Poland is a country emerging from its past, beautiful without hordes of tourists, it’s a playground for nature lovers particularly the Bialowieza Forest, a UNESCO heritage site , and home to about 800 European bisons.
01:16 Kim and Phil attempting to pronounce some Polish towns well off the beaten path
05:18 What has Trainspotting got to do with Joe’s visit to Poland?
09:10 Anthea traces her family history
16:13 Natalie also has Polish roots
22:35 We discuss dark tourism
26:21 Travel News
29:13 Cycling with bison
34:00 What has Kim won?
“If you want a sense of where a country's been and where it's going, you would go to Poland.” - Joe
“There's a lot going on there. It's a very vibrant place to spend a few days. You could go there, and you would never know about the dark side.” – Anthea speaking about Lodz
There's a time and a place for selfies and giving the victory symbol. And that's at the beach or in front of the Eiffel Tower, but it's not in front of an archway that is famous for all the people getting off the trains and walking into Auschwitz.” – Kate discussing Dark Tourism
“It's a very beautiful country. I think a lot of people are definitely surprised by it…” - Natalie
“The European bison is similar in weight, a little bit less heavy, than the American bison. They stand the fraction taller, but they're not quite as chunky. But they're still really big animals…”- Steve
In this episode we also hear from Anthea’s son’s girlfriend Natalie Guzy, who Anthea was visiting at the time of recording.
Joseph Furey is a writer, his credits include The Times, Telegraph, Independent, Guardian, National Geographic, and Vice. As a writer for World Nomads, Joe has contributed stories about underrated US cities and off-the-beaten-path Polish towns.
As editor-in-chief of Action Asia magazine, Steve White roams widely from his base in Hong Kong in search of paths less-trodden. Read his story about biking with Bison.
World Nomads Managing Editor Kate Duthie is passionate about showing her daughters the world. Kate and the girls have just returned from England and the UK. You can read her articles here.
Scholarships Newsletter: Sign up for scholarships news and see what opportunities are live here.
Do you love taking photos and keen to turn your passion into a profession? Apply for a photography scholarship to Mongolia here.
Win a trip for two to Turkmenistan with Atlas Obscura.
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About World Nomads & the Podcast
Explore your boundaries and discover your next adventure with The World Nomads Podcast. Hosted by Podcast Producer Kim Napier and World Nomads Phil Sylvester, each episode will take you around the world with insights into destinations from travelers and experts. They’ll share the latest in travel news, answer your travel questions and fill you in on what World Nomads is up to, including the latest scholarships and guides.
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Kim: Don't skip! Kim and Phil with you, exploring a destination with a very dark history. But it's beautiful, without hordes of tourists, has unique architecture, and is a playground for nature lovers. Where are we heading, Phil?
Phil: We're going to Poland, where the vodka is reportedly better than Russia's, and according to a Swedish nomad blogger, travelers get value for money— grocery stores, restaurants, public transport, and all the activities are all cheaper than most other European countries. So let's find out more about Poland.
World Nomads: Welcome to The World Nomads Podcast, delivered by World Nomads, the travel lifestyle and insurance brand. It's not your usual travel podcast. It's everything for the adventurous, independent traveler.
Kim: Now, Poland's history is very complicated. In this episode, we will touch on Russian and German occupation and the atrocities of World War II, but also celebrate a country emerging from its past, or at least refusing to be defined by it.
Phil: That's right. We'll meet a man who went cycling with bison —yes, I did say that— a writer who chats, who is about tracing her family roots, and we discuss dark tourism, plus much more.
Kim: Let's get into it with Joe, who says his middle name should have been Wanderlust, but his parents weren't that imaginative.
Phil: Or stupid.
Kim: He's explored some off-the-beaten-paths destinations in Poland, and in typical Kim and Phil fashion, we can't pronounce them.
Phil: This is fun.
Kim: One of the names of the places-
Phil: Can I have a shot? Can I give it a go?
Kim: Yeah, Phil will have a go.
Joe: Have a go, mate.
Phil: Was it [Chocolov 00:01:30]?
Kim: I told you it wouldn't be that!
Phil: What is it then?
Kim: You were hopeless. All right.
Phil: I haven't got a chance.
Kim: Okay, the second one. Do you want to have a crack at that one?
Kim: I'll have a crack at this one, then. [Zamosh 00:01:47].
Phil: No, go on.
Joe: Very close.
Kim: Oh! What is it?
Joe: It's more of a T at the end. There's the cia-whatever accent they put on it; I forget its name. It's more of a K-T sound. And it leaves a kind of T in the air without being really struck.
Kim: So it's [Zamokt 00:0205]?
Joe: It's like a little kiss of a T.
Kim: Look, I don't care. I was just closer than Phil's. We're very competitive people. This is a really good slip into this particular language that I can't pronounce, but it's Polish, Slavic and Balkan, all in one. Now, Polish is difficult enough, but you add those other two in. Where are we talking about? What area of Poland?
Joe: So we're talking about the southwest, and we're talking about a biggish chunk of the southwest, but it might as well be nowhere. So the region we're talking about is the Podhale region, and it's mostly mountainous, or the foothills of the Tatras mountains. And it's a place of deep mysteries. Every mountain path invites misadventure. It's really easy to get lost there. The 21st century hasn't found it, yet. It's as if no one can find it. It's too busy, I don't know, wearing pigtails and milking goats. And its version of Polish will leave most Polish dumbfounded. My attempts to come in, with what I thought was big city Polish, they were laughed out of town almost with a pitchfork. It's kind of embarrassing.
Kim: Can I ask? When we were reading through your story, I said to Phil, "It sounds very much like Austria or the Swiss Alps when you talk about fiddles, and Alpine horns, and decorative axes, and salted sheep's milk." Am I on the right track?
Joe: Yeah, you're right. Except, of course, the Górale— the people who live there. And there are Polish Górale; there are Slovak Górale; apparently, there are even some Romanian. I don't know how that works, but either way, the Górale are a kind of law unto themselves, and they're also borders unto themselves. They don't really see Slovakia, Poland, the Czech Republic. What they see is a bunch of people much like them, who have held together culturally in a way that the Austrians have sold out. And so, when we talk about the Alpine such and such, whether it be on a meadow, pasture, or a horn, they call it the Górale. And so they'd expect any other Alpine people to refer to that kind of horn as a Górale horn.
Kim: This is in Chocholow?
Phil: Something. I don't know.
Kim: [inaudible 00:04:30].
Kim: How'd you find yourself there?
Joe: Okay, so this is kind of interesting. The first Góral I met was this boxer— amateur; not bad. More like just a scrapper, really. And he was sent to this gym in Chicago to kind of get the worst of his technique out of his system. Because he'd be head-butting people in boxes [inaudible 00:04:55].
Joe: So I met with him and he explained who he was. And when the Górale talk about who they are, they talk about what they are, where they belong. He belonged to this Polish Highlanders Association, because one is in Chicago. And the boxing gym I met him at was the one that Irvine Welsh, writer of Trainspotting, used to go to. I'm not allowed to mention the name of it, because he still goes there and he doesn't want to get mobbed. But there was a big Górale boxing population there. I think there was six or seven scrappers, and that's how I got introduced to it.
Kim: And you just decided that you'd go and visit?
Joe: Well, my father was Polish. Well, kind of my family though, the Wobijs: W-O-B-I-J. That's not how it was pronounced there or at the time, but border guards of 10 years and bad spelling, and I ended up with this W-O-B-I-J surname. I didn't get on with my father, but I was curious about the gene pool. I thought there might be someone nicer than him out there, so I headed to Poland.
Kim: So, your father was Jewish-Polish?
Joe: Yes, that's right. Although our family was kind of what I would call Trans-East-European. Like a lot of the Jews at the time, they were kind of kept on the move. They didn't really get to settle anywhere, but the bulk of the family were in Poland, and sadly, met the end that most of the Polish Jews did during The Second World War.
Phil: There's a fellow who used to work for us here at World Nomads who is of Polish ancestry, as well. And that whole Nazi-occupation and that whole period there, which was absolutely brutal to the Polish people, after all these years still has an effect on the psyche and the way the people in the country operate.
Kim: We will hear more about that, actually, as we venture deeper into the podcast.
Joe: Of course.
Phil: But that was your experience there, too?
Joe: Not entirely. You've got a sort of country in two halves: the metropolitan areas are trying to move on as best they can, and you'll find that right across all, once Nazi-occupied, and then Soviet-occupied territories. And the really sad thing for Poland, and you could say the same about the Baltics —so Latvia, Lithuania; less so Estonia— is they welcomed the Nazis because they were suffering under the Soviets. And then they learned to hate both, by which time it was too late. So history has been very unkind to the Polish, whilst they suffered both ends of it. And it's wrestling with that more than anything else. What do you do when you're under that kind of yoke?
Kim: As I said, we'll explore that further as we're get in the podcast.
Phil: Okay. Let's get back up the mountains.
Kim: Yeah, let's get back up the mountain. What I wanted to ask you in closing, despite that history —and we are going to touch on dark tourism, as well— why else would someone, a world nomad, want to visit Poland?
Joe: Because it's endlessly fascinating; more so than Germany, really. If you want a sense of where the country's been and where it's going to, you would go to Poland. It is putting on weight, putting on proper timber, in terms of its economic health. Brexit is an issue of course in the UK, but all of the Poles I know that have done all right in the UK are heading back. They're reinvesting in their own country. There's enormous skill-base there, which most other countries have benefited from, and now it's perking up economically. People are going back with a little more cash in their pockets to a country that can enormously benefit from them. It's always good to see some [inaudible 00:08:54] optimism. Europe's licking its wounds, still, in various different places now. But to go to Poland is to see a place that is really on the up. And that's no kind of propaganda version; it's really on the up. And it's bringing its people back and everyone's holding hands. It's kind of interesting.
Kim: Anthea is a writer based in the UK, but she travels the world in search of stories. And she went to Poland to trace her family history in a city that, again, I can't pronounce.
Anthea: Well, the funny thing is, my father who was born in England, so he never went there, but he used to say to me "Our people came from [Ludj 00:09:35]." And I always thought it was pronounced "Ludj," and it wasn't until I met somebody from there who said, "You know, it's Łódź." No, I had no idea.
Kim: So, it's spelled L-O-D-Zed, or Zee.
Anthea: Z. But you pronounce it as if it was spelled W-O-O-G-G-E.
Kim: So tell us about this place.
Anthea: Well, it was a place that rural Polish peasants thought was paved with gold because there were textile factories there, and there was this endless demand for labor. And people just flocked in there and thought they were going to make their fortune. But in fact, they were working for slave wages, and living in tenements, and working in sweatshops. So it was a bit grim, but there was work and maybe there wasn't work where they came from.
Anthea: And there was already a textile factory there; actually, with better conditions. But when the Jewish Poles came in, a separate one was built by a Jewish-Polish magnate, and he didn't look after them so well, and didn't build them special housing. So they just lived in tenements, really. And the worst of it is, he built a huge mansion for himself, which adjoins the factory. So they would've been looking at his mansion when they when they came out. It's now a boutique hotel, but it has all its factory structure intact and some of the machines. So you still have that feeling of what it was like, except it's quite chic now and you sleep there. It's a boutique hotel. It's called Manufacturer.
Kim: See, I love that— places are hanging on to their history and doing things. Rather than bulldozing places like that, they're embracing it. But this was a place where your great-grandparents lived, and as you've just explained, it was pretty grim.
Anthea: Yeah. So they lived in a proper neighborhood. It wasn't like factory housing, so the neighborhood was just down the road. And I had addresses because one of my cousins is a genealogist and he had found there very good records kept in Poland, actually, of where people are buried and where lived from censuses. So I was able to go and find the address that my great grandmother had lived at.
Kim: And it wasn't pretty, you explain in your story.
Anthea: Yeah, the building was still standing, but it was quite derelict. But the worst of it is, is that it overlooked what looks now like quite a pretty little park, which used to be a market square. But in World War II, it became a place of public execution, because there was this huge ghetto in Lodz. It was the second one, after the Warsaw ghetto. And a whole lot of Jews from all over Europe were kind of herded into it before being shipped out to the camps. So there was this dark side that I never knew about, and hadn't expected to find out about. But I went on a walking tour with a historian who specialized in that and he took us everywhere. He didn't just try and show the pretty parts.
Kim: You also say that it's not promoted as a tourist site?
Anthea: No. It's not hidden, either. And there's this special station, which was completely unexpected, and it was a station which really wasn't in use. It was once a cargo line or freight station— a small station. And the Nazis completely appropriated it to ship off Jews. And what they did at first, they didn't take them very far. They took them a few miles down the line and then just shot them all in the train before they stopped shooting, because it was getting too expensive. So then they started sending them to camps and gassing them.
Anthea: So there is this station, which is an amazing museum that I wasn't expecting to see any of this stuff. There's one of those cattle-truck trains, an actual one, which is on the platform. So that was quite grim.
Anthea: And then in the waiting room there are all these documentations. The Nazis were so pedantic that even though they were committing war crimes, they were writing down everybody's name, every detail of who they killed, when. It was all written down. And they retrieved everything off the bodies— bottles, jewelry, everything. And there are these display cases in the waiting room, and all this stuff is in them, so it's intense. It's very moving.
Anthea: And it was quite unexpected; I didn't expect to see any of this. And I'm not going to any concentration camps, and I probably might not have gone to the station, but by the time I found out what was there, I was there. And in a sense, it is a place of pilgrimage. You do see there was some groups there of American Jews and Israeli Jews. I guess there's probably a Jewish-tourism industry in Poland. People do want to go to these places who had ancestors there. It's part of your heritage, so there is a demand for it.
Anthea: Anyway, I was glad, in the end, that I saw it. I was very glad that my great-grandmother left for England before she saw any of that.
Kim: Such a grim history, but then you round off your article saying it's now celebrated.
Anthea: It's completely re-invented itself. Because all the mills stopped production. I can't quite remember why, but the mills went out of business around the turn of the 20th century and it re-invented itself. It's the filmmaking capital of Poland— there's a film school there; there are studios there. It has this very long thoroughfare, which is about three miles long, 5K, lined with restaurants and cafes, and it has street art. There's a lot going on there. It's a very vibrant place to spend a few days. You could go there and you would never know about the dark side. And it also has a new science museum. It has a beautiful new station. It's a gorgeous station, the main station. Very easy to reach from Warsaw— hour and 20 minutes. And it's a delightful place to visit, actually.
Kim: Phil, it was at this point that Anthea passes me onto her son's girlfriend, Natalie, whose family also has Polish roots.
Natalie: Although my grandparents were not Jewish —we are a Catholic family— actually, both of my grandmothers were taken by the Nazis and taken to forced-labor camps during World War II. So that was something very interesting because a lot of people don't really realize that not only were the Jews taken during World War II, but just Polish citizens, as well.
Kim: Do you find in Poland that there is that dark history that attracts travelers?
Natalie: I definitely think so, yeah, especially Auschwitz. I was in Krakow this past summer and we were debating whether to go. We had a few extra days, but I don't think I was emotionally in the right place to go to it. I think you really need to prepare yourself, but I do think a lot of people when they do go, that is one of the main attractions they do want to visit when in town.
Natalie: They actually just opened a new museum in the town square in Krakow, because during some renovations, they started doing some digging up of the town square to replace the pipes and things. And they actually found the old structure of the old town dating back to the Byzantine Empire right under Krakow's main square. And no one knew what was there, but now it's something so important. Kind of explains how the town went through the changes throughout the years.
Natalie: Then when I talked to my grandmothers about it, it was kind of strange because they didn't really put such a dark light onto it. Of course it was a tragic event, but they were mostly just about how they were treated actually very well in these forced-labor camps. No, they weren't raped, or beaten, or treated badly. The people there actually took care of them pretty well, but it was just a tragic situation.
Natalie: My grandmother, specifically, she was in church on a Sunday and that's when the Nazis came in and took her and her sister. They didn't take her father or anything. But after they were released and sent back to their town, the story was just a little bit different. The town was destroyed and her father was killed by the Nazis during that time. So when they came back, they just came back to essentially nothing. They were 14, 15 years old and they just had to re-adjust how their lives would be. I asked them, "How did you make money to support yourselves?" Because they didn't make it through high school and they didn't really have any trade to go into. So they said they actually wove baskets to make money to kind of support themselves.
Kim: See, I would have thought as Catholics, that it would have been just leave the country, but not so.
Natalie: My family was very poor, so maybe those opportunities weren't really presented at the time. And a lot of people in Poland, they were very loyal to their country and they didn't want to leave, even though things were so bad. They kind of wanted to stay and protect themselves. I'm sure a lot of people did leave, but even when I went back this time, a lot of the villages kind of did seem abandoned. And I asked my father about that because I don't really remember it being like that the last time I was there. And he said, now that Poland is part of the EU, a lot of people have more opportunities and it's easier for them to travel throughout Europe and get different kinds of jobs. But I don't think a lot of people had those opportunities, especially since in Poland under the communistic role, life was very tough.
Kim: You obviously, or your grandparents, haven't let that moment in history define them. But I'm guessing, talking to you in 2019, ticking over into 2020, it's still very much a conversation within your family.
Natalie: Yeah, absolutely. And this past trip was just very interesting because I was always interested in seeing how my parents dealt during that time. And they said it was a very tough life. They didn't have the opportunities a lot of other countries in Europe did have during that time. So even my parents, in the 80s, they decided to essentially give up their Polish citizenship in exchange for the opportunity to be able to go to Germany. So they both moved to Hamburg, Germany and lived there for a while. And then eventually, even Germany wasn't that great, so they decided they wanted to move to America to give their children a better opportunity at life, and a little bit of an easier life than what they had experienced during their childhood and growing up.
Kim: You said it's part of the EU, now. Obviously, we know that, and it's opened as a destination. What would you say to people that are considering traveling there? What would they get out of Poland?
Natalie: It's a very beautiful country. I think a lot of people are definitely surprised by it, because you have the beautiful countrysides, which are very well up-kept, a lot of farming, and still a lot of people providing for themselves using farming techniques because they do want to keep that healthy lifestyle. But the people are so nice, they're so giving, and they're so willing to help anyone. And then in the big towns, I think there's just so much history that can be learned about, and I think people are really drawn to that. And also just the architecture is beautiful in itself.
Anthea: So Kim, I was in Warsaw... Maybe somebody else has told you this; it was a complete surprise to me. First of all, it had been entirely destroyed by the Nazis. And secondly, that it has been completely re-constructed as it was in the 18th century, and you would never know. It looks original. It's been so beautifully done.
Kim: So who pulled the money into resurrecting Warsaw?
Anthea: Somehow, the Poles did it themselves. They were under Russian rule, but I don't think the Russians gave them the money. I think they just were determined. I think there are probably some unhappy people in other towns that they took bricks from and building materials. I think there was a bit of that going on, but nevertheless, they've done the most amazing job. I've never seen anything like it.
Kim: Well, thank you for that, ladies. And I think now would be a really good time to bring in our managing editor, who we've heard on the podcast before: Kate Duffy, who wrote a really popular article on dark tourism.
Kim: But is visiting some of those places that we heard the ladies talk about —Krakow, as an example; the concentration camps— is that considered dark tourism?
Kate: Yeah, I think it is. I think dark tourism is defined as visiting places where, I guess, there were atrocities, as opposed to what you might call war tourism, when you visit war graves. So it could be anything from the 9/11 Memorial, to Auschwitz, to the grave site in [Treparnitsa 00:23:10] in Serbia. So that kind of thing. So it's places where you're going really to observe a place where something terrible happened.
Phil: But there's even a phrase for it— morbid fascination, isn't it?
Phil: Is that what it's about? I'm just wondering.
Kim: No different to reading books on those topics.
Kate: Well, I think it depends on your intent. I think for some people going to Auschwitz and that kind of thing, is ticking off a list of places they want to go to, just so they can say that they've been there. But I think if your intent is to visit it to feel something and respect what happened there and hopefully to learn from it, then I think that's okay. There've been news reports of people at Auschwitz, giving the victory symbol or smiling or doing selfies in front of the sign that everybody walked under to go in. And I think it was earlier this year, there were news reports of guys with a blow-up sex doll at the 9/11 Memorial.
Kim: What?! What goes through somebody's head?
Kate: So, they're there for a completely different reason, aren't they? They're not there with that intent. And I think if your intent is to go to Cambodia, to the killing fields, because you want to stand there and remember the horrors of an event, I think there's probably some value in that. But I think if you're just going there because it's a tour you saw on a travel agent list and you're not really sure why you're going, then you probably shouldn't go.
Kate: It's a difficult thing to say whether it's a good thing or a bad thing. And I think if you go back in history, you could argue that there's a statute of limitations on what makes it dark tourism and what just makes it history. So if you went to the Tower of London, where people were tortured and had their heads chopped off, as a visitor there, you wouldn't feel that you had to be particularly reverential. You'd just think this is a fascinating London tourist attraction.
Phil: How can you tell if you've crossed the line?
Kate: I suppose, there's a time and a place for selfies and giving the victory symbol. And that's at the beach or in front of the Eiffel Tower, but it's not in front of an archway that is famous for all the people getting off the trains and walking into Auschwitz.
Kim: We know people want to do it and your article, Dark Tourism, has been immensely popular. What's the feedback been like? Are people for dark tourism?
Kate: Well, some people were surprised at the terminology and had said, "I've visited these places. I wouldn't regard myself as a dark tourist." It's possible that it's a new phrase, but I think people have been going to places like the bridge on the River Kwai, and all sorts of places like that, where a number of people were treated badly by other people, because they're fascinated by the story of it.
Kim: So summing up, you would believe it's what your intent is.
Kate: Yeah, I think if your intention is to learn something about the world, about the history, about things that we don't want to repeat, and perhaps learn something about yourself and your response to that, then it's important to go to those places. And I think for a lot of places where there have been atrocities, people haven't gone there for a long time, and this could help communities get back on their feet with that kind of tourism.
Kim: Thank you very much for that, Kate. We'll share that article in show notes. So, cheers!
Kate: All right. Thank you.
Kim: We're also on Facebook in The World Nomads Podcast group. Look for that, where you can have your say on dark tourism and share some of the places perhaps that you visited.
Kim: Phil, what's your travel news?
Phil: Our friends at Atlas Obscura —that's the online magazine and travel company— are giving away an incredible trip for two to Turkmenistan and The Gates of Hell. Do you know what The Gates of Hell is?
Kim: Well, I didn't until you-
Phil: Until we looked at that pic. That's that massive sort of hole in the ground in the middle of outback Turkmenistan, where you can see all the magma and lava, and what have you. It's like looking down into the core of the planet.
Kim: It is amazing! So as part of this giveaway, you get to see that. You get to see an underwater lake, mosques. What about the horses?
Phil: Oh, yeah. The oldest horse breed in the world, as well. They still got a long face. Sorry.
Kim: What you did point out to me is that it's very difficult to travel independently in Turkmenistan.
Phil: That's right. It's really difficult to do, so that's why Atlas Obscura have put together the package. That's the one that you can win. So we'll have a link to enter and all the details on the prize in our show notes.
Phil: A bit of other travel news for you: in Australia, Uluru, or Ayers Rock is the name given to it by white settlers— that's the big red rock right in the middle of Australia.
Phil: It's in the news because the indigenous owners have put a ban on climbing it. It's a sacred site. Makes sense. I can't believe that the ban hasn't been in place for a while. But rather than just slap the ban on and say, "you can't climb anymore," they've actually put a date and said, "After this time, please don't climb Uluru." And guess what's happened.
Kim: Everyone is climbing.
Phil: Thousands of people have turned up to make sure they can get a climb in before it's banned.
Phil: Okay. A traveling doctor has given some advice on ways to stay healthy while you're globe trotting. A couple of his top tips. I like this one. You know when you check into a hotel and they give you the room key inside a little wallet?
Phil: Yeah, leave the little wallet in the room because it's got the room number on it. So if you lose that, somebody knows which room to go to and nick all your stuff.
Kim: Oh, right.
Phil: So, get rid of the bit of cardboard. Just take the card with you.
Phil: And the other one he suggests is, never sleep naked. Now, when I first read this, I thought it might be about the sheets and germs, or whatever. No. It's if there's a fire and you've got to get out of the room.
Kim: Well, look, I'm going to say I am not a nude sleeper. You, Phil?
Phil: Thanks for the mental image. No. I'm not, either. Okay.
Phil: Everybody's just throwing up a little bit in their mouths at the moment.
Kim: All right, let's get back to Poland, then.
Phil: Let's move on.
Kim: Now, Steve explored one of Europe's last primeval forests —and I'm going to have a go at pronouncing this place— in which he went biking with bison. [Bowvishka 00:29:04]?
Steve: Yeah, that is pretty good. Why? Have you been like, "No, you try it first. No, no. You try it first"?
Kim: Literally, that's how we kicked the podcast off.
Phil: It's a bit of a theme with us, as well. We're absolutely hopeless at pronunciations.
Kim: Hopeless, hopeless, hopeless. So tell us, in this Polish village and-
Steve: Fair enough with Polish, right? There's some pretty unusual...
Kim: No, it doesn't even have to be that unusual for us.
Kim: Biking with bison. Now they're huge animals, aren't they?
Steve: They are, yes.
Kim: How big? Describe one.
Steve: Well, certainly larger than pretty much any domestic cow. The European bison is similar in weight, a little bit less heavy, than the American bison. They stand the fraction taller, but they're not quite as chunky. But they're still really big animals, so you're head-high to a man, pretty much, at the shoulder.
Kim: If you're 6'5", you are.
Phil: You'd stack two Kims, one on top of the other to reach that one, but there you go.
Phil: I wasn't aware that European bison even existed and they almost didn't. They were almost totally wiped out.
Steve: Yeah. So they go back way, way, way back. There were precursor species— there's an animal called the aurochs, which was even larger. And then there were a series of different bison species, which are extinct and begat the one that we have today. And it very nearly did vanish, yes. It remained only in those mountain fastnesses, those distant eastern forests where they were hard to reach.
Steve: There's always been interest in hunting them. And so in Poland —in particular, in Bialowieza— The protected area there is there now has long been protected, and formerly was protected for the purposes of royal hunting. Therefore, they would keep the species alive for sport. And in the end, that was pretty much, with one or two other small pockets of survivors, pretty much the way that the animal was brought back to the level of population it has today.
Kim: Yes. And what I find fascinating about that is the program of —and I love the word— re-wilding.
Steve: Which is quite a controversial idea to try and put back what we've removed. So what's going on in Bialowieza is, again, an artificial situation created by the remnants of the herd from the hunting reserve, now expanded. But the park does connect with the protected areas on the Belarus-side of the border, as well, and there are more buffalo there, too. And so the feeling is, again, that they have sufficient range that they can usually find enough to eat, whether they have to wander back and forth over the border or where they need to go. So it does seem to be a successful and manageable situation. And they are also exposed to predators, as well. So there is the natural controls there.
Phil: This is the area you're in, and this is the population that you've come to see. And as you write for World Nomads, as well. It's quite an ethereal experience.
Steve: Yes. Well, they are quite elusive. They like to hide in the trees. So actually, some of these ancient buffalo species are more likely to be in the forest than in the grassland. These guys in particular, they seem to inhabit the spruce forest, and then early in the morning, they venture out into the grassland to see what they can snack on. But it is an early-morning thing, and so you have to rise early. So I was up before dawn; get out on the bike; peddle out there. And you're sort of standing there in the pooling mist. It's pretty bloody cold but it's beautiful with all the birds in the meadow waking up, and then with a bit of luck, if you've stood in the right place, you get to see the buffalo slowly slide out from the trees and come out into the grassland.
Kim: When you say they're looking for something to eat, is it like a bear? Like you'll do? Are they vegetarian?
Steve: Yeah, they're herbivores. But I guess there's a mix of species they like to eat. Joanna, the guide, when we were in the forest, she was talking about them liking to eat the herbs. I think she means by that, various smaller plants that they find amongst the trees. And there's a mix of different species, of course, out in amongst the grass. And so they come out to add to their diet. A bit of variety.
Phil: It's in a remote area, but it's not that difficult to get to. And the people that you encountered there?
Steve: Yeah, of course, the people I spent most time with were the park guides. They're somewhat used to tourists in that area, in that there was a fair amount of English spoken. There's no surprise. There's not a kind of, "Oh, wow! You're from such and such." It was more business-like, and they recognize the importance of the park and the animals to generate revenue for that area.
Kim: Okay. When's the best time to go and how would you get there?
Steve: You'd get into Bialystok, which is the the biggest city on that side of Poland. I took a train from Warsaw. The best time would be spring and autumn; particularly spring, when you've got the fresh growth. The grass is full of young shoots, and so, particularly rich for the buffalo to come grazing. And it's beautiful in the early morning then. You've just got to take a warm jacket because it could be close to freezing, or even below freezing, for the first couple of hours.
Phil: Thanks, Steve. And congratulations, Kim, on winning this episode's round of Can We Pronounce That?
Kim: I was good, actually. Gracious in defeat. Thank you, Phil.
Kim: A reminder: you can get in touch with us by emailing [email protected] When we return next week, we've got a special episode featuring UK teacher, Zoey. She was badly burned when an illegal petrol station exploded in Cambodia.
Phil: Yeah, don't miss that episode. It's fantastic.
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