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Local delicacy no.1: juicy summer berries
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Fishing in the lagoon
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Local wooden markers, used by fishermen
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Local delicacy no.2: strips of pig's ear with fried bread.

We slept well in our snug wooden room, waking up to bright daylight. I think I forgot to mention that yesterday we had a mini-picnic on our balcony – we must have gone out and come back at some point, or maybe was that today after all? Anyway, we sat on the balcony, me writing my diary, Ness reading or doing something on the laptop, with a tasy packet of small rollmops strips in rolls with gherkins, delicious, and cranberry + other berries juice, this one I think from the Ukraine. Anyway, just a little memory I had already nearly forgotten about. (“Now” is 31 July, and I’m sat at the desk at the back of the living at home in Wezembeek, visiting Mama for her birthday tomorrow!)

Back to today’s diary... We hired bikes down the road from our B&B, two comfortable bikes – wary after the last time I hired one and much too hasty. This time we made sure our posture and saddles were good, and then cycled through the village and along the lagoon towards the dunes on the southern side of the village. A sandy path led through the pine trees and after a short ride we reached the bottom of a tall dune. We parked the bikes and climbed the steps that led up the 50m high dune hill, puffing and sweating a bit.

At the top, wooden boardwalks crossed the dune. We had a look on one side from where we could look over the waters of the lagoon and then walked further uphill, through the sliding sands, reminding us of our walk to Dead Vlei in Namibia. At the top of the dune there was a large sun dial and the gnomon, the central pointy thing made from concrete, lay broken in three pieces, following an earthquake some years ago. From this point we had a great view looking out over the surrounding dunes and landscape. A mixture of sandy Sahara landscape combined with extensive green forests stretched off towards the south, where the spit continued into the Russian territory of Kaliningrad. In the distance I could see a watchtower and some other isolated contraptions, a rusty water container, but nothing like a town or village or signs of tourism. There were plenty of tourists on our side though, snapping away.

We walked back down, passing a couple of lads who were hopping their way up (big jump ahead, small one back, big jump ahead, etc. a surfeit of energy!) We unchained our bikes and tried to find the other path back into the village but just ended up on the same one and back by the road. Ness was not at ease on her bike and so we decided to return her bike and I would carry on on my own for the afternoon. After returning Ness’s bike we walked to the lagoonfront, to the quay at the centre of the little harbour where we had a drink at a café. The whole atmosphere is of a relaxed yet buzzing summer resort. People are out and about for a stroll, or on a boat trip on the lagoon, and there are a few white sails of yachts.

Ness then headed back to the B&B for a snooze/relax/reading, while I cycled first to the same restaurant from last night and made a booking for a table for 8.30, beating the Germans at their own game, and then started to cycle out of Nida and uphill to the top of another dune just outside the village. This one was covered in forest, not so desert-like. I puffed in the heat and found it hard work cycling uphill. At the top there was a small lighthouse. Rough Guide described wide-ranging views but with all the greenery around I could only get some glimpses in a few directions.

From here a narrow asphalt track wound through the pine trees and it was a pleasure to cycle along. I was just sorry that Ness was not here to enjoy it too. Across the other side of the spit lay the beach. I parked the bike behind the low ridge of the dune and climbed the wooden stairs to find a lovely wide stretch of beach, stretching away to north and south, and with lots of people out on the beach and swimming in the sea, all along the coast. There was plenty of space for everyone and I found myself a spot close to the water and just plonked on the sand for the next couple of hours. All around me Lithuanians were at play, a totally hassle-free summer atmosphere. I snoozed for a while and soaked up the sunshine. I felt like going for a swim but was wary of leaving my bag unattended. Later I cycled further up the spit and turned off on another entrance to the beach where there were some stands selling snacks and a beach-front bar where I had a cold beer and wrote my diary for a while. From here I cycled back to town. Along the way I stopped at a few stalls selling fruit and bought some cherries, more to “buy the picture” really. Five litas (€1.40) seemed a bit much for a small cup of cherries and I commented on the high price. The older woman at one of the two stalls said “We have separate stalls, we’re in competition with each other”. “OK, so how much for the cherries then?” She still insisted on 5 Lts, but the younger girl at the other stall caught my drift and dropped her price to 4 Lts. and threw in a few dark cherries.

I continued on the path through the trees, shared with some pedestrians, families heading back from the beach, and on the main road into the village back to the B&B. Ness had had a kip and shower and was feeling better for it but still a little “shaken” by the cycling. We had both had a pleasant afternoon, each in their own way, although Ness said she had been feeling a little out of sorts since this morning. So, back at the B&B. I had kept the bike as it had only to be returned by 10pm and maybe I could use it again. We got ready to go out, I dropped the bike off, and we found a bar by the harbour to go for a beer, and then headed for the little restaurant at the back (or front) garden of the blue-and-brown fisherman’s house. Glad we booked as there were plenty of people hunting for a table, some commenting on the fact that “they (i.e. us) have booked”. Ha! A tasty meal in charming surroundings. Ness was still not feeling totally at ease and the end of the evening fell a bit sour. We walked back to our B&B and nodded off, ready to carry on tomorrow. Nida and the Curonian Spit have been a great spot to come and have a look at and I think it would have been even better on a blustery off-season day, with clear beaches and a strong fresh wind blowing off those Baltic seas.

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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.

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It's good luck to have an ostrich nest on your roof.
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Traditional modes of transport are still used, and not just for the tourists!
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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.

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European bison
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European bison
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Evening entertainment

An early start for a morning walk with a guide through the strict reserve part of Białowieża forest. The idea was to be out in the cooler part of the day, which I assumed was to improve our chances of seeing animals, before they retreated into the shade during the hotter parts of the day. We threw clothes on and were at the museum by 6am, where we met Tomasz (Borowik – I think that was his surname), our twentysomething guide. We got on very well with him from the start. He was very good, not neglecting his role as a guide to tell us about the park, the palace and most importantly about the forest. His background and training was as a forestry scientist and his day job was to conduct surveys of the wolf and lynx population. He had an odd oogopslag (Dutch word, difficult to translate but it means generally how someone looks, i.e. using their eyes, not their appearance), which made it seem as if he was generally looking downward.

We walked through the park and then across a meadow to the entrance to the forest. A large wooden gate guarded the access. Tomasz told us about the various trees, the composition of the forest, its history and development, and pointed out different bits and pieces and how the whole ecosystem hung together: insects, fungi, trees; how different trees used different mechanisms to procreate, features of the different trees, such as the hollowing out process that took place within lime trees as they aged, the huge massive oaks which could live up to five hundred years, ash, pine, spruce with their very shallow root systems, how woodpeckers were instrumental in creating the perfect holes which could be used by other birds and animals later, and so on.

We walked for around three hours. It gradually got warmer, still pleasantly, and the bigs weren’t too much of a pain. We bumped into a few tiny groups also being led by a guide, like us. After a good circuit we returned to the main gate. A park warden had appeared and checked our tickets. Back through the palace park where we said bye to Tomasz. Very glad to have had a Polish point of view for a while. Most of our conversations have been limited to “transactions” in shops, restaurants, hotels, rarely getting beyond the standard to-and-fro. Tomasz was happy to tell us about the current Polish society and pre-occupations. He came across as a bit of a traditionalist, in a nice way. He was certainly old enough to remember the days of what he called “socialism”, and as someone who is highly educated was able to understand that this system could not continue as it was, particularly in the towns and cities, with food shortages and empty shops. But in the country, well, things had not been that bad, he said. In fact there was a sense of nostalgia from him, and his father likewise he said, for the old days when, well... “same, same, but different”... He said things had been better, more certain, without crime or social problems. He also explained how the changes, from communist eastern Europe as a larger community to membership of the EU basically resulting in Poles turning their backs on nearby Russia, and now people knowing more about what goes on in “the west” but nothing about other eastern European countries, their neighbours.

We returned to the hotel and went for breakfast and then, staying “smelly” and not stopping to shower, we drove out to the Bison Reserve in the forest west of Białowieża. Tomasz had suggested that now (9am) might be a good time, before it got too hot. We parked, immediately attracting the horseflies to the bonnet, and walked past the stalls selling local honey and cuddly stuffed bisons. The reserve was basically an open-air zoo, with a small number of large enclosures. The sun was already quite warm and the animals had sought refuge in the shade next to the fence or deep within their enclosures under the trees. We saw some sandy-coloured wild horses, tarpans I think, deer of various kinds, boar, but the two most impressive sights were the zubron, a cross between a cow and a bison, a massive curious looking animal that is said to be unstoppable once it has decided to go in a particular direction, and of course the bison themselves. A herd of about a dozen or so, including several young, looking fierce as they kicked up dust while moving about. A solitary moose looked odd, with its improbably tall legs and long curving hooves that resembled lady’s slippers. As we left the reserve we observed a heated argument between honey vendors. Quite funny to watch as the tempers and voices rose.

We returned to the hotel once more and spent some time in our room, me writing my diary. Ness is not actually keeping a diary on this part of our trip – I can sympathise a bit as it can be hard work, a chore sometimes, especially when you “fall behind” by a couple of days. On the other hand, if you don’t write down “the day” it is soon no more than a vague general memory and it just seems a pity to wander through a day without recording at least some of it. As it is, I feel I’m not capturing on paper what we are seeing, doing, feeling, and am only recording a basic sequence of events, but it may serve in future to re-awaken memories, and if I ever learn how to write properly these child-like notes may yet be useful!

Anyway, we spent some time in our room and later in the afternoon went out again, to the museum. We navigated the complex pricing system and bought tickets for the museum, for a guide to take us round the museum (obligatory, but to be paid separately), the temporary exhibition and entrance to the “watchtower”. We had to wait until 4pm for our guide so we went up the watchtower first. A lift took us up to the top, from where we could look over the tops of the trees of the palace park. Not much else to see really, besides the trees. The temporary exhibition featured some fantastic photographs, of Russian churches and more interestingly, of Russian faces and people connected with them, from an orthodox young priest reading from a book and surrounded by a group of young people listening intently, to old wrinkled faces with piercing or glazed eyes, to more portraits, a young boy with intense big blue eyes, covered up in black, and many more, also of religious objects, churches, etc. Further on there were more pictures, stunning nature photography by a German photographer showing bison in winter, moody forests, etc. Stunning images.

It was time to meet our guide, a young guy who clearly enjoyed the role of teacher/lecturer. He took us round the “multimedia experience”, a series of very well designed dioramas, rather than the conventional museum layout of stuffed animals and charts. This was an excellent way of bringing the forest to life and explaining how things hung together and connected to form a complete ecosystem. The dioramas did have plenty of stuffed animals but they were presented in the right context, in a copy of their natural environment, with forest lighting, going from early dawn to clear daylight, and I seem to recall there were also noises. Each of the more than a dozen dioramas focused on a different aspect of a different part of the forest or a different group of flora and fauna. Now we understood the need for a guide!

After we left the museum we followed our ears to the sounds of what sounded like a concert stage being prepared, hearing the sound test “one, two, one, two”. Tomasz had told us that tonight there was a village concert. We found the stage at one end of a parking area, with a café and terrace along one side. Some people had already taken seats and we stopped for a beer and a few games of crib. It gradually got busier and various acts did a quick sound check on stage. We stayed and carried on drinking and playing, and later had something to eat, some sort of tasty stew and a “potato sausage”. A Polish/Austrian couple later shared our table. We stayed on until well past 9pm, and walked back to our hotel.

Today we “hopped” over to see Mama for a few days, for Mama’s 75th birthday on Tuesday. On occasions like this it is of course very handy to be able to simply take a flight. It cuts our eastern European “chapter” in two halves, and whilst we’re now beginning to reach the end of our funds for travel I’m hoping they’ll stretch to let us complete the tour. Ness is right in saying we should be selective about the sights and places we want to see, and that should help us to still cover more than just “Czechia” and Slovakia.

So, we checked out and drove a long way from the forests of Białowieża to Warsaw airport. As we left Białowieża the rain started. I joked that at least it wasn’t as bad as those heavy rains we drove through heading back from St. Lucia to Hluhluwe (South Africa), but I spoke too soon. Minutes later we were driving through a heavy downpour, at times so heavy that even on the highest setting the windscreen wipers couldn’t clear any of the water. Overhead the clouds were dark, the tracks on the road filled with water, creating a real hazard of sliding, and I was wary of animals coming out of the tree cover (although why would they?) Out of the forest, past wet Hajnowka and on the country roads the rain gradually cleared. Inside the forest we had been driving straight through a barrage of lightning flashes which seemed incredibly close, right in front of the car. For the remainder it was a smooth and uneventful drive.

The traffic got busier as we got closer to Warsaw, but fortunately there was no freight traffic as it was a Sunday. We reached Warsaw and managed to avoid heading through the city centre but skirted the south-eastern side, a small road through the forest on this side. You would hardly know that we were only a stone’s throw from the city. With luck and navigation we found the airport and our parking. A lot of building work was in progress, modernisation of the airport. It certainly looked as if it could do with it. For now we had to muddle our way through, from the rather chaotic car park into the dated terminal. It went easily enough and we had allowed enough time, and the drive had taken less time than we had figured. In a way, the main hall reminded me of Hannover and Chennai airports, with its “V” shape. A long queue of people was waiting to check in for Newark, but there were far fewer for ours. We had a look at the food options on the “land side” and decided instead to go through to departures instead, and found a decent self-service cafeteria and had a meal. Then it was time for our flight. We boarded the small Embraer plane, 2x2 seating, very smart, and after a bumpy flight of a mere two and a half hours made a smooth landing in Brussels. We called Mama, hired a car, and a bit later were home, seated round the table having tea, coffee and dinner. We chatted with Mama, and I was amazed how easily we had made the crossing, from waking up this morning in a village on the eastern fringes of Europe, next to the Belarus border, to being together with Mama at home. It’ll be good to have a couple of days where we’re not just focused on our own travels, but I am looking forward to “part two”!

We spent two days together with Mama in Wezembeek-Oppem, relaxing and not travelling or sightseeing. It was good to be home for a couple of days!