and fields. It looked lovely, a colourful wooden dacha but it looked a little too chic for us, more the “city break” thing, and we carried on and then drove out in the direction of Hajnowka and taking the sandy gravel road through the forest to Gruzki, to meet our horse and cart. We were early and stopped in the village for a drink. Not a touristic place, just one for the locals, who were splashing about in the little river running through the village.
A few kilometres further on we met our driver. Not a word of common language, we had to make do with nodding and laughing and shaking our heads, but we got on just fine. It was a pretty rustic affair, a basic cart with benches. The horse was bothered by a cloud of bugs that surrounded it, especially the nasty big horseflies which the driver tried to flick away with the reins. We drove along the paths, some tarmac, some gravel/sand, through the forest for the next two or three hours, not really sure what we were looking at. Sure, a lot of trees, but beyond that we were left clueless. The bugs bothered us a bit but fortunately for us they were far more interested in the horse’s behind. At various points our driver pointed out some features, such as a drying river or brook, a beaver dam, or picnic/party spots. He made it clear with animated gestures that these were spots, deep in the forest, where a lot of drinking, dancing and eating was done! It was definitely a beautiful and intriguing forest, but the sunshine, the warm weather and the lack of water and wind (except from our own movement) rather robbed it of any mystique, and the lack of commentary left us just looking rather dumbly on all this greenery. The main thing we noticed was the variety and mixture of trees.
We got back to the car and drove to Hajnowka by the main, non-gravel, road. At Hajnowka we visited the local Orthodox church, an example of high seventies modernist architecture with curves and unusual angles, which nonetheless managed to look old and venerable, and especially inside. We found a caretaker to let us in. Inside the church was a richly decorated and colourful marvel, with an elaborate iconostasis and a huge centrally suspended three-dimensional cross. No pictures allowed inside unfortunately. There didn’t seem to be anywhere to go for a drink here, and anyway, we had already had a picnic lunch in the car when we returned from our horse ride (bread, salami, fresh gherkins, lovely – windows shut to keep the bugs out, although they did try to batter their way in!) From here we drove towards Białowieża, aiming for the bison reserve for 5pm, “when they get fed”, but when we got there it turned out they would close at 5pm and we had only a few minutes left, so decided to keep it for tomorrow. We returned to the hotel and stayed on the terrace for drinks, games of cribbage and a meal later on. Maybe it was tonight that we met the Belgian girls, I’m not sure now.