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20060727_P_0278 crop lo-res
Long bus day saw us head back into Poland again
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To the land of the European bison

The plan for today was to head at least to Kaunas and possibly beyond, in order to put us close enough to Warsaw to reach it in good time for our flight to Brussels on 30 July. Somehow we had miscalculated or not taken account of the time and discovered that we actually had a day in hand to spend somewhere. Kaunas, Lithuania’s second city, seemed a suitable spot. We had breakfast in silence and started the day not in the best of moods, remains of yesterday odd mood. We packed up Eddie and settled our bill, €72/night was very pricey, and then left Nida, a lovely little discovery, at least from our perspective even if lots of Germans have already discovered it. A Lithuanian little gem, with its combination of the lagoon, dunes, pine forests and colourful fishing village with its blue and maroon wooden houses serving as tourist accommodation in the summer, and with its agreeable summer buzz.

It was a quiet zoom up the spit along the main (only) road, cruising at a steady 70km/h through the forest, through Juodkrantė, past the police control and onto the little roll-on/roll-off ferry. It took us across the small passage at the northern end of the lagoon, back to Klaipeda and we made our way out of the city along its wide 3- and 4-laned highways, lumpy and with deep tracks in many places, past huge stretches of anonymous apartment buildings as only the Soviets can come up with. Interesting to see them though, before they’re consigned to the past.

We finally made it onto the motorway and from here all the way to Kaunas it was a flat straight stretch of motorway, smooth, flat, and an “unrelenting” (RG) monotonous agricultural landscape on either side. Mostly fields, some stands of forest, but on the whole just flat. We swapped driving earlier, at the end of the spit. Now we just pushed on and on the smooth road reached Kaunas by early afternoon.

It didn’t look like all that much. First the untidy outer bits, and at the centre a fairly hum-drum town, with an old town quarter at one end, near the bend in the river, and a long straight stretch which formed the centre of the new town. We parked and found tourist info, along the long leafy pedestrian boulevard that runs through the length of the new town. Our Rough Guide was right when it described Kaunas as having a distinctly provincial atmosphere compared to Vilnius. Tourist info could only offer us expensive business hotels or a cheap private apartment. We drove round to take a look at it and decided to pass on it (as we did in Tartu, welching on the telephoned agreement made at tourist info) and drove into the old town. After trying a few other hotels (Best Western too expensive, ditto others by phone), re-consulting what Rough Guide had say about Kaunas, and realising we had plenty of time left to head well into Poland, we made a change to our plans and decided instead to drive all the way to the Białowieża forest, on Poland’s very eastern border, right next to mysterious Belarus.

We pushed on. Well, it was just a matter of driving and the occasional swap-over. No motorway though, back to normal A roads, with difficult overtaking, a combination of Eddie’s right-hand drive and a lot of freight traffic. Sometimes we got into a long clear stretch and could just trundle. The landscape – green, trees, wheat fields, and after we crossed into Poland we again saw more storks on their nests on rooftops or picking for insects in recently harvested fields. Also the roadside berry or cherry vendors reappeared. The eastern side of Poland, Rough Guide told us, was the poorest region, an area not often visited and hardly known about even by the Poles themselves.

We reached the town of Białystok and then started cutting across, heading south-east, to the small town of Hajnówka, and then east from there into the Białowieża forest. The end point was the small village of Białowieża on the southern side of the forest. This stretch of forest is “the last major tract of primeval forest left in Europe”. Before reaching the forest we passed through small tiny villages which looked rather forgotten. Not exactly destitute or poor but very much on the periphery of Poland, quiet rural little places where people sat on benches in front of their hedges or houses as we trundled through. Further on we passed through Hajnówka and then entered a very long stretch of forest. It was all trees to me, but I was aware that this was an unusual forest, an “original” forest, left undisturbed because of a fortunate sequence of events. Kings and emperors treated it as their personal hunting ground, and the home to the European bison, a small population bred from stock in a zoo at the start of the twentieth century after their extinction in nature by hungry German soldiers during the first world war.

We had the windows shut and air-con on, a shame to be missing out on the fresh air around us but the road was thick with all sorts of bugs, very clearly visible in the early evening sunlight, and also very clearly audible as they pocked off the windows and bonnet, pock, pock, pock. They include the large nasty looking horse flies, resembling huge wasps. We reached the sleepy agricultural village of Białowieża with its wooden single-storey farmhouses along with a few large hotels, one in construction, extending, the other like a large alpine hut. We had called ahead to book for an RG-recommended hotel and were glad to find it, a small characterful affair tucked between the normal farmhouses along the quiet main street. We parked Eddie and checked in, and then went to relax with a few beers on the hotel’s patio area.

At the table next to us three Belgian girls were planning their next leg and were glad to borrow our Rough Guide to complement their Flemish Trotters guide. We had dinner on the patio too, and at the end of the evening, including quite a few local Zubr beers and Zubrowka vodkas, toddled off to bed. Glad we made it here rather than staying in Kaunas, and looking forward to a bit of nature for tomorrow.