The train, a little railcar, bumped steadily along the worn tracks in deepest Podlasie in a stultifying heat. The sky was a threatening grey, with the air heavy and we were heading deliberately to the edge of Poland - the frontier land of the east. We had no exact idea of our final destination that day, just that it was an invitation to a place far away from the noise and bustle of the city and was tucked away in the middle of nowhere. I had checked the forecasts for the day – severe storms with high winds and the potential for tornadoes were not just forecast, but on their way, and my main hope was that we would not get caught in a boiling atmospheric maelstrom whilst waiting for our lift from our friends. It would be inopportune to be to be stuck in middle of nowhere without any shelter. Which is precisely what we managed to do.
The plan was simple enough – we were going to visit our friends Magda and Zbyszek in their little wooden house near Wygonowo. To save them picking us up in Białystok, needing a second car, we got the train down
to Kleszczele a village in the south of the region close to the Belarussian border. An hour or so there would be just fine to take some late afternoon shots of some appropriately rustic scenes of the eastern borderlands of Poland. A veritable “Polska Egzotyczna” indeed. We’d ring up our friends to let them know we had arrived at the station and it would just work out from there. But that morning, in Bialystok, a check on the internet revealed there was a tiny flaw in the plan, if our destination station should be subject to missing shelter. An inspection of www.estofex.org, confirmed this risk (and even pogodynka.pl, after a while, once they realised, oh yes, that violent cold front will work its way right through to the far east).
It was with some trepidation therefore that we alighted the train at Kleszczele to find that the station’s only accommodation was in fact a private house and a bench which was occupied by a professional drunk.
The sky had a distinctly ominous shade of yellowy-grey so we looked at the track to the village of Kleszczele about a mile away and I assessed the coming storm to be
20 minutes off. So we checked the old goods depot (just some desultory kids on a motorbike - not the greatest company) and decided to head along the road towards the junction. A quick mobile call to our friends revealed that as far as the mobile networks were concerned, we were firmly within the confines of Belarussia and would be charged accordingly, that is about ten times the Polish network. Even then we didn’t get an answer. Which was a problem, as we needed to confirm where we actually were. A kindly old lady asked if she could help but there was no answer using her phone which was happily connected to the Polish network. She suggested we make our way to a bus shelter near the roundabout. Which we did, assuming it would be taking on the characteristics of some fortified building rather than the flimsy glass and metal arch that it actually was. So we beat a hasty retreat back to the goods depot back at the station (with its fine private house and bench) as the thunder rumbled over our heads and the first drops of rain splashed down. As we got to the depot the heavens
It was at this point I dearly hoped that Zbyszek would know to give the station a visit (as Kleszczele was over a mile away). The weather was getting decidedly dramatic, and suddenly a small red van turned up and somebody hopped out. Kasia ran after the figure and they proceeded to follow each other around the private house until they saw each other. Zbyszek got the van up to us and we piled our stuff in and jumped in for our road trip through the blistering storm.
We coursed our way through the sodden plain for some miles before the road became a track and then we turned off that, down a rougher track which wound down in between the trees. Through the darkness punctuated by angry flashes of lightning we saw through the window a candlelit gateway. A truly magical entrance as we finished our journey and went to the little wooden house in the trees, to be greeted by Magda on the threshold. Inside was a dimly lit fairy tale of a place, wooden decorations, carvings and herbs. What a start for our Podlasian trip!
The next day we took a stroll around
the area. We took some woodland tracks and crossed the river by means of a bit of old concrete telegraph pole (one of them narrow ones with holes in) and there Magda and Zbyszek’s neighbour, Grzegorz, showed us the field where ball lightning had apparently struck. This item of atmospheric mischief had caused some kind of very odd chemical reaction in the soil, as since five years, crops no longer grew on the patch were it had struck. We also got treated to some home made vodka, made from grapes (yes, eastern Polish grapes!) which was remarkably smooth.
The next day we borrowed some bikes and set out on a trip to Grabarka, which is an Orthodox pilgrimage site. Our bikes weren’t really in a state for medium distance touring nor was the big rucksack a great idea – but needs must and we could only take so much equipment from England. The weather was fine and warm and we wended our way through back lanes via Nurzec Stacja. Nurzec Stacja provided us with sustenance in the form of a shop selling Tymbark juice and Prince Polo wafers. We then carried on, through the densely wooded countryside taking it
Pilgrimage crosses, Grabarka
All of these crosses were brought to Grabarka by pilgrims
in turns to schlep the rucksack. Our final approach was on a gravel road which was increasingly hard work – we had to get back after this! It felt a bit of a pilgrimage. Finally we turned onto the approach road which was busy with cars, and people dropping by. Grabarka was still busy after the recent Transfiguration of Christ festival. We topped up some water at the pump, which happened to be holy water. Grabarka is on a steep hillock where there is a church and nunnery. We saw the church and an exhibition on pilgrimages over the years.
Then we made our way back, passing a small road accident where someone had navigated their vehicle into a ditch. It was a bit of a slog on the road back once the effect of the holy water had run out;
but once we were on the back roads from Milejczyce, we stopped by the Orthodox church for a break and then carried on in the beautiful early evening light.
The last day at the cottage we spent relaxing. Magda and Zbyszek’s wooden cottage won a prize a being the second best restored heritage building in the whole
some good advice for t' kids
Podlasian region. Sad to say, but the house, garden and woods were all threatened by a new bypass. The recommended route is by far the longest, but because of compensation it is cheaper to build the new road through the woods even though they have Natura 2000 status. It is a horrible irony, that having a car and using the main 19 road makes having this cottage possible – but it will also lead to its destruction as a place to live – the road would be a few metres from the front door. As wet set off back to Białystok with Magda, thunder once again rumbled around and our progress northward was into the bad weather. The storms were odd – very high clouds, very big raindrops and a very low rainbow just skirting to tops of a plantation in the near distance. We bypassed another road incident and within seconds some clown overtook us at high speed down the cobbled road that was our diversion. Such is the state of driving in Poland.
Our stay in Białystok was brief, and quick change of equipment and preparation for our next little adventure: a two day kayak trip down the streams of the Knyszyn Forest.
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